The plight of Gaza civilians has shaken many a torpor-ed digital selves recently. This was notable because the ordinary condition of Gaza, the daily quotidian plight is in itself a crisis of unbelievable moral and humanistic severity. Yet the now-sanctioned ritual sharing of photos, of inflamed or inflammatory opinion pieces, of outrage on social networks happened only after the air and drone assault. What do we make of this relationship between the everyday and the extra-ordinary?
The Israeli “precision strikes” highlights the rule of exceptional occurrence in our collective consciousness – something has to break out of the ordinary for us to see it, feel it, respond to it. The “something” itself does not need to be extra-ordinary. The Gangnam-Style dance video has nothing exceptional going for it, except that every one is looking at it. Gaze is the exceptional-making entity. The Israeli assault on Gaza was exceptional precisely because it focused a collective Gaze onto Gaza City. Once it is over – once the exceptional ends – we revert back to the opaque haze that surrounds geographies and histories mere feet away from us.
In Pakistan this opaqueness limits our sight down to the level of the house. Since 2009, the targeting of Ahmadi community has continued unabated. Assassinations, public and private, coupled with state-backed “blasphemy” witch-hunts are the ordinary state of being Ahmadi in Pakistan. Into that particular majoritarian violence enters the attempt at mass annihilation of Shi’a communities across Pakistan. This is the targeting of Shi’a civilians in Quetta or in Sindh and Karachi.
The longer history of anti-Shi’a/anti-Ahmadi violence in territorial Pakistan stretches back to the early 1950s when the Jama’at-i Islami sought public and private ascendancy against its “communist” opponents. As the aims of Maududi-led Jama’at came closer and closer to the politico-military regimes of Ayub, Bhutto and then Zia ul Haq, the religious and political organizations became para-military execution squads.
It was in 1970-71 East Pakistan that this particular form of militant politics found its working-model: as Jama’at para-military groups were first asked, by West Pakistan military junta, to target and eliminate Bangla intellectuals.
Following the brutality of 1971, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto advanced the Jam’ati militarization on two fronts: he publicly and politically aligned Pakistan’s foreign policy with the Pan-Islamic movement in Cairo and Damascus and, secondly, he publicly and politically aligned Pakistan’s domestic policy with the Sunni-majoritarian theocracy of the Jama’at. Alongside this ideological re-alignement came the economic alignment when Bhutto initiated the overseas Workers program to export mass labor to the petro-Gulf States – specifically to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. From my perspective, these particular realignments of the early 1970s remain the most important, and most damaging, events of post 1947 Pakistan. Before I move on, to remain in touch with my theme of opaqueness let me also put forth that these policies were enacted squarely removed from any public participation. The absence of the voice of the common Pakistani is stark not only then, but now.
If all of that is setting up the bonfire, then the spark was 1979 – the year of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Siege of Mecca, mingling nationalism, petroleum, and the capacity of Muslims to declare apostasy where they see fit. Zia ul Haq’s regime, client state of both KSA and USA, was adamant on passing as many anti-Shi’a laws as possible, fearful that the Islamic Revolution will spread across the border and the world. The attacks on Shi’a processions had intensified in 1978-9 and kept escalating throughout the 1980s. Anti-Zia groups such as the Shi’a Tahrik-i Nifaz Fiqh Ja’fariyya quickly were labelled anti-Sunni groups against whom the military regime armed new paramilitary entities like the Sipah-e Sahaba. The Jama’at remained a fully plugged-in vehicle for the distribution of anti-Shi’a and anti-Ahmadi violence especially on college and university campuses where Zia ul Haq had banned all “political” parties.
I grew up in that Pakistan, on that college campus. Our home shared a wall with an Imam Barah. My cricket team contained 8 members who were Shi’a. I participated in most, if not all, activities during Muharram. We could not field a match because we were either sore or bleeding from Matam.
There was no tolerance. I learned after almost a year that our fast bowler – named Zulfiqar – was Shi’a. I was dense in my majoritarianism and my Gulfism. I was new to Pakistan. My uncles thought that orgies happened inside the darkened Imam Barah and that women were flown in from Iraq to service men. The wailing, the crying, they were eroticized acts of othering for them. My team-mates hid their Shi’a rituals, even as they participated in our particular brands of Eid Saeed. At College, the charismatic Jama’ati leader – who is now a very prominent Lahori politician – explained how devious and evil the Shi’a were to a group of us in the University Canteen. The tone was conspiratorial. The evidence was universal. The Jew. The Shi’a. The Ahmadi. The Christian.
The long and thorough de-humanization of Pakistan’s “others” has led us to such an acute crisis that we cannot even see that amidst our urban decay and rural want are scattered hundreds and thousands of dead bodies. They are all victims of precision strikes. All living in ghettos. All with daily freedoms curtailed. All living in fear of life, limb and desire.
The para-military religious assassination squads of 1971 are now operating against the Hazara community. Dawn.com has a chilling indictment of Pakistan’s blinded majority in their photo and video essay I am Hazara. I urge you to see it.
I urge you to feel some outrage for the very ordinary lives of your very ordinary neighbors.