There are memories we treasure and some that we just hold on to for life. What can a nine year old’s mind find important enough to cling to? 

The year was 1974, and I was a fourth grader in a public school in Jhelum, Punjab. I could see, even walk to the banks of Jhelum River from our school’s playground. I played base-ball, hopscotch, house with friends and sometimes I played with dolls by myself. I was a keen student who loved to dress up every morning for school in crisp white cotton uniform and red ribbons in my hair. I loved reading chapter books and fancying the imaginary world of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and tales of Ameer Hamza and Umrau Ayyar. I waited anxiously for the new issue of Taleem o Tarbiyat and Naunehaal sometimes to see my contributions in them. I participated in debates, declamations and milaads and majalis. I biked to school at times and rode a tonga on others.

Too long, too nostalgic of a preamble? Not really, for the days were fun and life was good!

But then I remember a day when we all assembled for our principal’s speech that I did not comprehend well at that time. I heard her saying that no one was permitted to discuss anything about Ahmadis (who were declared non-Muslims the day before), or engage in a conversation that may “hurt fellow Ahmadi students.” Needless to say, neither she nor any of the faculty staff were Ahmadi. There was perhaps very few Ahmadis in a school of close to a thousand students. I came home confused that day. I thought we were all Muslims, me and everyone else living around me. In fact I never paid attention to who we all were. We were people. In the following days, I recall having conversations on the matter with my parents in an effort to tame my confused mind. I might not have gotten the answers but I did get the message that stayed with me for life: every human life is precious and every faith is to be respected.

Fast forward to 2010, precisely May 28th.  Two Ahmadi places of worship (as that is what I am permitted to address those as) were being attacked by armed men. I was watching live coverage of the blood-soaked mayhem and was enraged at the ineffectiveness of our law enforcing agencies again that day. I posted something on Facebook about the heartbreaking tragedy, and three of my two hundred friends replied, those three being Ahmadi themselves of course. I still have that post saved in my memory, both digital and mental. It serves as a reminder of how our society has transformed.

But who can I talk to now?  Can I discuss this with people around me without being judged or labeled? Can I say this about everyone who shares this planet with me that no one deserves to be hurt on account of the faith they chose to practice and propagate?

I am repeatedly reminded that I live in times where we are no longer confused and know clearly as a society that only Muslims, and that too a domain that is deemed right by the so called authorities in Islam, are the righteous and that the Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and other non-Muslims or even some ‘mistaken Muslims’ are on the ‘wrong path’ and hence their lives being subject to danger is a matter of lesser importance. I live in a world where we choose to stay silent because even the slightest hint of sympathy we have, finds a little corner in ourselves called fear that keeps the fire of ignorance alive.

So on May 28th this year, I spoke my mind and tweeted in support of the oppressed Ahmadis in Pakistan. Beena Sarwar replied to thank me for raising my voice, ‘because every voice counts.’ So, I decided to pen this voice in my heart with a hope that it will count, or at least be heard.

Who am I? I am a citizen of Pakistan and I call it home. I was born and I lived the first thirty years of my life there before I migrated to US. I am a citizen of Jinnah’s Pakistan. That is my only association with the Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. I have not had the opportunity of seeing the Quaid in person of course. I have not even met any of his companions or confidantes who made Pakistan happen. I have not seen the mothers who lost their sons in the migration or sisters or wives whose loved ones were no longer there to be with them when they set foot on this free land. I am unfortunate not to have lived in their times. But I can discern that it was because of him that the first breath I took in this world was that of freedom, the very freedom that he assured upon his nation, and therefore that is all I want for myself and for others who call Pakistan home. I wish I could say I am fortunate to live in these times but then I have seen and have met and sadly enough, I am one of the many who lost their loved ones at the hands of religious violence in Jinnah’s Pakistan of today. I am really no one but a commoner who still loves and worries for Pakistan. I am neither a history enthusiast nor a student of politics or religion to know if Jinnah wanted a secular state or not. But I am not concerned whether Pakistan was meant to be a religious or a secular state. All I care is that the life of every citizen of Pakistan is valued and equally so. I dream of a Pakistan where religious diversity is respected rather than persecuted, where society is tolerant to the differences and protects and honorably recognizes those who are different from the majority.

Morals of a nation are defined by its individuals, not by their religion. Yet, even in a secular society, freedom of religion is the most treasured of the freedoms. The government has a key role in making sure that this freedom is there for its citizens. It should not however attempt to tell, like in the dark days of General Zia, when or how or even whether to practice a religion. I share the opinion of those who want the government neither to promote, nor to disparage religion.

Then I question if religion is even ‘needed or relevant’ in present times? I do not know the answer but it is challenging to deny the fact that in present day world, religion plays a role in socio-politico-economic situations pertaining to conflict resolution, security issues and humanitarian relief efforts. So for me to ask for the freedom of religion, I have to be ready to live in a tolerant, not discriminating society, whether religious or secular, that honors and endeavors to attain these goals.

I hear the rhetoric of religion being ‘the root cause of present day unrest in the world.’  An ordinary student of history can recognize that even behind the Holocaust, China’s Revolution, Central Africa’s ethnic cleansing, Stalinist purge and more recently Rwanda and Bosnian crisis, was not religion but more context-dependent complexity of agendas. Even secular regimens have used violence to forward their motives. History has witnessed violence in the name of religion but also at the hands of communism, fascism or socialism.

So the ever ongoing debate of secularism vs religiosity is not that imperative as the objective of both is to attain civility in a society. The betterment of humanity comes from this concept of civility, not the ‘ideology’ or the ‘ism’ that recruits the concept.

One of the renowned agnostics of today, Melanie Phillips, an Oxford educated British has admitted:

“One does not have to be a religious believer to grasp that the core values of Western civilization are grounded in religion, and to be concerned that the erosion of religion observance therefore undermines these values and the ‘secular ideas’ they reflect.”

Religion serves two main purposes which are essentially the core of any faith: First it drafts the principles of conduct for its followers to interact with fellow human beings and secondly, it teaches the follower the way to connect with God/ Gods/ the Creator/the Divine/ Deity/ the Supernatural. The former is the basis of ethics or moral philosophy in a society and is common even if not identical, in all religions. The latter is a personal discourse that differs in its details but does not and should not impact others.

Religious diversity in a society is imperative to religious freedom and tolerance. In Pakistan, a planned purging of minorities was destined to yield to the intolerance and insensitivity that we observe today. This minority and now ethnic cleansing was purposefully supported by the socio-political charter of every government. Sadly, we as individuals forwarded or at least gave in to this agenda. We all must share the responsibility.

The awareness of right and wrong is the very basic thread in the weave of a society and it emanates from its individuals and not necessarily the ruling elements. Laws cannot and should not enforce righteousness. They are there to punish the wrong doers.This is a concept that is outlined by Dallin Oaks, the head of the Mormon Church here:

“When a constitution covers more and more, the scope of its protection is likely to become less and less.”

If we want to preserve religious freedom, or for that matter, any freedom in a society, we the people need to recognize and appreciate the value attached to it. We can go to our mosques, churches, temples or for those who for now have the un-assigned “places of worship”, to get that message. Those among us, who do not need an organized effort like this, should be free to choose not to. We must also be mindful of the fact that freedom of religion is the freedom not only to choose to follow and practice a religion but also the right to change, convert to another religion or ideology, or the lack thereof.

So if my voice matters, I am all for a secular government, a constitution that defines but does not discriminate its citizens. Religiosity of a society is a good thing for me as long as I can freely and respectably follow mine.

There are no winners in the war of wrath and anger. So those among us, who suffer at the hands of intolerance and injustice today in Pakistan, please remember that there are many a voices in the crowd with you and many more against you. Try not to lend a contentious ear to the ones shouting against you. Listen to the ones that support you, acknowledge their support and strengthen their hope, because in the end, hope lives.

And those who opt to stay silent for you are willing to die, one piece at a time.