(Photo taken from this excellent blog post)
This year, like before, self-righteous individuals and organizations have taken it upon themselves to cleanse and purify Pakistani society of pernicious and Satanic influences of Western and Hindu culture. This movement has found its expression in the various Islamic groups’ campaign against Basant and Valentine’s Day.
Shabab-e-Milli – the youth wing of JI – has announced its intention to beseige the CM House and Governor House if the Basant ban (recently upheld by the Lahore High Court) is not implemented. This is in response to Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer’s statement that he will celebrate Basant in the Governor’s House. In response to Governor Taseer’s statement, PML-N Senator Pervaiz Rashid has warned the Governor that if he does indeed celebrate Basant in the Governor’s house he is liable to be arrested.
In many ways the argument made in support of the ban on kite flying is a very interesting one. This argument has two parts – the first is that Basant is a Hindu festival and represents a corruption of “pure” Muslim culture. The second part is that kite flying is dangerous; has resulted in the loss of life of many individuals over the year and has also caused immense damage to power infrastructure. The second reason is the basis of the Lahore High Court’s decision to uphold the ban on kite-flying (in their decision, they termed kite-flying and selling of kites as a “license to kill”)
It’s not unusual for groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and other urban Islamists (who have to come into contact with and convince individuals who do not subscribe to their hardline beliefs) to benefit from and to deliberately use two lines of argument to achieve their ends. In some ways, it’s similar to how such groups describe the war in Afghanistan. They speak of it in Islamic terms calling it a legitimate Jihad against foreign invaders but also describe it as an anti-Imperialist struggle. The first argument appeals to Islamists like themselves and the second argument is meant to have a broader more “rational” appeal. Another extremely callous iteration of this argument technique is the idea that members of the Shia community should – seeing the disturbance that their Ashura processions cause every year – stop taking out public processions in the interests of peace and safety. In the aftermath of the Ashura bombing in Karachi I was shocked and saddened to observe how many supposedly moderate and rational individuals put forward this argument without a thought as to how they were essentially pushing the exact same agenda of radical groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba, i.e. the disappearance of Shias from the public life of Pakistan.
David Hume believed that moral sentiment was often what motivated moral reasoning, i.e. that often what we want to do precedes our rational justification for it and our rational justification of it to others. The behaviour of Jamaat-e-Islami and its subsidiary groups like Shabab-e-Milli and IJT regarding Basant is a nice illustration of this idea. They realize that their own visceral hatred of Hindu festivals like Basant is not going to have a widespread enough appeal to achieve a ban on the festival so they pad their own justification with the issue of safety which is much more “neutral”. Their own position is an emotive one and the logic that they present to justify it occurs after the fact of their own belief in their point of view and is more of a tool to achieve their end. As an example, read advocate MD Tahir’s argument for the ban of Basant presented before the Lahore High Court:
In 2005, an advocate MD Tahir of Lahore High Court, Pakistan, contended that Basant was purely an event of Hindu community who observed it as part of their religious rituals. He said that forefathers of Pakistani Muslims had never taken part in Basant celebrations, though they also deemed it a part of their culture. The petitioner said that Pakistan was a poor country and Basant festivities could not please them by any means. He argued that frequent power breakdowns because of kite-flying were depriving people of electricity supply for hours and they were also exposed to life threats by kite-string on roads. Aerial firing and use of firecrackers was another factor of disturbance for patients, students and the elderly people, he said. He also counted the death toll taking place every year on Basant day as a ground to seek a complete ban on kite-flying and Basant festivities in the country. The petitioner said that the government was spending millions of rupees to entertain foreign guests on Basant, rather than spending it to improve literacy rate, inadequate medical facilities and the provision of basic amenities to common people.
Look how he states his primary justification at the very beginning but then brings every argument imaginable to pad his own position.
This is not to belittle the deaths that have been caused by kite-flying. But many human activities are dangerous if not properly regulated. One is tempted to give the example of Hajj which causes many deaths by stampede and disease every year. Perhaps the members of Shabab-e-Milli will start an SMS campaign against Hajj? Let’s consider the example of driving. It’s a dangerous activity causing many deaths every year. Does that mean that driving should be banned? Using Jamaat-e-Islami logic, one could perhaps come up with a rational justification for the Saudi ban on female drivers. The logic would go as following – studies have shown that female drivers crash their cars more frequently than male drivers. Therefore in the interests of safety, women should be banned from driving.
There really isn’t any way to protect ourselves from falling prey to these double-edged arguments. Kite-flying is indeed dangerous and to many people – already indoctrinated by the anti-Hindu nature of Pakistani society – Jamaat-e-Islami’s propaganda is very effective in changing their point of view. Similarly, individuals who are anti-Imperialist in inclination find themselves inclined to support the Jamaati propaganda on Afghanistan, not stopping to think of who they are enabling by their support. The idea that individuals are responsible for the broader consequences of what they support, even if they don’t support the consequences is a somewhat troubling one that can easily devolve into a “with us or against us” way of thinking. But it’s hard not to notice it happening every day in Pakistani society.