Osama, music, women and Pakistan

Originally appeared in Daily Times on August 8, 2011 as my weekly column BAAGHI


It was probably early 2005 when I first met Osama. With a pleasant smile, soft demeanour but a bit reserved, Osama was quite likeable. What shocked me was his strong repulsion to music and girls (yes!). As soon as we switched on the music, a famous Mohammad Rafi song, Osama was quick to put both his hands on his ears and later he simply left the room. In case it bothers you why he did not pull his RPG and simply fired at me, the Osama I am referring to was a seven-year-old child from the neighbourhood who was with us on my daughter’s birthday.

Why I recall meeting him is this strange aversion to music and actually, any form of art or anything that gives people the slightest of respite from mundane business of life. A seven-year-old is otherwise expected to enjoy school rhymes with a dash of nice music. Intrigued, I tried to talk to him. All he knew was that music was haram (forbidden) and anyone who even accidentally listened to it would be sent to hell. When asked about the Almighty’s forgiveness and kindness, he informed that nothing of this sort happens if it is music, dance and women. Now that is worrying if your seven-year-old kid in the capital thinks of women as a ticket to hell. The kid, as a matter of record, was studying in one of the most sought after elitist schools in Islamabad costing per quarter a year’s income of a primary school teacher in the public sector. The boy is now 14, ready to explore the possibilities of his future. I am worried about his choices though.

A little fast-forward and we reach August 2011. We were in an upscale market in ritzy Islamabad, coming out of a popular CD shop. Suddenly we heard loud and sharp sounds of Quranic verses being recited as if some people were chanting them as slogans. There were 20-25 young students of a nearby madrassa (in Islamabad, the opulence aside there is a madrassa in almost every sector). I could not talk to them because the moment I started approaching them, they closed their eyes and turned their faces — a loud gesture to tell me how unwanted and unwelcome I was. Perplexed, when I tried to discuss it with the people around us, they amusingly told me I was a source of sin for them, and they were trying to keep themselves pure by avoiding music and gaze of a woman.

Back to 2007 and you would find Islamabad hit by burqa-clad moral police joined by bearded fellows who would drag women by their hair out of their homes and ask to leave the neighbourhood for being ‘immoral’. Many music shops, including the one in Aabpara market, was attacked by gunmen and CDs were burned. The act, in modern Islamabad, would be considered just a harmless bid by ‘innocent students’ to avoid hell. The ‘innocence’ of the students is — beware — predetermined, as was in the case of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) standoff in 2007.

These ‘innocent’ acts of ensuring the adherence to your faith do not figure in a big way in a ‘vibrant’ and ‘free’ media. The free media, however, would keep you informed of how cruel and callous of the state it was to curb Lal Masjid’s ‘innocent’ students. Some of the politicians, like our emerging ‘revolutionary’ leader Imran Khan, would also be angry at the sheer callousness of the government in allowing ‘evil’ US to kill ‘innocent’ fighters in South Waziristan, North Waziristan and the rest of FATA. These people, Khan would argue, were just retaliating against an imperial power, and were attacking Pakistanis just because Pakistan’s government decided 10 years ago to support the US in the global war on terror.

Coming back to August 2011 once again, it is Lahore’s famous art gallery where a woman is seen in an attire that does not go very well with the jannah-seeking (heaven-seeking) righteous people, who push their way in the gallery, harass her and according to some reports, thrash her. A day after this, more than 20 people were arrested in Faisalabad, an industrial city to the southwest of Lahore. Considering the fact that terrorism is the most pressing threat Pakistan is facing, one would think that the arrests would be part of a counter-terrorism drive and would nab some terrorists. On the contrary, the Punjab Police, which has a potential of surprising you at any given point at any given scale, made these arrests for eating at public places during the month of Ramzan, which is prohibited under the Ehteram-e-Ramzan (Reverence of Ramazan) Ordinance. Not that the arrests generated any public protest. Life moves on.

There seems to exist a tacit understanding between the masses and the state for influencing people’s faith and dictating them the terms of their religion. People’s representatives keep on perpetuating religiosity through letting rubbish like this happen and refusing to review legislation that leads to such absurdities in society. Prevalent madness has been dictating everyone in power since partition, including Jinnah and every other leader, who would tow the popular line or make shortsighted attempts to appease the street sentiment instead of leading the alternative opinion. Jinnah did it as early as January 1948 while addressing the Jamaat-e-Islami women who were rallying for the enforcement of shariah. He assured them of the enforcement as soon as possible.

As the US counterinsurgency strategy changes into a less demanding counter-terrorism policy and attempts to negotiate peace with the Taliban gain momentum, the challenge for post-war on terror Pakistan is burgeoning and deepening. The biggest of them would not be sanitising FATA and the northern areas from the Taliban and allied groups. A formidable dragon that Pakistan has to deal with is this radicalisation in ‘mainland’ Pakistan, which is not imbedded in madrassas only. Calling it Talibanisation would amount to seriously diluting the scale of threat. Radicalisation and attached self-righteousness is no more a forte of the Taliban or al Qaeda. It has rather entrenched itself beyond all social classes, economic groups, interest networks, geographical entities, ethnic groups and state institutions.

Long-term strategies like revising textbooks and reviewing laws cannot produce sustainable results unless propped up by some difficult decisions to nip this evil that has now grown much beyond the bud. The spirit of Article 25 of the 1973 Constitution as well as the repeal of Article 2 might be a step in the right direction. One would, however, be dreaming if one thinks it might somehow happen in Pakistan. It has to be People’s Republic of Pakistan, or we would keep breeding more Osamas.