So, for the second time in a few days I find myself writing about Pakistani militant attacks designed to destabilse religious harmony. On Thursday night, at least 42 people were killed and hundreds wounded when two suicide bombers attacked a the famous Data Ganj Baksh Sufi shrine in Lahore. The Lahore commissioner, Khusro Pervaiz, blamed the attack on a “conspiracy in which locals are being used” – a euphemism often used to point the finger at neighbouring India. A dangerous remark that even if true does nothing to answer the charge that Pakistan is actually at war with itself. The so-called Pakistani Taleban funded by Wahabi and other conservative sects (the same groups conveniently used by the Pakistani army in the 1990s to attack Indian troops in Kashmir) are the likely culprits for this and the recent attack on the Ahmadiyya community. Despite what fanatics in both Pakistan and the West would have us believe, the dominant tradition within Pakistani society is a tolerant, peaceful Sufistic based Islam. Wherever I have travelled within the Islamic world it is the presence of Sufis that has reassured me and added to my knowledge of religion. Sufism – a mystical, internalised form of Islamic worship that centres on love and prayer and charity seems to spring up to defend Islam when repression threatens. I have met many Sufis – often practising in secret – and my admiration of their practice is matched only by my hope that this will be the last outrage against all people who seek only to practice their religion peacefully as they see fit.
I’ve never worked in the Data Ganj Baksh shrine but here are some other images linked by ‘Sufism’ from my archive:
Some years ago I travelled to Pakistan to make a set of images about religious persecution. I lasted only a few days – for the first time in my career, I left a story because I honestly felt that my presence was putting lives at risk.
I had been invited to Rabwah, the spiritual home of the Ahmadiyya community, a peaceful minority Islamic movement that questions the finality of the Prophet Mohammed. Pakistan is the only country to classify Ahmadiyya’s as non-Muslims.
In 1984 General Zia issued Ordinace XX supposedly to prevent “anti-Islamic activities”. It forbids Ahmadiyya’s to call themselves Muslims, call their places of worship mosques and worship publicly. It forbids them from quoting from the Koran, preaching in public, seeking converts, or producing, publishing, and disseminating their religious materials. To gain a passport, all Pakistanis must declare themselves non-Ahmadiyyas.
The repression is of course a smokescreen to hide Pakistan’s myriad social and political problems and the Ahmaidiyyas are a perfect scapegoat. This is not about religion, it’s about state power. As Tariq Ali wrote in the London Review of Books in 2007:
“Back in the heart of Pakistan the most difficult and explosive issue remains social and economic inequality. This is not unrelated to the increase in the number of madrassas. If there were a half-decent state education system, poor families might not feel the need to hand over a son or daughter to the clerics in the hope that at least one child will be clothed, fed and educated. Were there even the semblance of a health system many would be saved from illnesses contracted as a result of fatigue and poverty. No government since 1947 has done much to reduce inequality”.
Ali Dayan Hassan of Human Rights Watch told the BBC the worshippers were “easy targets” for militant Sunni groups who consider the Ahmadis to be infidels. The Pakistani state is in trouble however and Ahmadiyyas are not the only minority to suffer persecution. According to Minority Rights, Baluchis, Hindus, Mohhajirs, Pushtuns, Sindhis and Christians all suffer.
Today, I read with interest an opinion piece in Dawn by Moshin Hamid (an author whose Moth Smoke I read and enjoyed some time ago) called Fear and Silence from which I take the liberty of quoting from at length. I think it elegantly echoes Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous (attributed) quote “First they came for the Jews…”. Hamid says:
“Because the heart of the issue isn’t whether Ahmadis are non-Muslims or not. The heart of the issue is whether Muslims can be silenced by fear.
Because if we can be silenced when it comes to Ahmadis, then we can be silenced when it comes to Shias, we can be silenced when it comes to women, we can be silenced when it comes to dress, we can be silenced when it comes to entertainment, and we can even be silenced when it comes to sitting by ourselves, alone in a room, afraid to think what we think.
That is the point. ”
One can only hope that all people of tolerance and faith will not be silenced.
I have written before about the increasing use of private security and the erosion of liberty in public space so I was interested in a piece in today’s Guardian, ironically, the result of a Freedom of Information request:
It seems increasingly clear that unelected, untrained and under qualified security guards from private companies (operating for profit) are deciding who has freedom to walk the streets and carry out perfectly legal activities … like taking photographs in a public space.
Interestingly, the article asserts that both the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) and John Yates, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, have warned that police risk losing the support of the public through the inappropriate use of section 44.
I first photographed the burgeoning private security industry in the late 1990s for several magazines and over the years have continued to have assignments to do so.
So, as two further national newspapers swing their support away from Gordon Brown, all indications a week before the election point to a hung Parliament controlled by the Tories. My views on this are complicated: when all the parties represent the Market and the status quo there IS no choice, however my formative political years were formed under the Thatcher government and so I reserve a particular dread for the Bullingdon Club‘s entry into Number 10.
I haven’t photographed elections – or much British politics – for a long time. I do however remember a particularly depressing April dawn dropping rolls of film off at Der Spiegel’s office after photographing John Major celebrating victory in 1992.
Subsequent years of PR-dominated press conferences and stage-managed photo opportunities made me less interested and I turned my attention to the world outside the UK. I do occasionally get to photograph politicians however. Here’s one of the Man that would be King taken a couple of years ago on assignment for the Times Magazine.
I leave my final thoughts to one of my favourite essayists, Emma Goldman, whose views on the subject echo my own:
“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal…”
I read today with disappointment and resignation that Vedanta Industries have won their fight on appeal to establish a bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hills in India.
I wrote a piece for the Indian magazine Tehelka about this story in 2007 and it can be seen here.
Vedanta Resources, a UK-registered ftse -100 company has fought a long campaign to establish the mine and despite judicial review it seems now that nothing can stop it.
The story typifies the very real problem of India’s industrial development. The Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa are sacred to the Dongria Kondhs, a protected tribal group of ‘original’ Aboriginal peoples. Allegedly, the British geologist who “discovered” these rich deposits nearly a century ago dubbed them “Khondalite” in tribute to the people who guided him there. It seems that this simple act of hospitality will mean the end of another of India’s pre-Aryan traditional cultures. The holy mountain will be raped for its ore and the people who haven’t already fled the company’s previously illegal building programme will be scattered. Those who stay will doubtless be housed in the stalag-like accommodation blocks I saw laying empty and crumbling in Lanjigarh. They will have to sell their land at government determined prices and then work as contract labourers. What has happened to countless other ‘primitive’ and powerless peoples all over India will happen to them. Displaced from their traditional homelands, sacred to their animist beliefs, women and girls often end up working as daily wagers, domestic helps or prostitutes. The women will also have to cope with alcoholism and domestic violence.
The author and social activist Arundhati Roy has described India’s unfettered race to Market Capitalism as nothing less than India ‘eating its own people’ and in this macabre metaphor one can see the reflections of the Enclosures and urbanisation of the rural communities of England in the nineteenth century.
I am no romantic when it come to India. I don’t share a Raj view of the colonial apologists (despite inevitably by dint of being British having reaped the indirect rewards of the subjugation of that country). I don’t yearn for quaint, underdeveloped communities full of poverty and colour. I want to see India progress. But I know the stink of international corporate power when I smell it.
India had no colonies from which to steal resources so it’s stealing them from its own weak and vulnerable. The profits of this mine will not be spread evenly to benefit the Indian economy – it will be hoarded in the off-shore bank accounts of those corrupt politicians and corporate executives who already think that India is theirs by right.
A new Middle Class India has been brought up to believe that a successful society means a consumerist society. Greed and nationalism go hand in hand: it is not the poor of India calling for war with their brothers and sisters in Pakistan.
Traditionally, Indians have protested injustice in a dignified Ghandian way with hunger strikes and marches. While the Western media and much of India has been marvelling at ‘Shining India’ it has failed to notice that a good deal of India is now under Maoist rebel control. In Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand the Indian state is fighting a battle it might not win.