One month after the Bacha Khan University attack and we are still stuck in selective empathy
Just a year after the Army Public School attack which shook the entire country to its core, prompting collective declarations of #NeverAgain, we are staring into the abyss yet again. It has been one month since another educational institution, Bacha Khan University was brutally targeted and another 21 precious lives were extinguished.
The state vows to bring the perpetrators to justice. Once again, our resilience is extolled as the nation’s highest virtue and we slowly begin to pick ourselves up one more time. We may soon recover; perhaps even find ourselves celebrating a successful military response to the enemy one day, signalling a brighter future ahead. But what will that matter to the families of the victims? As anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one knows, for them, the end is already here. There is no bright future.
Grief is a deeply personal emotion. Therefore, it can be dysfunctional to assume that everyone should feel the same way towards every event. But while it is difficult to bypass the barriers of human psychology, it is precisely this ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and empathise that makes us better human beings. We cannot ever physically feel the pinch of a person who has pricked his finger, but we can see the blood and understand that it probably hurts.
In the aftermath of the Charsadda attack, as was the case after the Peshawar Army Public School attack, there is definitely a sense of collective grief for the victims and their families. But another sentiment that often accompanies this grief is the failure of the outside world to live up to these same standards of empathy.
The deliberate targeting of defenceless young people seeking education from a university in Charsadda to better their lives is no less horrific than those killed for exercising the right of freedom of speech or enjoying a concert in Paris, incidents which outraged global leaders and the international media.
While world leaders joined millions of marchers in Paris to condemn the Charlie Hebdo shooting, while the international media went into a frenzy at the Paris attacks in November last year and while Facebook displayed the French flag as a background for profile pictures, nothing of the sort came out for this part of the world. Not when 147 students and teachers were shot brutally in Peshawar in the most cowardly and brutal terrorist attack the world may have seen in recent history. Not when hundreds die in Palestine every year, or when 2000 people were killed in Nigeria just days before the Charlie Hebdo shooting. The need to ask the world why it ignores certain tragedies is not to belittle others, but to demand, at least for appearance sake if nothing else, that every life be valued equally.
There is one entity that has probably played the biggest role in not just creating a bias towards certain groups, but also propagating it on a daily basis; mainstream media.
The Western media made 9/11 a part of the world’s collective vocabulary. As tragic as the loss of 3000 lives was, the event was used by the media to stereotype and ‘otherise’ Muslims in a manner similar to colonialist writers at the height of the British Empire.
Through its quality of coverage from conflict zones around the Muslim world, the international media advances a subtle idea on a daily basis; that violence in certain parts of the world is inevitable, even acceptable. Even the thorough coverage of the Gaza war in 2014, while projecting a sense of suffering, came nowhere close to the sense of collective shock displayed at the Paris attack.
We are also partly to be blamed for the bias in media coverage towards us. Jibran Nasir, lawyer and activist, argued that when extreme groups chant ‘death to America’ while mourning for Palestinian children, they forget that there are children in the United States too, and provide further fodder to international media.
Also, often in the aftermath of a national tragedy in Pakistan, opinions are so divisive, from blaming a foreign hand to claiming that the attackers were not even Muslims that we hardly see the spirit of unity that collective grief should evoke. The Charlie Hebdo attack in France brought out 3.7 million people on the streets as a gesture of solidarity. We cannot even agree on the very basics.
Apart from the international media, modern western scholarship has also helped disseminate ideas that ‘otherise’ the Muslim world. The famous Clash of Civilisations theory by Samuel Huntington advances the concept that an apocalyptic war between the East and the West is inevitable, because our values, culture and sense of identity are so different and non-negotiable. Such a theory lumps together all non-Westerners into one static and homogenous group, with one singular identity that clashes with all Western values. At one time, 9/11 was believed to be a manifestation of this theory.
Now, however, it is widely criticised for projecting the same us against them mentality of groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. It fails to appreciate not just the diversity of the Muslim world, but also the multiple identities that form an individual, who is not just a Muslim or a Pakistani, but also a student, or a farmer or a daily wage earner. It is precisely this failure to see a person as more than his religion or nationality that leads to discrimination and stereotyping and horrific events such as the Nazi Holocaust.
Social and political factors also play a role in increasing prejudices. The collective memory of a group against which atrocities have been committed by another, internalises that sense of injustice, turning enmity against the other group as part of its identity. This memory of suffering is also kept alive by leaders and educational institutions to further political agendas.
Regardless of a person’s natural affiliations, there should always be a basic condemnation for all innocent lives that are lost, Jibran Nasir said. People should refrain from adopting an extreme approach in which all identities are disregarded and a singular identity is given heightened emphasis, making it difficult for us to exercise our basic quality of being human.
This may be a difficult psychological battle, but one the world cannot afford to lose anymore. It starts with each parent, teacher, journalist and political leader, to foster qualities of empathy at a time when forces of extremism and prejudice are at an all-time high.
The Russian writer Vsevolod Garshin provides a great lesson for empathy in his short story Four Days. Being left for dead on the battlefield, a man is forced to stare at the corpse of an enemy he has just killed.
“He lies there dead and gory. What fate had cast him here? Who is he? Perhaps he, too, like me, has an old mother. How long will she sit on the doorstep of her squalid little clay hut in the evenings, looking northward to see whether her beloved son, her breadwinner and worker, is coming home?”