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Pak Tea House » Pakistan, Philosophy, Society » An Open Letter to Karen Armstrong (I): Of the Silent Choir

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

  1. sunny Germany Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Pakistan consists of a frightened (terrorized) people.

    -
    First they frightened (terrorized) the hindus and exterminated them (or the otherway round).
    (Since Pakistan was founded by Mohammad bin Kasim long before Mohammad Ali Jinnah, this terrorization of hindus has a 1200 year history).

    Now they are frightened of and at each other.

    And islam has accompanied them in all their frights and frightenings as the “final perfect guidance and divine inspiration”.

    -
    Cowards and frightened people bring forth the largest number of killers and fascists. That is a basic fact of social psychology.
    -
    If there is a bomb-killing in Pakistan then the pakistanis say: it is done by non-muslims, by India and Israel and USA.
    Then they don’t have to think about it anymore.
    -
    This is typical of how a frightened people react.
    Islam’s briberies and intimidations, lies and braggartries, self-glorifications and falsifications have frightened the muslims out of their wits.

  2. NDelhi India Google Chrome Windows says:

    Oh my god Aasem, even to read a piece like this means one has to expose ones vulnerable self and stand naked.
    the incident you stated is something which happens on Delhi streets daily and i remember moving on myself couple of times trying hard to forget the incident as if was not their !!!
    Oh so true , this cowardly act is also one of our common shared heritage and all of us hindus, muslims , athiest are together in this.

  3. G. Ali United States Internet Explorer Windows says:

    The moment I saw two postings I knew one would be from sunny with his idiotic rambling, he is such a predictable idiot. Thanks for living up to the expectation. You are one Hinduzada (in case you missed it, it is an insult, but again you guys have beared insults for thousands of years so it does not matter to you).

  4. sunny Germany Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    G. Ali…

    again shows his “brilliance” in islamic argumentation!

    he even thinks his “brilliant” insults are something more than a bubble of noisy gas emitted from his mouth and hence the whole world must be awed by them.

    A muslim can never insult a hindu – the muslim just does not have the intelligence, the knowledge and the honesty to be able to do it.

    If an intelligent, honest and knowledgeable man insults me I will take it seriously. But that is not what G. Ali or any other muslim is.

    BTW – a really intelligent, honest and knowledgeable man will agree to how and what I argue and hence never insult me.

    So G. Ali can keep dirtying his own mouth and face by trying to abuse/insult me.

  5. G. Ali United States Internet Explorer Windows says:

    What ever man, you are master of idiocity.

    BTW: Just keep repeating Islam and fascism is not argument it is called statement.

  6. G. Ali United States Internet Explorer Windows says:

    “A muslim can never insult a hindu – the muslim just does not have the intelligence, the knowledge and the honesty to be able to do it.”

    You got to be kidding me. Man your religions name was meant to be an insult and you wear it with a badge of honor.

  7. sunny Germany Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    To G. Ali….
    I have based my analysis of islam and the exposure of its fascism on the actions and words of muslims themselves, by what I read only in pakistani newspapers.
    So they are not just private statements.

    -
    In fact the way muslims insult and use filthy words (as you do, instead of arguing decently) exposes that islamic upbringing/indoctrination leads to a fascist mentality.

    -
    The muslim child is steeped in briberies, intimidations and falsifications in the name of islamic “glory” and past “victories”.
    If a child receives that type of an upbringing then his mind is damaged for ever.

    Think over this sanely and quietly.

    All muslims show this type of mental damage.

  8. sunny Germany Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    to G. Ali

    The word “paki” is also a word of insult now – and that because of the ill-deeds of the pakistanis themselves.
    So when are you going to change the name of your pakistani “islamic paradise of Pakistan”?

    -
    The word hindu was given an insulting meaning by the fascists among the muslims. It was not the result of any ill-deeds by the hindus.

    Hindus refused to be quislings of islam and for this they are being insulted by muslim fascists and bootlickers of arabs – are you one such islamofascist?
    -
    I had requested you to study the meaning of the word “quisling” – something which muslims have made of themselves through their own deeds and words and upbringings.
    We hindus refused to be quislings of arabs, turks and their imperialism and lies.
    That is why you muslims insult us.
    -
    Hindu = one who refuses to be a quisling of islam and a bootlicker of arabs and turks.
    …and hence I am full of self-esteem and self-respect in being a hindu.
    -
    The word “hindu” does not become a word of insult merely because a muslim-quisling named G. Ali deems it to be so.

  9. romain United States Google Chrome Windows says:

    Aasem Mian,

    A soul searching piece.

    thanks

  10. Amin United Kingdom Safari iPad says:

    Great piece, Asim Bakhshi. We’ve all been there. I am probably one of the 99% too.
    I can’t help thinking though of the woman in Woolwich who actually got down from a bus
    to help a person lying in a pool of blood on the street. What an act of courage and compassion.
    Takes your breath away.

  11. Amin United Kingdom Safari iPad says:

    @ Sunny
    In the Gulf Arab States , it is said that when a Pakistani Muslim is asked to jump, he asks ‘ Why?’
    When a Hindoo is asked the same, he says ‘ Sir, How high? ‘
    I rest my case.

  12. G. Ali United States Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Amin, this guy is not intersted in facts, he has an agenda and no amount evidence to prove that his views are wrong will change his mind. On another post I told him that for every one Pakistani who commitws suicide about 90 to 100 Indians commit suicide, his reply was that it is because of Muslims Indian suicide rate is so high, when I pointed that his argument is idiotic he said that he is trying to act like Muslims they always blames others. You argue with someone who wants to learn and teach not with people with agendas.

  13. Annon United States Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    G. Ali, if you know this then why are waisting your time with him? Just ignore the charya like most of us do.

  14. sunny Germany Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    to Amin and G. Ali…

    G. Ali noticed his own mistakes as we conversed and so he kept on writing – why does that bother Amin?

    G. Ali was taught by his parents and teachers that “hindu” is a word of abuse. He never questioned this teaching. That was his mistake as an adult person.

    BUT
    The word paki or pakistani has acquired a bad meaning due to the ill-deeds of the pakistanis themselves – not of all pakistanis, but of some.
    I never use the word paki, nor do I use the word pakistani as a word of abuse.
    -
    I had also told G. Ali also to consult an encyclopaedia to understand the word “quisling”.

    It will explain to him why I regard muslims as agents or quislings of arabic and islamic fascism and imperialism.

    -

    These are normal ways of communicating in today’s world of emails, blogs etc.

    -
    Muslims to are people with agendas. In fact muslims’ belief that kuran is the final revelation causes islam to become a fascist ideology and makes muslims incapable of learning or of being honest.

  15. Th thomas United States Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    Rise Up or Die

    By Chris Hedges

    Joe Sacco and I spent two years reporting from the poorest pockets of the United States for our book “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.” We went into our nation’s impoverished “sacrifice zones”—the first areas forced to kneel before the dictates of the marketplace—to show what happens when unfettered corporate capitalism and ceaseless economic expansion no longer have external impediments. We wanted to illustrate what unrestrained corporate exploitation does to families, communities and the natural world. We wanted to challenge the reigning ideology of globalization and laissez-faire capitalism to illustrate what life becomes when human beings and the ecosystem are ruthlessly turned into commodities to exploit until exhaustion or collapse. And we wanted to expose as impotent the formal liberal and governmental institutions that once made reform possible, institutions no longer equipped with enough authority to check the assault of corporate power.

    What has taken place in these sacrifice zones—in postindustrial cities such as Camden, N.J., and Detroit, in coalfields of southern West Virginia where mining companies blast off mountaintops, in Indian reservations where the demented project of limitless economic expansion and exploitation worked some of its earliest evil, and in produce fields where laborers often endure conditions that replicate slavery—is now happening to much of the rest of the country. These sacrifice zones succumbed first. You and I are next.

    Corporations write our legislation. They control our systems of information. They manage the political theater of electoral politics and impose our educational curriculum. They have turned the judiciary into one of their wholly owned subsidiaries. They have decimated labor unions and other independent mass organizations, as well as having bought off the Democratic Party, which once defended the rights of workers. With the evisceration of piecemeal and incremental reform—the primary role of liberal, democratic institutions—we are left defenseless against corporate power.

    The Department of Justice seizure of two months of records of phone calls to and from editors and reporters at The Associated Press is the latest in a series of dramatic assaults against our civil liberties. The DOJ move is part of an effort to hunt down the government official or officials who leaked information to the AP about the foiling of a plot to blow up a passenger jet. Information concerning phones of Associated Press bureaus in New York, Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Conn., as well as the home and mobile phones of editors and reporters, was secretly confiscated. This, along with measures such as the use of the Espionage Act against whistle-blowers, will put a deep freeze on all independent investigations into abuses of government and corporate power.

    Seizing the AP phone logs is part of the corporate state’s broader efforts to silence all voices that defy the official narrative, the state’s Newspeak, and hide from public view the inner workings, lies and crimes of empire. The person or persons who provided the classified information to the AP will, if arrested, mostly likely be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. That law was never intended when it was instituted in 1917 to silence whistle-blowers. And from 1917 until Barack Obama took office in 2009 it was employed against whistle-blowers only three times, the first time against Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The Espionage Act has been used six times by the Obama administration against government whistle-blowers, including Thomas Drake.

    Advertisement
    The government’s fierce persecution of the press—an attack pressed by many of the governmental agencies that are arrayed against WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and activists such as Jeremy Hammond—dovetails with the government’s use of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force to carry out the assassination of U.S. citizens; of the FISA Amendments Act, which retroactively makes legal what under our Constitution was once illegal—the warrantless wiretapping and monitoring of tens of millions of U.S. citizens; and of Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which permits the government to have the military seize U.S. citizens, strip them of due process and hold them in indefinite detention. These measures, taken together, mean there are almost no civil liberties left.

    A handful of corporate oligarchs around the globe have everything—wealth, power and privilege—and the rest of us struggle as part of a vast underclass, increasingly impoverished and ruthlessly repressed. There is one set of laws and regulations for us; there is another set of laws and regulations for a power elite that functions as a global mafia.

    We stand helpless before the corporate onslaught. There is no way to vote against corporate power. Citizens have no way to bring about the prosecution of Wall Street bankers and financiers for fraud, military and intelligence officials for torture and war crimes, or security and surveillance officers for human rights abuses. The Federal Reserve is reduced to printing money for banks and financiers and lending it to them at almost zero percent interest; corporate officers then lend it to us at usurious rates as high as 30 percent. I do not know what to call this system. It is certainly not capitalism. Extortion might be a better word. The fossil fuel industry, meanwhile, relentlessly trashes the ecosystem for profit. The melting of 40 percent of the summer Arctic sea ice is, to corporations, a business opportunity. Companies rush to the Arctic and extract the last vestiges of oil, natural gas, minerals and fish stocks, indifferent to the death pangs of the planet. The same corporate forces that give us endless soap operas that pass for news, from the latest court proceedings surrounding O.J. Simpson to the tawdry details of the Jodi Arias murder trial, also give us atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide that surpass 400 parts per million. They entrance us with their electronic hallucinations as we waiver, as paralyzed with fear as Odysseus’ sailors, between Scylla and Charybdis.

  16. SSA Pakistan Google Chrome Windows says:

    After reading the piece the question is “its the failure of whom”? I have a far fetched theory “The subcontinental genes”.They are coward genes in there very essence.You have those genes ,I have those genes,we all have them.

  17. sunny Germany Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    to SSA

    Who (or which ideology) is producing more cowards – islam or non-islam?

    And what is your definition of cowardice?

    Don’t use words without defining them?

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