Pakistan. A country of just over 300,000 square miles of the harshest, most squalid terrain this planet has to offer.
Pakistan. A country of more than 200 million desperate souls, the vast majority of them living hand to mouth.
Pakistan. A country whose name is commonly translated as ‘land of the pure’, although ‘holy place’ is a more accurate translation. ‘Pak’ is a Persian word meaning holy or pure, and ‘istan’ comes from the Hindi/Sanskrit word ‘isthan’ meaning ‘place’. In other words, the place is the thing that is pure, not the inhabitants of that place. Unfortunately, as we all know, it can be argued all too easily that the inhabitants of Pakistan are far from purity.
Others say Pakistan is an acronym derived from the first letters of the geographical regions involved: Punjab, Afghan (the North-West frontier region), Kashmir, Indus, and Sind, with the ‘tan’ said to represent Baluchistan. Some say the ‘i’ in Pakistan is for ‘Islam’ rather than ‘Indus’. God knows best.
Whatever the meaning, Pakistan is always in the news, and usually for crimes of unimaginable horror. The most recent atrocity involves 45 Shia Muslims who were gunned down so publicly and so mercilessly.
Just before this tragedy took place, you had the assassination of human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud. Her death has been linked to the Pakistani army’s alleged involvement in the torture and killing of political activists in restive Baluchistan.
Mahmud’s killing reminded me of the death of Zahra Shahid Hussain, founding member & vice–president of Movement For Justice, Imran Khan’s political party. Hussain was assassinated in May 2013 outside her home in Karachi. After her death a famous quote of hers began doing the rounds on the internet, a quote whose words are still so hauntingly pertinent:
I long for a land where one can find food and shelter and be free to dream one’s dream. A land where men can work and earn and be. And women can hold their heads up and walk without fear and smile. A land where children can laugh and learn and play…and the tyranny of the few does not oppress the many, and justice is swift, simple and sure. I long for a land free from the stench of corruption and the greed of empty parasitic shells pasturing as leaders. I long for enough to long as I long…I long for enough to long as I long…To turn my land into such a wonder.
This longing that we all share seems a long way away, something echoed by the great writer Ahmed Rashid, in an article written last month entitled The Fierce Pressures Facing Pakistan…well worth reading.
Several months ago my wife and I watched a harrowing documentary about mass child exploitation in Pakistan called Pakistan’s Hidden Shame. The experience left us angry, numb, and heart broken.
Another documentary well worth watching is Saving Face (2012). This documentary is about the hundreds of people every year who are attacked by acid in Pakistan, most of them women. Saving Face has won the only Academy Award Pakistan has ever had, a bitter sweet victory indeed.
Whilst the list of negative stories goes on and on occasionally, very occasionally, you do get good news stories coming through about Pakistan, stories about Chinese investment for a superhighway, the so called ‘Silk Road’, or stories about Pakistan’s booming billion dollar fashion industry, or stories entitled 9 Good Things Happened This Week In Pakistan.
To somewhat counteract the Ahmed Rashid article mentioned earlier, here is an article by Akbar Ahmed entitled 5 Things Americans Need To Know About Pakistan…again well worth reading.
For me, the current condition of Pakistan is summed up succinctly in the following quote from Imam Ibn Taymiyyah:
God upholds a just state even if it is non-believing, but does not uphold an unjust state even if it is believing.
The quote is taken from The Islamic Vision Of Development by Muhammad Umer Chapra. With this in mind, think about the UK and Pakistan. Here in the UK if you were to kick your neighbour’s dog you would probably be arrested in a matter of hours. Over in Pakistan, you could murder people in broad daylight and get away with it. A work colleague of mine went to Pakistan a few years ago for a family wedding. His brother was mugged and shot in the street, left for dead. As far as I am aware, to this day there has been no justice. Here in the UK they may not have any faith but they have justice, whereas in Pakistan they claim (dubiously) to have faith but clearly justice cannot be found.
Another work colleague of mine made the following observations, some of which I agree with, others I perhaps do not…
First they came for the Ahmedis.
Brutal perhaps, but that’s okay, because we know Ahmedis aren’t ‘real’ Pakistanis anyway. After all, I’m a real Muslim unlike them, so why would I care?
Then they came for the Shias. Brutal perhaps, but that’s okay, because we know Shias aren’t ‘real’ Pakistanis anyway. After all, I’m a Sunni, a real Muslim unlike them, so why would I care?
Then they came for the journalists and politicians speaking out against the blasphemy laws. Brutal perhaps, but that’s okay, because we know these secular/non-Muslim journalists and politicians aren’t ‘real’ Pakistanis anyway. After all, I love the Prophet more than anything else, making me a real Muslim unlike them, so why would I care?
Then they came for the Christians. But that’s okay, because we know Christians aren’t ‘real’ Pakistanis anyway. After all, I’m a Muslim unlike them, so why would I care?
Then they came for Malala. Brutal perhaps, but that’s okay, because we know this western stooge giving Pakistan, and therefore Islam, a bad image isn’t a ‘real’ Pakistani anyway. After all, say it with me: I am not Malala! I am a real Muslim!
Then they came for the children in a Pak Army school. But that’s okay, because they are not real Pakista- oh, wait.
What just happened? How could this happen?
Pakistan styles itself proudly as the great garrison state, and yet the very first line of defence above, and second, and third, and fourth, and so on, ad nauseum … have long been reduced to rubble. The real enemy has long laid siege to it, beleaguered its people, and blown cavernous holes through its walls. Too many of us folks inside did not take much notice of these holes until our own children were hit en masse, not least because we were too distracted by the ‘real’ Line Of Defence over there on that side.
Pakistan is also home to a deep and creative underground thread of talent that has woven itself into existence despite the corruption and statism of the overground overlords. Here there is so much to be proud of, as no-one is discriminated against with elusive crimes for not being a ‘real’ Pakistani. Here the unconditional defence of minorities, religious or otherwise, is recognised as the first line of defence, and the aspiration for liberty is cherished and appreciated in a way that has been forgotten elsewhere.
Pakistan was forged by minorities for minorities to be free and equal, away from the caste-minded mob. We escaped the Hindu caste system only to allow the scaffolding to go up for one of our own making: a ‘real’ Pakistani is measured by what religious garb he feigns to wear. And the Taliban have taken full advantage of this with shocking results, reigning destruction at will. But the ‘real’ Pakistani is a unicorn. There is no such thing, never has been, and never will be. Should the first line of defence fall, then we all fall together. We fall to that singular minority of Muslims who respond to words with violence, principally against non-violent minorities as a way of intimidating the rest, including a cowed army and government.
The Taliban will not be satisfied to stop at minorities. They will keep coming for the intellectuals, the cultured, the progressives, the cosmopolitans, the teachers, the creatives, the artists, the musicians, the writers, the performers, the opinionated and not-so-opinionated. And yes, the Taliban will come for schoolchildren – yet again. They will tread on the infirm, whether physical or mental. They will persecute the transgenders and the homosexuals. They will subjugate women without remorse. And then the Taliban will turn on the very intellectual cowards that praised them from within Pakistan, and their minted PhDs will not save them, because there will be no-one left to speak out for them. How do we know this? Because the Taliban have done all this before, and they very much mean to do it again. They are past masters of the art of post-hoc rationalisation for their inhumanity.
But we also know what the Taliban deeply fear. And herein lies hope for all our children. The journalist Maheen Usmani said after the Peshawar massacre: “Beware of dissembling, distortion & hijacking of narrative by Taliban apologists. Do not fall into their trap.” Indeed, to stop the Taliban and their apologists, we can begin by recognising that they do not care who or what a ‘real’ Pakistani is. If we want others to speak out for us in time, neither should any of us.
Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the desire to persist despite it.
There is still hope for the future of our children. The permanence of our strength against the Taliban will come via the strength of our compassion for each other, our many and diverse minorities, and not with just a little courage.