An Open Letter to Karen Armstrong

by Aasem Bakhshi

This letter was written in 2013 as a self-reflection exercise in response 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

9780199063307Earlier this week, I was visiting a small roadside bookstall when I discovered your letter. I picked it up, almost offhand, as if it was dropped in my mailbox. It proved to be a page-turner and unable to resist, I skimmed it standing 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.

While driving back, I kept reflecting on some finer nuances of your discourse from various angles, as well as your 'charter of compassion' and found it necessary to engage with you at a more intimate 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.

Should I tell you about my favorite work of yours? No, it's not about histories of God or fundamentalism, or genesis of faith-based traditions; rather, it's the one about your own climb out of so-called darkness through that proverbial spiral staircase 2. On a lighter note, I do understand that you love to tell the world about yourself, since it's your third autobiography. However, I found it amazing to find in you a person who has opted for religious truth, found it uncongenial, learnt ways to handle that uncongeniality and finally ended up being empathetic to it; that too, despite your ultimate disregard of its metaphysical truth value.

But I tend to digress, since 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 when your friend Charlotte invited you over to meet her friend June who was an editor? Remember when June asked you to 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, the tragicomic side of it. To broaden your perception means revealing where I am most vulnerable. After all, and please pardon my repetition, it's 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 the foremost principle of your proposed, we must first ensure that you understand your presumed audience.

Of the Silent Choir

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, it's your a priori assumption before you move forward to develop the rest of your charter. So let me tell you a little more about the silent choir.

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 brutally or Irfan Ali Khudi, the activist who was killed in a bomb blast in Quetta as he was helping the victims of another bomb blast that happened few minutes ago or that glorious martyr of compassion, the beautiful Sabeen Mahmud. Of course, there are many more.

Isn't it 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 elegantly. 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. The boy ostensibly wanted to get a good look at the scene. Few people were about to get violent with the van driver. Huddle was building up and there were already like fifty 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 theoretically customary upon encountering such eventuality. Already a minute was passed when I asked my wife whether we should 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 it's 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 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, but somehow I am pathologically unable to live by the compassionate ideals. Trust me, your charter of compassion would not change my existential pathetic condition 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 it's a quite frequent happenstance here. Collectively speaking, it's almost a norm. It is always difficult to recollect what exactly goes through in my mind at such moments.

I am trying hard not to talk 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.

Anyway, we bought strawberries and I said to my wife in a somewhat regretful 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, it's a strange inexplicable feeling where 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.

It's 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 it's time to practically stick to the ideals.

Do you know that incident about the young man in Karachi who kept hanging to the eighth floor window pane 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 television 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. It's not only silent, it's also awestruck. And it's 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?

Of Compassion and other Obscure Ideals

As evident from your primary assumption, I see you compartmentalizing Pakistani society in two distinct compartments, that is, 1) the suicidal terrorist or the extremist radical, and 2) who does not essentially belongs to the first category. And this particular compartmentalization supplies you with an unwarranted assumption that the latter somehow believes in an ideal of compassion. So let me briefly characterize the proverbial choir for you. I don't want to waste your time in tracing our now somewhat shared, common roots of socio-political romanticism, the individual, the liberty, the search for a universally valid ethics, the ideals to live and die for. You obviously know it far better than me. I also understand that socio-political ideologies are never stringently located on the extremes of liberalism and conservatism in their respective highest possible degrees. I am also well aware of the perennial ongoing discussion to place a plethora of ideologies in between, such as 1libertarian conservatism or conservative liberalism.

What I am interested in, however, is how your perceive myself. Me, the smallest part of this chunk of matter you called choir; that is, the proverbial quark inside the atom. Because, only after knowing the exact shape and structure of this quark that you would be able to visualize the atom more meaningfully.

I understand that it has been another perennial problem in the history of human study to sufficiently characterize an individual; but still the modernity, besides giving way to absurd generalization and compartmentalization of all learning mechanisms, has at least established that an individual, besides his own subjective consciousness, is a minimum possible meaningful by-product of the histories, psychologies and attitudes surrounding him. Hence, our subsequent arrival at some elegant linguistic tools to characterize an individual. In this respect, Pakistani individual, albeit being similar to any other individuals of the world in the biological sense, defies all these existing tagging mechanisms. He is essentially a new commodity in the global market of ideological associations. You have to invent new sociological tools to study such an individual, just like you need new and advanced logic to dig truth out of a statement that seems to contradicts itself.

(I see you blinking your eyes at my alleged, almost morbid cynicism but let me tell you that I am no old die-hard self-despising cynic. If I didn't believe in the power of humane ideals, I would not have been conversing with you at first place. Rather, I just wish to reveal it to you that each and every Pakistani belonging to the choir is literally a walking human paradox.)

You should not doubt this statement for a second if you wish to continue teaching us about rediscovering compassion. Sorry for my seemingly condescending attitude, but let me make things a little bit simpler for you to understand. In this imagined community, there is a kind of individual who sincerely wishes that he was not born here, and that is kind of an enough adumbration of his likely paradoxes. Lets call him Liberal-1 for the sake of our conversation. Liberal-2 is an individual who loves to call himself the sole bearer of liberal values, that is, he is for all kind of social reform and progress, and loves to challenge authoritarianism in all its manifestations. His paradox is extremely hard to catch but it lies in a kind of counter-cultural outlook that he tries to project, particularly an aura of impurity among the purest of pure (did you smell a tinge of sarcasm?). In a nutshell, he wants to portray himself as a by-product of classical European Enlightenment without actually going through the process of enlightenment rooted in his own social milieu. A mirror image of the above is Conservative-1, whose misery is no different than Liberal-2, that is, he would love to call himself a conservative, and would always insist to go back to the 2tradition, but would ask at the same time to reserve the right to pick and choose from the fruits of modernity. His misplaced anachronistic notions of history and tradition, and his pathological agitation towards modernity gives birth to dangerous and lethal paradoxes. Lastly, there is a Conservative-2 who generally moves all along the spectrum of ideological associations. He is subconsciously conservative and always kind of apprehensive in being tagged as liberal; that is, he intelligently and carefully picks and chooses from Liberal-2 and Conservative-1. At times he is liberal in his sociological outlook but when it comes to what liberalism entails in the domain of politics for instance, he conveniently switches to conservativism. Furthermore, he is fixated in a unique semiotic framework arising due to various socio-religious conflicts. In his framework, for example, booze and coke are far greater vices than blatant lying and hypocrisy. As I said, he picks and chooses almost whimsically. This unique framework is apt to raise equally unique paradoxes.

So what do we end up having here? Not one, two, or three, but a whole lot of walking paradoxes; audacious in their precious confoundedness, skittering in a huddle, with their heads towards the sky. Heck, I have now understood while writing these words! it's in fact a coalescence, an amazing congregation of paradoxes! So next time when you sit to draft the Charter of Compassion 2.0, you must keep in mind the kind of choir you need to compel to start singing. Do you really reckon they would sing in unison? Can a single monolithic ideal of compassion bind them together? Has it ever happened anywhere in few thousand years of known human history?

In your letter, you talked about such lovely notions as “compassion being at the heart of all religious, spiritual and ethical traditions”, and about alleviating the suffering of other people, and not to consider them inferior in any way. I especially liked the bit about “inviolable sanctity” of the other and “dethroning” oneself from the “centre of the world” and putting the other there. You also embellished your charter with beautiful small examples for Pakistani students; how Wilfred Cantwell Smith used to fast, pray and observe various religious rituals to get momentarily into the shoes of the 'other'; how Toshihiko Izutsu rediscovered the subtleties of Arabic word Hilm in Quran; and how all the great sages of antiquity such as Confucius, Lao Tzu and Buddha followed the so-called Golden Rule – that is to emphasize the compassionate part of their traditions and reject the part that is suspicious about the other.

But this simply does not make any difference because here we follow our own golden rules. Not one, but two. “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” Do these lines ring any bell? Well, this is the first Golden Rule we follow in the land of the pure. For must we necessarily pollute our minds with the vulgar impurities of the so-called rich and pluralist tradition of Takṣaśilā or Indus Valley? Must we befuddle the innocent young and old minds with elusiveness of history, culture and tradition? Why not, instead, create our own new innovative textbooks3, while complying with the second Golden Rule, that is: “the best books … are those that tell you what you know already.

So here is a million dollar question: what do we know already? And the answer: We know what people like Naseem Hijazi has told Dastan-e-mujahid-title us. I presume you don't know much about the single most important historian of first fifty years of Pakistan 4. If there is one man that forces me to accept George Orwell the literary prophet of last century, it is Naseem Hijazi. (I see bewilderment in your eyes once again but you must bear with me.) We, the present Pure generation, is a generation who has grown up visualizing itself being part of the whole belligerent spectrum, that is, from landing on the coast of Deebal, breaking into the temples of Raja Dahir with our flashy swords and freeing those wailing women from Raja's horrendous dungeons, to fighting in the armies of Siraj-ud-Daula and Tipu Sultan. During these intensive and bloody conquests (and occasional defeats, only to rise up again with new valor), If we have ever found ourselves in a compassionate love triangle, it has to be somewhere around Basra, amidst preparations to launch missions for upcoming battles of Hind and Khurasan. We have successfully created our own cherished history, our own culture and of course, the all-compassionate Muslim heroes. At least the last two, that is Conservative-1 and Conservative-2 are the by-product of this imagined historical paradigm, always in a discompassionate merciless tension with Liberal-1 and Liberal-2.

That pretty much sums up the choir. So now you are able to see that the world is indeed our oyster but not to explore and implement any compassionate ideals but in a completely twisted way; the peculiar way of a colonial cultural narcissist of good old Victorian times. And a traditional cultural narcissist as well, that is, one who is adamant to create a new imagined culture out of nothing.

Would you now let me ask some simple questions. Is it possible to dethrone a cultural narcissist from the center of his world? Can he truly be able to love the other? With inviolable sanctity? How does a cultural narcissist, completely devoid of any universal aesthetics other than those meant to explore and incessantly magnify his own beauty, conceptualize God? What about the so-called natural climax of Abrahamic tradition that claims to bear the ultimate complete truth in its final form? What about knowledge? And what about those beautiful pointers towards compassion in the whole scriptural tradition?

Of Possibilities

David Foster Wallace has somewhere written that narcissism is part of depression. But Wallace's characterization is only partially true for a kind of narcissism leading to nihilism, which in a grim way ultimately forces the individual to consume himself. There are other, arguably more stark, forms of narcissism. And cultural narcissism is one such form. A egotist cultural narcissist had a twisted view of reality, which is not only self-centered but also self-protruding, that is all reality emanates from his own self. Consciously or subconsciously, he keeps circumambulating around the Kaaba of his imagined lofty narratives, going on an on in circles without ever having a slight tinge of doubt. Nothing captures him more than his version of cherished reality, of which he is the origin as well as the terminus;Narcissism always situated in the center of his universe, audacious and fearless of his infallibility.

Consequently, all other ideals are redefined, and those which cannot be redefined are forcefully diminished as invalid, with respect to that reality. Not only that but all the human faculties, such as the abilities to reason, reflect and argue, inadvertently fortify these new definitions. Let me once again emphasize that I am talking about All the Ideals. The liberty of the individual, the love of the other, the truth to be deciphered from the revelation, other humanist ideals such as empathy and justice, and the one you mentioned as the seventh step of your charter: “to know the other”.

God is no exception. Isn't He too a supreme ideal to be imagined, after all? Therefore, it is not that a Purist Pakistani – a large part of the choir – is incapable of compassion and empathy with the 'other' but that all these notions are conditioned according to his imagined structures of reality. In the political manifestations of these cherished structures of reality, the 'other' is essentially viewed as an entity to be released from the shackles of darkness and brought into the open arms of an imagined Islamic ideal. Doesn't it seem a lovely cosmological framework to encompass all polity? From darkness to the light? I mean, who would theoretically disagree to that? It's simple and elegant; and if you are already fed on romantically imagined, flimsy and incomplete socio-historical narratives, you are not only conditioned to make perfect sense of it within your precept, but also Khilafahideologically prepared to take it forward to the next step.

In these imagined narratives, the world, – which is in utter darkness – will be brought to light before the end of days. Did I hear you say something to yourself ? Ahh, you are probably thinking that such eschatologies are shared by many other religions of the world and there is nothing unique as such. I agree to that but here comes the really innovative part: the final phase of this perennial conflict between the forces of light and darkness will start from Pakistan. After clearing the first two steps, that is an Islamic caliphate in AF-Pak and India, and submission of all modern heathens, caliphate would start expanding and reach its natural limits when all the universe will be unified under an enlightened Islamic polity.

Would you disagree that bringing nations of the world from the darkness to light is not enough pursuance of a compassionate ideal?

I can go on and on but it is not my desire to keep you engaged at length with our intricate and innumerable miseries. Bickering about your well intended charter of compassion hasn't been slightest of my motivations, needless to mention that I do resonate with it in broad terms; what I wanted to tear apart, rather, was myself. Remember that urge to reveal the innermost?

And now when you presumably know the silent majority a little more, I must tell you in the end why the charter of compassion won't work. It is not because the conservatives would refuse to take the prep-talk about the compassionate side of their religion from an atheist, and the liberals would remain indifferent to any religious enquiry whatsoever; rather, its futility lies in its failure to recognize the actual problem. Unable to reach to the core of the Pakistani problem, the whole charter tries to place it within the domain of religious interpretation. Thus it projects the so-called Golden Rule of emphasizing in tradition what should provoke empathy for the 'other' and downplaying what is considered insensitive. I ask you what is it, if not a cunning contrivance? Isn't it simple picking and choosing with wise gimmickry? Aren't all the religious bigots in this country among liberals and conservatives, the sundry drum-beaters projecting Armageddon scenarios every other day, and even the suicidal radicals, doing the same thing; that is picking and choosing?

In the charter, you have time and again insinuated to reject the so-called authoritarian interpretations of religion and tradition, and embrace the more humanistic ones. Well, the cultural narcissist – making large part of the silent majority – whose reality is already transposed, is exactly doing it inadvertently, but for those views which are essentially consistent with his version of reality. Because, all of us necessarily think and act according to our own perceptions of realities and corresponding Muslim-coupleworld-views. Post-modern socio-political thought structures have at least provided some basis to argue that all of us do enjoy this right, and be ready to eat the fruits of this liberty.

In my opinion, what we instead have to do, is to somehow extract the problem from the domain of religion or tradition – where you tend to put it – to the domain of aesthetics, that is the highest point of the pyramid of hierarchy. In other words, we have to explore the relationship of individual with the world according to his notion of what is beautiful, rather than many other alternative notions, such as what his religious belief entails and whether and how he can perceive the 'other' from various standpoints.

I hate to reiterate that I do not speak from the position of a critic or a scholar, but just a Pakistani who has read you and understood you as the 'other'. Through your writings, I have found in you a uniquely profound dimension to believe in humanity and the humane ideals. For what can be a more truer perception of 'other', than being able to perceive his God from his own standpoint. I don't characterize you as an atheist but one that is kind of perplexed in placing faith in God as an ultimately real being or as an ideal to be imagined. Most of us who choose to believe in God as a real Being, have a tendency to define Him according to our own perceptions of reality.

Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was reported to have said that Allah is beautiful and loves beauty. In my view, a large majority of Pakistani society has a problem with imagination and not with inaction or insensitivity to move towards achieving a compassionate ideal, and subsequently, a humane society. If we want to compel this proverbial choir to sing in harmony, and in an audible voice, we must first challenge their notions of beauty with full force. And there can't be any stronger form of this challenge than challenging their perception of God. For how can believers in an ugly and insensitive God strongly believe in a beautiful and compassionate world-view. We can only rediscover a cogent framework for compassion by bringing all other questions related to sociology of religion under a universal aesthetics.

Regards and peace.

***

  1. Karen Armstrong. A Letter to Pakistan. Oxford University Press, 2011
  2. Karen Armstrong. The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. Anchor Books, 2005
  3. Aziz, Khursheed Kamal. The murder of history: A critique of history textbooks used in Pakistan. Vanguard, 1993; also see recently published Nadeem F. Paracha. End of the Past. Vanguard, 2016
  4. Ahmed, Manan. The Many Histories of Muhammad b. Qasim: Narrating the Muslim Conquest of Sindh. Diss. University of Chicago, Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, 2008. (Chapter 4)
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