You’d see such a rosy picture of Pakistan painted by travel bloggers of government officials belonging to the upper middle class insisting Pakistan is a tolerant and welcoming country and that the country suffers from an image problem in the Western audience because of how the Islamic country is portrayed in the media abroad. On one hand you see the extremely friendly experiences of Western travel vloggers while on the other, there are images of shrinking breathing space and violence perpetrated by far-right religious groups in the name of religion. Oblivious from all this are the upper-middle and upper classes of the country who live in a bubble and believe everything is okay. While everyone seems to have carved out a space for themselves in a complex Pakistan, every now and then we see a stark contradiction heading to a collision course. Such is the atmosphere in the country now a days.
While on one hand, patriots are thumping their chests sharing a dubious news item claiming my hometown Lahore is now safer than some of the top metropolitans in the world including London, far right religious clerics are threatening violence to stop a film they deem un-Islamic on the other. In a country of shrinking freedom of expression, it’s rare to have independent films questioning or depicting contradicting realities of the country. It is being said that one such film Zindagi Tamasha by critically acclaimed film-maker Sarmad Khoosat, has attracted massive threats by the fat right extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) which also happens to be a registered political party and even a couple of elected representatives in a provincial assembly. Mind you, the whole foundation of this party is centred around controversial figure Mumtaz Qadri who shot former governor Salmaan Taseer over blasphemy accusation and became a hero for right wing religious factions. Qadri was hanged after being found guilty of murder and terrorism charges and yet is revered by many and has had a shrine built in his honour. TLP not only partly controls that shrine but also several mosques belonging to the Sunni-Brelavi sect. Through sermons and pamphlets, the TLP has threatened countrywide protests and demonstrations should the release of the film takes place.
Caving in to the threats, the Punjab government has decided to halt screening of the film and has ordered a re-evaluation of the film by a new censor board which will reportedly also comprise a member from the extremist TLP group. It’s a blatant and utter slap on the face of already struggling art industry. The way the notice served to filmmaker is worded feels like the latter is already presumed guilty and is being treated like a criminal.
Amid Prime Minister Imran Khan thumping chest at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos inviting investors and tourists claiming victory in terms of security/safety, progress in economy and growing tourism, trolls claiming Lahore and Islamabad being safer than London and New York and the government bending over to the extremists, one has to see what will happen when all these sides collide, which one will win or even remain.
For now, the fact remains that the government has conceded its helplessness to the fringe groups like the TLP and has already failed religious minorities and those who find for it. This after successfully and systematically strangling any attempt at making freedom of speech and expression possible.