Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Need for Empathy in these times...


Maryam Sakeenah

Following the reprehensible attack on Christian homes in Lahore, a spine-chilling, grotesque image of an arsonist cheering over the burning flames went viral. One wonders what sort of man thumps his chest over destroying innocent lives and how human beings can become capable of such naked, audacious sadism that seeks justification in a faith that decrees ‘Whosoever harms a non Muslim citizen of a Muslim state, I shall be the complainant against him on the Day of Judgement.’ (Sahih Bukhari)

Throughout history human beings have shown themselves to be capable of wreaking terrible destruction and causing great suffering- from burning ‘witches’ at the stake, crucifying God’s noble messengers, butchering refugees in sacred precincts, gassing Jews at Auschwitz, to the nationalistic wars of the twentieth century, the liquidation of millions in nuclear destruction and poisoning of the biosphere through relentless commercial-industrial activity.

Yet Jeremy Rifkins in his phenomenal book ‘The Empathic Civilization’ insists that human beings are ‘Homo Empathica’, that is, defined and distinguished for the ability to empathize. He writes, ‘Human beings are soft-wired to experience others’ plight as if we were experiencing it ourselves.’

Empathy allows us to stretch our sensibility to another so we can cohere into larger social groups. It is curbed and limited by defining these social groups through narrow, parochial banners of ethnicity, nationalism, race and creed so that the empathic drive does not extend to the out-groupThe Prophet (SAW) said: "He is not one us who calls for `Asabiyah’, (prejudiced, parochial association)" (Abu Daud.) The out-group is then ‘otherized’, made out of the reach of our empathy. This creates indifference and apathy towards the suffering of people belonging to a different classification. However, a more severe form of limiting and deflecting the empathic impulse is dehumanization of the other ‘as flies to the wanton boys’, often institutionalized by the social superstructure: state and government, media, education, religion. Through stereotyping, essentialism, ethnocentrism, prejudice and propaganda as well as censorship and selective relaying of information to the public, minority groups and those whose interests clash with or threaten one’s own are systemtically dehumanized  and even demonized to appear less than human despicable, lower-order bestial ‘others’ whose eradication may not be of any great loss to human civilization. In the process we forget that as members of the human family, we all share a common, precarious existential predicament- our ‘little lives rounded with a sleep’- on a little finite planet in the mystifying universe.

Der Spiegel carried a report last year on the psychology of American drone operators whose button-clicking while reclining in plush chairs in air-conditioned offices decrees death to anonymous distant targets. The method of modern technological warfare seems to be designed to keep empathy at bay- the victim is invisible and remote, represented by a red dot on a laser screen, annihilated by a light, single click. Drone pilot Vanessa Meyer said, “When the decision had been made, and they saw that this was an enemy, a hostile person, a legal target that was worthy of being destroyed, I had no problem with taking the shot." (Nicola Abe: ‘Dreams in Infrared’) Gitta Sereny writes of Fratz Stangl, the annihilator of thousands at a Nazi camp: Prisoners were simply objects. Goods. “That was my profession,” he said. “I enjoyed it. It fulfilled me. And yes, I was ambitious about that, I won’t deny it.” When Sereny asked Stangl how as a father he could kill children, he answered, “I rarely saw them as individuals. It was always a huge mass. … [T]hey were naked, packed together, running, being driven with whips. …” (Chris Hedges: The Careerist)

Few and far between, there may be those whose empathy grows militant and unkillable. Brandon Bryant was able to humanize his victims in his drone operations_ he noticed the details of their lives and patterns of behaviour akin to his own. "I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot." He felt remorse because of the children, whose fathers he was taking away. "They were good daddies," he saysHe felt ‘disconnected from humanity’ while at his job, going through terrible unease and remorse. Having quit his job, he wrote in his diary, "On the battlefield there are no sides, just bloodshed. Total war. Every horror witnessed. I wish my eyes would rot." (Nicola Abe: ‘Dreams in Infrared’)   

Perhaps the most integral parts of this institutionalized dehumanization embedded in the superstructure of modern industrial society are the ‘Careerists’- the good men and women efficient at their jobs that make the system function. Chris Hedges describes them as ‘...armies of bureaucrats serving a corporate system that will quite literally kill us. They are as cold and disconnected... They carry out minute tasks. They are docile. Compliant. They obey. They find their self-worth in the prestige and power of the corporation, in the status of their positions and in their career promotions. It is moral schizophrenia. They erect walls to create an isolated consciousness. They destroy the ecosystem, the economy and the body politic... They feel nothing. And the system rolls forward. The polar ice caps melt. The droughts rage over cropland. The drones deliver death from the sky. The state moves inexorably forward to place us in chains. The sick die. The poor starve. The prisons fill. And the careerist, plodding forward, does his or her job.'

In Pakistan religion is increasingly used as one of the most powerful means of deflecting empathy from those outside the faith and sectarian affiliation. Religious intolerance in a culture of violence and anger is a fatal mix and has gone on a bloody rampage.  While the causes, factors and agents responsible for the ongoing madness are complexly intertwined, the resistance, rejection, counternarrative and healing that ought to have come from the representatives of religion in this part of the world has been inadequate, half-hearted, ambiguous and equivocal. The voice of condemnation from the pulpit is faltering, and this has been extremely damaging in a number of ways. The contemporary discourse of political Islam in Pakistan is heavily lopsided, selectively highlighting the plight of victims of American, Israeli and Indian misdemeanours (which certainly are important human rights issues), while keeping mum or issuing periodic enfeebled and rhetorical statements of condemnation over the plight of minorities and other innocent victims of those committing violence in the name of religion.

For Islamist groups, the cost of this silence has been and will be crushingly enormous. The disappointment felt by members of the civil society and educated youth over a criminal silence and inability of the religious leaders and scholars to rise to the occasion and give clarity to the public with a single voice has been shattering. This has not only alienated scores of good, intelligent people belonging to Pakistan’s educated urban middle and upper classes from Islamic groups and organizations but in many cases from the faith itself.  A colleague posted the picture of the gleeful arsonist with the comment, ‘Happy mob rightfully burns down Christian homes. Another great day for Islam. Another victory against the forces of evil.’ While this is an extreme reaction showing inability to draw a line between despicable, crazed fanatical elements and the faith itself, but it increases the onus on spokespeople of religion to address the burning issues that blur the lines.

Going to college in Pakistan shortly after the U.S declared all-out ‘war on terror’ and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, I witnessed scores of young people around me turning to Islam, primarily out of empathy for the Muslim victim, the underdog. In this country, the Islamist persona has now understandably metamorphosed into a perpetrator devoid of compassion, rationality and empathy, and this has alienated and repelled hundreds of thousands, resulting in a completely opposite trend that I, now an educator, see around me: a clear de-Islamization of Pakistan’s urban educated youth. While there also is a swing in the opposite direction, but the de-Islamization trend is clearly on the rise, understandably fuelled by the aforementioned.

Islamists in Pakistan are not cognizant of this terrible loss as they perceive themselves to be locked up in a crusade against the onslaught of the West, the secularists, the Zionists et all. Any voice calling for the need to provide clarity, answers and solutions is dismissed as ‘Westernized’, ‘secularized’, ‘liberalized,’ hence misguided and insincere, unworthy of serious consideration.
The narrative in Pakistan needs a rethink: the ethos of the Quran is the extension of identity to embrace the human race as fellow sojourners held together by a common human nature and destiny: ‘Mankind is but a single nation, yet they disagree.’ (2:213) Secondarily, we are taught to understand our responsibility towards those outside the faith fraternity not merely through divine directive but lived example and established paradigm.
In 628 C.E. Prophet Muhammad (s) granted a Charter of Privileges to the monks of St. Catherine Monastery in Mt. Sinai:
“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.
Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
No compulsion is to be on them.
Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.
No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses.
Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.
No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight.
The Muslims are to fight for them.
If a female Christian is married to a Muslim it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.
Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.
No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

Empathy humanizes and civilizes. Its suppression intensifies secondary drives like narcissism, materialism, violence and aggression. The task of religion, education and the media must be to bring out the empathic sociability stretching out to all of humanity and prepare the groundwork for what Rifkins has called an ‘empathic civilization.’

Mercy and gentleness, said the Prophet (SAW), are defining traits of believers: ‘Allah is gentle, and He loves those who are gentle.’ (Sahih Muslim)   Mercy and gentleness beautify the spirit: "Whenever kindness is in a thing it adorns it, and whenever it is removed from anything, it disfigures it." [Muslim]

Empathy is engraved into the core of our consciousness as human beings- that softest part inspired from the Divine Ruh (Spirit). Those who confine or deflect it are on the wrong side of humanity and history. In the long run, their narrative will lose out and history’s merciless verdict against them shall be ineradicable.        

Friday, March 1, 2013

Bangladesh Tribunal Prosecution


Maryam Sakeenah

When a friend from Bangladesh gifted me a jute bag with the Bangladesh flag motif painted on it, I asked her to explain the symbolism. She told me it stood for the rising sun over the green fields, reddened with the blood of liberation martyrs.

After the terrible atrocities in 1971 in which many innocent Bengalis lost their lives, retributive justice to the perpetrators of brutal crime needed to be carried out by Pakistan. This was never done, consumed as the country was in an unseeing jingoism. George Orwell wrote in his memoirs of the Spanish Civil War, Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side.’

Resultantly, in Bangladesh, these atrocities have become over the years part of the collective memory and the national narrative. The hurt and anger has festered to the beat of nationalistic fervour and has turned into an unrelenting, bitter hate and hardened prejudice against the enemy.

On the backdrop of this charged nationalistic sentiment, in 2010 the International Crimes Tribunal was established by this government, though its legitimacy and capacity to deliver justice have been put to question by objective observers.  (

There is also the concern that the much-awaited decision announced recently was more a political than judicial decision. The Jamat e Islami is an important part of the political opposition against the current regime. The primary accused belong to the Jamat, widely considered to be complicit in Pakistan army’s violence against the Bengalis in 1971.

Justice is a great thing and often a vital part in healing and reconciliation. The events in Bangladesh carry the pretence of a justice that gratifies the strong national desire for vengeance. Whether real justice can be delivered given the lack of integrity and transparency about the proceedings, is open to question. The presiding judge Nizamul Huq resigned following questions over the publication of private conversations which cast doubt on the court proceedings. The Economist writes, “The e-mails and phone conversations we have seen raise profound questions about the trial... the government tried to put pressure on Mr Nizamul... he worked improperly with a lawyer based in Brussels, and that the lawyer co-operated with the prosecution_ raising questions about conflicts of interest. In Mr Sayeedi’s case (head of JI, given a death sentence this week) it points to the possibility that, even before the court had finished hearing testimony from the defence witnesses, Mr Nizamul was already expecting a guilty verdict.”

Held under the thumb of mass public furore and the voracious appetite for vendetta, the verdict seems to have been preordained. Justice is blinded under pressure of emotionally charged public sentiment, and the hand of blind justice has a fell sweep. George Orwell adds, As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on...  are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis." Doling out death sentences in such an environment is a travesty of justice.  In a conversation of October 14th, between Mr Nizamul and Ziauddin, the Brussels-based lawyer of Bangladeshi origin, the judge refers to the government as “absolutely crazy for a judgment. The government has gone totally mad. They have gone completely mad, I am telling you. They want a judgment by 16th’s as simple as that.” December 16th, known as Victory Day in Bangladesh, is the anniversary of the surrender by Pakistani forces in the war of independence. (The Economist)

While the demand for justice to war criminals is understandable and legitimate, the concern is about whether this public sentiment has been used for political opportunism. Given the traumatic birth of Bangladesh and the horrific memories haunting public imagination, a regime credited with bringing offenders to book will win hearts. Given the many failures and weaknesses of this regime as well as the fact that the Jamat is a vital member of the opposition alliance, there seems to be a method to the madness. 

The social consequences have been grave with violence spiralling out of control. The long-term repercussions are graver still. Opposition to the verdict has been brutally crushed by the state machinery and violent reprisals have victimized hundreds. The crowds calling for a death sentence are led by secular-liberal segments of the society and have massive support from members of the civil society. The opposition to the death sentence comes from the Islamists led by the Jamat e Islami which has sizable following. The scars this will leave will drive a wedge between these two segments along ideological lines. It will accentuate and intensify a dangerous polarization which in the long run shall be in the interests of none. With the two opposed camps locked in confrontation against each other, a state eager to use force and one or both groups- having deep roots into the society-  often violently lashing out against the other, the future looks grim. A gaping split across the social spectrum with a spattering of violence is the perfect recipe for disaster- the same disaster that Pakistan is mired up in. This dampens down the hopes for a stable, peaceful, progressive Bangladesh. 

In this wider context, it becomes apparent that it is not vengeance but clemency that Bangladesh needs. Violence begets violence and sets off a vicious cycle. That vicious cycle needs to be broken. Forgetting bitter memories is hard, but sometimes, a bit of voluntary historical amnesia makes the future clearer and brighter for us. Justice and peace are great ends to be striven for. But the tribunal and its decision is at best a pretense and at worst a grave travesty of justice. Bangladesh is a rapidly progressing country and has risen out of the blood and fire it was born in- I hope its great people would prefer to look ahead, refusing to let their sentiment be used for political purpose. For, when you look towards the sun- which, as my friend explained- is the proud national symbol of a country that deserves to rise out of a bloody past- you let the shadows fall behind you.