Thursday May 26, 2022

A taste of death

May 12, 2016

The writer is a freelance columnist

and former newspaper editor.


A long with Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and the other increasingly commercialised and, consequently, increasingly meaningless days that clutter our calendar, perhaps we should add a day to mark death. All the appropriate symbols could be marketed: black armbands, wreaths of flowers and perhaps carefully worded cards. And some way could be found to bring people into cafes, perhaps by offering tables draped in mourning colours. We have found ways to sell even the most unlikely of religious occasions, such as Good Friday, sometimes with startling insensitivity. It should not be too hard to find a way to sell death. Certainly, it would make things far simpler. Over the past few weeks, we have marked one death anniversary after the other, trying to think of appropriate things to say, to write and to think. Three years ago, in March 2013, social activist Perween Rahman was killed in Karachi. Her murder remains unsolved. At the end of April of last year, the immensely courageous Sabeen Mahmud was gunned down. In early May, 2015, the soft-spoken Multan- based advocate and activist Rashed Rehman, then defending a university lecturer accused of blasphemy, was slain. And this year, another activist, Khurram Zaki, who founded the website ‘Let Us Build Pakistan’ and who promoted tolerance in religious matters was shot dead in Karachi. There are others too, killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and other places. In some cases, the murders seem to have been deliberately downplayed; in others, we have simply forgotten. After all, how many candles are we to light? How many shrines can we preserve? Eventually the flames will flicker away, especially as each year brings with it new gruesome deaths and leaves behind more memories of people who tried, in one way or another, to make their country a better place by saying what they believe. The question we need to ask is, who will die next? Who stands in the crosshair of the assassin’s guns? It could be anyone, anywhere, who chooses to speak out or to agitate for something that they believe is important. Our state has failed to grant security to its people and by doing so, it has made the efforts to impose silence stronger. These efforts come from many groups, including those who believe in sectarian causes, extremists following other ideologies and, in some cases, gangs of criminals who may be acting to hide illegal doings. The situation is an immensely grave one. We need to understand that the greater the silence, the greater the risk of things going wrong and no one daring to speak out about them. Certainly, fewer and fewer are willing to speak, write or make films now. Those who do have already received warnings that they could be next on the death list. We could find ourselves lighting candles for others too – perhaps until we set something alight. When activists and people who struggle for something they believe in are removed from the scene, a black hole is created in society – a hole in which nothing exists and which draws in and destroys all that is good. We are seeing this happen already. Many of us no longer speak out in public on matters that have been labelled as ‘controversial’ or ‘sensitive’. We fear the reaction if we do so, and the growing number of graves appearing across the country for those who have been killed after they chose to speak out goes a long way to explain why this would appear to be a logical decision. The problem is that we need people to speak. We need more voices to be raised against bigotry, extremism and other trends that are ripping our country apart. When people who opt to do so are removed violently from the scene, we are left with a weaker society – one that is less able to defend itself against the threats that it faces. This, of course, is the aim of the killers and right now, it would appear that they are succeeding to a frightening extent. What we call civil society cannot win on its own against them. A combined front is needed. Among those who stand as a part of this front could be the state security forces, backed by the state itself, the media, and those who determine the syllabi of schools and clerics. We need to bring forward religious leaders ready to voice more rational opinions. Ideally, perhaps, religion should not play any part in the workings of the state. But in ours it does and this has been the case now for decades. It is necessary to change things step by step, and one initial step would be to introduce more tolerant interpretations of religion to wider audiences, using edicts and texts from centres of Islamic learning such as the Al-Azhar University in Cairo – the premier centre of Sunni Islam in the world. Its scholars regularly put out a sensible, rational view of the world. It seems extraordinary that given our situation, we hear so little of what they have to say, even as the worldview of Islamic State and other such organisations is disseminated widely through all kinds of means, including CDs and social media. An answer to this conundrum needs to be found. But if things remain as they are right now, no one will be ready to step forward with those answers. It is thought that Khurram Zaki may have been killed because he was among those who had opposed Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz. While Abdul Aziz remains free to preach from his powerful niche in Islamabad, Zaki is dead. There is one less voice to speak out. We may not agree entirely with what people like Zaki say, but surely we agree that they deserve the right to express their views, and everyone else has the right to decide to what degree they believe them to be correct. As silence takes a hold like the silence that hangs over graveyards, we are in fact snuffing out the right to think, the right to reason. When voices that offer divergent views are extinguished, we have less diversity of opinion. It is the duty of governments to ensure that this diversity exists. If it does not, the problems that we are facing now will become larger – and it appears we have fewer and fewer left to fight them back. This is something to think about. Right now, we seem to be seeing a victory for death. If this continues, there will come a time when there is no one left to speak out, no one left to fight back and the grip of extremist ideas will grow firmer as a result – perhaps strangling the life out of a society that has already been so terribly brutalised that it seems to no longer understand the risk if the current trends continue. These risks need to be recognised, so that they can be challenged and then addressed. We are doing nothing to address them right now. Mourning the dead is not sufficient. In fact, it exposes our weaknesses at a time when enormous strength is needed. Email: