We are told from childhood onwards that all will be well, that everything always works out for the best. It doesn’t. Bad things happen and sometimes never get fixed. Lives get destroyed and never get restored. Nations fall apart and are scattered to the winds.
This column starts on a pessimistic note because I look around and I see a country bent upon committing suicide. We are under attack. Barely a day goes by without Pakistanis getting killed through terrible acts of violence. And yet, the will to fight back is missing.
As I write these words on Ashura (Sunday, November 25), word has come in that earlier today, three people were killed in a blast targeting a Muharram procession in Dera Ismail Khan. This follows the 10 people killed in DI Khan a day earlier, the abortive suicide attack on an Imam Bargah in Lakki Marwat on Friday, the 37 people killed via multiple attacks in Karachi, Rawalpindi and Quetta on Thursday, and the three people killed in Karachi’s Orangi Town a week ago. But for the heroism of the Karachi police, which successfully defused two bombs, and the equally valiant Peshawar police, which managed not only to defuse a bomb but also to thwart a suicide bombing, Pakistan would probably have lost more than a hundred citizens this past week.
My point is very simple: the killing of Shias is neither an aberration nor unprecedented. It is the direct and intended outcome of a campaign by people who also call themselves Muslims, not a malign conspiracy by the West, the Jews, the Indians or aliens from outer space.
Yes, it is true that we have enemies and that those enemies may be exploiting our divisions. But even if that is the case, the fundamental flaw remains ours. More importantly, getting rid of our enemies will not get rid of our internal hatreds: we are the only ones who can heal our wounds.
The clearest precedent for what is happening in Pakistan today is what happened in Iraq. After the US invaded and destroyed the political infrastructure of that country, multiple fundamentalist groups sought to take over Iraq. Al Qaeda’s man on the ground was Abu Musab al Zarqawi and he deliberately sought both to attack the Americans and to marginalise the Shias.
Between 2003 and 2006, al Zarqawi was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Shias. The attacks on Shias included the car bombings on shrines in March 2004 which killed 180 people and the attacks on the city of Najaf in December 2004 (which killed 60). Despite all the killings, Zarqawi failed in his quest to destroy the Shias of Iraq. He failed, in fact, because the killings backfired. Sickened by the carnage, the tribal leaders of Sunni Iraqis came together, first in the province of Anbar and then across Iraq to reject sectarian violence and embrace peace.
As I look around Pakistan today, I see no signs of an equivalent realisation or even an equivalent moment of national revulsion. The majority of this country does not believe itself to be under threat as yet. For them, all violence is either inexplicable (“How could anyone do something like this?”) or the result of a foreign hand.
The truth is that terrorism against Shias in Pakistan is neither inexplicable nor imported. The people who are killing Shias are not hiding their lights behind a bushel; they are proclaiming their deeds through every means possible. Why then do we refuse to face up to this fact?
Part of the answer comes to us from a famous psychology experiment carried out by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. In the experiment, a group of volunteers were told to watch a five-minute video of a basketball game and asked to count the number of passes made by one team. Midway through the video, a woman dressed in a gorilla suit enters the court and jumps up and down before exiting.
One would expect the entry of a gorilla into a basketball game to be observed by just about everyone. But in actual fact, half the volunteers never saw the gorilla because they were too busy counting passes. In his book, Kahneman summarises the conclusion of the experiment as follows: “We are blind to the obvious. And we are blind to our blindness.”
I don’t have a full answer as to why Pakistan’s decision-makers refuse to acknowledge the fact that we are at war with ourselves. Part of the answer is that like the people counting basketball passes, they are too busy plotting their next move into the corridors of power to notice the consequences of their actions. They assume instead that things will always go on as before, and that we will somehow muddle through.
Which in turn brings me to where we started from: things don’t always work out. I know the old saying that there is a lot of ruin in a nation but in all seriousness, how much ruin is left in us? It is anybody’s guess today as to whether we will run out of ruin and collapse or avoid that fate by mustering the collective strength to reject sectarian hatred.
I want to end this column with a tribute to Ardeshir Cowasjee. I have narrated this anecdote before so bear with me if you’ve already heard it.
Many years ago, Ardeshir wrote a column in which he accused judges of being corrupt. The Supreme Court of that era was roused to fury and promptly issued a contempt notice. However, when Ardeshir appeared, he refused to be cowed down and pleaded truth as a defence. The matter was then promptly adjourned.
A few years later, Ardeshir bumped into one of the judges involved at a human rights function. The judge, now forcibly retired by Musharraf, made the mistake of saying, “Cowasjee Sahib, aap humaray say bach gaye.” Cowasjee’s response was instant and legendary: “Saala, tum jaisa @#&$@ bohut dekha hai hum nay.”
Pakistan has always been short of people willing to speak truth to power. With Ardeshir gone, there is now one less. Saala, tum jaisa bohut kum dekha hai hum nay.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 27th, 2012.