PAKISTANIS like to think of themselves by nature as a compassionate people, with large hearts that bleed for the poor, oppressed and suffering all over the world.
These days, private citizens are organising donation drives for the displaced people of North Waziristan. The army is collecting donations, young people are putting together relief goods and clothes, and with the approach of Eid, gift packages are being put together for children that include toys and books.
Just like the Kashmir earthquake of 2005, Pakistanis have been eager to assist those who have lost their homes and livelihoods because of events that are out of their control. It’s an admirable quality in us, the desire to help, to offer comfort and succour, and to pledge solidarity to people who need allies in a hostile world.
Witness the large outpouring of outrage that has been taking place over the last two weeks over Israel’s siege of Gaza — there have been public protests, condemnation by leaders and religious figures, and many users of social media have been posting pictures and articles about the atrocities taking place in Gaza every day since the war began.
There’s no outrage when minorities in Pakistan are targeted.
Pakistanis feel good about doing their part to draw the world’s attention to the suffering of Palestinians, a cause they have held close to their hearts for several decades.
But this outpouring of outrage doesn’t happen when people belonging to minority groups in Pakistan are hurt or killed because of their identity. Shias are murdered, Ahmadis are bombed, Hazaras are slain, Christian villages are burned, Hindu women kidnapped and forced to convert and ‘marry’ — the reaction of Pakistanis has been, by and large, silence.
No large-scale protest marches, no condemnation by political or religious leaders, no cries on Facebook or Twitter about the mistreatment of minorities and our solidarity with them in their time of need.
There’s a phenomenon a friend of mine calls ‘Whataboutery’ which goes like this:
X: What Boko Haram is doing in Nigeria is really awful.
Y: Yes, but what about Gaza?
Or, X: What’s happening in Iraq and Syria with ISIS is truly horrible.
Y: Yes, but what about the Rohingya in Myanmar?
‘Whataboutery’ is a great way to distract, to evade having to think about conflicts where the villains are somewhat like you and the innocent are different from you. It’s like a blanket you pull over your head when the oppression happens too close to home. If you can point the finger at faraway Israel, you avoid having to examine how our treatment of minorities might compare, in some small way. Or large way, depending on how you look at it.
One of the most ridiculous things being asked on the internet, and I’m sure elsewhere, goes like this: ‘Why isn’t Malala Yousafzai speaking out about the atrocities in Gaza?’ The poser of this question doesn’t actually want to hear an answer; she has already condemned Malala as an ‘agent of the West’ who only speaks about the issues that ‘the West’ wants to condemn.
So when Malala went to Nigeria to advocate for the 200 schoolgirls kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery by Boko Haram, people ridiculed her efforts, even though she brought attention to the un-Islamic actions of the Nigerian extremists and framed it as going against the tenets of the Quran. What an important message for the rest of the world to hear, and nobody in Pakistan appreciated it.
Our concern for the refugees of Gaza also doesn’t ring quite true in light of the recent outcry against North Waziristan IDPs who have been trying to enter Sindh (and presumably come to Karachi to join relatives already settled here) after being displaced from their homes in the military operation.
Today’s protests against IDPs are based in fear and bigotry, but couched in terms like ‘demographics’ and ‘militancy’ — the same terms used in Israel to keep Palestinians locked in their open-air prisons in Gaza and the West Bank.
There are conflicts going on where Muslims are visiting atrocities upon other Muslims, and we should be brave enough to protest. Yes, Muslims are being oppressed in Gaza and Myanmar, but one atrocity doesn’t cancel the other out.
Islam charges Muslims to speak against all oppression; it advocates peace and justice, but also tolerance and pluralism within our own societies. And if we refuse to be champions of peace and tolerance within our own borders, our championing peace in Gaza rings hollow.
Of course we have to pick our battles, and it’s tiring to speak out all the time on every conflict, but a consistent message of pacifism from all of us on oppression in our own backyard would be such a guiding light to other Pakistanis who are unwilling to be vocal about these issues. And, as the saying goes, charity begins at home.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2014