An Open Letter to Karen Armstrong (I): Of the Silent Choir

By Aasem Bakhshi

In reply to Karen Armstrong’s letter which she wrote in 2011 to the people of Pakistan to discover compassion in their daily lives [1].

In the Name of Allah the Compassionate the Merciful

Earlier last year, I was visiting a small bookstall when I discovered your letter. I picked it up, almost offhand, as if it was dropped in my mailbox and skimmed it right there in next half an hour. Needless to say that your earnest and sincere demand to rediscover compassion was not only compelling but also based on universal values of reason and harmony. However, I kept reflecting on finer nuances of your discourse from various angles, as well as your whole ‘charter of compassion‘ and found it necessary to engage with you at more personal level.

I should perhaps mention, right from the start, that I am cognizant of all your work. I do not claim to have read each word of it, but I have at least read each and every word you wrote about Muslim tradition and of course, about God. I mention this so you must not misconstrue me for a biased and misplaced prattler; rather, contrary to that, I am so overwhelmed by your desire to see a harmonious world that I thought it necessary to convey to you that you must know a little more about it.

Did I tell you about my favourite work of yours? No, its not about histories of God or fundamentalism, or genesis of faith-based FINAL-a letter to pakistantraditions; rather, its the one about your own climb out of so-called darkness through that proverbial spiral staircase. Now I understand that you love to tell the world about yourself, since its your third autobiography. However, I found it amazing to find in you a person who have opted for religious truth, found it uncongenial, learnt ways to handle that uncongeniality and finally ended up being empathic to it; that too, despite your ultimate disregard of its metaphysical truth value.

But I tend to digress, and this missive is not about you, but me and the world I live in. I am neither a critic nor a scholar, and not even a formal student of any religion or tradition. I do not claim to have any solutions, neither short-term nor long-term. My motivation is merely to open up and reveal more of my true self and underlying societal being, that in my humble opinion, you do not seem to know too well.

Do you remember writing about that incident in your memoirs when your friend Charlotte invited you over to meet her friend June who was an editor? And remember when June asked you write about your experiences as a nun? I can’t recall your exact words but you talked about a feeling as if you were asked to strip naked in front of a whole lot of people; as if you had to reveal your most sensitive vulnerability to the world. Well that was exactly the urge I felt when I first read your letter addressed to us.

I smelled a large disconnect with reality, or at least, with a large part of it, and I desperately wanted to broaden your perception but explaining it is like revealing where I am most vulnerable. After all, and please pardon my repetition, its me that we are talking about and not you. While we are on that page, I do like to confess that I don’t have an extended first hand experience of your society but I can claim to have a more than decent theoretical exposure to traditions that shape its recent milieu. I assume you reciprocate a more or less similar condition.

So before we speak of compassion, that is your first chartered principle, we must first ensure that you understand your presumed audience. Remember you said you are not talking to the terrorist but ‘speaking to the choir‘ which is not singing! The so-called silent majority!

It struck me as interesting that you merely gave a passing remark that silent majority in Pakistan believes in a compassionate ideal. That is, its your apriori assumption before you move forward to develop rest of your charter. Well let me tell you more about this silent choir today.

Obviously, there can’t be any statistics for a claim like this, but the silent majority almost comprises 99% of Pakistan. The remaining proverbial 1% includes people like Perween Rahman, the lady who was trying to bring sewer and water services to the poorest of the third largest city of the world and murdered last month; and Irfan Ali Khudi, the activist who was killed in a bomb blast in Quetta earlier this year as he was helping the victims of another bomb blast that happened few minutes ago.

Well isn’t that what can be truly called a belief in a compassionate ideal? Don’t you have to be ready to die for it, if the need arises? Rest of us, well we tirelessly hangout on our blogs and social-networks, and write about beautiful and compassionate ideals day and night. And yes, we get a lot of praise for articulating them in an elegant prose.

What to talk of death, we don’t even live by it. You have to bear with me and pay a little more attention here. I am not saying we don’t live by it enough; rather, we don’t live by it. Period.

Let me tell you what happened yesterday afternoon. It was a Sunday and the evening was committed, so me and my wife went out for shopping at noon. Kids were unattended back home so we were naturally in a hurry and finished quickly. While driving back, we saw a huddle in the middle of the road at some distance. As our car came closer, we saw that there was a lady lying on the road besides a motorbike. A van was parked nearby which presumably collided with the bike. There was some blood on the road. Some pieces of broken glass too. The accident must have happened just a few minutes before. I saw a young man making video recording of the scene using his cell phone. He was standing on a raised ground, in order to rise above the crowd to get a better view. Another man was raising a young boy of about 10 or 11 above his shoulders, as the boy ostensibly wanted to get a good luck at the scene. Few people were about to get violent with the van driver. Huddle was building up and there were already like 50 odd people. Few passing-by cars, rickshaws and bikes were also there, including ours. Everybody was watching earnestly but not doing anything. At least, not visibly responding with agility, which is customary upon encountering such eventuality.

It was already a minute passed when I asked my wife that shouldn’t we stop and see if we can help. She slightly nodded, visibly on the fence, without saying anything but looking outside her window towards the people.

“Hmm, where would I park”, I uttered in a noncommittal way while looking into my rear-view mirror, “the traffic jam is already building up and drivers behind me seem agitated and angry”.

“Yeah, I think you must move on. Kids are also alone and they must be very hungry as its well past lunch-time. And remember we still have to stop ahead for buying strawberries too”, she spoke in undertones which were semi-audible. Meanwhile, as if waiting impatiently for our little exchange to end, the car horns behind us resumed in chorus. I pressed my foot on the accelerator pedal.

As I drove passed the scene, I could make out that lady was now in a half sitting semi-conscious posture with hand on her bleeding head. The huddle was still growing with lots of noise.

You must be wondering whether I felt ashamed. Did I loose some sleep last night, thinking what might have ultimately happened to the lady? What happened to the driver of the bike? Was he injured too? I don’t want to psychoanalyze myself, which I usually do on such occasions with characteristic audacity. I do not want to enumerate my other good deeds of the day since you have asked us to start by doing one small good deed each day to rediscover compassion.

But I must tell you that I do not characterize myself as an insensitive person at all. I am not going through any existential crisis too; rather, I love to write about the so-called plights of modern man.  Have you read my latest piece on modern man’s romanticism with Dostoevsky’s underground man or Turgnev’s Bazarov?

Now you see I was not wrong to claim that I am reasonably aware of history and development of western tradition. But again, I digress since its me we are trying to look into. Somehow I am pathologically unable to live by the compassionate ideals. Trust me, your charter of compassion would not change my world unless you hold my finger and guide me to the root of my problem.

You may ask what triggered me to move on? I have the requisite oral skills to control small mobs. I could have easily stopped, and do something to help in my capacity. It has not happened for the first time, rather its a quite frequent happenstance here. Collectively speaking, its almost a norm. It is always difficult to recollect what exactly goes through in my mind at such moments.

I am not talking about the psychology of the mob, since I have the tendency to digress into grandiloquent narratives, an almost pathological proclivity to extend the problem outside myself . With you, I am more interested to discuss the individual. Myself.

In Pakistan, we always talk ceaselessly about it later. Here we are seldom alone. There is always someone roaming around. You see, we are like a big socially well-knit family. We boast about it being among the traditional marvels of the east sustained in the modernity. The intricate mutli-layered bondage. But we rarely go through any phases of introspection, seldom talk to ourselves, peep inward rather than gazing outward. We have a tendency to incessantly talk about us, explain us to others, defend our nonchalance and brutal selfishness.

So we bought strawberries and I said to my wife in a semi-confessional manner that we should have stopped; and wonder what might have happened to the injured lady or perhaps the van driver would have been beaten unjustly by some angry people. She kind of instantly reciprocated my confession and reassured, “Insha’Allah, Bach gaee ho gee (she must have been alive and well)”. “Allah karey (may Allah)”, I rejoined.

Now when I recollect our innermost motives to move on, its a strange inexplicable feeling when the true psychologies always remain hidden under the more expressive, tangible elements. “Am I ashamed?”, I sometimes ask myself. I am unable to tell you the answer. I don’t think what ‘being ashamed’ exactly connotes.

But this desire to recollect always gives birth to hazy and superficial imagery which tends to quickly go away. Is it what we call ‘moving on’?  

Here is the image that comes to my mind now as I write to you: It was hot as the AC of the car was not functioning, kids were alone and hungry at the home and we were in a hurry.

Its almost always like that and this is pretty much the state of the choir you are trying to reach out to. It is seldom alone, always seen scuttling vaguely as if trying to find some unknown object and usually hungry when its time to practically stick to the ideals.

Do you know the recent incident about the young man in Karachi who kept hanging to the window pane of the eighth floor of a building to save himself from fire? Do you know that scores of people kept watching him in awe with their heads towards the sky for 15-20 minutes doing nothing? All channels kept televising the incident, lamenting the delay by the rescue teams, till the man eventually jumped on the concrete floor and died due to injuries. The mob on the ground didn’t even come up with the simplest or wildest strategy to rescue the man as he jumped. No one moved an inch.

This is the nomenclature of the choir. Its not only silent, its also awestruck. And its always looking towards the sky. But we have not just touched the tip of the iceberg. Remember, we still have to talk about the compassionate ideals?


  1. Karen Armstrong, A Letter to Pakistan, Oxford University Press Pakistan.

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