Over the last few years, I have come to dread the social media in the aftermath of a violent attack. This fear has eclipsed the fear of the violent attack itself. While violence erupts, and in some cases is caused to erupt, almost everywhere in the world, my social media circles tend to go into overdrive in one of two cases. First is the violence that happens in Pakistan. This violence is very encompassing- it could be a bomb attack, a political fistfight, an armed student militia encounter or anything else. However, even within such an inclusive category, there are exclusions. The violence against sub-nationalists groups is, for the large part, often ignored by the social media. This has, of course, changed in the last few years. Second is the violence that happens elsewhere in the world but is linked to Islam. This is violence under the cover, and through the use of, religion. This can also be violence where all the involved parties claim membership to one sect or the other of Islam, as well as violence where only one side makes such a claim. Even though these are broad categories that I have constructed based on the manifestation of violence, I think that a rigorous elucidation of categories of violence must focus not on the manifestation of violence but on the motivation behind it. The reason that I only focus on the manifestation here is because it allows me to succinctly provide the casual reader with a general idea of a topic that is mentioned frequently in this piece. In what follows, I will focus on the reactions to the first type of violence that I have identified above- that in Pakistan.
The unfortunate death of Amjad Sabri serves as a recent example for such analysis. Amjad Sabri was a popular singer of devotional music and a recognizable face for a large number of Pakistanis. His father was one of the two Sabri brothers who, together, form a duet that is undoubtedly one of the best to have ever come out of Pakistan. While it would be hard for anyone to live up to such a prestigious status, whether Amjad would have done so will now forever remain a matter of debate. Death came for him, as it does for everyone else, with little regard for his family, his career, his art or anything else. The unfairness with which death comes begs the age old question of how could a fair god be so unfair to its creatures? As news filtered through of Amjad’s assassination, social media gradually started responding in a manner that we have all become so accustomed to.
Amjad Sabri was first claimed by the Twelver Shi’ites, even though he himself does not come from such a family. Posts and images began to circulate in these spheres that highlighted Amjad’s affection for historical figures that the Twelver Shi’ite cosmology revolves around. These posts highlighted Amjad’s devotion to these figures. It was significantly above the regular veneration that an average Sunni would be expected to hold. This, of course, was endearing to the Twelver Shi’ites since their religion is predicated on a perennial struggle for recognition of (what they claim to be) a historical wrong done fourteen hundred years ago. If Amjad, as a member of the same Other that the Twelver Shi’ites define themselves in opposition to, could have affection for the dearly beloved of the Twelver Shi’ite imagination, then it serves, for the Twelver Shi’ite, to reinforce their own truth claims. These posts also claimed that Amjad was killed for his pro-Shi’ite leanings, especially because such veneration invites the scorn of religious fundamentalists like the Taliban etc. So, in claiming Amjad as one of their own, the Twelver Shi’ites were not just validating, through the Other, their own understanding of themselves and their history, but also highlighting the ever-present persecution and targeting that continues in present day Pakistan.
Of course, such a claim by the Twelver Shi’ites could not possibly go unchallenged by the Sunni majority. In what I would wager was a direct response to the actions of the Twelver Shi’ite activities on social media, posts began emerging that highlighted Amjad’s contributions to the genre of Qawwali (this, I think, ought to have been the popular Qawwali that I have talked about elsewhere) and the pluralism that the Qawwali represented. These posts claimed that the attack on Amjad was an attack on the pluralism intrinsic to Pakistan and/or Islam and was done by fundamentalists who do not wish to let this pluralism flourish. Thus, these types of posts promoted a distinct conception of society and religion and one that is under threat. In adhering to a principle of pluralism, however, such a conception does not so much as ignore, but rather whitewash completely, the claims of the persecuted minorities present in the same society. So, it responds to the allegations of violence against minorities not by saying that the violence is wrong, but by saying that the violence is not what this society does and that it comes from elements external to the society. Such a response, in turn, is criticized by the minorities as being inaccurate to the facts on the ground. This eventually turns into a back and forth with parties talking past each other rather than with each other.
Of course, given that this specific incident happened in Karachi, other political factors also come into play. For some, the responsibility lay squarely on the failure of the rangers that have been stationed in Karachi for just over two decades. For some, the responsibility lay solely on the provincial government that is formed by a party which enshrined into the constitution the non-Muslim status of the Ahmadis. As further news filtered through of the Taliban claiming the responsibility for the attack, many other came forwards and blamed the establishment that gave rise to these factions. As has been the case for much of Pakistan’s history, religion is intrinsic to the politics. Thus, as these political posts increased in number, brief commentaries on the role of religion also tagged along. Do the many incidents like this indicate the necessity of a separation between the religion and the state? Or do these incidents indicate instead a religion that has been twisted by the state and thus needs to be brought back to its original form? Of course, these questions and more, by virtue of their timing are predicated on adrenaline rather than reason. Similarly, the medium of social media that they emerge in is not necessarily conducive to a detailed and structured analysis of the issue on hand. The worst, however, is that the attention span of the social media is too short in duration. So, before one can even take stock of the right questions or figure out how, exactly, to word a question, the conversation has moved on. There is always something new to talk about and those that make the mistake of persisting on an old topic run the risk of being left behind.
Yet, this is not a new topic. Pakistan has been at this juncture- losing a committed individual to violence- before and is likely to be back here many times in the future. The conversations following such an incident do not change- they remain static and inflexible. It seems that those that engage in these conversations already have fixed notions of what to say- it is just that every new incident is simply a new opportunity to flaunt one’s opinion. This can range from sponsored hyper-nationalism to radical anarchy. It is almost irrelevant who has been targeted where, when, why and how? Indeed, it could be anyone but as long as they are someone half-recognizable, the social media will take the issue up, regurgitate the same old euphemisms and analogies, and then spit it out.
Since yesterday, I have seen the attack on Amjad heralded from an attack on Pakistan’s cultural values (to which I ask the questions that many have before me- have we defined Pakistan already that we can define its cultural values?) to an attack on specific religious point of views to an attack on art that will inevitably end it. Of course, similar proclamations have been made for many decades now. I think that such statements betray a superficial analysis of the situation at hand. Indeed, the latter is disrespectful to both the artist and the art to make such an analogy. Though art lives on because of what the artist has given it, it does not just die when the artist is taken away from it. Further, as crude as it may sound, I do not think that an artist being shot in cold blood amounts to the end of a genre. The real threat to art comes not from the violence that I described in the opening paragraph but from the ideological attitudes to art that have gradually become more prominent in our societal consciousness.
Amjad was an artist who came from an artist family. However, there are not many artists who come from non-artist families. Similarly, there are also many non-artists who leave their artist familial professions. Because of the movement of our society to a capitalistic economy, the type of individuals who pursue arts has been restricted to three. First, there is the socio-economically privileged individual who can afford to pursue arts without the pressure of having to succeed or having to worry about economic survival etc. This type of individual is thus able to focus solely on their art. Second, there is the talented individual who is peerless. This individual can be found across different social classes, including the socio-economically privileged one. The talent of this individual almost makes it irrelevant what class they come from. However, this is a rare type of talent and one that succeeds even in the face of institutional and social barriers. Third, there is the devoted individual. This individual eats and breathes art. This individual can also be found in any class. What distinguishes this individual from everyone else who claims to be devoted to art is that it is willing to be consumed by his passion for art. The commitment is independent of the class this individual hails from. It should be clear that the latter two can types can be found merged into the first one, or with each other, while also being able to stand on their own. But the theoretical refinement is a topic for another time.
Beyond these rare ideal-types, however, it is rare to find individuals who pursue arts. Thus, a kid whose talent falls just short of the rare type talent discussed above would never actually pursue arts because of the lack of encouragement (or, indeed, active discouragement) that it receives from those around it. The kid is instead diverted into the more acceptable professions of medicine, finance, law, etc. and forced to spend a life that does not quite do justice to his talents. Thus, the talent that could have been honed and sharpened and transformed into great art instead becomes a slave to the society around it. In doing so, it does not simply conform to and maintain these norms, but through its actions it reproduces them for the future generations. This is the case in not just my immediate and extended family, but also the rest of the Pakistan. My family would like to think it is educated because it can list the following, among many others, as titles that the members occupy- a doctor, a teacher, a corporate banker, an engineer, etc. Yet, what good is education if it is merely instrumental to the goal of breaking free of the class boundary? It is useless and ought not be considered education. Members of my family will die in middle-class mediocrity, having lived unfulfilled lives, and always having been too scared of committing fully and wholly to anything- whether an idea, or a love, or an art. Yet, their consciousness is shaped by the society around them and thus they are not, unfortunately, an isolated example. The entire society can said to be one that discourages breaking free of these structures- including pursuing arts. Thus, even as these members of the society wage an invisible, ideological war on arts by heralding it as being a useless pursuit, they are the first ones to throw their arms in the air and proclaim an attack on Amjad as an attack on arts. The physical attacks, like those on Amjad, do not have the power to threaten art for art is bigger than the perpetrators of this violence. The extremists will die with time, then rise again, then die again but art is permanent. It does not ebb and flow. It exists despite the attempts to eradicate it. Art will outlive this country, this society, and this religion and its god. Art is the domain of ideas and ideas cannot be fought with physically- they must be combated against on an ideological level alone. So, art can deal with guns and bombs, but it cannot deal with a consciousness that seeks to defeat it. The war against art is not the one waged by the extremists, but the one waged by this society. Every person who forces a child to give up a crayon for a stethoscope, a guitar for a calculator, and a sport for a grade is complicit in this war. It may be convenient now to simply shrug and say that scenarios do not permit us allowing our children to pursue arts, but history will show that it was only because we willingly made ourselves subservient to the scenarios that we ourselves had created.