What’s faith got to do with it?

Published September 16, 2011

WE are paying for our sins (hamare gunahon/aamaal ka khamyazah). Pray tell me how many times have you heard this explanation for the country’s current travails?

Be it the floods ravaging the Sindh countryside or dengue fever spreading panic in Punjab’s capital, whichever channel you switch to there is no escaping clergymen who are telling the hapless nation it is facing divine wrath, its dilemmas are of its own making.

If you don’t make a living advancing faith-based arguments or feel bound by them, then perhaps you don’t have what it takes to understand such statements. Frankly, you’ll find yourself wholly at a loss to even assess the veracity of such assertions. So is this area off-limits for you?

Not really. There is no bar on applying common sense and coming up with your own conclusions. In all probability, these will be robust — robust enough not to need faith to prop them up or edicts pledging retribution to shield them from potential challengers.

Inevitably this column tends to look at television news coverage of events simply because with our abysmally low literacy levels the medium assumes enhanced significance. This significance is magnified when we examine 24 X 7 TV’s footprint.

This is precisely why the last few days were reassuring as they were depressing. The quality of coverage and the diversity of approaches spanned the entire spectrum, from the sublime to the ludicrous.

Some of my colleagues abandoned the safety and comfort of their offices, studios. One watched them standing in knee-deep water bringing live images into our homes of a tragedy that words alone could not encapsulate.

They helped focus attention on the core of the problem and the immediacy of the need to help those now encamped on narrow roads with water lapping the edge of the asphalt from either side, the tiny strip of dry road their only refuge.

Women and children, infirm and the elderly, all were brought to life, given a face no matter how contorted with pain it was.

The coverage was professional, objective. It was appreciative where the relief effort was satisfactory and unforgiving where it wasn’t. The same could be said of the dengue fever coverage. Where good, it was surefooted, educational and informative.

It asked the right questions, raised public awareness, tried to stem the hysteria and zoomed in on the inadequacies of the system and talked to informed professionals about how the whole affair was being handled/could have been handled better.

In both these cases, the journalists were fulfilling the public service remit of their jobs. But there were others who spent major chunks of their programmes by asking ‘ulema’ whether Pakistanis were paying for their sins.

Never ones to shy away from such questions, the ulema launched with apparent relish into how awfully sinful Pakistanis were and the only way they could redeem themselves was by asking for forgiveness and taking the righteous path.

Of course, the ulema were neither asked nor bothered to say themselves who had sinned and who was paying for this. It was all too general. When you actually profile the worst sufferer it appears that the biggest sinner in our land of the pure is the poor.

We saw hundreds of thousands of these emaciated sinners whose entire life’s belongings could fit easily onto their bare heads for those small bundles propped up by their bony hands were all they seemed to have, apart from the odd animal and their family members.

Their clothes in tatters, their feet bare and their hungry, exhausted, even diseased faces were clearly telling a story. To me it was a tale less of divine wrath and more of man letting down man in dramatic, criminal neglect.

Would the ulema advancing the divine wrath argument hold the opposite to be true as well? That the affluent, and particularly those among them who often have no explanation of how they came to their enormous wealth, are paragons of virtue and piety?For only they seem to belong to a select group to whom even the worse natural calamity is no more than a mere inconvenience, if that. Is it that their cry for forgiveness carries more weight than that of the shirtless?

A natural disaster is a natural disaster. Misgovernance is just that. An unjust society is the creation of man and man alone.

Greed where even those earning millions aren’t interested in paying a pittance in tax is surely not ordained, neither is wealth acquisition via corrupt means.

So, let’s please not invoke faith. Unless, of course, you have an agenda of preserving the status quo no matter how decrepit and decayed it has come to be. Delusion is the sin. Visions of grandeur, when the ground beneath us is giving, are a sin. One needs only a momentary pause to count a thousand sins that have brought us to the pass where we find ourselves. But no matter how diligently one looks for a different picture the same set of corrupt, greedy, power-hungry villains come into sharp focus. And where they exit, nature comes in.

My villains are never clad in tatters with their ribs sticking out as if to mock the blubber that has the audacity to assert that the dispossessed are atoning for their sins. It is incumbent on the media to show the way, to arm the have-nots with their rights in a democratic order rather than serve them a diet of the opiate.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.




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