Thursday, August 26, 2010

A thought revolution

I have spent years crying silently for the brothers that I lost to a car accident and my father who died within five years of them, overcome with grief. I have hated that life went on as though nothing had happened; the condolences faded and soon enough it was business as usual. For the world. My mother and I lost all the men in our family but we were not reduced to abject poverty; tens of thousands of flood victims in Pakistan have the burden of grief as well as economic ruin. Millions are homeless. But as the intensity plateaus and tries to fade, Pakistanis are practicing the infamous mantra: sub theek ho jaye ga (everything will be alright).

Capitalizing on the glaring absence of the government and its unforgivable inefficiency, political mileage is sought by all quarters. Subservience to the British and to martial law have penetrated Pakistani psyche almost to the point of being a part of the national DNA. In times of trouble, martial law seems to be the default solution. Public memory is short and the struggles and bloodshed to remove dictatorship are swept away and the deep corruption within the army becomes the food of amnesia.

Pakistani billionaire Malik Riaz Hussain has pledged 75% of his fortune to the flood victims. The King, Crown Prince and Interior Minister of Saudi Arabia have donated millions of dollars from private funds and Saudi citizens have thronged flood relief centers. In face of that philanthropy is the niggardliness of Pakistani politicians. The Sharif clan donated Rs. 10 million, Zardari Rs. 5 million as did Altaf Hussain, while Yusuf Raza Gilani, not a “believer in cash donations” sent his son down with donation in kind. Seems the Quran address this issue well in Surah Baqarah (2:268): when you get ready to donate Satan puts the fear of poverty in your heart and you hold back.

Back to the army worship issue, brought to the fore by Altaf Hussain and Imran Khan’s welcome of the army. Pakistan is rudderless and no leader in the current potpourri is its panacea. It is also highly unlikely that an Ayatollah, Stalin, Mao or Lee Kuan Yew will emerge from one of the tenements anytime soon. We have always looked up to leaders to bring about a change, perhaps we need to have a grassroots movement, in something as simple as a thought revolution.

Pakistanis should not be delusional to think that replacement of ruling parties or martial law is that answer. The problem is corruption, unfortunately a national trait; democracy should not be sacrificed at the altar of our collective fury. Placement of processes and institution building is sorely needed in Pakistan. The history of all politicians on offer is sordid and to work for dislodging the present government in the hope of a better future is grossly misplaced. Zardari, the Sharif brothers, Altaf Hussain or Imran Khan are all the different faces of the same termite that eats away at a nation that is busy covering over corruption, unleashing mafia murders and harboring extremism.

As a citizenry we must bring about accountability, transparency, mandatory payment of taxes, the rule of law, abolition of feudalism and the marginalization of corruption. Every effort must be made to prevent corruption with all aid for flood victims. Be it a peon or a president, we must start with stark personal accountability and then apply that unchanging principle in each and every sphere of our influence. This, conglomerated, will be the flood that will salvage Pakistan.

As the floods take Pakistan back at least fifty years, perhaps a steady change in the way we think and live will cause the necessary paradigm shift. Maybe corruption will become unfashionable in Pakistan. What a thought!

Prior to the floods Pakistan was in the lower rung of the developing world. With 30% of the country under water, destruction of its agricultural mainstay as well as the ripple effect that this will have on its economy and national psyche, Pakistan is threatened with joining sub-Saharan Africa; a sea of brown water, outstretched hands and rampant disease as its marks on the memory.

Pakistani scholars, from Mufti Munibur Rahman to Tahirul Qadri and many others were asked whether they felt that the floods were a trial or a punishment. In a surprise show of unanimity they said that this was a time of trial for when God wishes to punish a people He wipes them off the face of the earth. Their Quranic quotations did not address the issue fully and they seemed typically smug. They unanimously discouraged Umra and non-obligatory Hajj trips as well as iftar and Eid parties, encouraging diversion of the funds to the flood victims.

But our patriotism starts and ends with the notes of the national anthem. Pakistanis both within and expatriate have this sickening survival of the fittest skill. Iftar parties are jamming along. Eid day invitations have arrived. APPNA, the Association of Physicians of Pakistani-Descent of North America will have its Fall Meeting in the ultra-luxurious Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne Florida. Lots of money has been raised for flood victims but nowhere near what could have been. I wonder what heart Pakistanis the world over have for celebrating iftars, Eid parties and the luxuries of the Ritz? It is tradition to not celebrate two consecutive Eids when we lose a loved one. Donating a paltry amount to flood relief and then skipping off to decide your iftar invitee list and your ritzy travel plans are representative of that same national rot that we love to blame the government for all the time. The enormity of the flood devastation calls for a decade of mourning.

The situation is so dire that any and all of our incomes beyond our basic needs must go toward rebuilding Pakistan. We must question each party, each purchase and each bite of food keeping the memory of the millions always alive in our minds.

This is our last chance as a nation. The change has to come from an individual level then a family level followed by a community level to permeate and repair the character and corruption leaks of Pakistan. It is a thought revolution that is needed in Pakistan, from the bottom up, not the typical blame game and passing the buck and always expecting change from leaders that put clowns to shame.

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