Posted to the Citizens for Democracy blog:
“Without exaggeration, the exercise was a phenomenal success. Not only because a total of 15,000 signatures were collected… but also because it showed that ordinary people… overwhelmingly agreed with the cause…”
The real Pakistan | By Farieha Aziz
The oft written about and reported face of Pakistan is its militant and extremist one. Certainly that is a reality. But so is another Pakistan. The militants and extremists have bombs and guns, and they stage attacks that become media spectacles. The other Pakistan that we believe is the real Pakistan – is populated by peace-loving citizens, who oppose extremism and vigilante violence but have few avenues where they can voice their points of view.
Some citizens, unwilling to let their country be drowned by the wave of militancy, have come together to provide a platform for their fellow citizens to speak out and let their voices be heard. One such opportunity was provided by a mass signature campaign in Karachi on March 12, ‘Silence Means More Blood’, organised by the Citizens for Democracy (CFD), an umbrella group of over 80 organisations and numerous individuals.
CFD was formed in December 2010, when some people came together on the one-point agenda against “the consistent misuse and abuse of the ‘blasphemy laws’ and religion in politics”. The letter campaign was an attempt to register a protest against the increasing acts of vigilante violence being justified in the name of religion, and the inaction of the government functionaries and heads of state institutions.
Addressed to the President, Prime Minister, Interior Ministry, Chief Justice of Pakistan, Chief Ministers, and the heads of all political parties, the letter protests the assassinations of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, and the ongoing threats against MNA Sherry Rehman and those who refuse to be intimidated into silence on this issue. The letter urges the heads of state institutions and political parties to take a defined stance on the blasphemy issue, and to treat as common criminals those who take the law into their own hands such as Mumtaz Qadri and the murderers of Mr Bhatti and threaten others.
The name “Taseer” and word “blasphemy”, which had practically become taboo in the public sphere, were blasted out of loudspeakers at the street corner where the campaign was launched. And this, from a tent pitched right in front of a bus stand, on a curb. There was no attempt to whitewash the issue in order to get greater numbers of people to sign the letter: copies were available in English and in Urdu, and those who could read were asked to read it. Volunteers read them out to those who were unable to. From 11am to 8pm, CFD members and volunteers manned the tables. Several people who had come to sign the letter also stayed on to help. Volunteers approached those passing by on foot or in vehicles cars, buses, motorcycles – inviting them to come and sign.
Without exaggeration, the exercise was a phenomenal success. Not only because a total of 15,000 signatures were collected some at the venue, some from stations set up earlier at other venues but also because it showed that ordinary people were willing to listen and that they overwhelmingly agreed with the cause.
This open-minded, openhearted response was itself an eye-opener; certainly not what most were expecting. Tragically, when Governor Taseer was assassinated, few had the courage to condemn his assassination publicly. “He got what he deserved,” or “he had it coming” was the refrain more commonly heard in the public domain. The Badshahi Masjid imam refused to lead Taseer¹s funeral prayers; parliamentarians and senators did not raise their hands in prayers for the deceased. The only public statement that was issued by the government was: “We will not allow changes to be made in the Blasphemy Law”.
However, even in the face of imminent threat with calls issued by many “religious” figures and parties warning people not to condemn Taseer’s murder many refused to cower. The day after Taseer’s assassination, people gathered to protest at Press Clubs in various cities; in Islamabad they collected at Kohsar Market where the murder had taken place. They lit candles, held up banners, and made speeches condemning his murder and religious fanaticism.
In Karachi, CFD turned a seminar that was being planned on the blasphemy law, into a Reference for the assassinated governor. There was so much fear around the issue that the auditorium originally booked for the seminar became unavailable after Taseer’s murder, and the Karachi Arts Council which was subsequently booked, also cancelled barely 24 hours before the event. Even the Karachi Press Club officers refused to allow the Reference to be held there. To their credit, the Pakistan Medical Association unhesitatingly offered their space as a last minute alternative for the reference.
Despite the sudden change in venue and lack of publicity, people turned out in large numbers to pay homage to the slain governor. They included some 600 members of civil society, political party representatives and activists, trade unionists, students and professionals from various fields. Several speakers addressed the audience, courageously, without mincing their words.
Barely two months later, they were out on the streets again, or at church services or public protests, in solidarity with the Christian community against the assassination of the brave Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti. This continuous activism has emboldened others. Following the signature campaign, a Reference for Shahbaz Bhatti will be held at the Karachi Press Club on March 20th.
Every step of the way, each individual who comes out in support of this cause faces the question: Is it safe? There is no certain answer to this question. Call it lucky that so far no event, vigil or protest has been targeted. The threat remains, but those participating continue to move forward with the firm belief that raising a voice, “doing something”, is the need of the hour. The alternative — living in constant fear and under pressure — is a futile existence not worth contemplating.
The writer is a journalist who is also active with CFD. This piece was originally written for The Jinnah Institute