Thursday, January 13, 2011

OPINION: Rhetoric of religious right inflames zealots in East and West

There are certain similarities between recent political shootings in the US and Pakistan, IRFAN YUSUF writes

A bitter political debate is played out in the media and among politicians about the alleged danger posed by a tiny and extremely vulnerable minority. Populist and allegedly conservative politicians pass draconian legislation at the expense of this minority, thousands of whose members are then prosecuted. Rallies are held in support of the draconian laws and threats are made against those few politicians calling for law reform to protect the minority.

Then one of these politicians is shot in a broad daylight in a public area. Evidence shows the gunman is influenced by the inflammatory rhetoric of those conservative forces supporting the new law. The gunman believes the future of the nation is at stake and that the politician had to be killed.

I could be describing recent events on a main road in Islamabad in which a lone gunman murdered Governor Salmaan Taseer in Pakistan. Then again, I could just as easily be describing events at a shopping centre in Tucson, Arizona, in which another gunman shot and wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Also killed were a US district judge and at least four others.

Taseer’s assassin was his own bodyguard. Evidence suggests the man’s religious sentiments were offended by Taseer’s calls to amend, if not abolish, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Malik Mumtaz Qadri was said to be inspired by the fiery rhetoric of Pakistan’s religious groups, whose leaders had drawn thousands to rallies calling for the mandatory death penalty for blasphemy to remain. These leaders claimed that any watering-down of the law represented a direct threat to the Muslim heritage of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The fact that these laws were often used to harass Christian minorities was of little consequence.

Evidence suggests Jared Lee Lougner, the 22-year-old who shot the Democrat congresswoman in Arizona, was inspired by the fiery gun-toting rhetoric of Tea Party elements in the Republican Party. The New York Times has described this rhetoric as reinforcing

the dominant imagery of the moment — a portrayal of 21st-century Washington as being like 18th century Lexington and Concord, an occupied country on the verge of armed rebellion.

Some may believe that comparing the two incidents is like comparing apples and oranges. Allegedly conservative politicians and pundits in Australia and other Western countries may especially be offended by the comparison between anti-immigrant and strong border protection sentiments of the Tea Party movement and the extreme Islamist sentiments of Taseer’s killer.

It’s often said by allegedly conservative commentators that Islamists are in alliance with the left. They should travel to Pakistan and see if anyone takes their claims seriously.

Salman Taseer, the progressive (albeit super-wealthy) politician, belonged to a socialist (albeit of the champagne variety) party calling itself the Pakistan People’s Party. His assassin says he acted to defend traditional values. Not only religious party leaders but also conservative pundits and small business leaders are coming to his defence.

And what are conservative opposition politicians saying in condemnation of the assassin’s actions? Not much. And why should they? After all, they are the beneficiaries of this sentiment in the long run. Not only that, but mainstream conservative parties in Pakistan almost inevitably rule in coalition with religious parties such as the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, one of whose leaders stated on Pakistani national television that Salmaan Taseer’s death was God’s verdict and nobody who loves the prophet Muhammad could or should condemn the governor’s murder.

Some readers will object that our conservatives generally don’t go around assassinating people. True, but how many Pakistani conservatives are assassins? But in both east and west we see the religious right engaging in similarly hostile rhetoric and using the prejudices of ethnic and religious zealots for their own political ends. Meanwhile, mainstream conservatives are silent, refusing to directly condemn violence and so fanning the flames of the dogwhistlers and making minorities feel vulnerable.

In both the US and Pakistan, powerful, well-funded forces are using conservative, religiously inspired political rhetoric to hijack the agenda. This is not just left versus right. In Pakistan, the allegedly socialist Pakistan People’s Party has been just as willing to enter into coalitions with the religious right. Benazir Bhutto’s government happily joined with her coalition partners to ensure religiously inspired punishments for adultery were kept.

The violent incidents in Tucson and Islamabad may be seen as being consistent with a wider struggle within both countries. There are those happy to see religious and cultural diversity maintained. Then there are those wishing to impose a form of monocultural uniformity. In the Cold War era, the latter were seen as representative of communism. Today, alleged conservatives are behaving like communists.

There is one clear difference between the US and Pakistan. People on all sides of politics in the US have come together to condemn the actions of the gunman in Arizona and to express their sympathy for his victims. Even the county sheriff has lashed out at ...

... the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out, from people in the radio business, and some people in the TV business’’ and says Arizona has ‘‘become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.

In Pakistan, religious forces have effectively silenced any opposition to blasphemy laws. One group, the Sunni Tehreek, has gone so far as to say ...

We will provide legal and constitutional protection to Mumtaz Qadri.

Religious parties are threatening a more organised form of vigilantism than provided by the Governor’s bodyguard. Popular TV preacher and scholar Javed Ghamdi has been forced to move to Dubai after receiving death threats for speaking out against blasphemy laws.

Pakistan’s religious right has gone off the rails and is taking the rest of the country with it. America hasn’t quite gone down that path. At least, not yet.

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and author of Once Were Radicals. This piece was first published in the Canberra Times in Wednesday January 12 2011.

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