Letter to a Young Pakistani Muslim

A letter of special significance for me. In print in this morning’s issue of Pakistan Today. A big thank you to Mr. Tariq Ali, whose ‘Letter to a Young Muslim,’ inspired it, and to those who encouraged its composition.

Dear Friend,

It has been a while since we last met, but you are never far from my thoughts. I regularly see you on the news, I read about you. It seems everyone has a different theory about who you are and what you will do with your life. There is consensus however, that you have the potential to change Pakistan’s destiny, and by extension, that of the world. This is what I want to write to you about today.

You have been angry. Media coverage of you often includes commentary by political experts, on the different trajectories your life could take. Usually, the discussions are accompanied by an assortment of violent footage from across Pakistan.

Recent discussions included the bomb blasts in Quetta, the attacks on Muharram processions, the attempt on Malala’s life, and the destruction of public property across Pakistan in ‘respect’ for a man who believed in compassion. The experts cited the murders of Christians in Gojra, and Ahmadis in Lahore. They spoke of how a ‘latent radicalism that you had always possessed,’ had now possessed you.

When given the opportunity to speak for yourself, these horrific acts were regularly attributed to conspiracy theories, in which ‘invisible foreign elements’ featured disappointingly often.

I watched as you were written off, and the ‘Idea of Pakistan’ questioned. According to this narrative, the only future open to you is an increasingly radical one, which culminates in an explosion of violence, triggered by poor governance, ethnic intolerance, and above all, Islamic extremism.

I have listened, and I disagree.

What was, and is often forgotten are the other aspects of the young Pakistani Muslim. There is an alternative, more hopeful future for you to aspire to, and it can be found in the resilience which is exemplified by the stories of millions of young Pakistanis. These are the ones which garner limited attention.

These include the stories of ambulance drivers who risk everything to save lives immediately after suicide attacks. Those of schoolteachers who defy extremists daily, to educate. The stories of students who embarrass violent protesters by cleaning the streets. Those of individuals in Gilgit who shunned hatred last Muharram to organize a procession where Sunnis walked in tandem with Shias. Of valiant police officers who perish in terrorist attacks; youngsters who rush to donate blood for bombing victims; activists who unfailingly rally against extremism.

This is not to absolve those who have committed reprehensible atrocities in your name, nor to downplay the international community’s concerns about Pakistan, which are justified.

This letter is written to remind you that you are in-charge of your own destiny.

For there is a different young Pakistani Muslim within you. One who strives to make a positive impact on society, and seeks to build, not destroy. One who aspires to live in peace, and values social justice. A person who, instead of pointing abroad, asks: “What can Pakistanis do to improve their own conditions?”

I know of your qualities – zeal for education, whether at the schools in our cities, or the rugged mountains of Chitral, tirelessness when tending to the sick, kindness in dealing with the destitute, valour when protecting Pakistan’s borders. You engage in hard labour with dignity, and face adversity with spirit – during the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods, you worked steadfastly to help all in need, regardless of their background.

I have seen you going to masjids, jamaatkhanas, and imambargahs, all in search of meaning and comfort in prayer, as other young Pakistanis do when they frequent girjas, mandirs, and agiaris.

As you face life, you will be asked to choose between struggling for the realization of a peaceful society that embraces pluralism, versus submitting to one which promotes intolerance and is built upon fear. Do not be led astray by those who seek the latter by playing on religious and racial differences, for they are shallow beings driven by avarice and a limited world-view. Today, these individuals may wield influence and drive insecurity amongst Christians, Hindus, Parsis, and the multiple perspectives within Islam, but their reign need not last forever. Endeavour instead to understand why Islamic civilization made great scientific and social progress in its early centuries, particularly in centres of knowledge such as Baghdad, Cairo, and Toledo. Learn from the examples of Islamic regimes which actively protected the populations of other faiths.

Before journeying to protect the Faith abroad, ask how mutual respect amongst citizens can be established within Pakistan. Protect the minorities, for the very purpose of Pakistan’s creation was to protect a minority. This duty is but our collective obligation to Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who, on August 15th, 1947, delivered us this timeless guidance:

“This day marks the end of a poignant phase in our national history and it should also be the beginning of a new and a noble era. Let us impress the minorities by word, deed and thought that as long as they fulfill their duties and obligations as loyal citizens of Pakistan, they have nothing to fear.”

Instead of falling prey to the prejudices of bygone generations, understand that you can create a new civil order free if you realize the tremendous opportunity contained in your religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity. If the nation is to prosper, we must recognize this diversity as a competitive advantage, not as a source of contention. Combine these insights with your myriad talents and forge ahead to build a Pakistan where all are equal citizens of one state.

Indeed, these ideals were central to Allama Iqbal’s message, best stated in the quatrain inscribed upon the marble tombstone which marks his final resting place at Hazuri Bagh, Lahore:

 “Neither Afghan nor Turk nor Mongol, we belong to the garden and descend from the same ancestors. Distinction of colour and race are forbidden to us, for we are the harvest of a new spring.”

I hope, dear friend, that you will choose wisely, and attain your true potential.

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On the Radio: Khudi Ka Sir-e-Nihan, by Allama Iqbal

For two weeks in July, I was back in the Fatherland, Pakistan. On this trip, I had the opportunity to visit Lahore with my father, where we took a little time out on a Friday, to visit Sir Allama Iqbal’s burial site in Hazuri Bagh, before attending prayers at Badshahi Masjid. I will write about Badshahi Masjid in more detail later, but tonight my thoughts return to Iqbal. Though like most Pakistanis, I had heard a lot about Iqbal growing up, I knew little about his works of philosophy and poetry (also like most Pakistanis).

In recent years I have begun to familiarize myself with his works, and found them to be a refreshing source of truth an inspiration. In these years when truth and honesty seem so cheaply priced, Iqbal’s poetry remains a source of these missing elements. He is courageous and unapologetic with his words, as relevant today as they were over 70 years ago. I wanted to share with you, dear traveler, the ghazal below as we complete this evening’s drive. It has been performed by Shafqat Amanat Ali and Sanam Marvi, and is a rendition of Iqbal’s poem – Khudi Ka Sir-e-Nihan:

Thoughts at the End of 2011

Surod-e-rafta baaz ayad kay nayad
Naseem e az Hijaz ayad kay nayad

The song is departed, will its echo come or not
Will the beautiful breeze from Hijaz ever return

– Allama Muhammad Iqbal

Wish all my passengers a prosperous year ahead. Thank you for your company along the travels and travails. May our long drives continue.