As we all know, yoga is a dangerous regimen. The chances of pulled muscles, losing one’s balance, and over-exposure to colourful spandex have serious consequences for practitioners of this pastime. It was probably in the interests of public safety, then, that a group of men burnt down a yoga and meditation centre in Islamabad on Sunday night. The arson took place at the Art of Living centre in Islamabad’s Bani Gala suburb, not far from the residence of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf chief, Imran Khan. Reports say that guards at the site were overpowered by the men who then doused the building with petrol before setting it aflame. Some of the guards say the men asked whether there was any money on the premises before torching the place, raising questions about the motives for the attack. The centre belongs to the non-profit Art of Living Foundation, a global organisation with branches in over 150 countries that promotes meditation and healthy living. Recently it was under the Pakistani media spotlight after a prominent television anchor attacked it as part of a conspiracy against Pakistan because its founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, is an Indian guru. Ironically, Sri Shankar recently asked the Taliban to join him for meditation so that he could ‘cleanse’ them of their hate. Apparently, some people with views similar to the Taliban’s decided that another type of cleansing was in order.
There are more than a few disturbing aspects to this incident. The first is that it was an act of gang violence in a wealthy, and ostensibly secure, suburb where prominent politicians and government officials live. The second is the choice of target; the recent newscasts about Art of Living undoubtedly cast it in an unhealthy light, which more narrow-minded individuals took to heart as license to destroy. If it is found that the attackers have nothing to do with the Pakistani Taliban, or another similar group, then it is a frightening indictment of the growing social hostility to lifestyles, leave alone value systems, that are perceived to be different. The paranoid frenzy that surrounds anything Indian, particularly in the news media, also bears responsibility, since television anchors and hosts tend to bring their own bigotry into discussions, turning debate into mindless mud-slinging and half-baked conspiracy theories. It is a bitter comment on the adolescent behaviour that dominates our airwaves that the targets of ratings-obsessed talk-show hosts often become the targets of extremists, bigots, or extortionists (remember Governor Salmaan Taseer). Whoever carried out this attack, it highlights the underlying fractures that threaten to derail this country completely and turn it into a playground for criminals and people obsessed with violence. The Pakistani public needs to grow up and learn that not everything they don’t understand is necessarily evil, if Pakistan is ever to have peace. *