May 17, 2015

The massacre of Ismaili Muslims in Karachi

I had barely begun to grieve my friend Sabeen Mahmud's death that the Ismaili bus massacre happened on May 13th in Karachi. Like many others - lost in our loss, raw in our pain - I feel anguished and insane. A friend's email today helped quell the shaking inside me, bringing me a little bit back to me.

date: Sun, May 17, 2015 at 11:36 PM
subject: Wednesday

Dear _________,

We live in a war and at times assert everydayness in our lives as a line of resistance. Many do more, and some do less, and it fluctuates over time for each of us.  This is probably not just because this particular war is one of attrition which allows everydayness to continue, while deliberated, not wanton, acts of violence take away loved ones and chip away at the spirit.  I guess even in full blown wars such as we see in Syria or Yemen a vast majority are not participants for either side or even active partisans for peace, but mere victims and spectators clinging on to whatever everydayness life wrests from war.

The massacre of last Wednesday left me dumbfounded.  Not because I did not expect that such a thing could happen. And certainly not because it challenged, fundamentally, what I understood about this war and my role in it. But I think that I was dumbfounded for two reasons.  One was the deep deep sadness that Ismaili Muslims had been so brutally targeted.  It was a perplexing sadness because so many others have been targeted for their faith, their absence of faith, their political views, their ethnicity, and for their acts of defending the rights of others.  Why should I feel such silencing sadness that Ismaili Muslims were attacked in this way?

Soon after, I began to understand the reason for the shock that I felt. It was not that I have had friends who happened to be Ismaili from my childhood onwards, which I have, or that I live in a predominantly Ismaili neighbourhood, which I do.  When I got home that evening I sensed that same depth of silent sadness on the face and in the voice of our compound chowkidar Abid.  He is a Pashtun who hails from Shangla and his family have been with our little micro-community for decades.  Abid shook his head, muttered something like ‘zulm’ and turned away. I did not believe, that being someone who does not believe, I would ever find insight in the words of a religious leader.  But the Aga Khan’s statement touched the silent sadness that both Abid and I had felt.  He said something about how this was a senseless attack on a peaceful community.

I guess this is what deep down, Abid and I had been feeling all day.  A senseless attack. A peaceful community.  In most cases I would put such statements down to the ticking of a box on the part of a leader who does have to say something. And perhaps it was. What do I know about the inner workings of the community and its leadership? And I am a cynic anyway.  Of course all attacks on innocents are senseless, and most people who are attacked are themselves peaceful. That is the nature of political violence, isn’t it? But on this occasion these words meant a lot more.

Everyone who has grown up in Karachi knows that there is something profoundly peace-seeking in the collective identity of many of the religious communities, particularly those from Gujarat.  Yes they have money, and of course, individuals behave as well or badly as anyone, but the collective ethos is that of a studied avoidance of political conflict.  It is not just the Ismailis, of course. The same would be felt deep down, almost instinctively, about the Dawoodi Bohras and the Parsis.  If you attack someone from any of these communities for an individual grouse that is something else. But to attack them just because they happen to belong to these communities is an affront – for the identity which you target is intrinsically honed to being peaceful – a peaceful community!  You attack innocence, not in the sense that the individuals who suffer are any more or less innocent than other victims of political violence, but you assault what has been a cultivated adoption of innocence.  In some ways when you attack the conscious and patient acquisition of innocence it feels like worse than murdering children who are innocence by definition, by etymology – who can’t but help being innocent. So all this Abid and I knew deep down without having had to reflect upon it, and it sickened us to our guts.  And since I knew a little more than Abid about the history of Ismaili persecution and survival, well let’s just say that intellectualism in this particular case, uniquely, made the emotional awareness of zulm even deeper.

But that was just one reason for the dumbfoundedness.  I rang up my cousin and husband, your neighbours in Ameenabad to inquire about the safety of their family.  They both work for the AKES. My cousin Meena Baji said that they were safe but that many of the victims were parents of children in the schools she looks after, so she was in the middle of a most traumatic situation.  Her husband Noor Ali sounded stoical.  There was an urgent personal reason to call them. Noor Ali’s sister lives in Federal B Area and at that point it was not clear where the bus had come from.  There was also a vague reason to reach out to you because you might have had relatives there.  But there was another, somewhat disturbing reason.  And this, you will see is connected to Zeenia Shaukat’s message on Facebook.  She wrote that a lot of people want to offer their condolences to the community.  The ‘community’ she says is shy of too much publicity, but here is a number and an e-mail address where you can register your condolence discretely.  Why do we need to condole with the ‘community’?

Should I reach out to you or to Zeenia, or to Amin, or to Asif Merchant, or to Mrs Mevawalla or to my other friends and neighbours who happen to be from the Ismaili community to condole or to express solidarity.  At one level it is obvious enough that I should because that identity which is a part of your life has been attacked, so you have been attacked, and you must know that I stand by you.  But then our friendships and relationships are not premised on you being an Ismaili and me being a whatever, and this has never been a factor in what we share.  Is this what is meant by chipping away at the spirit, when we are forced to acknowledge someone who is our own as another by expressing solidarity for an aspect of their identity which is incidental to our relationship?  To not acknowledge is to needlessly create a silence where there should have been solidarity, and to acknowledge would be to ‘other’.  Who said that the war was only an attack on our bodies?