Yoked to an Idea
Mohammad Ashraf Chaudhry
Pittsburg, CA


Asfhaq Ahmad in his homely style narrates that once a man saw an elephant tethered to a shaky wooden peg. The animal known for its ponderous strength and size, circled around this fragile stake endlessly. It annoyed the man greatly who watched this game of willing bondage for some time, until he could take it no more. He approached the Mahut, the owner of the elephant, and asked him. “Why on earth would this huge mass of flesh and bones not even make a tiny effort to break away from this unstable stake?”

The Mahut replied, “It would never, because the animal is tied to the idea that he is forbidden to move away from this place. It is the strength of this idea or ideology that is keeping the animal at one place. Otherwise no iron chain, and no sturdy stake would have been strong enough to detain the animal the way he is.
The strength of an idea is greater than many a mighty army. Voltaire, the French satirist and dramatist, the man behind the French Revolution, was once asked, “What have you done for the French people”? He tersely replied, “I made them think”.

In our sub-continent Allama Iqbal played that role. Good ideology does not always serve as a force to secede, but often acts as a cohesive means to wield unity in elements that are in disarray. The risk in playing with ideas is also equally great. The Jihad concept in wrong hands, for example, became the shame of the religion. It became an industry in hands that were not sincere with the concept and spirit of this sixth pillar. Thus, tainted and tilted ideas when not supported by sincerity also have the potential to backfire and play havoc.

American leadership and its people are governed by the idea that America is beautiful and that America is great. They make all efforts with the fullest force at disposal to keep it so. Often their efforts do not bode well with the rest of the world, but for them America’s image supercedes all concerns. In Pakistan, only those see it beautiful and great who are in power. Their rhetoric changes tone the moment power and perks say good-bye to them. To quote Ashfaq Ahmad again, one of his nieces was deadly poised against her mother-in-law and was often at war with her. Once he tried to convince her that if she exercised tolerance and became less critical of the old lady, she would find her much likeable. To this his niece replied that it was just not possible to find a good thing in the old lady, and that any kind of compromise with her was impossible. The problem here was not that the old lady was a jerk and lunatic; it was that his niece had, somehow, managed to tie herself with the idea that her mother-in-law was an incarnation of evil.

Most of us in real life, be it politics or religion or human relations, behave like the afore-mentioned elephant or Ashfaq Ahmad’s niece because we end-up intrinsically yoking ourselves to some pre-conceived ideas. We block our minds to any further adjustments that often become inevitable in the wake of new developments that take place as time passes and life goes on. For us past is past and it can never undergo a change.

The highest building in the town till last year is no more the highest a year later because a new sky-scrapper has emerged in the city. It has been scaled down from number one to number two. Thus, the present often does initiate a change in the past. Nations that do so, prosper.

President Musharraf’s recent move to free Asif Zardari is a step in the right direction. It is good that he stopped thinking like Ashfaq Ahmad’s niece in the story that those who are in the bandwagon with him are good and those who are blocking the way are bad. Reconciliation rather than confrontation is the best option. He appears to have risen many an inch higher in stature by bending a little in his stance that all main line leaders are living logos of evil. The country would really be on its march to democracy when all those leaders who are detained or are in exile begin to see the progress which the country is definitely making in its fight against extremism, and in its efforts to improve the social and economic well-being of the people.

According to one survey, more people can identify the golden arches of McDonalds than the Christian cross though 92 percent in America believe in God, and every one in three people attends a place of worship at least once a week. A general complaint is that consumerism - the urge and drive to spend, to acquire, to possess - is what is replacing faith. To counter this, they have put their faith in practice. Honesty, fair play, integrity of the consumer, “open your heart by opening your wallet”, has greatly improved their quality of life. The virtues of Faith to a great extent have been subsumed in day-to-day life.

We, on the contrary, are willing to spend millions of rupees to seek the pleasure and forgiveness of Allah, by making a journey for Umra during the month of Ramadan, and get stranded there and then grease the palm of those entrusted with the responsibility to bring them back, and in the exercise lose all the spiritual benefits; while millions in our immediate surroundings, stay deprived of pure drinking water; or of an access to a hospital when fallen sick, or ever having enough to eat. Like the two pills of Tylenol as an immediate recourse to get rid of headache, we could not sell them the idea that Islam warrants and ordains the well being and welfare of our fellow-brothers as a pre-requisite for getting closer to Allah. We just cannot by-pass the millions caught in poverty and disease and seek His Will and Qurbat through short cuts.

We have created the logo of a crescent, but have failed to make it stand for the ideology that we associate with Islam. The result is: there is lot of rhetoric about Islam and its rituals; there is no visible shape of its actual practice and presence in real life. We know that it pleases God to listen to His words when recited, but how many of us know that they are basically addressed to humankind; that they are for our guidance; that they are directed to capture our soul with a force, with the express purpose of purifying it, cultivating it, uplifting it, balancing it, and last of all, transforming it to a model of decency, kindness, tolerance and justice. The slogan of Islam is not selling at home, because people do not see Islam in their daily lives anywhere.

Starbucks coffee sells and it had a 26% up surge in profits last year because when it comes to having a good cup of coffee, we find ourselves enslaved like the elephant mentioned above to the idea that good coffee means Starbucks. Gucci, Burberry and Todd’s are selling high notwithstanding the spiraling consumer debt. Brands are now new religion because they have tied us tight to an ideology, to a lifestyle and to a mentality. Brands sell, besides a merchandise, a feeling too, or perhaps a whole way of living and thinking.

A perfume, these days, is much more than a mere scent, it promises serenity too, along with an adoring partner and beautiful children. A packet of crisps gives you the assurance of winning a whole entourage of cool friends. A survey in 7,000 people in six countries found that Shell oil logo, the Mercedes badge and the five rings of Olympic games were recognized far easily than the minarets of a mosque or the cross of a church.

A recent visit to Pakistan revealed that the craze for the brand names is far stronger there than it is here in America. A Paktel Cell phone, a Toyota Corolla chauffeured car and a high-tea in Marriott delivers there in many ways. In politics, the MMA enchased upon the symbol of a book during elections as if it stood for the Holy Qur’an, and bagged votes. Now, like the niece of Ashfaq Ahmad, they are yoked to the idea that nothing good can be found in President Musharraf’s governance. The president has become the proverbial mother-in-law for them.

The President is tied to the idea that the security, prosperity and the well-being of the country along with the sustainability of the programs, he has initiated and as he thinks they are good for the people, is embedded in his staying in uniform. The PML (N) and the PPP of Benazir Bhutto are yoked to the idea that minus Nawaz Sharif and Benazir, no government, not the least of President Musharraf’s, is legitimate, and hence capable of delivering anything good to the people.

People stand polarized on the basis of the ideas they are tied to. Ideas like brands are guiding their actions in life. Extremism in politics and religion is the direct result of it. There is no shortage in politics of Machiavellis, and there is no dearth of Hasan bin Sabahs, busy in painting their versions of political Princes and of Fardoos-e-Barees, and the result is obvious. Awareness alone is the answer.


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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