Speech by Dr. Azra Raza: Our Collective Spiritual Suicide

On May 24 of this year, the Dow Medical College (Karachi) Graduate Association of North America (DOGANA) held a function in Philadelphia honoring the “Women of Dow”. My sister Azra is a Dow alumna and was presented with an award for “Distinguished Services in the Field of Research and Clinical Medicine” and was also invited to be the Keynote Speaker at the ceremony. She has kindly allowed me to publish some of her powerful remarks from that occasion here today. —S. Abbas Raza

by Azra Raza

BloodyLabCoatA moment comes, which comes seldom in one’s life, when staying silent and uncritical is tantamount to suicide. That moment for us is here, now. Today, instead of telling a few light hearted stories of our innocent days at Dow, with jokes and poetry, I want to take the road less traveled by, and speak about the painful truth piercing at the heart of every one of us. Today, you have bestowed upon me a fantastic award and I am humbled by this, but frankly, at the same time, I feel greatly saddened to be lauded for my achievements while inside I feel like an imposter, a phony, a fraud. How can we be celebrating knowing full well that while we are congratulating each other and carrying home awards, our fellow doctors in Pakistan are being forced to carry guns with their stethoscopes? With these very achievements, if I was to be in Karachi today, I would be in danger of receiving a barrage of bullets from a Ghazi’s AK47 who could gun me down in broad daylight in a public function and walk off without being apprehended. Why? Because I am not just a doctor. I am a Shia doctor.

There. Now I have said it and committed the crime of voicing the unspeakable. I know, I know. We are not supposed to criticize anything while we are standing on foreign soil because this will further weaken the Umma and play right into the hands of the foreigners with vested interests. How long are we going to hide behind such cowardly, delusional shields? How long are we going to continue to bury our heads in the sand and distract ourselves through award ceremonies while our beloved country is being slashed and burned? Where is the outrage? What are we afraid of?

Yay kis azaab say khaif mera qabeela hay
Kay khoon mal kay bhi chahroun ka rang peela hay
Yay kaisay zehr ki baarish hui hay abkay baras
Kay meray saaray gulaboun ka rang Neela hay

(What calamity is my tribe so afraid of
That despite the blood splattered on their faces, they remain pale
What poison has rained from the sky this year
That even my roses have turned blue?)

My friends, genocides do not start with guns and gas chambers. They start with words. Words of hate directed at groups which dehumanize them to such an extent that any and all cruelties are justified. My friends, today, there is a similar poisonous atmosphere being created in Pakistan. It is not just the Shia doctors being slaughtered mercilessly. There is a country-wide invasion by the lethal disease of intolerance and religious persecution. The terrorists are killing minorities and targeting outspoken members of the community. Need I name Malala Yusufzai, Raza Rumi, Hamid Mir? Therefore, it is inaccurate and dishonest to present this as some sort of a sectarian issue. This is the systematic murder of targeted individuals by a small murderous group. But the state whose job it is to protect the people is complicit through its inaction. How many more doctors and lawyers, women and children have to be gunned down without a single individual being apprehended for these barbaric crimes? There is no controversy about who is responsible for these killings. The perpetrators proclaim it proudly from the rooftops. What level of genocide is needed for us to wake up to reality, six million? When are we going to realize that we are ALL guilty of being Neros playing the fiddle while Pakistan burns?

You may be wondering why I am harping on the killing of doctors while not even mentioning the others equally brutally assaulted like Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, and thousands of moderate, liberal Sunnis who have been the victims of equally deadly cruelties. You would be perfectly justified because truly it is a matter of survival for all of us. The reason I am concentrating on doctors is only because we are a doctors association and our fellow professionals are being singled out in front of our eyes for the final solution. Let us start by speaking out on their behalf.

Here is the writing on the wall: the minorities, the moderates and professionals being targeted are not a small fringe community; they make up a substantial number of Pakistanis and are represented in every segment of society starting with the founder of the nation, and the only Nobel laureate we have had. They are deeply woven into the fabric of the state. Their elimination through a final solution is simply not a realistic option because they are entirely capable of armed rebellion. Their continued persecution will eventually lead to retaliation and civil war with ensuing mayhem the likes of which has not been seen since the partition of the subcontinent because:

Jinn kay jabroun pay apnoun ka khoun lag gaya
Zulm ki sab hadein paatnay aaien gay

(Beasts who have tasted the blood of their own kind
Will return to cross every limit of brutality)

When I told my daughter Sheherzad about what I am going to say in this ceremony, she was scared to death for my safety. She wanted to come and stand by me. I felt deeply deeply ashamed thinking what kind of a reputation have we acquired that a nineteen year old offers to be a human shield for her mother in the midst of Philadelphia? I am not saying that her fears are real. I am simply pointing out the fact that the lunatic fringe of Pakistan that is shamelessly killing without being held accountable has soiled the reputation of all of us. Can you imagine being ashamed of claiming that you are a Muslim in America? No, we do it proudly, as we should. But my daughter is scared that among my very own people, I can be hurt or black-listed for speaking out against the killing of innocent doctors and against the persecution of religious minorities.

You attend Mushairas because you love listening to incredibly beautiful, romantic, inspiring verses. What do you think Mustafa Zaidi meant when he said:

Mein kis kay haathoun pay apna lahoo talaash karoun?
Tamam sheher nay pahnay huay hain dastanay

(On whose hands should I search for my blood?
The entire city is wearing gloves)

Please. I beg you. Let us take off these gloves. It is all of us, the successful doctors who represent the top 1% of the intelligentsia of Pakistan who have a duty to speak out in favor of free speech and tolerance, in favor of providing the best education for our girls and ensuring equal opportunities to the boys and girls of every background. We are living in America. Let us take a page from their history as an example. It is the black police officers who stand on the streets to protect the rights of Ku Klux Klan members to hold their rallies where they burn the effigies of black figures and take oaths to wipe out the Negro from their pure white land. This is how freedom of speech is protected and defended by an enlightened society. By definition, every one of you in this room is enlightened and roshan khayaal because you are the crème de la crème of Pakistani high society. I urge you to pledge action today.

This is an evening to celebrate women, so I want to end by addressing the young women in the room. First of all, if you are at all interested in science or medicine, whether you are in high school or an undergraduate, I want to invite you with a warm welcome to come and spend some time in my research program at Columbia University. Come and spend a few weeks or a few months and watch firsthand how cutting edge genomics research is unraveling the astonishing beauty and profound mysteries entwined in the DNA of a cell and observe what can happen when such exquisite splendor is co-opted by the malignant invasion of cancer. An equally grotesque cancer of intolerance and hate has invaded Pakistan; there is just no use in closing our eyes or looking the other way in denial. You are the inheritors of a deeply poetic, courtly culture inspired by grand poetry, exhilarating music, elaborate customs and noble traditions, a culture known not only for its sublime poetic achievements, but also for its high ideals of decency and civility. One of the many ways in which this is manifested in our tehzeeb is in its uncommon aspiration to male gentleness. There is a brutal assault in front of our eyes on this sublime tehzeeb developed over millennia by a small group of murderous thugs whose show of bravery lies in slitting the throats of young children and old women alike. I appeal to you, the young women in this room today. Your passion, your energy, your brilliance, your innovation, your sheer force of will, has the power to sweep changes in the world overnight. Seize the moment and start by fostering values of freedom for all, education for all, equal opportunities for all, tolerance of all, and above all, love for all.

I want to leave you with a message in the powerful words of my dear friend Fahmida Riaz.

Lehroun ki tarah ubhray ho tum
Iss mulk kay gahray saagar say
Aur goonj utha hay arsh e bareen
Pur josh dhamaktay narron say!
Inkaar farouzan hay jiss mein
Ta umr tardaptay rahnay ka
Aflaas ghutan aur ranj o sitam
Khamoushi say sab sahnay ka

Kuch log tumhay samjhaingay
Wu tum ko khauf dilayangay
Jo hay wu bhi kho sakta hay
Iss raah mein rahzan hain itnay
Kuch aur yahaan ho sakta hay
Kuch aur tu aksar hota hay
Tum jiss lamhay mein zinda ho
Yay lamha tum say zinda hay
Yay waqt naheen phir aayay ga
Tum apni karni kar guzro
Jo hoga dekha jayay ga!!

(You have arisen like a giant wave
From the depth of the ocean
And the Heavens are ringing
With your loud protestations
Cries which are rejecting outright
A lifetime of anguish and suffering
Poverty, oppression, grief and torture

Some will try to counsel you
They will try to scare you
Even what you have now can be lost forever
There are so many robbers on this path
Something else can happen
‘Something else’ frequently happens
But this moment in which you are alive
Is alive because of you
This time will never come again
Do what you have to do
We will deal with whatever comes later)

Translations from Urdu by Azra Raza.