Our silence condemns only us
Six minarets falling to the ground should generate some tremors and cause a lot of noise. Yet the demolition of a mosque run by the Ahmadi sect in Kharian generated barely a murmur in this country. It seems as if the dust rising from the debris obscured our vision and collective conscience. This isn’t the first time-and this will not be the last. So should I even be wasting any energy on this injustice and the subsequent silence?
Sure, a state has an interest in ensuring public order. Particular use of religious symbols (defining these is of course tricky) can cause offence to a population and laws cannot be entirely divorced from such realities. But how much space are we willing to concede to those who claim offense? Where does this stop?
Our chosen religion or sect is more often an accident of birth so anyone of us could be at the mercy of mob mentality in this country. Pakistan’s treatment of its minorities damages the dignity of entire groups. Writing a piece in an English language newspaper is definitely not “the” panacea. But it is part of a series of efforts. There isn’t enough speech about these issues. The much celebrated judiciary’s deliberate stance and refusal to confront injustice against minorities, particularly Ahmadis, is reflective of the fact that this is an unpopular issue. Your vote bank, whatever it may be, will not like it.
The electronic media’s self-righteousness does not help. Like hatred filled textbooks, the electronic media pretends as if certain parts of our history do not exist. In many ways the textbooks now have an audio/visual guide. The electronic media has consistently refused to celebrate our only Nobel laureate; an Ahmadi. TV channels spend hours reporting the DPC rallies, threats by PTI to protest drones et al but little has been devoted to this latest injustice against Ahmadis, the systematic killings of Shias or the burning of one mentally challenged man by a raging mob in Bahawalpur.
This electronic media of ours that wastes no opportunity to remind us that it is promoting discourse on “important” issues is delusional at best and bigoted at worst. Injustices against Ahmadis and killings of Shias ranks low on issues that merit debate. These channels want you to believe that hasty legislation and activism of courts is more important to the promise of citizenship than stories of state and vigilante violence against the most vulnerable. They propagate the view that analysis of one statement by someone high and mighty affects our lives more than the violence perpetrated by militants.
Why should I stand such an insult to my intelligence? Half of these anchors have an understanding of politics even more limited than mine. Their understanding of the constitution is nearly non-existent. These anchors are sales people and most of the time they are desperate to sell. Maybe if they were less self-righteous, they would be more tolerable. Do we expect too much from them? Rational discourse would undermine a sensationalist media so why promote rational thought?
The deafening silence of the courts, media and politicians on the issue reveals only one answer: this issue is best left alone. But we the people need to take on these battles. So where do we fight them? In the courts or in the legislature? Maybe the answer is in both places. The general advice one gets is, “be cautious with such things.” The advice also says, wait till your time comes and then try to make an impact. But I have started wondering if the reason that none of us makes an impact, as far as improving minorities’ rights goes, is because we have been playing it safe for far too long. We keep waiting for our time and yet we know that the longer we wait the more difficult the climb. But can you really blame people when they choose to remain silent out of fears of physical harm? I do not have an answer to this question.
In many ways I, as a citizen, along with millions, have failed in being my brother’s keeper. My citizenship is threatened and insulted each time my representative institutions and allegedly impartial courts fail to protect my fellow citizens-merely because they have a different faith or sect. And don’t tell me faith doesn’t matter because it sure as death does. It decides your place and lately it often decides whether you get to live when armed militants stop your bus. When I discussed with a friend whether we should litigate for minorities’ rights I was told, “You might have a better chance of survival if a bus hits you at 100 km/hour.” Another opinion: “Litigate for women’s rights. They are a safer bet with a lesser probability of armed men coming for you.”
Hours after these conversations I got an email from my only Pakistani classmate at Harvard. She lives in Lahore now. Armed men broke into her house and held her entire family at gunpoint-and then the dacoits decided to start shooting people. Her uncle was shot in the shoulder and her cousin lost two fingers after gun shots to her hand. A police shootout with the dacoits followed and my friend was left standing in a pool of blood in her living room-with five dead bodies and blood all over the walls. And I know these and worse things happen to many Pakistanis every day. Next morning-with a typically brave face-she drove to court to assist with litigating a rape case.
The week got worse. A bomb blast in Quetta, killings in Karachi, terrorists gunning down policemen and soldiers in Lahore and Wazirabad. Ahmadi mosque demolished in Kharian. And I sit here and wonder; in a country where my security is at the mercy of armed fanatics and desperate dacoits anyway, is it worth playing it safe anymore? What is “normal” in this society? What does it say about a society when most people tell you to remain at a safe distance from pressing issues? What then is the point of, what Plato and others called, a polis?
Meanwhile, a grinning bearded fellow on TV tells me that Ramazan is arriving. In the past, guests on his show have endorsed murder of Ahmadis. There was no meaningful dissent by the host. Pakistan’s largest media house endorses him. And he endorses a cooking oil. Yes, Ramazan is arriving. May the faithful find their peace!