Lessons from Britain: Where Pakistan’s ‘right’ goes wrong

Published: January 14, 2011

Activists in Manchester hold protest against the EDL.

Over a year ago, I was part of one the most exhilarating experiences ever – one of those transformational experiences that you keep learning from and growing through, well after they are over.

If any of you have visited England recently you must be familiar with the rising surge of the anti-Muslim sentiment and the popularity of right wing parties there. Though the swing to the right is a global phenomenon, the resurgence of blatantly racist parties like the British National Party (BNP) in a country like Britain, with a heavy immigrant population, is particularly disturbing.

In the current climate of Islamophobia, coupled with the anti-immigrant policies-induced xenophobia of the native British public, a far right political group called the English Defence League (EDL) emerged in 2009. A cursory look at their website will remind you of extremist right wing parties in Pakistan. The same religious bigotry and racial profiling, the same stoking of the religious sentiment and the same call for unity in face of the imminent threat by a foreign religion – in EDL’s case the threat being projected by Muslims who have corrupted the pure, white British population with their grotesque culture and extremist mindset.

Within a few months of its emergence, EDL was holding demonstrations in all of the major cities in Britain. With members primarily constituting white men, resembling football hooligans flashing ‘Hail Hitler’ gestures, they made quite an intimidating group. What was more disturbing though was how the British authorities allowed such an extremist group to openly demonstrate and chant hatred-inducing bigoted slogans against a religious minority.

Still, EDL had its work cut out for itself and in every city they went, they faced fierce opposition, with leftist, trade union and student union activists launching counter protests. During this time, I was based in Manchester and when EDL declared that its next great demonstration would be held there, I knew this was one day I was definitely calling in sick from work.

Weeks before the demonstration there was a campaigning hype – lectures at the Union, gatherings amongst activists of all stripes, meetings to discuss tactics and public debates on EDL’s hatred-inducing politics. On D-day, when I reached Piccadilly Gardens where the whole drama was to unfold, I was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and unity among people from every faith, political affiliation, ethnicity, sexual orientation and age – all banding together to declare what they considered their common interest: Manchester had no place for EDL fascism. They held placards and shouted slogans, denouncing EDL’s Nazi style politics of hatred, and celebrating the culture of diversity and coexistence in Manchester.

When the sorry looking band of EDL supporters showed up, the police found themselves forced into the role of their bodyguards as entire Manchester raged against the audacity of a cult of hate breeders to infiltrate their city.  As EDL protesters chanted tauntingly:

“Hey! Who are ya?”

…the opposing mass of people, everyone from young mothers carrying their children, activists in dreadlocks, overzealous university students, professors in tweed coats, men wearing namaz caps, to senior citizens sporting Che Guevara shirts chanted back with genuine pride:

“We’re Manchester! Who are you?”

For me, this memory will forever be etched as a brief glimpse of the human collective when it rises above its petty, self imposed divides.

Even in times when the British government was ridiculously exaggerating the threat of terrorism to Britain and when the impending economic crisis was already rife with hostile sentiment towards immigrants, the British public could still see a conflict for what it really was. More importantly they recognised the importance of providing a united front. They foresaw that the same government which could endorse the criminalisation of a religious minority to justify its military misadventures and economic failures could very well turn its guns against them when their interests dictated it.

Tragically though in Pakistan, Governor Salmaan Taseer’s assassination did not unify us in our condemnation of the murder of a human being in the name of our faith. Instead, it left us divided. It left us questioning whether it is indeed blasphemy to question the blasphemy laws; whether a person’s perceived morality entitles him to the right to take a life; and most tragically whether it is even in our common interest to be united for this cause.

On that day in Manchester, the British public, by presenting a defence that was so diverse and inclusive of every ethnicity, class and most importantly religion, stripped EDL’s campaign off its religious garb and exposed them for what they really were – forcing even the most biased news networks to admit that the divide was not between Muslims and non Muslims, but between EDL and Manchester.

Today in Pakistan however, it would be our greatest failure if we played into the hands of our ‘EDL’; if we fail to strip them off their religious garb; if we fail to stop them from making a mockery of our religion; fail to not recognise and speak up against an injustice setting a hideous precedent; and most importantly if tomorrow when the world looks back at this juncture in our history, because of us and our collective paralysis, they will not remember it as the time when Pakistan stood against religious intolerance and fascism, but when it began its dissent into it.


Farheen Hussain

A development activist based in Lahore. She is also training to become a documentary filmmaker.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Jun

    it is always easy for politial parties to use religion to get popularity .Same is happening in Europe.Recommend

  • Usama Zafar

    Very well-written!!Recommend

  • IZ

    Unfortunately the Pakistani left was wiped out as an organized political force long ago, either through coercion, or in the case of Zulfiqar Bhutto, co-option. The residue of leftist politics can be found in some of the nationalist parties, but that’s about it. In our political climate centre-right parties are decried as “liberal extremists” and country is held hostage by the tag-team of secular far-right authoritarianism and religious far-right totalitarianism. Sad.Recommend

  • S.Haque

    The unity in the face of religious extremism is indeed heart warming. I wish we could learn something from such examples, thank you for writing this.Recommend

  • parvez

    Nicely written but in the end its wishful thinking to expect the same response from us.
    This is the difference between proud nations and dejected failing nations – on the one hand you have centuries of good leadership and in our case 64 years of deteriorating leadership if one can even call it that.Recommend

  • Deen Sheikh

    Religious extremism is happening on the other end as well, Islamic radicalisation esp amongst the South Asian youth is a reality and they preach hatred towards all they percieve to be dis believers. Ive met such radicalised youth, i know it exists and the threat it poses, its people like those who add leverage to these racist right wing British organisation.Recommend

  • Amadeus

    sadly, Pakistan is EDL.Recommend

  • Azmat

    Well nicely written but you forgot to mention the sikhs in EDL and EDL is particularly against PAKIs not against MOSLEMS they are against PAKI MOSLEMS… they are not mentioning all the Turks,Arabs, Lebanese etc…. Recommend

  • SUB

    It’s not going to happen in Pakistan. Because

    1- There is no education. In a society where imam musjid will tell Nimazi to leave because they belong to a different Islamic sect what more you can expect. Politicians have not done their part, they can always blame the dictators however still they are responsible because they have not done their part. Whenever they had a chance they had other more important things to deal will like building roads, and inauguration of sewerage systems in their constituencies. No time to educate the nation

    2- Salman sb was a great person however he was no authority on religion & among thousands of people who may be wrongfully accused but suffering in jails he made his own choice to take sides with an accused who could have simply followed suit to a higher court and justice could have been served. After all what will happen now even if she is declared innocent by the highest court or even if pardoned by the president what fair chance she and her family has in this society? And who is responsible for that? Mr. Taseer’s boldness or Govt.’s inaction? No body as yet has even been punished under this law so there was no need to bring it in the limelight and creating an opportunity for fanatics

    3- PPP Govt. does not have a policy on the subject. They are too busy with other stuff as Rehman Malik says what anybody can do if your own security guard is up for your murder. Babar Awan believes it’s a Political murder. Minister for minorities believe the law is wrong. What is Mr. Minister’s authority on this law? What is the qualification of most of these people to be a minister in the 1st place?

    Its total mayhem. When Mr. Salman took a stand the Govt should have intervened and declared if Govt. stood by him or otherwise. I cannot recall Gillani or Zardari saying anything in favor of Mr. Taseer. I sure remember Gillani and Babar Awan publicly confirming that the law will not change. Did mr. Taseer went to meet Aasia BiBi on his own or was he directed to do so. After all he was th representative of the federation in the province

    4- what is media/ Journalism’s role in this? Urdu and English media are on different poles when it comes to the debate of extremism in the country. If you are only following Urdu, your point of view may be of a religious extremist whereas English media has its own share of liberal extremist although they never admit it. You cannot say that all the people in Urdu media are absolutely wrong or right nor you can assume the same for our English media

    So called liberals believe its their right to curse Mullas. Mullas are the product of the same society where we have all grown up and prospered, or otherwise. So why only they are responsible? We as a nation are emotional and less tolerant of other’s point of view

    Ignorant masses are the easiest target and there is only one remedy. EDUCATION. However it does not suit our politicians and ruling eliteRecommend

  • Fake Friend.

    I think it could be interesting to note the differences between the cultures , education levels and priorities of people living in UK & Pakistan. But , we may be seeing a change. Change starts from a single step. Which is more important , for any journey to begin. I would like such thoughts to be appearing in magz like Jang etc, which dominate masses and their intellectual progress.Recommend

  • http://farahqayum.wordpress.com/ Farah Qayum

    Having been born and living in Britain all my life, it’s sad to say that what you experienced was just a glimpse of unity and solidarity in an otherwise divided country. Whilst right-wing groups don’t inflict the same murderous destruction here as extremists do in Pakistan, their venomous poison is no less potent.

    A couple of years ago there was a leaked document of the names and details of BNP members posted on the internet, frighteningly these included teachers, doctors, policemen – pillars of British society. So the idea that right-wing racism is just the tool of the uneducated, the ill-informed is misplaced. Racism here is institutional, it is hidden, it is veiled. It may not gun you down in the middle of a market, but it won’t employ you or want to integrate with you either. This is not just true of the host community, but minorities who have alienated themselves also.

    You only need to walk through cities like Bradford, Oldham, Luton, Birmingham to see what real Britain looks like – polarised and segregated. Recommend

  • Farheen

    Thanks everyone for reading it!

    A lot of the people seem to share the sentiment that we cant compare UK with Pakistan and I cannot agree more. Perhaps I need to write a second article to just touch upon the reasons why but the spirit behind writing this piece was to establish that this is what we need to be aiming for; a united front in opposition to the extreme right. I’ve recently read a lot of people talk about the need for a liberal response or the liberal/conservatives divide and then a lot saying they don’t identify with either. What I was trying to highlight was exactly this, true movements are never divisive along ethnic, racial, religious lines they are inclusive of all and that is where their power comes from. In fact precisely because a faction is trying to radicalize society on the basis of religion implies society resists any form of radicalisation. I don’t know about everyone else but for me even this polarization of liberals versus extremists is like directly playing into their hands and destined to just be very reactionary.Recommend

  • sara

    very well written, but you missed out the most important difference between the situation in Britain and Pakistan: FEAR. while protesting against EDL, you didn’t fear that some crazy fundo would start shooting at you or blow himself up. The reason you only see supporters of Qadri on the streets is because the non supporters (like yourself) fear for their life and safety. Britons aren’t better human beings, they just have far more security than we do.Recommend

  • Ehtisham Rizvi

    “What was more disturbing though was how the British authorities allowed such an extremist group to openly demonstrate and chant hatred-inducing bigoted slogans against a religious minority”

    It is called freedom of speech and it works both ways.Recommend