Notre Dame lessons

Updated April 22, 2019


The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

IT burned. Its spire crashed through a centuries-old roof. It was devastated, but not razed. Some termed it a miracle. Though embers still glowed, the belfries, rose windows, organ, sacred relics, and much art had been saved or spared.

The fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris is already lost to last week’s news cycle. Within hours of the fire being extinguished, hundreds of millions of euros were pledged for its restoration. French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to complete the works within five years. The tragic fire has conveniently transformed into a story of resilience, hope and rebirth. Many are ready to move on.

Read: Investigators probe Notre-Dame fire as billionaires, private donors mobilise to rebuild cathedral

But let us dwell in the moment of the fire a little longer. Though far removed from the political turmoil and regional machinations that have Pakistan in their grip, the burning cathedral offers us some important insights.

The first is that a nation’s cultural heritage will get the respect it demands, not deserves. As the world came together to watch the flaming spire and pray for the cathedral, resentful voices from the Global South (rightfully) asked why such tears had not been shed for IS-ravaged Palmyra, the Bamiyan Buddhas demolished by the Taliban, or the Timbuktu manuscripts destroyed by Ansar Dine.

The French unite in their regard for it, they see their identity in it.

Part of the answer lies in post-colonial and economic dynamics; the fact that more people visit Paris than other locations with comparable treasures. But the main reason is that the cathedral is valued by the French themselves. They unite in their regard for it, they revere it, they see their history and identity in it, they celebrate it. Conversely, countries and cultures that are divided, that deny their histories, that recast their cultural heritage to suit shifting political dynamics, will struggle to muster universal esteem for their artefacts.

Pakistan constantly moans about its image problem. It seeks to revive tourism, and huffs when the international community is sceptical. But how can we expect others to embrace our culture and history when we ourselves are seeking to ignore, negate and rewrite these? From Mehrgarh to Takht-i-Bahi, our national treasures are crumbling, subject to vandalism, looting and attacks. If there is no national outrage now, we cannot expect global mourning later.

Another lesson is about accountability. The fire was an accident. But that did not prevent French people from pointing fingers — at the French government, for implementing an austerity programme that limited public works spending, including for timely renovations of the cathedral; at the architect; at the project manager. Such a blame game could imply arrogance, the sense that the French consider themselves immune to mishap. But it can also be a demonstration of a society that expects accountability.

Pakistanis are too quick to assume that tragic incidents are mistakes, the vagaries of fate, God’s will. The failure to question may stem in part from humility, but it also reveals a people who do not expect answers, who have no precedent for holding the powerful to account. Perhaps it’s time we emulated the French practice, apparent post-Notre Dame, of refusing to accept an accident as such.

Yet another insight is that there’s nothing to be done about conspiracy theories, but these are inevitably political and sow more discord in already difficult times. Even while Notre Dame was burning, re-edited audio footage implying that Muslims were celebrating the fire was circulating online. There were tweets linking the cathedral fire with the 9/11 attacks, other terrorist attacks in France, and an alleged plot to bomb the church in 2016.

Though we may rail against the Islamophobia evident, similar conspiracy theories are Pakistan’s default response to any event, whether a terrorist attack or a cabinet reshuffle. Such conspiracy theorising is a natural response to a nontransparent environment in which those with power act with impunity, without being answerable to the public. But we should not forget that conjecture and paranoia stoke fear and breed hatred. And the antidote is the same everywhere: more openness, more facts, more responsible media.

The Notre Dame fire’s most poignant lesson is that it’s getting harder to be hypocritical. Although people across the country chanted Ave Marias, hoping the cathedral would be saved, they did not shy from critiquing the big donations that poured in from France’s richest individuals and companies. Why didn’t they donate before? What tax relief may they claim through the donations? Why not question the source of this immense wealth? The contrast between generous donors and the working class gilets jaunes who have been protesting nationwide for several months has not been lost on the domestic and international media. Our leaders should take note: grand gestures no longer compensate for venality, incompetence, or dissemblance. Public naiveté has long smouldered away.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2019