Monday, January 31, 2011


By Rabia Ahmed

 The death of debate

Debate has been dying by inches for some time in Pakistan. It however did the whole symbolic death rattle shudder thing right about the time Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan galumphed onto the scene like a rampaging bison. 

The fact that Dr Awan represents a trend is much more ominous than the vulgarity she projects, because even though the MNA from Sialkot may stand out rather where her style of ‘debate’ is concerned, she is actually not alone. Most political debate (with notable exceptions) on television appears to be channelling her spirit, where each participant talks at the same time as the others, the issue at hand is rarely discussed, and participants from different parties spend the allotted time launching personal attacks on each other. Eventually, nothing is achieved beyond anarchy, and a useless, inconclusive slinging match.

Dr Awan who represents the Pakistan People’s Party, a non-religious, supposedly liberal group, calls her opponent names and accuses her of dreadful things when she disagrees with her; the so called ‘religious’ right wing groups such as the Taliban , when they disagree with someone, they shoot them.

Where’s the difference between the two?

In today’s Pakistan accepting another point of view appears an unattainable exercise. The ‘religious’ right considers itself to be the only Muslims around and all others to be heretics (aka kafirs); and the ‘heretics’ consider the ‘religious’ right, all of them, to be irrational and unintelligent.  Since this attitude precludes debate, its quod erad demonstrandum.

Where is this attitude going to take lead?

In the first quarter of the 20th century, the Soviet Union came into being by the consolidation of several states under the banner of a socialist Union. It became a strong industrialised power, but its policies were totalitarian and it grew to be a repressive single party entity.

Like most systems, it had its positive points however the negatives soon outweighed them. Politically no other view aside from that from that of the ruling party was tolerated. The economy was controlled by the state, based on state ownership of all industry and investment.

While religious freedom was constitutionally protected, in actual fact Marxism was incompatible with religion, therefore religion was discouraged. There was a period when religious studies were not allowed in schools, and churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship were shut down.

By the time a more moderate policy was put in place, it was too late; dissatisfaction had set in with intolerance and state control of every aspect of people’s lives, which had deteriorated. There was little freedom of speech, which meant no tolerance of debate. There was little freedom of worship, and people were imprisoned, executed, exiled for going against the official policy in what they believed in, read, spoke of, the music they heard, the clothes they wore. Wages were low, and the standard of living was poor. There was rampant corruption.  

Since the United States of America was considered to be a threat, the government was spending an inordinate percentage of its budget on defence, which led to bankruptcy.

1991 saw the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

We can draw our own parallels.

Pakistan is running on empty. Its loans are staggering, and its economy worse than bankrupt. There is rampant corruption, and our lives are controlled by those in power. There is poverty, and a decent life is beyond the reach or expectations of most people. Because India is viewed as a threat, our defence budget is inordinately high. Pakistan spends around 4.5 percent of its GDP on defence, which for a poor country indicates a definite barrier to development.

Intolerance is at its highest. Shias, Ahmedis, Christians, those who frequent shrines, almost all groups in some way or the other, have no protection and live in peril of their lives. Women are forced into marriage, the poor are enslaved, children are forced to work, and the standard of education for the common man when available, is abysmal. No one listens; no one wants to listen, unless what is said is what they want to hear.

What is Pakistan achieving today, or is likely to achieve in the future other than anarchy and disintegration?

Probably the discovery that the virtues its masses attribute to the religious right are as non-existent as for the people it elected into power; and hopefully, following that, the incentive to make a more responsible choice the next time around.

The scary thing of course is that that next time around may be a long time coming, so it may be best to stop and take stock right now: whither Pakistan?


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