Breaking the cycle

By Zubeida Mustafa

PSYCHIATRISTS in Pakistan have been crying themselves hoarse about the rise of mental illness in the country. Ever since militants and religious extremists have unleashed their terror on the hapless population, the incidence of anxiety and depression has been on the rise. But these disorders are stigmatised and are not publicly discussed.

There is much talk about poor governance, corruption and even the falling level of tolerance in society but no one wants to mention the impact of these problems on the mental health of the people and how the latter’s attitudes and mindsets reinforce the conditions that gave birth to the problems in the first place.

  In an article in the New Internationalist Magazine, Samah Jabr, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist in Jerusalem, pointed out that worse than the 2,133 deaths, 11,000 injuries and the destruction of countless homes caused by Israel’s brutal attacks on Gaza in July-August 2014 was the psychosocial damage inflicted by the war. She said, “the destruction of life at a physical and material level is also the destruction of a way of life, the destruction of a point of view: physical warfare brings with it psychological warfare”. She warned that violence will “beget an unending spiral of victimhood and revenge, of polarisation … [and] of further trans-generational trauma”.

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This is precisely what is happening in Pakistan. Most upsetting is the psychological warfare taking place and the ground has been softened for it by the ineptitude and corruption of successive governments. The destruction of our education system, moral values and ethics, and the lure of money have made the people vulnerable to the war strategy of the so-called Islamists. Sadly, the enemy is winning. Never before have I seen the steep rise in self-righteousness, intolerance, observance of rituals and the proclivity to wear one’s religion on one’s sleeves and feel protected by this mindset.


Some activists promote the liberal values taught decades ago.


23-2This destruction of our age-old values could be worse for us than what Samah Jabr describes in the Palestinian case. Our enemy is in our midst and not easily distinguishable, which means people don’t even recognise it. The indoctrination is total and bound to be trans-generational.

Does that mean we are doomed? If a small child of seven is exhorted in class not to tell lies if she is a good Muslim and doesn’t want to go to hell, what message is conveyed to her? Won’t she believe that non-Muslims are liars and it is important to save herself from hell by telling the truth? Would it occur to her that many non-Muslims are good, in fact better than many Muslims, and that compassion for fellow humans should not be governed by a system of physical reward and punishment?

The most serious implications of this phenomenon is that these beliefs will be transferred trans-generationally. The light at the end of the tunnel is that there is a committed band of enlightened and liberal activists who want children to learn the values we were taught several decades ago.

Tahira who went back to school because of Nigar Nazar's book
Tahira (Left) who went back to school because of Nigar Nazar’s book

Nigar Nazar, the progenitor of the famous cartoon character Gogi, is one of them. She has been producing comics and illustrated storybooks that are designed to carry messages that go against the current that is set to engulf children’s narratives in Pakistan. One I liked most was from the Agahi Comic Series titled Ilm ki Daulat. It is the story of a little girl who was pulled out of school by her mother on the advice of friends. Ultimately the protagonist, who continues to study on the sly with assistance from her school friend, manages to save her mother from the jaws of maternal death by recognising the danger signals and rushing for the doctor. Her will and wisdom win for her the permission to return to school.

24Nigar tells me that some time ago she received a letter from a girl called Tahira, a school dropout from a village in Chakwal. Tahira wrote that she had received this book from her brother and had read it out to her family. It had helped: her father allowed her to go back to school. Nigar is now monitoring Tahira’s progress.

Others have benefited from the attractive Gogi series which children enjoy as they can identify with the lively characters and situations described. We may never know but another book in the series, Meherban Ajnabi say Hoshiyar, may have deterred many would-be suicide bombers from being trapped by wily strangers offering money to unsuspecting youth.

This vicious cycle of militancy and extremism begetting more militancy and extremism needs to be broken. It is a big challenge because ours is a conservative and superstitious society which can be easily penetrated with the exploitative use of religion. As awareness grows of how religion is being misused to grab political power, one can hope for a backlash.

Source: Dawn