Fifteen years ago when I married a London-based Pakistani, my brother-in-law Najam Sethi said laughingly to my mother, “Moni will be the only one of your children to survive the coming storm.” He was only half-joking. As a progressive journalist who has received more death threats from the religious right than I care to count, he has personal experience of the danger to secular liberals from an increasingly intolerant Pakistani polity. He knows that anyone who takes issue with the mullahs or speaks for the rights of our marginalised minorities or even objects to the cynical use of religion in politics, runs the risk of being killed. As the murder of the Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, showed last week, no liberal is safe in Pakistan.
In London, on the other hand, I have enjoyed a life of safety, stability and the rule of law. But I have also tasted the bitterness of separation from my homeland and of my increasing irrelevance to it. I have tried to mitigate the pain by keeping alive my contact with my country. I contribute regularly to its publications, sit on charitable trusts and maintain property there. I also take my children back frequently so they can grow up feeling at home in what a huge part of me still considers home.
Moni Mohsin’s latest novel is Tender Hooks (Random House). She lives between Lahore and London. She had known Salman Taseer since she was a teenager. “Gutted by his murder and nauseated by the public reaction to it,” she mourns the death of a proud liberal.
On January 4, my husband, children and I boarded a plane back for London. As always, we had spent our Christmas holidays in Pakistan. Though grateful to have spent time with my parents and siblings, I was unhappy with my visit. In the time I had spent in Pakistan, I had witnessed yet again, from close quarters, the depressing spectacle of a fracturing society and collapsing State. In my three short weeks there, I heard from all quarters of kidnappings, shootings, hold-ups and burglaries. No one reported any of the crimes for they knew there would be no action.
|Every time the phone rings at an odd hour, my heart leaps into my mouth. I don’t want to be the only member of my family to survive the storm.|
During a bitterly cold winter, there was little gas and less electricity; flood victims were pouring into cities; inflation was rampant; people were sullen; and in the background, a cowering, feeble government was anxiously assuring fulminating mullahs of its undying support for the blasphemy law. On New Year’s Eve, religious parties called a countrywide strike to support the blasphemy law. Either out of fear or sympathy, everyone obeyed. So much, I thought to myself, for Jinnah’s dream of a tolerant homeland for Muslims.
As my plane took off from Lahore’s Allama Iqbal Airport, a couple of hundred miles to the north outside Islamabad’s Kohsar Market, yet another blow was being dealt to Jinnah’s dream. Airborne by the time it happened, I did not find out till we landed in Heathrow. As I switched on my phone, a text from my brother-in-law flashed across the screen: Tragedy: Salman Taseer murdered by his own security guard.
I’d known Salman since I was a teenager. His eldest daughter and I are close friends. Our daughters in turn have been buddies from the cradle. So I’d had the opportunity to observe Salman from close quarters for over 25 years. If I were to use one word to describe him, it would be “uncompromising. He was uncompromising in both his political and personal life. Unlike some sermonising politicians who preach Islamic values in Pakistan and party with A-listers in London, Salman scorned hypocrisy. He was a proud liberal in everything and everywhere. He was also a man of wit, charm and above all, courage.
I am gutted by his murder and nauseated by the public reaction to it. Some of it I had expected. I had expected the religious parties to crow. Having already witnessed his own party’s moral cowardice, I had known that all mainstream parties would run for cover. I also knew that some fanatics would issue public threats-of course completely unchecked by the State-to Salman’s supporters. I knew that TV “analysts”, who’d probably envied Salman’s flamboyance all along, would smugly hold forth on his “insensitivity” towards “our people’s delicate religious sensibilities”. I was nauseated but not surprised by any of that.
But what I had not expected was that over 200 lawyers, who until last week were championing democracy and freedom of speech, would shower his murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, with rose petals. I had not expected Pakistanis like myself, who live in the West and enjoy every one of its hard-won liberties, to set up Facebook pages lauding Salman’s murderer as a hero. I had not expected the blogs of ordinary middle-class kids, who salivate over Angelina Jolie and dream of a green card, to condone the murder of “an immoral Westernised liberal”. I had not expected novelist Hanif Mohammed to do a random poll in Karachi and discover that most people he spoke to on the street outside his office did not condemn Salman’s murder.
I had not expected all this because it has long been my sustaining belief that though we are ruled by a venal army and morally corrupt politicians and though we are terrorised by a small but murderous fringe of hardliners, the ordinary person on the street is a decent moderate who yearns for stability and the rule of law. After all, I reassure myself, religious parties have always been humiliated at the ballot box. That belief is why, despite all the kidnappings and the gunnings and the fatwas and suicide bombs, I keep taking my children back. That is the reason why, after 15 years abroad, I am still mentally, emotionally and financially invested in Pakistan.
Of course, I would be lying if I said that no one spoke up for Salman in Pakistan.
As usual it was left to the same small group of embattled progressives to pick up the baton. A few brave journalists condemned Salman’s murder on tv. English language newspapers wrote editorials against mounting intolerance in Pakistan. Human rights groups vociferously registered their protest. Candle-lit vigils outside the fallen Governor’s residence in Lahore and at Kohsar Market in Islamabad, were attended by housewives and schoolchildren and office workers. But compared to the thousands who expressed support for Qadri, a few hundred attended the vigils. Where were all the concerned citizens I meet in Lahore and Karachi every time I visit, who sit in their homes bemoaning the lack of security, the mounting disorder, the brutalisation of society?
The answer is simple: they were still in their homes. As soon as the murder was announced on TV, most people fled to the safety of their homes to barricade themselves in. Streets emptied and shops closed within minutes of the announcement. Most people have experienced enough violence to be truly fearful of it. I sympathise with them. I also fear for my family, as I do for every liberal left standing in Pakistan. Every time the phone rings at an odd hour, my heart leaps into my mouth. I don’t want to be the only member of my family to survive the storm. And I feel guilty that I am not there to struggle alongside them.
If I could have my selfish way, I would immediately spirit each member of my family and every single friend out of there. But I also know that if I did so, all would be lost. And I know that we must continue trying to reach out to the people-still the majority, in my view, despite the depredations in their ranks-who want peace and freedom but are too frightened to ask. We must encourage them to stand up and demand it. So I live every day hovering between hope and dread, fear and courage. May my hope and my friends’ and family’s courage be vindicated in my lifetime.