Recognition of humanity
There’s long been an unsaid agreement that a death toll in the East is simply a number that tickertapes across the bottom of the news screen. It is a dull, emotionless, and strictly mathematical affair.
Meanwhile, a tragedy in a ‘real’ place like Paris, London, or New York would be accompanied by prayers and dirges from across the world. A child refugee in Greece attained recognition on the internet after a picture of him went viral, holding a sign that said, “Sorry for Brussels”.
The child may well have been sorry for terrorist attacks in Lahore, Baga, or Ankara, but he was under no urgency to demonstrate sympathy for them. I am not accusing the child of double standards. I’m judging a society where Muslim-looking children have to confirm and reconfirm their opposition to terrorism and sympathy for its victims in the West, or risk being counted as “one of them”. The child innocently plays by the rules set by adults in power.
The discrepancy hasn’t gone unnoticed. In the wake of every terrorist attack on Western soil, following a brief period of nearly universal and unconditional condemnation, you may find local social media users asking, “What about Pakistan?”
The Western establishments, and many of their liberal admirers in Pakistan, despise these comparisons. That’s understandable. It sounds like concern-trolling. It feels like the vulgar equivalent of barging into one’s funeral and yelling, “What about MY aunty?”
It is disrespectful, but Eastern ‘Whataboutism’ is a natural response to Western ‘Allaboutism’. It’s all about the West – their economy, their landmarks, and their lives. And an affront to them is perhaps the only real tragedy worth bringing up by name in the international prayer circle. Baga – wherever the hell that is – gets clumped among the ‘Others’.
There are always exceptions. Adele paid a warm tribute to the victims of Lahore attack. A hotel in Dallas displayed the Pakistani flag on its front, and the 3D ‘Toronto’ sign lit up in green and white.
An indicator of how exceptional these recognitions of our humanity are is how giddy they make us. “OMG, did you hear Adele’s tribute to Lahore victims?” There is a sense of excitement that I doubt Belgians or the French understand.
Meanwhile, sarcastic remarks are tossed around the social media, mocking the desi ‘Whatabouters’ for demanding the same acknowledgement and respect that West receives. A satirical newspaper headline announces that Facebook is urgently creating DP filters for flags of all Muslim countries, in the wake of wide scale accusations of hypocrisy. It’s funny, because lowly beings like us are clearly not worth that hassle. Let the world pile its prayers onto the more meaningful places in the world, like Brussels and Paris. We’ll make do with the occasional wonder of a ‘Toronto’ sign glowing green and white, without getting greedy for more.
It’s fascinating how we have internalised that racism. We’ve made peace with our diminished self-worth as simply the existing order of things that can neither be challenged, nor should it.
The most important thing to note here is not the insufficiency of globally recognised landmarks lit up in Pakistani colours, it is what that insufficiency represents. It indicates a world where all human lives are not equally important, and neither are their losses.
This racist malady has consequences far worse than the lack of celebrity tributes and landmark lighting. If an American predator drone were to strike a wedding at the French Riviera in an attempt to eliminate hidden militants, how many pages of an internationally distributed newspaper would I have to flip through before stumbling on a piece about it?
One could argue that the analogy is unfair, as there are fewer terrorist cells in France than there are in, say, Yemen. And if there were, the French authorities themselves would be a lot more cooperative. But then one could also argue that the poorer nations often find themselves responding to politico-economic conditions beyond their control, set by countries more powerful than them, and that their diminished capacity to handle a crisis isn’t necessarily a green light for violation of international laws by the powerful states.
International laws, after all, are not just light suggestions depending on which country’s sovereignty one intends to violate. They are made to appear irrelevant in places where human life is devalued, and the region is made open to military forays – like in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan – and gruesome political experimentations by foreign powers. Syria, for instance, is now in an awkward position where the CIA-armed militia, Fursan-ul-Haq, is battling the Pentagon backed Syrian Democratic Forces – as reported by Los Angeles Times.
Considering human lives in Brussels as being more significant than human lives in Lahore doesn’t simply mean that Pakistan will get prayed for less often by people around the world. It also means that the Western powers won’t be as jittery about enacting policies that intensify the suffering of the third world, as they normally would be about causing pain to the French.
Bad foreign policies incite little remorse among the makers in a world neatly divided into the literal upper class of the Northern Hemisphere and the cannon-fodder class of the Southern. That’s the world where the poorer nations have to constantly beg for the acknowledgement of their humanity.