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Being different is not being wicked

Recognising that the state, its structure and institutions, political decisions, internal and external policy options, governance and rule of law, economic circumstances, and power struggles for a bigger slice in a shrinking pie all lay the basis for a fragmented country, let us also examine how we as a society and as citizens — individuals and in groups — behave when dealing with difference – of any kind.

We are born different. We can’t change our parents, the language or languages they speak, and hence we speak, the social community to which they belong, the racial, ethnic and linguistic identity they subscribe to, or which are imposed upon them by some more powerful external agents including the politics of their times, and the time and place of our birth. There is some possibility of changing our social class through better education, smart entrepreneurship or simply by sheer manipulation of overall conditions to our benefit.

However, most people in our country continue to remain, for generations, in the same social class they are born in. When it comes to faith, there is a far less possibility of changing the belief system in which we are born. In a way, it is also a given and stays with us for the rest of our lives even if we choose not to practise all the prescribed rituals that come with it. Due to stringent cultural practices emphasised by the elders in the family and community and the social and intellectual regimentation enforced by the clerics of whichever faith we are born in, there is also a threat to life and property if one were to even begin to think about that.

It was a little easier to switch sects or spiritual allegiances within a religious order until some time back. That too is not easy anymore. So we eventually remain within the folds of the sect and school of thought into which we are born. On top of it all, in a semi-literate and sentimental society, people have little capacity to reflect on the ideas and beliefs they are made to espouse or are indoctrinated with from the time of their childhoods.

Therefore, largely our race, ethnicity, language, class and faith stay with us like our skin complexion, facial features, tone of voice and colour of pupils. In this case the ludicrousness of my fighting someone on the basis of him being fairer than I am, having higher cheek bones, speaking in a different language to his mother and going to a different place of worship will be clearly equal to a ten-year-old who has learnt to reason things out.

However, in societies like ours, the Pakistan we see in 2013, where the powers that be have long encouraged that reason must be kept subservient to primordial norms and history must remain compliant with the beliefs we espouse, resorting to violence by different individuals, groups and forces is the only way to establish that they are right and others are wrong.

Let us view the ethnic divides in Pakistan. What bothers me the least is the articulation of political differences, the struggle for equal access to resources and economic rights, the demand for fair share in political power and the desire to promote and develop different languages spoken in the country.

What is troublesome and breeds hatred is the characterisation of the other group as racially, biologically, culturally and linguistically inferior or evil-minded. Here, it is terribly unfortunate to observe that the most educated among us harbour such theories; I find the Pakistani affluent middle class to be the most prejudiced.

The rest of the people follow the educated and the affluent in their community and translate this hatred into spilling blood. For God’s sake, Pakhtuns are not born brainless and violent, Sindhis are not born intriguers and conspirators, Seraikis are not born lazy, Baloch do not have spikes on their backs and Punjabis are not born mischievous. It is the political and social circumstances that make the elites and the communities following them fight over issues of purely political nature. Some may be right, some wrong in a particular instance.

If these ethnic generalisations were correct at all, the ‘cowardly’ Bengalis would not have made the so-called ‘martial races’ of West Pakistan bow down on their knees. My two-and-a-half-year old daughter, who is somewhat lucky to be growing in a multilingual environment, was asked by a friend the other day in Urdu, “Waise tumhari apni zaban kaunsi hai?” (What is your real tongue — we have the same word for language and tongue in Urdu). So she said, without thinking at all, “Meri zaban to pink haiy” (My tongue is pink).

The simple, innocent answer of a toddler explains it all. All our tongues are pink. It is political circumstances and social conditioning that tend to make us grow apart. Besides, as a Malaysian poet Cecil Rajendra puts it, “To a man who is hungry/A bowl of rice in any language/Is a bowl of rice.”

While we are divided on ethnic lines, we are also increasingly being divided on religious lines. I do not see enough reason to either hold one institution responsible for religious and sectarian hatred or see a foreign hand in all our ills. As we stand today, we are a deeply divided society. Debating how the communal partition of British India eventually brought us to the state we are in may well be plausible but does not serve the purpose today.

Countries and nations learn from their past and move forward. The divide is not just limited to Muslims and non-Muslims, Christian or Hindu minorities in Pakistan, Muslims and non-Muslim minorities, Shia and Sunni, Asna Ashari Shias and Ismailis. What were previously schools of thought within the larger sect have now clearly become sub-sects over the past twenty years. What is disconcerting is not the violence perpetuated by extremists in the name of supremacy of their faith or sect, it is the legitimacy for such violence among so many who supposedly constitute the silent majority.

Undeniably, there were vested interests, ranging from those of our own establishment and intelligence agencies to foreign powers – both so-called brotherly Muslim countries and the not-so-brotherly western powers – but regrettably a large number of Pakistani Muslims see these differences as something they can’t live with. The differences have either to be eliminated or those different to be completely subjugated.

For Pakistani Muslims, belonging to and believing in any sect or school of thought, there is so much to learn from some of their own religious scholars of the past. But, as said before, history is either not taught to our children and young people or is completely distorted by bigoted exclusionists who are having a field day in Pakistan. Who will then remind us of the Charter of Medina drawn up and promulgated by the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) himself?

From our own South Asian history, who will remind us what Maulana Abul Kalaam Azad wrote in his essay about Sufi Sarmad Shaheed who followed a completely different religious doctrine from what Maulana Azad believed in? How will we be reminded of the writings of Syed Ameer Ali and his objective analysis of the initial history of Muslims while challenging some of the long-held beliefs in his own sect? Why would someone speak of Maulana Hasrat Mohani, Maulvi Barkatullah and Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi who thought socialism was the real manifestation of the just and egalitarian economic system Islam stands for?

What we have to learn and practise today is that being different does not translate into being wicked. And above all, the interests of the country and society in which we live must be paramount. We cannot continue to serve the interests of other countries.

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.Email: harris.khalique@gmail.com

Harris Khalique, "Being different is not being wicked," The News. 2013-11-20.
Keywords: Social sciences , Religious issues , Social issues , Social policy , Social needs , Education , Violence , Christians , Muslims , Politics , Islam , Sunni , Shia , Maulana Hasrat Mohani , Maulana Obaidullah , Syed Ameer Ali , Abul Kalaam Azad , Pakistan