Even as tragedy surrounds us, what is still more tragic is the fashion in which we allow thinking to be distorted and events twisted to fit specific notions. In many cases these notions are social constructs, built by a media that follows a specific, narrow tunnel of thought and apparently seems hell-bent on ensuring no one looks far beyond its confines.
The fact that the media is essentially united in its perspective, despite the multitude of channels, means that the tunnel it has set up is a constricted one with no windows or peep holes that would allow in light.
The aftermath of the bomb blasts that killed 15 church-goers on a Sunday morning in the impoverished Youhanabad locality of Lahore has been horrific at many different levels. The children killed, the wage-earners taken away or those who will carry permanent scars have been spoken about too little. Instead focus has been shifted to the two men allegedly beaten and burned alive as suspects by a mob immediately after the blasts. There is some ambiguity as to precisely what happened – who these men were and where they came from with some accounts suggesting they were in police custody before being set upon by the mob. An inquiry into the incident is needed.
But regardless of the details, the incident itself was horrific. It cannot, and must not, be condoned. We should however ask if it was more horrific, more terrible, than the bombing itself. The stories from that act of targeted terrorism have received only limited coverage. We know little about the three-year-old girl, now an orphan, whose parents had come from Mian Channu to seek work. Perhaps they were praying for a better life when they were torn apart by the blast. There has been little effort to look at the prospects of the family with four children whose father was killed; or at the many other tragedies that mingle with the blood left on the church floor.
Yet, somehow, these have been placed somewhere to the side. The talk focuses essentially on the mob killings, on the woman driver caught in a protest who ran over two persons. It is the victims of these incidents who draw deep sighs and shakes of the head. Yes, they deserve this. But so too do those killed by the bombings. We must also ask ourselves some hard questions. To what degree is the fact that they were non-Muslim tied in to the response? Certainly, everywhere we see some hesitation in accepting them as our own people, no different under our law and the laws of humanity to the Muslim majority.
Somehow the mobs of Christians are depicted as being especially savage, especially unruly, with effort made to describe the chaos they had created for days in parts of the city. The language used cannot be insignificant either: ‘rioters’, ‘violent mobs’, ‘unruly youth’. All these terms have been used more often than the more neutral word ‘protesters’. The peaceful vigils staged in churches, schools and elsewhere have received only passing attention. They do not make news as do the unfortunate actions of other groups.
The condemnation that has poured in is in contrast to the reaction which followed the November 2014 burning, in their own brick kiln, of a young Christian couple Saima and Sajjid Masih in Kot Radha Kishan. There is no evidence that suggests the husband and wife, dragged away by a mob of 500 to 600 people – or should we say ‘Muslims’ to replicate the pattern seen in the Lahore case – had committed the blasphemy they were accused of. Their small children watched as their parents were beaten; so did the few policemen present there.
But we witnessed little of the outrage, the anger, the fury over attacks on shops that we see now. Different standards exist and we forget easily, too easily, that in other incident young men have been beaten to death for alleged theft, robbers burnt alive in Karachi.
The mob actions in Lahore are then not unique. Yes, they are unacceptable – just as much as the others that have come before. But we live in a time of bias, in some cases so deeply rooted that it is not even recognised. Within this world some people are less equal than others. Certainly, Saima and Sajjid Masih’s horrendous fate does not move us as much as that of the two men killed months later in Lahore. Is the second name of the victims the factor? Do we just allow ourselves to drift wherever the media takes us or where opinions push us? These are certainly factors to think about.
Beyond the manner in which we have moulded our view of society, even when we claim not to be prejudiced, is the issue of increasing incidents of mob violence and dangerous vigilantism. This stems largely from the fact that people believe they have no access to justice; that there is no one to hear their grievances. Certainly, the Christians would feel this way.
There has been no success in preventing the periodic violence they suffer, not even after the 2013 Peshawar church attack that killed at least 80; not after the murders at the brick kiln or attacks in other places. We have also created a different kind of discrimination, with Christians, and other minority groups held away from the mainstream and prevented from making social, economic or professional progress.
Anger then is inevitable. It is this lurking anger in society that has led to so many incidents of violence that we see. The minorities are worse affected than other groups, but everyone suffers in one way or the other. The Christians of Youhanabad clearly reacted in an unfortunate rage. Their actions cannot be justified. But perhaps we should be making a greater effort to understand them so that they are not repeated. If we do not do so, they will be and we will see the same suffering again and again.
We also need to weld our society better together. It is in danger of falling apart. Justice is a primary ingredient in this process. So is a sense of equality and fair play. These do not exist at the moment. Inequity is also caused by economics and class stratification, not just religion. At the present moment, we seem bent on creating divide and supremacy for certain groups above others.
Non-Muslim schoolchildren are generally forced to study Islamiat in most parts of the country due to a lack of choice. Books on ethics are being introduced but in a strangely mono-centric approach to the world, these compare other religions to Islam. Perhaps we need to focus on teaching humanity and civic sense in a far broader approach to a topic that has become essential to our survival as a nation.
In the meanwhile, the repercussions from Youhanabad continue for all who live there. Both Christians and Muslims in the area suffer as a result of heightened tensions between the two groups. A huge role has been played by external elements in stirring these up and the consequences of course are grim for a community that already suffers deprivation and all that arises from it. There is much that needs to be thought about. Sadly, no one appears to be willing to do the thinking.