“They came first for the Communists I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. "Then they came for the Jews And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. "Then they came for the trade unionists And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
"Then they came for me And by that time no one was left to speak up.”
Today, I was reminded painfully of the lines above. I watched in horror as scores of Ahmadis were gunned down mercilessly in their places of worship. Lahore was under siege. There were mindless bloodbaths in Model Town and Garhi Shahu where members of the Ahmadi community were butchered as they said their Friday prayers. Their only fault: a difference of belief.
Today, I write these lines with the burden of conscience lying heavy on my soul. For the past few months I was getting phone calls from desperate members of the Ahmadi community who were requesting me to write about their plight and their impending doom. At a conference last week, I was approached by one of them who gave me materials documenting atrocities against his community. I saw a desperate plea in his eyes as he asked me to tell the world about threats to their lives. The pangs of guilt and remorse are intense today because thought I kept planning to, I had not yet picked up my pen.
Lahore was a sleepy little town when I was growing up. Garhi Shahu is close to the Convent of Jesus and Mary where I went to school, and where we were taught about equality, love, tolerance and justice for all humankind. I realised with painful agony what it means to remain silent. To these murderers we are all condemned groups. Next they will come for Christians, then Parsis, then Hindus, then women, Marxists, socialists, feminists — in short for anyone who disagrees with their version of the truth.
A state protects all its citizens as its foremost duty in the social contract. Yet, it is the second amendment in our constitution that seeks to exclude people. It is our constitution that differentiates between citizens despite declaring all citizens equal before law. Our social contract even chooses to define who is and is not a Muslim. Our bureaucratic procedures further reinforce such prejudices by forcing our citizens to demean the Ahmadis, or else we will not be issued our passports! This is the worst kind of hate speech, for it is inscribed on the state with official approval.
I write with a heavy heart for we as a nation have lost our way. Today, religious prejudice and bigotry are not only a part of our official procedures or imposed by an exclusionary state; they surround us in all our interactions from the most personal to the political, from the private to the public.
It is not enough to say that the culprits should be apprehended and brought to book. It is not enough to say that our laws and policies need to be reviewed and overhauled. These are all important but we need to do much more. We need to change the media where bigotry has become an art form; we need to change our curriculum where hate is integral to our understanding of those who are different. We need changes all the way from our families and communities, our places of worship to our official structures and systems to root out the ugliness within us. We need to confront the monster within so that our innocent fellow-citizens are not condemned to death for no fault other than a difference of belief.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 30, 2010.
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