The space between

Real change can only be achieved by responsible civic actors inhabiting the centre and reclaiming lost psychological and physical space for the public realm
Attiq Uddin Ahmed Sarah Natasha Ahmad
8 February 2011

The murder of the Governor of Punjab last month was a tipping point that has augured critical social introspection in Pakistan. Core democratic values – such as the right to life, liberty and free speech – now find themselves unmoored in an environment of social chaos. Voices of reason seem cornered in both public and media space, promptly but clumsily clarifying true ‘Muslim’ values. Conversely, the expression of reason is offset by equally impassioned, often hostile rhetoric by vocal religious factions in the country.

While the tolerant segments of Pakistani civil society rally for open debate on justice, rights of minorities and the like, there is strident agitation in support of practices that hinder social progress and communal accord. Violent demonstrations by such factions appear tailor-made to silence debate and reduce tolerance, and at the same time firmly implant a doctrine of fear in society along with a mono-chromatic utopian ‘Islamistan’. The latest killing has opened a vast  chasm in the national psyche that threatens to swallow the country if not contained now. Psychological terror and a culture of fear are fast becoming defining characteristics of contemporary urban Pakistan, evident in the creation of ghettos for the rich with ever higher walls and, ironically, enough security details that they are protected inside the walls.

Religious billboards and banners condone the murder

Along with the physical loss of public space in the city, a more dangerous loss has been the surrender of psychological space - an increasing dread of being misunderstood and at worst of being falsely charged under the blasphemy laws. Nationwide agitation over proposed amendments to the blasphemy laws has sparked paranoia amongst extremist schools of thought lest the sanctity of the Islamic Republic should be under attack. The success of the agitation and fear of further civil conflict has resulted in every major political party backing away from the issue and worse, keeping silent about it. The already beleaguered State was the first to flee from this latest melee.

A battle for hearts and minds

The assassination, the threats, and the consequent capitulation of psychological space are being met by an equivalent paranoia amongst tolerant Pakistanis that all is lost. A battle for Pakistan appears to be in the offing. The space for this battle seems to be the hearts and minds of 180 million Pakistanis and the arena of choice the city and its streets. Hijacked by each camp for the promotion of conflicting polemics through banners, graffiti, vigils, protests, strikes and riots, the city and its mechanisms of mobility and commerce, security and urbanity are all hostage to the eventual outcome of this clash.

Rally Against Fear

A nation’s ability to support a robust nonpartisan public domain in part depends on the availability of institutions and platforms that can act as coherent voices for different actors comprising both ‘civil society’ and the city. In such situations, taking to the streets may be the last resort. In Pakistan, especially after the successful lawyers’ movement when the state of emergency was declared in 2008 and leading judges were arrested, street agitation is often considered the first step to being heard. With the current series of socio-political crises in Pakistan only underscoring existing schisms within ‘civil society’ the need for nation building and rational change have become urgent.  In the absence of the political will or desire for substantive change from the State, real change can only be achieved by responsible civic actors inhabiting the centre and reclaiming lost psychological and physical space for the public realm. The triumph of responsibility in the civil sphere will be synonymous to the triumph of democratic values growing upwards from the grass roots, ideally to be met by some support, rather than antagonism, from State agencies.

The ‘middle men’

Despite existing conditions the presence of responsible civic actors in Pakistan has been growing. With each crisis, more actors come forth and more agencies emerge to bridge the gulf between the State and its people. However, many of these actors or organizations are nascent isolated efforts with limited outreach. Thus their agendas get swept under the wave of contentious and more visible extremisms. Initiatives like Zimmedar Shehri and the Peshawar Youth Organization who are ridding the streets of solid waste are symbols of urban responsibility and the restoration of civic pride. Organizations such as V Need U, Bali Memorial Trust, and River Flood Relief Trust Fund have remained committed to their goal of socio-economic uplift after the floods of 2010, and are currently delivering improved housing stock in the affected areas through initiatives such as Flood Rehabilitation through DesignThe Citizens Foundation and Care Pakistan along with SOS Children’s Villages are providing subsidized quality education to the masses, while organizations like OCCO continue to assist in visualizing a sustainable and socially inclusive urban environment in the country.

Zimmedar Shehri's street cleaning and waste collection initiative in Lahore

Zimmedar Sheri's waste collection initiative in Lahore

These struggles and initiatives show that democratic values are enduring notwithstanding the atmosphere of mistrust and fear.  They allow both a psychological and physical reclaiming of public space by actors working towards a progressive development at the national level. Arguably, the role of civil society in the midst of crises in Pakistan is to empower these kinds of organizations so that they may usher the nation into an environment where peaceful and patient undertaking of ideas is not only conceivable, but also possible. The real question of course is if such civic efforts are enough to occupy the vast space between both extremes, between left and right. Do such efforts enable engagement and co-existence with a belligerent minority?  Or does moderation get swept under the tide of hatred and ignorance?

Zimmedar Shehri's street cleaning and waste collection initiative in Lahore

Zimmedar Sheri's waste collection initiative in Lahore

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