It’s a curse to live in a society intimately aware of its own demise. My people come from a part of the world where the melancholy of knowing all has gone to shit—and will continue to go to shit—has become so persistent that the mere expression of hope it will ever get better is considered gauche. In America, where the questionable perception that things were going swimmingly until 2016 is still widespread, the feeling still comes as a shock. It’s cute, if you ask a Pakistani, because those incomprehensible moments that rock a nation—the kinds of things that make you question why your country was ever made—have been happening for a long time.
But jaded as they may be, Pakistanis are just as emotional and dramatic as anyone else, ever-ready for the delicious messiness of the next shock: a treasonous military dictator sentenced to death, a lurid sex abuse scandal, a high-profile murder. News anchors and commentators flock to their respective nightly news shows with their respective political affiliations, hundreds of young men grab sticks and tires ripe for burning, all ready to cash in on the moment. It’s a cycle so frequent the rhythms are almost predictable. Sometimes the protests and tire burning will go on longer than you think, sure, but ask any uncle who watches the nightly news with his nightly tea and he can tell you exactly when the ministry of some such will step in, when the army will step in, and who will be off the hook.
Director Sarmad Khoosat’s films echo with those same rhythms. As a director, he cut his teeth on Pakistani soap operas, which aren’t merely saccharine balms, the way American soaps tend to be. A Pakistani soap is equal parts Law and Order, 90210, and Kardashians: ripped from the headlines, injected with some in-law drama, and everyone is hot.
But even in the genre of semi-serious Pakistani soap operas intended for aunties my mother’s age, Khoosat’s filmography has always veered towards the more controversial. His films and shows managed to squeak through the dusty censorship system of the state and, crucially, onto TV and cinema screens.
Zindagi Tamasha (“The Circus of Life”) was slated to be no different. A well-respected lower-middle-class man is shunned after a video of him doing something—we can’t quite tell what from the trailer, suggesting it doesn’t actually matter—goes viral. His neighbors, his friends, and members of his religious community turn against him with a melodramatic fervor familiar to Pakistanis through soap opera. Girl dresses immodestly; her neighbors and society turn against her. Boy marries lower-class girl; his neighbors and society turn against him. So why have violent threats been made against Sarmad Khoosat, and his film under threat of being banned after it will be reviewed a second time by the country’s censorship board?
The character to fall from grace in Zindagi Tamasha is religious, and the people who turn against him include religious clerics who appear to be members of a religious sect popular in Punjab: Barelvis.
Amid the many flavors of Sunni Islam, Barelvis appear unique to the subcontinent. Their history is woefully under-covered, even as their prominence in Pakistani society increases, but the sect earned notoriety in 2011 when one of their followers assassinated the politician Salman Taseer, an opponent of the draconian application of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Unlike many conservative sects of Islam, Barelvis believe the Prophet to be not only a man, but an omnipresent, supernatural force worthy of worship. Barelvi poetry, imagery, and beliefs revolve around deifying the Prophet: everything from the sparkling pins on their turbans to their festivals marks the life and legacy of a man most Muslims believe to have been simply a man. This disparity in beliefs has been a point of contention with other local sects of Islam, who view deifying the Prophet as itself blasphemous. Thus Barelvis have been attacked, bombed even, for their convictions.
But Salman Taseer’s brutal killing put a new weapon in the hands of a sect closely associated with the working class. Barelvis by and large represent Punjab’s poor. Their festivals and days of worship are brief respites for the likes of brick kiln workers, food stall owners, cleaners. The mystical worship of the Prophet takes on a sort of sanctified quality that eases the horror of poverty in Pakistan. Brightly adorned shrines and posters, flower wreaths and sparkling hadiths are a sharp contrast with the soot-covered slums so many Barelvis call home.
I know this because I spent months reporting on a group that has become the face of Barelvi extremism: Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, or TLP. Like many journalists, I was flung into their world during their 20-day blockade on the capital in 2017, then again the following year, as I found myself trapped when they sealed the city of Lahore in a protest in 2018—which is a thing they can do, or rather that they are allowed. I spent weeks meeting with young men who vowed to avenge anyone who dared speak ill of the Prophet Muhammed, even managed to attend their leader’s closely followed trial in an anti-terrorism court. What I saw was a group of people galvanized by their ability to upend the country at a moment’s notice, and immeasurably and increasingly devoted to their cause.
It’s their strange power over the country’s political and military institutions that intrigues. How can this group of beardos hijack the entire country with their public demonstrations in a matter of hours?
The answer lies, as many answers do in Pakistan, in religion. The country’s pitiless history of opposing blasphemy has secured its place among the most regressive in the world. Its Monty Python-esque laws against blaspheming—lawyers can’t even state a supposed blasphemous case while defending the accused in court, else they’ll blaspheme themselves—are cause for international embarrassment, especially for a new government determined to rehabilitate Pakistan’s image abroad. Officials, both on the record and off, will tell you their hands are tied. Attempts to reform some of the most blatantly hypocritical laws have been met with violent resistance, often at the hands of groups like TLP. Such groups recognize the almost limitless power that lies in these archaic laws: blasphemy is a weight the country has built itself to collapse under. A friend likened their protests to football hooliganism—it’s a catharsis for the poor.
Salman Taseer was a titan in politics, but he was also of the landed gentry. That his assassination was at the hands of his trusted bodyguard—the 26-year-old pumped 28 bullets into Taseer’s body as he got into his car in of the country’s poshest neighborhoods—sent a chill down the spine of the elites, the intellectuals and artists. Their servants, the ones pouring their double whiskeys and ironing their short party dresses, could, at any time, literally kill them. The barriers posh society had built to keep the poor at bay are inherently porous: their most intimate interior lives are witnessed by drivers, maids, and cleaners, who see every vulnerability. There’s a visceral fear that tinges any potentially “risky” conversations now, nervous glances exchanged, euphemisms preferred in case the man you underpay to drive you around gets the wrong idea. And the mistrust is mutual. It’s a big reason why the TLP party can drum up seemingly instantaneous support.
So when an indie film deigns to depict Barelvis as the complicated people they are (and very accurately, say some who have seen it) the reaction is knee-jerk, almost inevitable. Khoosat tweeted out his concerns a week before his film was slated to air in Pakistani theaters, followed shortly by TLP’s threats to protest the film. This, in a country that has seen cinemas burned to the ground for less.
Despite Khoosat’s repeated calls for government help, the state begrudgingly decided to review Zindagi Tamasha with a censorship board, this time with members of the TLP sitting on the panel. It’s likely the film will ultimately air in cinemas after a third approval from the censorship board. The saga is at the very least embarrassing for the government, but at worst, an admission that they, too, must bow to the mob. And that’s if the film is still released. If it is indeed banned, hope for art and civic discourse will be harder to find.
But we expect the worst these days, because expecting anything else under the tyranny of hypocrisy would be naïve.
In contemporary Pakistan, wielding the accusation of blasphemy and burning tires is your ticket to being taken seriously. Until the TLP—and Barelvis, and Deobandis, and maids, and servants, and cleaners, and brick kiln workers, and all the poor who are systematically ignored—have a meaningful stake in the state as members of the working class, until you give them a fair path to power that isn’t a screaming mob—how could anyone ask them to stop?
I’ve been thinking about one of the wide-eyed TLP supporters I met with a fixer in a tiny tea stall in Lahore last year. He worked at a major clothing store as a clerk, but couldn’t afford much with his salary. He told me about his vision of an Islamic paradise, a version of one I’d heard from many like him: the women will be covered, there will be instantaneous death sentence for blasphemers, etc. But what bothered me more than his vision for society (definitely one I’d never want to live in) was his feeling that taking to the streets was the only way anyone would ever pay attention to him and people like him. He wasn’t wrong.