The Spread of Polio in Pakistan

During the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence I was struck by a comment by a newspaper reader in Britain who wrote that “I don’t care one way or another, but I’m astonished at all the hate on either side.”  It made me think about hate, because I’m an old man and I’ve seen hatred grow in this world over the past seventy-odd years, apparently without cessation and even with acceleration in the past decade or so.  And I wonder why it has prospered, because surely it is better to tolerate than to hate?  It must be more sensible to live in peace than relish conflict and to demonstrate humanity—civilisation—by extending a hand of harmony rather than brandishing a fist of menace.

The apparently insoluble hatred between extremist exponents of different religious doctrines is but one example of pointless loathing, and at the moment it is a world attention-grabber. The murderers of the so-called Islamic State movement in the Middle East have attracted headlines by beheading western hostages and have attracted as much hatred as they themselves displayed by their actions. But they have also attracted approval and support from a large number of people, which led President Obama in his September address speech to the UN Security Council to note that “What brings us together today, what is new is the unprecedented flow of fighters in recent years to and from conflict zones, including Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa,  Yemen, Libya, and most recently, Syria and Iraq.”  It is obvious that hatred flows across borders; but there must be a reason for its doing so.

The heart-tearing song You’ve got to be carefully taught was composed by Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers for their 1949 musical South Pacific. It was aimed at combating racism and targeted the loathing and intolerance of white Americans for mixed-race love.  But it went deeper, and captured one of the basic reasons for manufactured hatred of one human being for another.

In spite of much opposition,  Rodgers and Hammerstein were courageous enough, in these years of terrible racist bigotry, to have their stage character declare that

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Most religions agree that there is a Supreme Being and that everyone should love everyone else — except those who choose and dare to differ from their particular set of beliefs.  It is apparent that instead of the world becoming a better place in which there is more unity, amity, respect and tolerance, it is becoming more divided and less civilised as the years go by.  And it seems that this is, in large part, because so many young people are being carefully taught to hate rather than to love; to suspect rather than trust; and, in in creasing numbers, to approve of killing rather than supporting the right of human beings to live as they wish, without being persecuted for their beliefs.

Einstein put it succinctly when he wrote that “A man who is convinced of the truth of his religion is indeed never tolerant. At the least, he is to feel pity for the adherent of another religion but usually it does not stop there. The faithful adherent of a religion will try first of all to convince those that believe in another religion and usually he goes on to hatred if he is not successful. However, hatred then leads to persecution when the might of the majority is behind it.”

It is the duty of educators to encourage their pupils to expand their minds, to regard history with both scepticism and hope, and to consider the future in the light of the past.  To be tolerant, indeed. But if some “educators” have themselves a distorted and confused view of history and religion there is no possibility that those whom they carefully teach will be encouraged to welcome unbiased thought — or that they could embrace tolerance and love.

In Pakistan one of the darkest examples of the effects of ignorance and the careful teaching of intolerance is the growing number of children who are afflicted with the avoidable disease of polio. This horrible virus can paralyse muscles and result in severe crippling or death, but can be avoided easily by administration of a vaccine which has resulted in eradication of polio in almost every country in the world.  It seems that Pakistan, however, in which the disease had at one time been almost eradicated (only 28 cases in 2005, and seemingly trending downwards), is about to set another record for national disaster, in that little children are being condemned to live their entire lives as helpless cripples because bands of fanatics are determined that the vaccine should not be administered, and have killed people to ensure that it won’t.

The international press has reported that “Pakistan has detected a record number of polio cases already this year, as militants target vaccination teams and accuse doctors of being spies and sterilising boys.  With the confirmation of polio virus among eight more children from the north-west and south-western city of Quetta and port city of Karachi, Pakistan broke its 14-year-old record of highest cases in a year.  About 60 polio workers or police escorting polio teams have been killed in Pakistan since 2012.”  So far this year over 200 cases of infant polio have been reported (up from 93 last year).  How many more have been unreported?  And how many crippled infants — especially little girls — have been quietly smothered while asleep, so as not to be a burden on a family that could not or would not accept administration of the vaccine?

History and tolerance mean nothing to people who are convinced that they are right to kill those who work to save lives.  The anti-vaccine murderers can have no idea what polio really is; nor can they understand anything about how it can be stopped. Their minds are closed.  They say they believe that polio vaccine is evil and will accept no evidence to the contrary.  They are irresponsible bigots — and yet they must be pitied, too (as well as the children they condemn to being lifelong cripples), because they are so steeped in ignorance as to be more vegetable than human.  Their closed minds are the result of having been carefully taught — taught to be intolerant;  taught to reject reasoned argument and to ignore evidence and common sense;  taught to despise and persecute and even kill those who refuse to have their minds move down tracks of inflexible bigotry.

They are victims of evil as well as its practitioners.

Much of the bigots’ rejection of the anti-polio vaccination campaign stems from a warped interpretation of belief, wilfully ignoring the holy words that “if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.”  There is no place in the minds of such warped zealots for flexibility or tolerance, yet it is written that “Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth has been made clear from error.” But they have no patience for the opinions of others, no matter how morally inoffensive these might be.

The views of those who disagree with the bigots don’t do any harm :  they are merely . . .  views.  Their existence in the minds of a particular person or group of people doesn’t mean that they are physically or mentally threatening to anyone.  They are just outlooks, opinions, ideas, attitudes, beliefs.  They can’t in any way pose any harm to anyone. But on the other hand there is a terrible threat presented by ignorance.

If we don’t like hearing an opinion we can simply close our ears ; and in any event an idealistic judgement which we may make or with which we might agree or disagree isn’t going to break a leg or give us polio.  But when the intolerant declare that the polio vaccine is intended to sterilise children rather than prevent them catching a terrible disease, and will commit murder for that belief,  it is apparent that ignorance is winning.

Even Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, the powerful head of Pakistan’s Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary, was moved to issue a statement last year supporting vaccination. This dominant cleric declared that  “According to Sharia there is no harm in using vaccines which medical experts recommend to save children against deadly diseases. Polio, measles, tetanus, tuberculosis are fatal and dangerous diseases and the vaccines to save young children and pregnant women are effective and harmless. There is no reality in the doubts and suspicions being spread against these vaccines. Parents should give the injections and drops of these vaccines to their children to save from fatal diseases.”  It couldn’t be clearer that one of the most influential religious sages in the region has judged that anti-polio measures are vital for the country — yet there continues to be widespread resistance to the campaign against this awful menace. There are fanatics who have convinced themselves — and many parents of threatened infants, alas — that no matter what evidence is produced to the contrary, the polio vaccine is dangerous in some fashion.

These obsessive zealots have been carefully taught to ignore common sense.  They have been tutored to be wholly intolerant of those who choose to exercise judgment that has been reached by consideration of facts. Their education (for want of a better word) has been manipulated and warped to the point that they feel they must deny inconvenient truth and embrace deceit because their mentors, by reason of their own malignity, present duplicity as in some fashion embodying the highest religious teachings.  One solution to this is to concentrate on liberal education.

As said by the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah : “Without education there is complete darkness and with education there is light. Education is a matter of life and death to our nation.”  The careful teaching of intolerance and hatred can be overcome (although only gradually), by massive national emphasis and expenditure on schooling.  There was never money lost by investing in instruction — as the extremists have discovered.  Perhaps Nelson Mandela summed it up best by reflecting that  “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Only through education in its best sense can there be victory over the careful teaching of intolerance and hate. Pakistan might be losing the battle, but it must be hoped that it will win the war.

Brian Cloughley lives in France.

A version of this piece first appeared in Pakistan’s Blue Chip business magazine in October.

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.