Contemporary and Social Issues

We had always been ‘socially distant’ from the destitute and vulnerable – only now it is worse

Ayesha Mahmood Malik

‘The flute is totally empty…it is the breath that flows through… sings and dances…to be empty is not emptiness.’

These poignantly beautiful words attributed to the 13th century mystical poet Maulana Rumi resonate strongly in today’s post-Covid world.  As streets and roads are emptied, public spaces and institutions closed – the corridor of human life has been left deserted. The framework for having a normal human existence is there, but can no longer be utilised or enjoyed. An unseen hand has taken the singing flute out of our own and turned it into an empty echo chamber. And while we struggle to adjust to this perplexing new reality of being confined in our homes, there is a profoundly more pertinent question that begs answers – was the music emanating from our singing flutes of life worthy of the indulgence it attracted?  Now that much of normal life as we knew it has ceased to exist and we are placed in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar corner, we must ask ourselves if we ignored the plights of those around us whose flutes had stopped singing long before this crisis unfolded? 

These flutes empty of music were all around us, as familiar as the blue sky but also overlooked as such with a reckless abandon. They were always there, but were far away enough from us and the nuclei of our own lives to matter; we saw them, heard about them, their stories would rain down on us like heavy thunderstorms and yet we would fall asleep in our comfortable beds even as their skies above grew darker in the brightest sunlight.  They came from every facet of suffering – the suffering of domestic abuse, of hunger, of mental health and disability, of loneliness, of homelessness, of dwellers of a land ravaged by war, of poverty, of genocide… and yet the music from our own flutes was sweet enough for our ears not to hear their desperate cries. 

What now that our own flutes have fallen silent? We are feeling the pain and isolation of social distancing and of lockdowns. We feel the palpable urge to return to ‘normality’ and the crippling sense of uncertainty. Yet even if we begin by casting our eyes inside our homes and see a ‘safe space’ wherein to enjoy the sudden vast amounts of time with members of our immediate family during this period of social distancing, we are incredibly privileged. Statistics from Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic abuse charity have revealed a 700% increase in calls to its helpline during the Coronavirus lockdown. Women who suffer this form of abuse would have been made prisoners inside their own homes, afraid for their lives whether they stay in or go out. 

Moreover, the fact that we are able to ‘socially distance’ ourselves in a functioning home by definition indicates a socio-economic privilege. For those living in poverty or in homeless shelters or indeed those continuing to sleep on the streets, the phenomenon of social distancing would be but another phantom of economic class structures that is entirely in contradiction to their everyday reality. For most such people, their grave daily challenges of survival remain unaltered, only that their ability to survive has been threatened even more than before. The World Resources Institute in an article earlier this month outlined how more than a billion people worldwide live in slums or other informal settlements. The situation is most dire in India, where 152-216 million people live in dense informal housing. Only 60% of such residents could access piped water in 2018, even then water being available for two hours a day, two to three times a week. The repeated mantra of washing hands twice to ‘happy birthday’ would, for such people, be something out of a children’s storybook, all in line with the cushy comforts of privileged living.    

Then there are those whose lives have been torn apart by raging conflicts and war, with the Syrian Civil War being one of the gravest examples. The Washington Post reported earlier this month how 3 million Syrians in the city of Idlib were particularly vulnerable, especially the 1 million living in crowded camps along the Turkish border.  If they do fall ill with the virus, hospital facilities are almost non-existent, already crumbling under the strain of a war that has been going on now for nine years.

The Islamic framework of fulfilling the rights of all is firmly embedded in the notion that rights are fulfilled when their corresponding duties are discharged. As such, this philosophy wholly rejects the idea of people living inside a vacuum from others. As Ahmadi Muslims, carrying the weight of this responsibility is even more important as the Promised Messiah (as) once espoused: ‘Be the true well-wishers of every one. There should be nothing inside you except truth and there should be nothing outside you except truth and sympathy for mankind. If you desire that God should be pleased with you in Heaven, become to each other like real brothers. It is our principle to have sympathy for the whole of mankind.’ Thus, as we search for voices of family and friends during this period of great isolation in order to keep us going from the comfort of our homes, let us also search our souls for these voices of the voiceless, whose flutes have lain barren at times for generations, with no hope of melody nearby. Let us hope and pray for a world where, once this crisis has passed, the flutes of humanity will make music in sync, without discrimination to socio-economic status, race or religion. As our streets lie empty, let our hearts not be empty of impassioned resolve to fill every desolate flute with music again and make this our ‘new reality.’

About the Author: Ayesha Malik is the Editor of the Law and Human Rights Section of the Review of Religions magazine. She is interested in Law and Religion, in particular Islam and Human Rights, the role of media in crisis reporting, International Human Rights and the import of religion on radicalisation. She has spoken frequently on these issues in the national media and various universities in the UK, including the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.