The owner of a house publicises his identity to avert assault by an angry mob in Joseph Colony in Lahore | Azhar Jafferi, White Star
The owner of a house publicises his identity to avert assault by an angry mob in Joseph Colony in Lahore | Azhar Jafferi, White Star

This is the epoch of belief; we have so many peddlers of belief selling their wares to eager customers every day on television. This is the epoch of incredulity; so many of us are losing faith in our own humanity, seeing young girls torched to death and young boys kept in sexual slavery.

This is the season of light; the light of righteousness shining bright over the wayward and the sinful, the corrupt and the crooked. This is the season of darkness; the darkness of poverty, exploitation, illiteracy, disease and death. This is the spring of hope; so much is changing around us for the better ­— underpasses, flyovers, posh housing and mass transport systems.

This is the winter of despair; so much around us is bleak and dreary — our drinking water is either poisonous or running out, we fail to keep the lights on, our schools are in ruins and our hospitals in shambles. We have everything before us: a massive population of young people who could reach the moon if given the right kinds of tools and training.

We have nothing before us; no one in the world likes us and our domestic options are almost non-existent to keep the ever-growing number of mouths to feed and young hands to employ in industries other than those fueled by sectarian and religious hatred and financed by bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia.

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There was a king with a large jaw and a wide grin on the throne of Pakistan a few years ago and there has been a king with a round face on the country’s throne for quite a few years now — and yet the lords of the state are not sure if there is anything that is ever so slightly settled in the republic. This past month, we have been through the “best of times” and the “worst of times”, all in the space of a few days. From embarking on a collective journey of cleansing our bodies and souls through fasting, we have run the whole gamut of fighting with our neighbours to killing our daughters and a lot worse in between.

We need a Charles Dickens to make sense of the muddle we are in — or perhaps we don’t. Perhaps we only need more of everything: more public displays of piety, more reasons for restrictions on our womenfolk, more game shows where facetious questions and mindless antics can win us more prizes, more televangelists preaching to us that climate change is a conspiracy against Muslims, more public thinkers informing us how the military is the only institution that can guard us against international and regional conspiracies. And much more of our belief in our own spiritual and moral superiority, which we keep exercising on the weak of belief, gender and economic status among us so that we are well-practiced in the art of inflicting our self-righteous wrath on others as soon as we get the chance.

The more the world around us changes, the firmer we are becoming in our belief that we have been doing very well by not changing — or at least, not changing much or as quickly. The more the world around us changes, the clearer it is getting that it is becoming more like us: conservative, close-minded, wary of difference and worried about challenges. That is why we are doing more of what we have been doing since decades. The present of the rest of the world is so much like our forever that, to invoke Dickens again, “some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

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If only some among us can keep their mouths shut. It gives our great country and our great religion a really bad image when they say bad things about the treatment of some sections of our society that have the tendency of going astray — such as girls wanting to play cricket, teachers bent upon questioning the conventional thinking and historians, and writers who, in the name of modernity and liberalism, criticise our great cultural traditions of misogyny, blind faith and conservatism. They are doing all this to destroy our social and family values, to hurt our religious sensibilities and furtively question our faith.

There is only the small matter of putting a handful of people on the right path: women, non-Muslims, artists, children, the poor, the Baloch who insists on protesting against the disappearance of his son, the Pakhtun who keeps being caught in other people’s wars, the Sindhi who nostalgically sticks to his Sufi past, the Saraiki who hankers after an identity, the Urdu-speaker who demands recognition and the Punjabi villager who is not willing to be seen as a part of a culture of political and economic domination. After we have reformed the wavered ways of all these sections of society, only then will we experience the best of times.

This was originally published in the Herald's July 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.