Cold comforts...
Dear All,
As December begins so does this season's usual sense of panic: all the holiday season anxiety, Christmas shopping hysteria, end of school year activity, craziness…
And recession or no recession, people seem to be shopping as if there were no tomorrow. What is going on?

The shape of things to come

Hard-line Islamic supremacism of the type being protected by blasphemy and apostasy laws is not likely to dominate in any country that aspires to also become modern. In the long run it's going to be forced to compromise, one way or the other

By Omar Ali

The decision of a lower court to award death penalty to a poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy has ignited a wide debate over Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

Liberals have asked that the Zia-era blasphemy law should be repealed or amended because it has become an instrument of oppression and injustice in the hands of mobs and gangsters (over 4000 prosecutions in 25 years with several gruesome extra-judicial executions). The religious right has mobilised its supporters to oppose any such amendment and regards these attempts as a conspiracy against Islam. Ruling party MNA Sherry Rehman has introduced a "private member bill" to amend the law and the governor of Punjab has intervened (somewhat clumsily) in the judicial process and indicated that a presidential pardon is on the cards. The international media is arrayed against the law alongside Pakistan's liberals and progressives, while the "deep state", the Islamist front organisations and their mentors in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia are no doubt aligned on the other side.

What will be the likely outcome of this struggle? It is always hazardous to make predictions, but let us make some anyway and try to state why these are the likely outcomes:

1. The law will not be repealed. Some minor amendments may be made (and even these will excite significant Islamist resistance) but their effectiveness will be limited. Blasphemy accusations will continue, as will the spineless convictions issuing from the lower courts. In fact, new blasphemy accusations will almost certainly be made with the express intention of testing any new amendment or procedural change.

2. Aasia bibi may get a reprieve from the high court but there is a good chance that she will remain in legal limbo and will eventually be smuggled out of the country after a presidential pardon (President Zardari being a rare president who actually has the courage to publicly pardon a blasphemy accused if he gets it into his head to do so) or, unfortunately, she may be killed by a free-lance executioner of the law. It is also very likely that her immediate family will have to leave the country with her.

The local Christian community will, in any case, have to show their humble submission in order to be allowed to get on with their lives. Too much public support for Aasia bibi from her neighbors and friends has the potential to incite another tragedy (though it is likely that the local Christian community is conscious of this and will leave public pressure to better placed representatives like Minister Shahbaz Bhatti).

3. In the short term, blasphemy will continue to be a potent weapon in the hands of the deep state, the Islamists and local gangsters. In the longer term, violent reorientation of the deep state in Pakistan may open the gates for a more liberal social order, but there is also the possibility that the deep state will soon re-establish its dominance, causing a return to the jihadi status-quo ante. But if that does happen, it will not mean the end of hopes for a more liberal social order. Rather, it will mean that change will be delayed and may have to pass through future stages of collapse and anarchy. In the truly long run, change is inevitable, but the inevitable may happen by catastrophe rather than gradual (and more desirable) routes.

These predictions may appear pessimistic and discouraging, but I would submit that they are not meant to be discouraging; they are meant to be realistic. The law will not be repealed because the law is not just an invention imposed by General Zia on an unwilling populace. Rather, this law is the crude and updated expression of a pre-existing social and religious order.

Blasphemy and apostasy laws were meant to protect the orthodox Islamic theological consensus of the 12th century AD and they have done so with remarkable effectiveness. Unlike their Christian counterparts (and prosecutions for heresy and blasphemy were seen throughout the middle ages in Europe), these laws retain their societal sanction and have been enforced by freelancers and volunteers where the state has hesitated. Thus, in Lahore in 1929, a carpenter's apprentice named Ghazi Ilm Deen Shaheed executed the Hindu publisher of a book Muslims considered blasphemous. And Ghazi Ilm Deen Shaheed was not a lone wolf. Such action was being openly demanded by Muslim leaders like Maulana Zafar Ali Khan and Ilm Deen's best friend wanted to do the act and only stepped aside because they drew lots and Ilm Deen won thrice in a row.

He was then defended in court by none other than Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was asked to take up the case by our illustrious modernist, Allama Mohammed Iqbal. His funeral drew thousands and was attended with pride by Allama Iqbal, who supposedly said that "this carpenter has left us, educated people, far behind". His grave is now a popular shrine (,-Lahore..htm) and a movie has been made about his exploit (, complete with a dance sequence featuring the blasphemer enjoying himself before he meets his fate (

When Salman Rushdie's book was declared blasphemous and rallies demanding his head were held all over the Muslim world, General Zia was not the agent of those protests. Such executions have even been attempted in Europe, most recently by textile engineering student Aamir Cheema in Germany. And Aamir Cheema too has achieved sainthood after he took his own life in a German prison, with his grave having become a popular shrine (

In short, while it is indeed true that misuse of the law has become common after General Zia's time (an intended consequence, as one aim of such laws is to harass and browbeat all potential opposition), the law has deeper roots, and liberals who believe that it is possible to make a distinction between true blasphemy and misuse of the law, may find that this line is not easy to draw.


The second and perhaps more potent reason the law will not be repealed is because the law was consciously meant to promote the Islamist project that the deep state (or a powerful section of the deep state) continues to desire in Pakistan. The blasphemy law is a ready-made weapon against all secular opposition to the military-mullah alliance (though some sections of the military now seem to have abandoned that alliance, hence the qualification "section of the deep state"). Secular parties are suspected of being soft on India and are considered a danger to the Kashmir jihad and other projects dear to the heart of the deep state. At the same time, Islamist parties provide ideological support and manpower for those beloved causes.

In this way, the officers of the deep state, even when they are not personally religious, recognise the need for an alliance with religious parties and against secular political forces (Musharraf was a good example). They have been forced into an uneasy (temporary?) compromise with secular parties by circumstances beyond their control (aka America) but with American withdrawal a real possibility, the deep state does not wish to alienate its mullah constituency too much. They will be needed again once the Yankees are gone. Hence, no repeal at this time.

But in the long term, change is bound to come. Pakistan does not exist on an island apart from the world. And the world is moving on from blasphemy laws and apostasy laws into the domain of capitalist individualism, if not yet into the realm of democracy or socialism. It is this capitalism that pays the bills for the deep state and its patrons in China and Saudi Arabia. This capitalism, as Marx pointed out, is a universal acid, "it batters down all Chinese forces the barbarians" intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image".

Islamic hardliners may be useful to great world powers at particular times and places, but they will not be allowed to become an alternative power, nor do they have the intellectual resources to be able to do so. Of course, blasphemy accusations and their use to suppress speech are not limited to Muslim countries e.g. Sikhs have resorted to violence to protest blasphemy and Hindu mobs enforce the sanctity of Shivaji's memory in Mumbai. But Islamist violence has merged with secular political grievances to create a particularly potent combination and their conflict with the modern bourgeois world has an edge that other fanatics can only envy.

But while this conflict may see many local ups and downs, in the long term the advantage lies with the modern world. The world is what it is and the hard-line Islamists simply cannot provide what the population of Muslim countries desperately wants; more "wealth" in this world, not just in the next. Capitalism with a Muslim face is certainly possible, even likely; Capitalism with a human face, maybe. But hard-line Islamic supremacism of the type being protected by blasphemy and apostasy laws is not likely to dominate in any country that aspires to also become modern. In the long run (decades, not centuries) it's going to be forced to compromise, one way or the other (with one way being less painful than the other).

The writer is an academic physician in the United States.


Brighter prospects

Despite difficult circumstances RPTW, successfully held its Ninth Youth Performing Arts Festival at the Alhamra Cultural Complex last week

By Sarwat Ali

It must have again been a difficult decision for the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop to hold the Youth Performing Arts Festival. Consistency has been lacking in the festivals and other occasions held by various public sector and private bodies. RPTW successfully held the Ninth Youth Performing Arts Festival at the Alhamra Cultural Complex last week despite very difficult circumstances.

In comparison to all the previous eight festivals, it was a toned-down affair but still the number of groups and institutions that participated represented a range that covered many of the institutions.

Given half an opportunity the youngsters of this country are more than willing to express themselves and are now more prepared by vibrant societies/clubs which work round the year in putting up theatre and music shows of the various schools and universities in the private sector.

The festival had a number of segments like theatre, music, dance and film. Some of the institutions have been the so-called regulars in this festival and one looks forward to their productions.

The University of Engineering and Technology has been one such institution and their performances have been creditable and the National College of Arts which has always played on their stronger point of dance and movement. The groups that took part in the festival were two from the NCA, Alif Adaab with Kaha Suna Muaaf Keejiyega and Wizzi Production with a Multimedia Production Tune, LUMS with Raqs e Bismil, Beaconhouse National University with Bus Stop UET Drama Club with Burzakh, Rear View with Umeed e Sehar, Kinnaird College for Women with Man's Eternal Quest, University of Central Punjab with Des Kay Ajnabi, Mandwa Theatre with Jaman Ka Pair, City School with Gal Niki Jai and University of the Punjab with Awaam Ghar.

The musical evening was dominated by bands of youngsters and one was pleasantly surprised as to how many youngsters are involved in musical activity. And most are dying to get some exposure and proper feedback. This vibrant pop scene at all levels may defy an easy explanation but, given the lack of openings, these guitar-in-hand self-taught musicians are a sizeable number which cannot be ignored.

Similarly, in dance too the emphasis has been on being self-taught, picking up bits from the media and putting it together in a raw yet energetic form. The dance segment had Umair Aslam performing as indeed was hip-hop dance by the BNU. It was followed even by a fashion show -- a catwalk of attire down through the decades in Pakistan. As is the case with most productions done by youngsters, the pendulum sung from the very direct to the very abstract. Usually plays which were staged with the intention of highlighting the ills of this society were dealt with very directly, while those did not were too abstract about issues that have bedevilled mankind since the very beginning like the question of existence. Its purpose and the question of good and evil were some of the stuff woven into the themes of the plays but were not properly grounded in situations and credible plots. The characterisation too was thin as it did not grow out of tangible circumstances. The vibrant UET Theatre Club has staged many plays in these festivals and has maintained a certain standard without falling below it. This year too their play Burzakh tended to be more abstract than normal. As it is, the allegorical plays are subject to interpretation and, when placed in some bygone era, further complicate the interpretation. It was a sort of a historical allegory where effective use was made of sound and lighting. Raqse Bismil by LUMS too was placed in some historical no lands with very strong echoes of the issues that have come to characterise our age.

Other festivals which have been held so far like those by the Pakistan National Council of the Arts or the Lahore Arts Council, Alhamra's inconsistency have been a major failing. Since festivals have not been held with any degree of regularity they lose their critical edge but this organisation till now has not faltered on this count. It is at the peril of repetition that one states again the very difficult circumstances that have bedevilled the normal activities in the country.

The security conditions and the drying up of the sponsorships have been the two major causes though traditionally these have not been the only ones. Setting out to stage an event, particularly in the field of culture always raises hackles, from its moral concerns to its relevance to our religious values to the non availability of resources.

Previously, in Pakistan, the biggest constraint used to be financial because there were hardly any sponsors and the government was forever reluctant to be seen as bending over backwards to promote the arts.

But now it seems the question of security has assumed greatest importance. The question of security does not only concentrate or consist of security to the people in the artistic and management areas but it impinges on the overall security environment of the country which in turn affects the economic condition of the society.

It is hoped that gradually things will get back to normal and International Festivals could again be held at this venue.

Sausan Saulat's recent show at Art Chowk, Karachi, offers different views of the moral question and encompassing issues of values

By Aasim Akhtar

By repopulating art historical imagery with auto-portraits, Sausan Saulat has been infusing histrionic poses from the past with an edgy street dynamism. The result of her conceptual project has been a kind of hip-hop baroque, where familiar and gaudy signposts of contemporary culture disrupt the social and political hierarchy inherent in much traditional portrait painting. And while she may fall short of inventing new icons, Saulat has certainly skewed the visual paradigms in which young South Asian women play marginalised and often menacing roles.

'Eject Before Disconnecting' is the matter-of-fact title Sausan Saulat has given her show of oil and acrylic paintings along with collage and mixed-media drawings at Art Chowk, Karachi, that offer different views of the moral question, encompassing issues of values, dilemmas, choices, causes and consequences. The tone of everyday pervades these modest-scale views of men and women in ordinary settings, doing unremarkable things that are, however, subtly off-key. Like everyone, the artist goes through the routines of daily life -- she prepares, initiates events and responds to them.

The writer Iris Murdoch wrote that "life can be seen as full of aesthetic imaginative activity which is scarcely distinguishable from moral activity." In life we choose how to meet our circumstances. We may choose to face the situation in our human strength, but sometimes turn to an act of faith when the situation becomes too demanding on our frail capabilities. The obvious comparison is Eric Fischl's early paintings, but the diversions here are not erotic.

Saulat's manner of painting is conventionally appealing; everything is softly mottled with brushy marks that gently call attention to the making. The people could be your neighbours, all very innocuous. But then there are worrisome subtexts: breakage, artifice, facing yourself, being measured. Saulat is a young woman, just a few years out of Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi. She chooses as her subject not the older generation but her own. Perhaps the questions she raises are the ones that we face at every age.

The visual vocabulary in Saulat's work is worked out in a series of puns and metaphors. Employing a stock of language innuendos combined with pictorial wit, she formulates lofty images from commonplace themes. The loud, lurid, mnemonic icons move into subtler areas. In these the male pin-ups come alive as real men to inhabit the picture. The woman on the other hand in her ramifications ceases to be just another intemperate bimbo. The paintings explore the private world of a woman's fantasies and phobias, encompassing the whole range of notions from the real to the fictional.

Despite striking contrasts, central to Saulat's art is public versus private identity, sexuality and gender, beauty and perception. She is perhaps least self-analytical but most consistently self-referential, having declared her interest in portraying only people she cares about deeply. Except for mining her own memories and imagination, she doesn't venture far from the hip precincts of contemporary culture. Her pictures have a disarmingly simple and ingenuous quality, unencumbered by heavy theorising. Add to that her celebration of youthful preoccupation and personal space.

In terms of visual impact, Saulat's compositional intelligence confers monumentality. In the best works, her mastery of colour and pattern is reminiscent of Matisse. The pictures achieve a jewel-like luminosity from the application of diluted oil paint, which slides across the smoothly sanded gessoed supports like finger paint on glossy paper.

Cultivating a rather spontaneous looking technique, Saulat combines a loosely brushed treatment of clothing and background with more delicately rendered and distinct faces, so that the likenesses distilled from photographs are immediately recognisable. The analogue in her coloured-pencil drawings is the concentration of detail and hue in certain areas (a detail of physiognomy or décor) with a gradual fading away elsewhere.

As rendered by Saulat, the subjects possess a certain individual presence even though most share the same fashionably androgynous physical type and effete temperament.

Saulat is most successful when depicting in oil the vibrant contemporary street wear of her models with a painstaking skill that borders on the fetishistic. These elements of style help refine the dichotomy between the evocative masculine image and its very feminine counterpart.

Although her handling of paint can be slightly flat, Saulat is still able to imbue her figures' flesh with an almost religious glow. She forsakes the allure of surface beauty in favour of a deeper engagement with the signs of experience and maturity. Yet, however imperial the pictorial setup may be, the eroticism inherent to figures in repose flirts with the farcical -- just as the hyperbole of hip-hop often borders on the ridiculous.

Saulat's liberties with anatomical proportion and her inconsistent handling of perspective remind us that the success of these pictures stems from the strength of her line and the conceptual innovation of her iconic two-dimensional compositions. She mimics the shifting colours and limited depth of field endemic to photography by carefully blending paint to distinguish between blurred and hard edges. There is an implicit irony in her fidelity to the original photographic medium.

Saulat's substantial works of slack-jawed males and dazed self-portraits are pleasingly disarming. Their success lies in the invigorating contrast of stylized, impassive subjects and incongruously chaotic interiors. The withdrawn figures vie for attention with vivid stripes, flowers and thin drips of paint.

'Norwegian Wood: This Bird Has Flown' is an overhead view of a bearded man sleeping and a girl standing, their forms superimposed on a busy surface of discordant colours and patterns. We stare down at a reclining man's body. Another figure, standing upright, is looking out a window. It's the sort of unruly composition Saulat has mastered: graphic, disjointed, gripping. It's a precarious balance and, at its best, conveys the thrill of maintaining detachment amid unsettling circumstances.

In 'Run Titled: Gingerbread Me (My Portrait Ran Away), the gaze is both seductive and mischievous. All the accoutrements of hip-hop are on full display: the floral blue shirt, sagging jeans that reveal patterned folds of underwear and the most delicate hint of skin. Ironically, accessories like these feel rather naturalistic in contrast to the elaborate floral backgrounds that seem to be trying to break loose from their fussy compositional positions.

Saulat's female subjects generally meet the viewer's gaze with an awareness bordering on confrontation. If her girls could be compared to prepubescent Lolitas, they could be just as coy, if comically spry. Saulat is clearly addressing stereotypes of female agency. Are these young girls preternatural seductresses, or do we tend to sexualize representations of females? Are these women the fodder for jokes, or are we discomfited by the possibility of alert and engaged younger women? This exhibition suggests that Saulat may yet reconcile her painterly skill with her feminist subtexts. Thus far, this reconciliation remains dormant within her surreal jokes.



Cold comforts...

Dear All,

As December begins so does this season's usual sense of panic: all the holiday season anxiety, Christmas shopping hysteria, end of school year activity, craziness…

And recession or no recession, people seem to be shopping as if there were no tomorrow. What is going on?

But shopping hysteria apart, it is a rather nice time of the year. Very cosy and all the clichés of Christmas -- carol singing, gaudy lights, boxes of dry fruit and Christmas puddings, green and red everywhere -- comforting in their predictability.

And it is very very cold now. Snows and sub-zero temperatures across the UK. Dire weather forecasts and collective ooohing and aahing over the weather and general pessimism as to whether the local authorities will be able to cope with the on-ground situation properly (Last year most local councils did not have enough salt to de-ice any but the main roads and they were severely criticised for this).

But people have also started losing patience now. As many exclaim: Why are the authorities, the transport services and everybody else so taken by surprise every winter? Shouldn't systems to cope been put in place? Surely the astonishment should be over by now?

Anyhow, here we are with numb fingers and toes and red noses, going about our business and counting the days till that time off from school and work, towards the end of the month... when we can sleep till noon, wander around the house in pyjamas and sweats, enjoy the luxury of not having a to-do list, when we can be total couch potatoes, watch TV and DVDs, play cards and board games and just be extremely thankful for everything.

I anticipate some conflicts over control of the television remote. The offspring throwing tantrums when the spouse is watching the talk show histrionics on the Pakistani channels, the spouse looking offended when the teenagers and I want to watch trashy shows like Desperate Housewives or Ugly Betty when all he wants is to watch the Ashes or the Ashes highlights.... Everybody else looking disgusted and impatient when I insist on watching the TV makeover shows that I love (they are SO great! My current favourite is '10 Years Younger' probably because I am now almost 50 myself, and it gives me much hope...)

And I guess it is also the time when we have to start thinking about New Year resolutions... Every year I resolve to 'finish writing my book' but of course there is no book yet. I also regularly resolve to be a nicer and less grouchy person, but no great change there either. So this year my resolution is just to BE HAPPY. Whatever it takes. I have also resolved to go back to university and do graduate work, an MA, perhaps even a PhD...

I admit I was slightly embarrassed by the idea of going back to university at the same time that my eldest child herself is on her way to university. But one only has one life to live (that we know of anyway). And apart from spouse (wonderfully positive and encouraging man that he is), I have received a lot of encouragement from others -- most notably from my old friend Akbar Zaidi, the avid intellectual with two PhDs, numerous honours and, currently a visiting professor at Columbia University. I am also immensely encouraged by the news that my friend and former colleague Nafisa Shah has just completed her PhD from Oxford.

She started this more than a decade ago when, after working in journalism and development, she got a scholarship to do anthropology. Her studies were interrupted by politics and in between she began her grad work and completed her PhD, she was elected to public office, ran a quite difficult district, and then became a member of the National Assembly.... Pretty impressive stuff!

Apart from that it's business as usual here: tube strikes, student riots, job cuts, new cookbooks in the shops, University Challenge and Question Time on TV...

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

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