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Countering intolerance

September 10, 2012

A FEW years before the Nazi government arrested him in 1937 and sent him to a concentration camp, Martin Niemoller, a German theologian, spoke the powerful words that have come to epitomise the guilt of the bystander who watches in silence as those around suffer.

He lamented how he had not spoken up as they came first for the communists, then the unionists, and then the Jews. Finally when they came for him, “there was no one left to speak out”.

Pakistan has arrived at a point where ‘they’ have come for the Ahmedis, the Christians, the Hindus, and the Shias. It has come to a point where we need to speak out because at some point they will come for even those that are not part of a minority community.

They will come for you either because you are a Barelvi, a Deobandi, a woman, an intellectual, a liberal, the wrong ethnic group, or simply someone who does not agree with the worldview of those who are armed and have no compulsions against killing a fellow human being. But what is the most effective way to speak out? What will make a difference?

The simple answer, of course, is that we need to learn to be more accepting and tolerant of each other. But while noble, this is a generally useless suggestion because there is a large difference between being intolerant and actually pulling people off a bus, identifying them as Shias and then murdering them for that simple fact.

What takes a person from general intolerance towards others to actually killing people for their belief? I do not have an answer to that, but I do know a few things that contribute.

It contributes when murderers like the Taliban are allowed to get away with it. Not bringing perpetrators publicly to justice in courts that speak out clearly in favour of protecting every single citizen — regardless of caste, creed and religion — contributes to making the next incident possible.

It contributes that in attack after attack, a few of which have been on their own bases, we do not see the police or the army going after the outfits that sponsor these.

It also contributes that in its official documents the state continues to divide us all into religious categories. What, and whose, purpose does this serve?

It contributes when public figures do not speak out loudly and regularly in favour of minorities and against the violent crimes that they suffer.

It contributes that electronic media is not awash with dramas, public service messages and talk shows promoting an understanding of minority cultures and beliefs, the value and beauty of diversity, and the idea that there should be no ‘us’ and ‘them’ within Pakistan.

It certainly contributes that the career of television anchors does not suffer terribly when they publicly convert members of minority communities to Islam on their shows. And despite popular belief, it is not a lack of education that contributes to this, but rather, the content of our educational curricula that appears to be responsible.

I discovered in my research in rural Pakistan that the person in the village with active membership of a sectarian organisation was never the uneducated farm labourer, but rather the schoolteacher.

The only person that I met who told me he had participated in a religious protest was a man with an FA degree who had travelled to Lahore to protest against the Danish cartoons. As we strive to educate more and more of our population without a review of what we are teaching them, where can we expect to head?

So, how do we speak out? Maybe the answer lies in becoming intolerant as well. We need to become vocally intolerant of religious groups that seek to organise people on the basis of differences and preach violence against others.

We need to become intolerant of the army’s strategic games, and of the fact that deals are struck with those that kill openly and thump their chests publicly to take responsibility for it.

We need to be intolerant of political parties that cosy up to the army and tow its line of negotiating with murderers. We should be intolerant of a state that requires us to reveal our religion in official documents.

We need to be intolerant of a system that is seen to go into hyper-drive to weaken an elected government, but that allows known religious fanatics to walk free for lack of strong evidence.

How do you express such intolerance? By getting our politics right. Withdraw support for the judiciary when it lets a terrorist go. Push the political party you support to have a clear stance against those that kill minorities, and do not vote for those that make excuses for terrorist outfits.

Change the channel when talk show hosts insist that the real problem is another country, politicians or corruption, all the while defending those that kill the name of religion.

Write to channels to demand that there be more programmes on issues that affect minorities. Use social networking sites, newspapers and public protests to reduce divisions within Pakistan. Refuse to identify yourself with a religion or sect when asked to do so.

And on a personal level, stop trying to match your children with a spouse of the same sect, biradari, or class. Embrace diversity and the possibility that that will only make you less insulated and less inbred.

Do this before they come for you.

The writer is a researcher of political economy.