In Book III of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides records the “The Mytilenian Debate”, an event that occurred in 427 BC, roughly a year after the revolt against Athens and its allies by Mytilene and three other city-states on the island of Lesbos. The debate, fraught with questions of survival, politics and ethics, is a text that is as relevant to us today as it was then.
To cut to the chase, the Mytilenians revolted against Athens after being egged on by Sparta. Athens had been alerted to the impending revolt by a faction within Mytilene and they despatched forces to confront the Mytilenians before the latter were fully ready for an armed confrontation. With food supplies depleted, surrounded by Athenian forces, isolated and defeated, the Mytilenians had to surrender to negotiate.
Athens would have none of it; the only concession that could be granted was for Mytilene to send a delegation to Athens to seek mercy and compassion. The Athenian general Paches guaranteed that he would hold his hand until Athens reached a decision. Off go the nearly thousand men, along with Salaethus, the Spartan who had arrived to help Mytilene but had failed. Debate began in Athens on what to do with the Mytilenians. The decision was to decimate the male population and sell women and children into slavery. The Spartan had been executed on arrival but once this decision had been taken, the nearly thousand Mytilenians having come to Athens to seek mercy were also put to the sword. A trireme was despatched to Mytilene to execute the orders of the assembly.
The next day, however, Athens woke up to the brutality of its actions. Another debate ensued with Cleon, the ruthless statesman, taking a position against democracy and chiding people for cherishing doubts rather than focusing on what was required to survive. He was countered by Diodotus, who challenged the idea of butchering people as a means of deterrence and pleaded that compassion is what builds alliances and would help strengthen Athens. For him, the fundamental question in deciding the fate of the Mytilenians was not whether the latter were guilty of revolt but whether Athens was making the correct decision for itself.
The second debate led to the assembly changing its earlier decision.
What brings forth this tale from 428 BC? The answer is that we have long been talking about the crisis of the state. I wonder if it is time to look at the crisis of society, of who we are or more appropriately, what we have become; not just the leaders, both religious and political, but the people. Whether in our avowed love for religion, we have not all but lost the very religion and the compassion it is supposed to instil?
Mobs are mobs. They loot, burn and lynch. They are the same everywhere. The famous scene from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar about Cinna the poet and Cinna the conspirator has become clichéd. But we also thrive on a big, fat lie: that we are Muslims, the followers of the Prophet (pbuh), and, therefore, a cut above the rest. Well, let this poppycock be buried once and for all. We are as good or bad as the rest and, because we are impotent for the most part in the broader historical scheme that informs the world today, we are worse.
We berate our leaders constantly and much of what we say about them is true. But what about the awam, the average Joes and Janes? The fact is that the awam are as stupid, ungenerous, uncouth and petty liars as the leaders. I have no idea why our discussions about the leaders are conducted in a way that gives the utterly false impression that we, as a people, are angels stuck with an evil leadership.
Where did the mob in Lahore come from? Who is attacking shrines and imambargahs, if not the pious awam? Reports from Karachi talked about an Ahmadi having died in the bomb attack and rescue workers refusing to pick up his body. Now I am assuming that the rescue workers could not have known that one body belonged to an Ahmadi. And if my assumption is correct, based on what a reporter friend said to me, then the local people must have told them so. And if that is correct, and if the mohalla largely belonged to the Shia, then it won’t be wrong to assume that someone from the Shia community identified the person. Or, worse, both the local Shia and Sunni did.
This, then, raises a question that should be obvious: how can a people who have themselves been the target of hate use the same discriminatory approach against another community that has been constitutionally ex-communicated? What kind of people would do this, lose empathy for another despite being under attack themselves; use one argument against the attackers and turn the entire logic of that very argument on its head and exclude another, not just from religion, but from the pale of humanity itself, even in death?
Answer: “normal” people; average Pakistanis; people going about the business of life; you and me.
As Diodotus said millennia ago, the fundamental question is not about someone’s guilt but whether the decisions we take are good for us. Do we serve the ends of justice or revenge? Do our decisions inculcate in us humanity or make us bestial. I don’t have to answer this question.
Finally, look at another irony. There’s a blasphemy law. Much has been said about its flaws and its abuse. Yet, if there is a law, and if someone has been booked under it, what right do people have to take the law into their hands and banish an entire community from their homes? Clearly, as emerging reports indicate, there’s more to the incident than meets the eye. And if those reports are correct, then it’s the mob and the instigators who have blasphemed.
Do we have it in us to have a Mytilenian Debate? I don’t think so.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 13th, 2013.