An Urdu poem on silence of intellectuals on genocides
In Pakistan, at times one feels the need to check oneself and restrain the use of hyperbole and absolutisms; I personally am particularly prone to this tendency. Yet, some days are easy and have little room for shallow nuances and complexities. People were offloaded from buses, their sectarian affiliations ascertained from their identification cards, and people belonging to one sect lead aside, lined up and shot dead on the side of a highway. Tired clichés and grotesque historical parallels are impossible to avoid. It is one of those incidents where the number of people killed is secondary to the undiluted and absolute evil of it. This is as simple and hideous as it gets. Though, not for everyone it seems, the condemnations took a while coming, and did not come at all from some quarters. If this does not interrupt and enrage you, then you are not made to be bothered by this stuff.
In the exquisite movie, “Chariots of Fire”, Harold Abrahams said that with anti-Semitism you catch it “at the edge of a remark”. In our case also, the language used to describe or refer to violence, often gives away much more than is consciously intended. When the Taliban blow up hospitals and girl schools, the prefix ‘western’ before civilisation is unnecessary, to describe the subject of their outrage. In a slightly different context, the prefix ‘female’ lobbed in before pilot or film-maker is in most cases redundant and indicative of underlying chauvinism. Remaining with the trope, a prefix omitted before many who are murdered is ‘Shia’. Those murdered in Kohistan wereclinically executed for no other reason but the fact that they were Shia, it would seem intuitive that it is mentioned at the outset.
The Shia Muslims are being systematically murdered in Pakistan. Use the word ‘genocide’ and people would begin to protest and bring forth the dustiest of legal definitions. ‘Ethnic cleansing’ is slightly less contentious and is now occasionally being used in the case of the Hazara and other Shia. Reflect on the full import of the term for a moment, it has the implication that some people are merely filth and murder is a way to cleanse the impurity. Repulsive thoughts; are they not, but this is the mindset that is plainly looking us in the face. It is not ‘sectarian strife’ or ‘conflict’, since that would presume the existence of at least two parties with a semblance of parity. The euphemisms would be silly and disingenuous at all times, but what makes them wicked is that it is either fear or prejudice which leads to their usage. To admit or be open to the possibility that the Shia are being slaughtered through an orchestrated scheme, in a country with the second-highest Shia population in the world is to be open to the realisation of just how deep the rot has spread.
Most days here are busy news days amidst memos, corruption scandals and Supreme Court etc., yet is it too much to ask that the media and the ‘public intellectuals’ keep at least some of their powder of contempt and anger dry for the Shia being massacred, or at the very least begin calling it by its right name. Neutrality is often an overrated virtue, if it is a virtue at all, and in the case of mass murder, it becomes cowardice and complicity. Most major religious parties consider the Shia as infidels or heretic, even if they do it under their breath to make it palatable. And we know too well, what the faithful propose to do with, or to the infidels. The argument that one has other areas of interest or expertise on different matters to focus on and hence, will decide to sit this one out is rubbish. One cannot let oneself off the elementary task of condemning the butchering of fellow citizens; it does not require any special knowledge. The pretence of looking at this matter academically and objectively and not picking sides etc. is in most cases more infuriating than a straight out, shameful and stone faced denial, at least with that we know what side somebody is on. This is ‘us’ versus ‘them’, I refuse to be lumped in an orgy of oneness with these barbarians, notwithstanding whimpers of smugness, generalisation etc.
I cannot possibly improve on Mustafa Zaidi’s rendition of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil and apathy of the intelligentsia when he writes beautifully about Karbala, so I will directly quote him (Urdu and its English translation side-by-side):
(“Remember Germany’s Auschwitz and Japan’s Hiroshima/ Who was there to hear their dying shrieks? They had millions of friends/ Yet for them, the tragedy was worth nothing more than academic discussions/ Concealed from everyone except their own intelligence/ All Jaspers, Makros and Sartres were silent/ This civilised silence is more heinous than any other crime/ The wicked laughter of the murderer pales into insignificance before it/ The murderers might be deserving of forgiveness, they had no choice/ Why were us who were friends deaf to conscience”.)
The sheer moral case for unequivocally speaking out and fighting this rampage of murder of Shias is relatively basic and in my view unimpeachable. Even then, if an additional reason is required, let me make this pathetic appeal to our self-interest. They will not stop at the Shia, or anyone in particular for that matter. Our silence will not be rewarded by amnesty unless, of course, we actively join them in murder.
It did not work in Germany or in Rwanda, and it does not work anywhere. With each killing, there is one less to get to you, this is admittedly hyperbole, yet necessary. Sometimes it is said that the terrifying thing about tyrannies is not that they want us to obey them only, but to agree with them. John Donne’s words have some prescience here, “… Therefore send not to know/for whom the Bell tolls/it tolls for thee”.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 4th, 2012.