Giving Democracy the Boot

Source: Dawn

Faisal Vawda, the PTI Minister of Water Resources, and known for his signature outrageous antics, made a new history along with provocative ARY News anchor Kashif Abbasi. In a talk show, which also featured opposition leaders Senator Javed Abbasi of the PML-N and Qamar Zaman Kaira of the PPP on the panel.

In the middle of the talk show, Faisal Vawda took out a military boot, symbolic of the Pakistani military, and put it on the panel desk. Both the opposition leaders walked out in protest. This was meant to insult the reversal of PML-N on their anti-military stance as well as the corruption of their leaders, who have supposedly made another deal with the military establishment to flee the country. All this while, the PTI ministers have been criticizing the PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif for fleeing the country under the false pretense of medical reasons.

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As insulting, idiotic, and completely reckless Vawda’s “boot ko izzat do” action is, being our last Pakistani Idiot of the Year, his comments in the show remind the opposition of a harsh reality. The PML-N leadership has forsaken its anti-establishment workers and left them hanging while conveniently abandoning their criticism of the military leadership in exchange for Nawaz Sharif’s departure to London for medical treatment. It was on social media, that their anti-establishment supporters had started the criticism of “boot ko izzat do” (Give respect to the boot (military establishment)) as a spinoff of “vote ko izzat do” (Give respect to the vote) which was the slogan of PML-N in the 2018 elections. It is not as if the phrase was coined by Vawda.

Kashif Abbasi, the ARY News anchor, the look on whose face was worth watching, probably did the right thing to let Vawda make his point from a broadcaster’s viewpoint. It certainly created broadcast history no matter how terrible it was for political discourse in the country. However, PEMRA had slapped Abbasi with a 60-day ban, which will be reviewed. On the other side, Imran Khan, the Prime Minister, has expressed his displeasure over Vawda’s behavior in the talk show and imposed a ban on him on appearing on talk shows.

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The Vawda boot episode only goes to show the dismal state of democracy and civilian supremacy in Pakistan in which the deep state and its representatives have dropped all pretense about their interference in politics. It is symptomatic of this disregard of the constitutional roles of institutions which has enabled a loudmouth such as Vawda to indulge in this shameless behavior. However, you could argue that there was a lot of truth in Vawda’s rant.

Which makes you wonder if Vawda is the only political leader brave enough to even mention the involvement of the “boot” in politics on mainstream media so openly.

Perhaps he is a free-speech hero and not an idiot after all.

The OryaAbbasi Inquisition: Ganging Up on the Defenseless

OryaAbbasi - File Sources: currentaffairspk.com and foxcey.com

OryaAbbasi – File Sources: currentaffairspk.com and foxcey.com

A recent talkshow by Kamran Shahid on Dunya TV about Malala’s now-controversial biography “I am Malala” has become a talking point for Pakistanis. The participants of the show included columnist Orya Maqbool Jan, journalist Ansaar Abbasi, physicist and analyst Pervez Hoodbhoy and Ambassador Zafar Hilaly. After watching the show, there are quite a few observations that I would like to make. The show can be found here.

And now, the commentary.

The show is the perfect exhibit to demonstrate that Pakistan is not a free speech society, even though such talk shows may appear to give the impression of the contrary. In a society, where expressing certain opinions pertaining to a certain religion is like sealing your death warrant. And the state only makes matters worse, which makes you thank your stars it is not half as effective.

A lot of people are attacking the host of the show Kamran Shahid for inviting people with conflicting views for better ratings, just so that he can have a heated argument. But I fully support him for this. First of all, there is nothing wrong with that. That’s great TV. He is only doing his job and I actually appreciate him for bringing together the likes of Veena Malik and Mufti Sb before.

However, there is a different reason altogether for which Kamran Shahid deserves criticism and ridicule. Shahid did an awful job at moderating the show, and it can be argued that it was deliberate. However, I would refrain from saying so. In any case, it was criminal negligence as he allowed religiosity to be a moral high ground in the debate through his word and moderating action.

Orya Maqbool Jan started the show by referring to certain passages from Malala’s book. His main focus was outraging at Malala mentioning that “her father was opposed to Salman Rushdie‘s The Satanic Verses but was a firm believer in freedom of speech”. He also rejected Malala’s criticism on curbs on women’s participation in public life and on media during the Zia regime, citing many female playwrights that rose to prominence at the time on the state television.

Pervez Hoodbhoy - Source: Newsweek Pakistan

Pervez Hoodbhoy – Source: Newsweek Pakistan

Pervez Hoodbhoy, in return, had zero arguments in Malala’s defense. As a matter of fact, he did more damage to Malala’s cause than a conservative could have imagined, though the aging scholar performed far better emotionally than I expected.

Hoodbhoy started out by saying that Orya and Abbasi were lying and that they were misrepresenting facts and maligning Malala, including an ad hominem attack on their English language skills. Apart from this opinion, hardly any argument was offered by the former QAU Professor.

The only solid argument from his side was about writing PBUH (Peace Be Upon Him) with the mention of Prophet Muhammad, as Ansaar Abbasi had raised this rather obnoxious and easily beatable objection on Malala’s book.

This is where Kamran Shahid proved his lack of impartiality as the moderator, as he stupidly mentioned the anecdote of his thesis submission abroad in which he wrote PBUH with the name of Prophet Muhammad, despite the warning from his supervisor that writing it implied bias in a research report. This way Shahid tried influencing the debate as if not writing PBUH with the Prophet’s name was something immoral in terms of faith.

Ansaar Abbasi maintained a consistent mantra of calling Pervez Hoodbhoy “jahil” or ignorant throughout the course of half an hour of the debate, until Hoodbhoy was forced to leave amid such onslaught just before the show ended. However, for someone as religious as Abbasi, calling someone else ignorant sounded pretty hilarious and stupid.

Ambassador Zafar Hilaly, who was wondering what he was doing there, was asked to present his opinion about drone strikes and on talks with the Taliban. He was only seen shaking his head in disapproval as the war of relatively civil curse words went on between Abbasi and Hoodbhoy, as Orya continued shouting out of his lungs to stop their exchange in order to read the passage from Malala’s book.

The only reason there should be sympathy for Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy is that Orya Maqbool Jan and Ansar Abbasi, who for convenience and for promoting my branding of their inquisiiton, would be referred to as #OryaAbbasi as the duo’s pseudonym from this point on, ganged up on him. I repeat, OryaAbbasi literally ganged up on Hoodbhoy, interrogating in a frighteningly self-righteous manner.

OryaAbbasi started an inquisition of Hoodbhoy to publicly frame him for opinions offensive to Muslims, paired with a hilarious but threatening diabolical laughter, as if warning him of consequences. Hoodbhoy was obviously dumbfounded for being trapped in this cul-de-sac. He narrowly dodged the inquisition by answers considered somewhat acceptable by the standards of the Pakistani Islamic society.

OryaAbbasi asking Hoodbhoy about his position on The Satanic Verses and whether Ahmedis are Muslims or not is fine, and perhaps encouraging in theory, but doing so on public TV in a society such as Pakistan is dangerous, to say the least. Because someone believing in free speech or not agreeing with excommunicating the Ahmedis would most probably be threatened by the extremist Muslims who consider it righteous to kill someone with such views.

The OryaAbbasi inquisition could also be a frightening insight to the future of Pakistan is an increasingly authoritarian and theocratic state. The state already requires its citizens to declare in writing that they are not in any way affiliated with Ahmedis. Would this imply that the National ID card and Passport forms would also carry a declaration condemning The Satanic Verses, if not on more informal levels However, Pakistani Muslim individuals would still not see this as an invasion of their personal and social freedom.

In order to successfully tackle the OryaAbbasi inquisition and to effectively respond Muslim and other religious fundamentalists, Pakistanis need a secular liberal spokesperson who is not fearful of their life like Taseer or Christopher Hitchens. This is why I have tremendous respect for Christopher Hitchens, because he had very real death threats as well, but he never compromised on free speech, and he even defended Rushdie at the time when he was in hiding for his life.

A nervous, frail and emotional debater such as Pervez Hoodbhoy, despite his prestige and knowledge, is not able to take on these harassing fundamentalists. Partly because of the self-censorship that you need to exercise about Islam in the Pakistani society for the sake of security. 

Unless people are clear that it is the values of an Islamic authoritarian society that is the threat and the enemy of freedom, no one would buy the mild apologies for passages from Malala’s book that liberals have to offer. Because let’s face it, this passage from the book has opened a bit of a Pandora’s box, but I still support it. It is her freedom to write whatever she likes and I agree with it. 

If Malala has written that her father believed in freedom of speech, it is the duty of the secular-liberal debater to defend free speech as a superior value no matter what. This is what Malala’s fight is about anyway, but we are failing her. Now that Malala has been put in this position by the likes of OryaAbbasi, we need a better public defense of her.  

As crazy as it sounds, but they hardly have any argument if they don’t defend what they believe in. This is about liberty and freedom from theocracy, and the only argument is to reject religious authoritarianism.

Unless there is a debater who presents arguments that attacks the fallacy of faith and theocracy, liberal and secular debaters will always be on the losing side, shut up by religious emotional blackmail. 

Any volunteers?