Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Gabriella Giffords, Salman Taseer and the limits of free speech

Posted by harimpeiris on January 20, 2011

Gabriella Giffords was a US Congresswoman from the Tucson area for the 8th District of Arizona and Salman Taseer was the democratically elected Governor of Pakistan’s most populous State of Punjab. Both were shot some time earlier last week, the Congresswoman as she held a political rally in Tucson and the Governor as he emerged from a private engagement in a shopping mall in Islamabad. The US Congresswoman was in a critical state fighting for her life in a shootout that left six people dead including a federal superior court judge and Governor Taseer shot more than twenty times tragically succumbed to his injuries. A US Congresswoman and a Pakistani Governor, living worlds apart but experiencing the same personal tragedy that is also more importantly a public one, facing extreme violence while engaged in the democratic process.

 US Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords

The shooting of the US congresswoman has in subsequent investigations more focused on the mental health of the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner and the free availability of fire arms, including military assault type sub machine guns across the counter. The more substantive and deeper discussion though has been on the polarizing and at times the near hatemongering nature of the political discourse in the United States. All polities, democratic and otherwise have their lunatic fringes, but when the lunatic fringe becomes more main stream there is a serious problem. The strident rhetoric of the religious right and the tea party movement often move away from the civil and even acceptable to something that borders on hate mongering. It was Congresswoman Gifford’s young intern Daniel Hernandez, credited with saving her life after the shooting who stated the rather obvious truth “people who disagree with us are not the enemy”. Like what 9/11 did to security consciousness and airport security measures in the US, the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords may forever change the casual walkabout style of grassroots politics of sub urban USA.

 

Late Punjab Governor Salman Taseer

The assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in Pakistan while equally shocking and tragic was unfortunately more true to form of Pakistan, a country awash in illegal weapons, and various armed groups with attendant random and political violence. After the shooting of the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, most Sri Lankan’s do not disagree that Pakistan though perhaps not a failed state is certainly a very fragile one, unable to prevent armed violence on its soil against its citizens or visitors. The Taseer assassination though brings into stark focus the fault lines in Pakistan of the deep divide between the cosmopolitan urban middle class and the militant religious movement, best defined by Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws. It was a law which Governor Taseer opposed and this principled position cost him his life. Subsequently the co-chairperson of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and son of slain leader Benazir Bhutto and President Zardari, Bilwal Bhutto Zardari came out strongly against the those who celebrated the killing of Taseer calling them the “real blasphemers” who corrupted the peaceful message of Islam. Pope Benedict from the Vatican joined in the debate, publicly calling for the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as detrimental to the freedom of conscience of minority religions in Pakistan. The blasphemy laws stem from the school of thought and the type of practice represented by the Taliban in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan that resulted in the demolition of the historic Bamyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan.

 

Lessons for Sri Lanka

The two shooting incidents in worlds apart in Tucson, Arizona and Islamabad, Pakistan demonstrate the violence prevalent in two very different cultures, one close to home and one far away. As Sri Lanka emerges from almost three decades of deadly political violence, which matured to armed conflict and culminated in full blown conventional style warfare on our soil, there are important lessons we should derive regarding the nature and style of our political discourse. As Daniel Hernandez rather obviously reminded us, those who disagree with us are not our enemies. In even a semi democratic society, a political discourse is essential to policy making that seeks to be representative and inclusive. In Sri Lanka we are quick to brand those that disagree with us as traitors. Having fought a civil war because dialogue and discussion failed us, we cannot and should not repeat the mistake of seeking to silence those whom we disagree with or brand them as traitorous enemies.

 

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