Dialogue and compassion

08 Feb 2011


IF an intellectual activity does not provoke critical thinking, it is not worth its while. In that context, the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) last weekend merited all the effort that must have gone into its making.

Organised by the Oxford University Press and the British Council with some input from the Americans and the French, the event emerged as a cultural landmark. A proof of that came in the bigger crowds the festival attracted this time than it did in 2010. Have books and their authors become more popular? Paradoxically, the consensus at two sessions at the KLF was that the reading habit is on the decline. On the other hand, the Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association, which has been organising the Karachi International Book Fair for six years running at the Expo Centre, claims that the sale of books has been rising.

At the KLF the turnout at the various events appeared impressive with all seats occupied and many in the audience standing around or sitting on the floor. Even if many who were present had not read the works of the authors, they were keen to listen to them. There was a shift in the tone. The festival has widened its horizons. Many discussions did not focus on books at all but on contemporary issues that go beyond literature in the conventional sense and fall more within the parameters of the social sciences and journalism.

Keynote speaker Karen Armstrong, the well-known scholar of comparative religions and author of A History of God, set the tone of the festival with her speech on ‘A Charter of Compassion’. The presence of many eminent names from the literary world that have done us proud did not dampen public interest in non-fiction writers such as Ahmed Rashid, Ayesha Siddiqa, Hamida Khuhro, Khaled Ahmed, Maleeha Lodhi, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Reza Kazimi, Zahid Husain, or, for that matter, the non-authors such as journalist Nasim Zehra and human rights activist Tahira Abdullah.

The massive attendance at the sessions on ‘Re-Imagining Pakistan’, ‘Taking Stock’ and ‘The Writing of History’ would not have been easy to explain had we not been living in times of great insecurity. Fiction has always been more popular than the serious stuff social scientists or even journalists write.

Two things are now plain. First, people have been jerked out of their complacency and have started pondering over the problems that threaten our very existence today — extremism, militancy and violence. Secondly, the electronic media is losing credibility and is therefore failing to provide the answers people are looking for.

But did they find their answers at the festival? Though all the speakers did not agree with one another on every detail, they carried credibility. However, the feeling I came away with, and which I always do at such events, was that all those present were the already converted. Where were the dissenters who challenge rationality and sanity? That is the problem with Pakistan today. Ours is such a polarised and fractured society that there is no meeting point between the two sides. There is no dialogue.

There is, however, a debate that remains unresolved in the absence of reliable data. Are the extremists winning the battle against us who describe ourselves as liberal and progressive? Are we really becoming the silent minority, as Tahira Abdullah termed us? My take on the issue is somewhat different from that of many of the speakers and also the organisers.

I think there is still a middle ground of Pakistanis — the ‘ordinary’ people — who do not share the extremist views of the fundamentalists. They are religious by temperament but are not vocal in articulating their moderation. Can these moderate non-elites who enjoy no state protection whatsoever stick their neck out?

As the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows, the main concern of those excluded is to make two ends meet in an age of food hyperinflation and growing unemployment. Who will meet their need for healthcare, education for their children, shelter and livelihood? The fact is that the state has failed in its duties and those who staunchly stand for Jinnah’s Pakistan that respects the fundamental rights of every citizen do not have the capacity or the wherewithal to provide a solution to the problems of poverty and underdevelopment.

The militants are wont to cash in on this situation to make their presence felt even if it is no more than a balm they can offer. But they know the art of mobilisation and know how to identify themselves with the masses. The extremists lure the people by speaking the language they understand and making rosy (false) promises.

It is time to reclaim this middle ground before it is too late. Karen Armstrong spoke of the need for compassion. The first step in that direction would be to make the KLF inclusive as the Jaipur festival is. Shift the venue to the Expo Centre to which access for the common man is easy because of its central location. Its spaciousness would allow the organisers to open its doors to people — especially students — from all over Karachi who travel by bus. The Expo Centre has security arrangements that are as good as anywhere else.

Above all, it would strengthen the hands of the Pakistanis occupying the middle ground who are not rich and are the non-elites, but who have sensible views and would certainly benefit from the discourses we heard at the KLF. Those who are wavering might be brought back to the fold of sanity, thus vindicating Karen Armstrong’s appeal for compassion.