Members of banned outfits and religio-political parties running after gunshots were fired during their protest rally for Osama bin Laden in downtown Karachi on Friday. PHOTO COURTESY ATHAR HUSSAIN
Fridays are great days for protests. The formula is simple across Pakistan - get the men when they come to the mosque for the special Friday or Jummah prayers.
Also, in Karachi, if you want to give a “show of street force” organise your protest on MA Jinnah Road, a veritable jugular vein for the city but coincidentally just as narrow. The relatively narrow two-way road allows a gathering crowd to give the impression of numbers. And this is where an estimated 3,000 men (not women) gathered to protest for Osama bin Laden, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and jihad. They were vociferous in their condemnation of rival sects in Islam and spray painted the sidewalk and shops with really offensive hate messages.
If you live in Karachi long enough you’ll get used to protests and if you’ve been in a Karachi newsroom long enough, you’ll get used to editing protest stories. But this one in particular chilled me - not because of the numbers - but because of one quote.
A young man said, ‘Thank you for killing Osama bin Laden for you have given the world a million more like him’.
And indeed that is the question of the day. Al Qaeda has acknowledged his death and vowed that his blood will be avenged etc. etc.
Does the killing of Osama bin Laden really count in that sense? Or is it that anti-American and anti-West hatred is so entrenched that we already have enough young wannabe suicide bombers?
I once read an extremely interesting story in the Globe and Mail on a Sunday in Montreal. For the life of me I can’t remember the exact reference and over the years I have tried to get a hold of it, but what I do remember is its essential message. Two scientists had written a paper, reported in the article, on civil war in the African continent. They discovered that conflict was the worst in places where the male population between 17 and about 30 years of age was the highest.
And when I looked at the photos that came in from my good friend Athar Hussain, who is a photographer with Reuters in Karachi, I realised once again, for the umpteenth time, that I was looking at that segment of the population - the young male. For anyone interested in solid information on Pakistan’s demographic, may I recommend the State Bank of Pakistan reports.
The reporter who covered the rally told me that there were so many men that it took nearly 30 minutes for them to eventually leave. “I stood by the curb and motorcycle after motorcycle, van after van whizzed by me,” he said. They just kept streaming by. They were brandishing sticks - rather medieval but effective if you ask me - and flags. Don’t get me started on a feminist interpretation of these symbols. [Camille Paglia will shoot me]
Such strong beliefs. I was just telling someone at work that anyone who has a fetish or habit or obsession or strong belief scares me now. Even the liberals who insist on all kinds of freedoms. A friend’s father, who is an eminent barrister, once told her that a true liberal is one who is able to accept different opinions and points of view. He quipped that some of the conservatives in Karachi were perhaps more liberal than the liberals who automatically considered themselves right.
A lot has been written about unemployment and education and how they contribute to the desperation of young men who may or may not seek solace in religion. I sometimes add to this debate some stuff I read by Foucault. It got me thinking that perhaps disenfranchisement is also at work here. These young men want to plug in to power - some node of power. But at their levels there is none. Perhaps that’s why they need to brandish the sticks and march to Tibet Centre to protest. Surely not all of them would sign up to be suicide bombers.
I’ve known what it feels like to be helpless in society, this society. I often wonder about the time when my father is not alive any more and if I continue to stay unmarried, then, well, I won’t have any backing. This is perhaps why I value my job as a journalist. I’m plugged in to power-points, if you could say.
Is a little of this at work for these young men who hate the US? I’d bet, and I know Americans think this, that given half a chance they would gladly accept a green card to live in New York. It’s a difficult life for them here. Why not? I personally believe, and I could be wrong, that deep down, when it comes to the survival instinct, many Pakistanis envy the US for its progress, roads, food, pride, clothes, cars, universities, working systems. We must look at our selves and feel sad that it’s been a mess for such a long time. And while it may sound pessimistic, it certainly feels like the mess will stay like this for a very long time, or perhaps infinity.
It is perhaps not right for me to say these things given that I have had an exceedingly privileged upbringing that now allows me to be financially independent. Also, I hesitate to speak for others and present a stereotype of Pakistan, which is a varied country with just as many shades of life as any other.
What I mean to put across here are some of the questions I have, some of the things I wonder about. I wonder what it must feel like to spend so much energy hating another entire country. To posit so much of your identity on that. Perhaps imperialism and colonialism forever turned our thought into these binary pictures.
Ultimately, it will be up to Pakistan to try and create peace for itself. I do not see this ever happening because corruption is so rampant. We don’t even have any leaders on the horizon who could pull an Attaturk on us. And so I wonder if the US should keep giving us money.
A newsroom colleague who works on the front page was talking about how the army would appease the militants because it had its eye on the 2014 US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. It wouldn’t want to be targeted any more. Would that mean going full circle, I wonder? As I prepared to leave the newsroom there were rumours that a top army man was resigning over the Abbotabad operation. I feel bad for the army, they’ve been caught between a rock and a hard place. And I genuinely admire its men and women who do a really tough job and live a tough life. Nonetheless, whatever happens in the next short while, I’m convinced that Osama’s killing is a major turning point for Pakistan.