Hussain Khanwala will not start a debate.
Hussain Khanwallah—a typical central Punjab village in Ganda Singhwallah in Kasur—finds itself in the news, domestic and international, for a very wrong reason: it is here that, over a nearly 10-year period, a gang of mostly young men raped, sodomized, filmed and blackmailed a large number of boys and, as some reports suggest, also some girls.
The story began in 2006 and its details are slowly trickling out. Yet, enough has come out to indicate the gravity of what has happened. Initial attempts by some politicians from the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government to play down the incident or put a spin on it have failed. There’s just too much evidence even at this stage, as also public outrage, for these charlatans to make the story go away. Some perpetrators have been caught and investigations are ongoing to net others. The pieces will come together for the complete picture. That’s good. What next?
The first obvious requirement is for us to ask the right questions. For the most part that hasn’t happened, even as there is public outrage. But the outrage itself can be divided into three categories: the right, the liberals, and those who float in between.
For the right, what has happened is indicative of how little Islam we have in this society. Their solution: let’s have more Islam and all ills will go away. For them, there’s no distinction between sin and crime or consensual and nonconsensual sex. The incident is being used to fulminate against pornography, and both heterosexual and homosexual relations.
In this view, expectedly, the fact that children were forced into sexual acts and filmed against their will or that they were then blackmailed—all of which is criminal and for which there are laws—is not to be used to study this case but to deprive society of the freedom of choice, if any, in sexual matters.
Incidentally, this sleepy Kasur village is very religious and conservative. Being mostly of the faith, prayer attendance is high. The villagers, Arains, belong to one large clan. The victims and the perpetrators are related. Give them a religious cause and both the victims and perpetrators will happily perform their own version of auto-da-fé on whoever needs to be purged of his or her sins.
And yet, some among these very conservative people chose to commit these crimes. Corollary: bringing religion to bear on an issue that is all too human and requires a response here and now is an attempt to ignore other variables because a nuanced approach does not dovetail with the agenda of wresting from the people their freedoms.
There is no evidence to suggest that societies where rulers suppress such freedoms, whether in the name of religion or some other ideology, become any less ‘promiscuous’ in their thought, even as action might be curbed or underreported because of fear of harsh punishments. This is the same attitude we see with reference to alcohol. Drinking, because it is a sin, must also become a crime to be punished. Other societies consider this a personal act. People can drink but they cannot drive. In this view, drinking is not a crime but driving under the influence is. That makes eminent sense. One is about religion; the other about positive law.
Take the issue of filming a sexual act. Here it is prohibited because sexual indulgence outside of marriage and creating and watching porn are sins. And because they are sins, they must also be crimes. In societies where there is greater sexual freedom, the porn industry is allowed under the law but regulated to prevent exploitation and use of children. The argument that if sexual orientation must be accepted on the basis of sexual freedom of choice then pedophilia must also be allowed misses a major point. Unlike in other sexual acts involving adults, which—unless one party is forced—presume that both parties know what they are doing and the act is consensual, in pedophilia, one party, the child, cannot be expected to make an independent, informed decision. A child, therefore, cannot be subjected to the sexual orientation of an adult.
But this kind of debate is only possible if we can have a debate and where it is accepted that sexuality is a very important part of individual and collective life and its expression cannot necessarily be confined to a formal contract in the form of marriage. A debate would also necessitate acceptance of the fact that sexual relations out of wedlock are a reality, just as gay and lesbian relations are a reality, regardless of how conservative a society might be.
Only some decades ago, homosexuality was a crime even in many Western countries. People were disgraced and jailed or subjected to horrific treatments to cure them of what was described as an illness. The cases of Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing are just two of the many such instances. Societal attitudes were informed by conservatism and religion. But they changed, over time, when people began to think rationally and scientifically. Myths and prejudices still exist. But there is greater acceptance that some people may be different in their sexual orientation. A debate can only happen in the realm of rationality. Religion, in its expression and manifestation, is always self-referential. Faith is about acceptance, not debate.
But liberals too need to get the salient points of the debate right. This is not the first time children have been forced into performing sexual acts. This is a wide occurrence and some people and organizations have worked on the problem and gathered statistics. There is a problem of underreporting because in a conservative society, shame and loss of prestige are terribly important—and understandable—factors. We have seen this in rape cases.
But there’s another angle to this also. The perps sold these films on the market. They did not think anyone would have the courage to out them. They used the films not only to blackmail the victims but acted as entrepreneurs. The irony is that there is a terribly sleazy and dirty underground ‘porn industry’ in this country but watching porn is a crime here and one cannot even debate any solutions that involve putting it out in the open and regulating it. Why? Because in an Islamic republic, these things don’t happen even when they do. It is acceptable to practice hypocrisy than talk solutions by accepting reality.
Some liberals have also suggested that if we had sex education, Hussain Khanwallah would not have happened. While no one denies the importance of sex education, the correlation is empirically wrong. Pedophilia—child porn and exploitation of children—has happened and continues to happen in societies that allow sex education. But yes, those societies being open, there is more debate and reporting.
Conservative societies look better off not because there’s any less of this happening there but because there’s less reporting of it. A good example of this would be the ridiculous claim from former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during an appearance at Columbia in 2009. He asserted that there were no homosexuals in Iran.
The way I see it, there will be calls for exemplary punishment to the perps in this case. We might see them sentenced to death. Some we will hang by the neck until they die. All of which, given the mood, might be great. But nothing else will come of it because to do the rest needs debating and exploring this incident. That, in a religious society, is not possible. Having sentenced the perps, we will sleep happy, put the incident behind us and delude ourselves into thinking that this was an aberration.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider