Sunday, August 15, 2010

Comprehending the catastrophe

Regardless of one’s persuasion when faced with catastrophes and personal suffering the question ‘why’ always comes up. And with all that Pakistan has been through in variegated forms from terrorism to economic collapse and now the floods, for Pakistanis it is not a simple question but a chorus of agony.

On a mundane and scientific level it appears that global warming is to blame. About 14 million people have been affected by the floods making it more disastrous than the South East Asian tsunami and the Haitian earthquake combined. According to scientists ‘a supercharged jet-stream’ is responsible for the floods and landslides in Pakistan and China and an extreme heat wave in Russia and one that killed 60 people in Japan in July.

Meteorologists are unsure of the root cause but seem to favor that rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will drive up the number of extreme heat events. This same effect and the ‘supercharged jet stream’ are blamed for the floods in the UK in 2007 and the heat wave then in Eastern Europe.

Antiquated irrigation systems and the lack of repair of irrigation leaks have compounded the situation in Pakistan. And the deforestation mafia created the final straw causing rivers to barrel down in mammoth fury.

The count now is over 1600 dead and 20 million affected but what of entire villages that have been swallowed by the waters? As weeks go on and the floodwaters recede the actual devastation will become apparent and the fact that a struggling nation has been pulled back another fifty years from current civilization is likely to emerge. And now killer diseases like cholera can claim more lives.

After the 7.0 Richter scale earthquake in Haiti in January evangelical priest Pat Robertson claimed that the earthquake had hit Haiti as it had “made a pact with the devil” referring to voodoo rituals carried out before a slave rebellion against the French colonists in 1791. After Hurricane Katrina in 2006 John Hagee another evangelical pastor said "I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that. There was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that Hurricane Katrina came”. However in 2008, Hagee backed away from his comments regarding Hurricane Katrina by saying, "But ultimately neither I nor any other person can know the mind of God concerning Hurricane Katrina. I should not have suggested otherwise”.

But we love to second guess God, don’t we? Explaining the current floods crisis the ultra-right claims God’s wrath for the Lal Masjid fiasco and the pact with the Great Satan aka America. And the mystics say they knew His fury was not far when Data Ganj Baksh’s shrine was attacked.

If only His will were that simple and events so elementary to dissect. If the Lal Masjid fiasco is to be blamed, why does its primary perpetrator Pervez Musharraf sit in luxurious dry land in England?

Hadith Qudsi 25 states: “Whosoever shows enmity to someone devoted to Me, I shall be at war with him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask [something] of Me, I would surely give it to him, and were he to ask Me for refuge, I would surely grant him it”. This is widely taken to describe the auliya-Allah or the friends of God of whom Data Ganj Baksh was one. And yet the thinking mind wonders why God would decimate thousands of innocents for the disrespect of one?

While the Bible and the Quran are graphic about God’s wrath and ascribe a reason each time, it is important to grasp the concept of Divine retribution, or sin and result, but not to play God and float theories regarding our terrible state.

Several verses in the Quran speak of God’s retribution against the defiance of the people of Prophets Lut, Nuh, Shuaib, Hud and Moses. Chapter Ankabut (29:40) encapsulates the other verses well: “Each one of them(wicked people) We seized for his crime: of them, against some We sent a violent tornado (with showers of stones); some were caught by a (mighty) Blast; some We caused the earth to swallow up; and some We drowned (in the waters): It was not Allah Who injured (or oppressed) them: They injured (and oppressed) their own souls.”

Like my friend Saeed Akhtar Malik wrote “our day of reckoning has come, it seems”. Something has gone awfully wrong with all things Pakistani: corruption, moral and monetary, is part of our social fabric. Even if we wanted to it seems we could not escape it. The disconnected power-elite wallow in it, the middle class and the poor indulge to make ends meet. Killing has no worldly or moral consequence it seems. Our moral compass was teetering, seems absent now. For all our claims to religiosity, there is widespread use of black magic for quick attainment of relevant desires. Black magic is akin to the unforgivable sin of shirk or associating an entity with God. Forget taxes to the State one wonders how many in the Islamic Republic practice the fourth pillar of Zakat. If the obscenely wealthy gave 2 ½ % of their assets to charity in Pakistan we would not be dirt poor.

The stark incompetence of the government at the time of its people’s greatest need, spending its time doing damage control over its leader’s foreign trips and shoe adventures is a travesty but another chapter in many similar ones. Extremist organizations are filling the void in the hardest hit areas promising to generate greater militancy in the future.

Our focus needs to be reformation at the personal, community and then national levels. It is very Pakistani to generate fire and brimstone explanations of natural disasters and also to theorize about the future. The Internet is replete with predictions of an army takeover or an Islamic revolution.

We would be better served if we went through an exhaustive personal moral inventory and contribution of any kind to the humanitarian disaster. If ever there was a wake-up call this is it. Pakistan already is in a state of anarchy. If we don’t galvanize quickly it is threatened with extinction.

Tail-piece: As events unfold one can’t help but think that the one thing that the populace can be incriminated for is electing a government that has institutionalized corruption. And it is entirely weird that the greatest ravages are in Sind, the stronghold of the PPP. The flood victims are hungry and homeless awaiting government help-the leader of which entertained himself and his coterie with an expensive European trip-all while his government is missing in action.

Mahjabeen Islam is a columnist, family physician and addictionist. She can be reached at