Looking in the mirror

December 20, 2015

For those whom we can still save

Looking in the mirror

We will never forget the tragedy of Peshawar -- but we can learn from it. Similarly, those who lived through it and those aware of it will never forget the injustices perpetrated in our name against present day Bangladesh -- but we can learn from it.

The brutality perpetrated by our enemies in Peshawar and elsewhere has hurt us immeasurably. Every single story of those who perished breaks your heart. These were lives full of promise and vigour. Every face represented joy for the families of the deceased. The same reasoning must apply to all Pakistanis who suffer violence. Our mourning cannot be selective in this situation for we must mourn violence in all its manifestations.

This violence which we now claim to be fighting is not going to go away soon. It has fundamentally changed us. It is embedded in our language and thought. Hashtags like #NeverForgive lead us to believe that any counter-attack, even if it results in the death of our own principles, is legitimate.

But Peshawar did not happen because we did not have enough guns or bombs. It could not have been avoided by more secret trials and dispensation of justice away from the public eye.

The violence of Peshawar is based on a particular mindset and discourse which we have done very little to counter. None of this is meant to undermine the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line -- be it the police or the armed forces. But we cannot use our soldiers and their sacrifices to evade a larger responsibility of countering discourses of exclusion and violence. There is a harder and larger battle here which remains. Our enemies are winning that with their propaganda and we have not done enough to engage with the mindset to change narratives of hate.

As we mourn Peshawar and the tens of thousands of lives we have lost, we must take a look in the mirror. Is it our frustration and anger at failure to protect our own that is generating the violence we continue to call for?

Violence cannot be defeated by more violence. The only enduring remedy is to change the mindset that proves fertile ground for recruitment of young minds for the cause of bigotry. This bigotry remains evident in Pakistan. We will be doing a disservice to the memory of those we lost in Peshawar and across Pakistan if we are myopic in our response -- to some extent this is already painfully evident. The rhetoric of unity is ridiculous when our society is carving out more and more exclusions each day -- Sunni, Shia, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Ahmadi etc.

During the past week, Lahore saw two significant demonstrations: one in favour of Mumtaz Qadri and the other at Hafeez Centre, the latter calling for Ahmadis to be identified by visible marks. One would think we live in Nazi Germany where Jews were treated with complete disregard for humanity and human dignity. And the scary thing is that many in Pakistan would see nothing wrong with such institutionalised discrimination. In this space before I have made a case for adopting new standards when dealing with hate speech; so yes posters outside Hafeez Centre pouring hatred against Ahmadis present a difficult issue. As per my own argument such posters, unless they create a real and present danger of immediate violence, should not result in criminal action. But that is not the law in Pakistan. However, even if one accepts my argument there is a remedy: changing the discourse has little to do with criminalising speech and everything to do with countering that with speech that speaks up in favour of those persecuted -- whether a minority or otherwise. The solution does not lie in throwing people who support bigotry in jail. The solution lies in ordinary people and the government putting up posters in the same area and emphasising the virtues of pluralism and non-discrimination.

There is an irony at play here. Speech is extremely free when it is targeted at unpopular minorities. But speech that does not fit well with state-backed narratives of exclusion or intimidation is imperiled -- it costs people their lives. So the supporters of Mumtaz Qadri are free to march down Mall Road while celebrating his action but those who speak up for unpopular causes fear for their physical safety when planning such things. And they cannot be certain that the state will or, even, can protect them.

Perhaps the biggest advantage that comes with age, at least to my mind, is the realisation that time is finite. That our time here is limited and we must be doing things that are meaningful. In this respect, one realisation that I have had is that hate is simply inefficient as a solution in any situation. It does not achieve anything as a response to the problems we face. Those who believe in hate will continue to do so but we need not respond to that with more hate or violence.

Our solution has to be different: one based on engagement. While our posters call for elimination of terrorists, it is sad to note how easily each country forgets the obvious: terrorism is not an army or a state with a flag. We cannot eliminate it by killing those who believe in it. It is based on an ideology and that continues to live even in jail cells; it continues to breathe in torture chambers or death cells.

This hatred and insular worldview also characterises the popular narratives in Pakistan regarding Bangladesh. It is no secret that crimes of oppression were committed in our name leading up to and during 1971. Scholars question the extent to which successive governments in Bangladesh have estimated loss of life but that is an issue for Bangladesh to resolve. How does that take away from us our responsibility to feel ashamed at what happened? Granted there are many in Bangladesh with pure contempt for Pakistan -- and that again does not make sense to me -- but so be it. We must put our own house in order. Someone else’s hatred for us will end up consuming them -- that is how jealousy and hatred works. The international community and public intellectuals within Bangladesh will question the injustices, if any, perpetrated through show-trials. But we must not avoid our own responsibility by pointing out the hollow stances that some in Bangladesh take. We must be better than that.

As we mourn Peshawar and the tens of thousands of lives we have lost, we must take a look in the mirror. Is it our frustration and anger at failure to protect our own that is generating the violence we continue to call for? If so, that is only human -- but we must look beyond our immediate instincts. For Peshawar, for more than 50,000 Pakistanis who have perished. And for those whom we can still save.

Looking in the mirror