COMMENT: Discussing a tragedy —Munir Attaullah
Is it not the case that we help in the relief effort not because there is a duty to do so, but out of simple human compassion and fellow feeling? Is the whole exercise not a voluntary affair, where some give generously, others modestly, and some nothing at all? If there is a duty at all, it is that of the government and not of an individual
If a calamity affects you (or your near and dear ones) directly, you are forced to act. Your mental energies become narrowly focused. For the time being, the outside world is shut out, as you get on with trying to cope as best as you can. It is not the time for philosophical musing.
But what if you are not that directly affected? If the tragedy happened in a distant land you might have some words of commiseration and sympathy to offer, but for all practical purposes you simply shrug it away. It is not really your business. Somewhere between these extremes is the case where the victims are your fellow citizens, where your concern is obviously greater than for those similarly ravaged by floods in China. So, what should be your response?
Returning to Pakistan in the midst of a major calamity, and as one not directly affected, this particular question — and a number of other related ones — has been foremost in my mind since. Taking in also what our media luminaries have to say, today’s column is an exercise in such introspection. Whether I (or you) will be any the wiser as a result I cannot say.
So let me begin with the flood relief effort. Should I be rushing to the stricken area, and man the boats or work in the relief camps? Or, is a financial contribution towards the effort undertaken by others sufficient? In this latter case, what should be the quantum of my contribution? Finally, is doing something — anything — in such a situation, a duty and an obligation, or is it simply to be classified as a voluntary though highly desirable act?
These are such simple questions that you might think it silly of me to even ask them. Some TV pundits are telling me that it is my duty to help. Others go further. I have heard it said that Allah has decreed that the mustahaqeen (deserving) actually have a right (over and above zakat) to a share of what you and I have. The corollary here is that if we do not voluntarily give the deprived and destitute what is rightfully theirs, they will be perfectly justified in forcibly taking it.
Now I can understand that those trying to raise funds will use every available motivational tool — including such talk — to get the rest of us to loosen our purse strings. But such loose talk, even in a good cause, coupled with the dire warnings from the same crowd of a looming khooni inquilab (bloody revolution) unless we mend our ways, is reckless and incendiary stuff. It adds fuel to those flames of hate that are already consuming our society. We already have far too much of taking the law in your own hands on the basis of alleged injustice, perceived or real.
Note that these worthies do not tell me what exact share of my wealth rightly belongs to the poor (or, for that matter, whether they themselves have honestly discharged such an obligation). It is all earnest but vague moralising about social and economic justice.
I should make it clear I am not casting any aspersions here on the sincerity of such people in holding and voicing such views. It is not their sincerity I doubt but the logic of their arguments and their mode of presentation: the former is faulty; the latter likely to add to the anarchy we already suffer from.
Consider the logic. Is it not the case that we help in the relief effort not because there is a duty to do so, but out of simple human compassion and fellow feeling? Is the whole exercise not a voluntary affair, where some give generously, others modestly, and some nothing at all? If there is a duty at all, it is that of the government and not of an individual.
But how can a government that does not have the resources under normal conditions to take care of all our needy and deprived, suddenly find the additional resources to adequately cope with a disaster of such a magnitude? If the response of the American government to Katrina was woefully inadequate, is it sensible to expect our government to do better? The bottom line is, no matter what we do it is going to be insufficient (yes, even with foreign aid). So, what good does such rhetoric do? Should we not simply be getting on with just doing our best?
I am for economic and social justice as much as the next person. And for good governance, an end to corruption and police brutality, and jobs and education for everyone (you name it), etc, etc. But why we should expect this to take anything other than decades of patience and slow evolution defeats me. I hear shrill voices from every direction telling me the current ‘nizam’ (system) has failed us totally, and that something has got to give. To this end, Mr Altaf Hussain has openly invited ‘patriotic’ generals to come forward and save the country (incidentally all the wriggling since, by him and his party hacks, to ‘explain what he really meant’ will not wash, as anyone who saw his interview with a TV channel will confirm. Not only that but he was also advocating therein that the flood victims should simply forcibly grab the lands and properties of their waderas and jagirdars).
Well, what do you think? Will a different ‘nizam’ (not really different — for we have been there before — but a new variant) magically lift 50 million or so above the poverty line, create the same number of jobs, and eradicate all our social evils?
For a country with such abysmal human development indices, we have an amazing number of geniuses floating around. As a microcosm of what I mean, think of the PCB and our cricket affairs. Everyone, from Imran Khan, Miandad, and a host of ex-cricketers, down to sportswriters, politicians and the man on the street, knows what is wrong and has his own unique recipe for making us the best in the world. Others know how to regain our former Islamic glory, or to wrest Kashmir, or to do without the international community. As for domestic politics…well, you know what I mean. Hardly any two people agree with each other on anything.
Squabbling and fighting with — and lecturing — each other (always in the name of truth or justice, etc) is the national pastime. Is it too much to ask that for once, can we just focus all our energies on one issue: helping as much, and as best, as we can, the flood victims?
The writer is a businessman. A selection of his columns is now available in book form. Visit munirattaullah.com