Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Peshawar School Massacre


Maryam Sakeenah

The Peshawar school attack is a tragedy that sends senses reeling, an enormity that confounds the senses. It does not help however, to dismiss the people who committed this foul atrocity as ‘inhuman’, or to say they were not really Muslims. It is a convenient fiction that implies a most frustrating unwillingness and inability to understand how human beings are dehumanized and desensitized so they commit such dastardly acts under the moral cover of a perverted religiosity.

This unwillingness and inability to understand is deeply distressing because it shows how far away we are from even identifying what went wrong, and where- and hence, how far we are from any solution.
The international media has reflected- not surprisingly- a superficial, flat and ludicrously shallow grasp of the issues in Pakistan. The CNN (and other channels) repeatedly portrayed the incident as ‘an attack on children for wanting to get an education. ’ In fact, the UK Prime Minister himself tweeted: “The news from Pakistan is deeply shocking. It's horrifying that children are being killed simply for going to school.” It actually reeks of how the media’s portrayal and use of Malala’s story has shaped a rather inaccurate narrative on Pakistan. 

Years ago shortly after 9/11, former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer had lamented Western politicians’ dim-witted understanding of terrorism and the motives behind it. Scheuer highlighted how dishonestly and dangerously Western leaders portrayed that the terrorists were ‘Against Our Way of Life’; that they were angry over the West’s progress as some deranged barbarians battling a superior civilization out of rank hatred. This rhetoric from Western politicians and the media ideologized terrorism and eclipsed the fact that terror tactics were actually a reaction to rapacious wars in Muslim (and other) lands often waged or sponsored by Western governments. It diverted focus from the heart of the problem and created a misleading and dangerous narrative of ‘Us versus Them’, setting global politics on a terrible ‘Clash of civilizations’ course.   

Today, I remembered Scheuer again, browsing through responses to the Peshawar tragedy both on local social media as well as from people in positions of power- most reflected a facile understanding of the motives of terrorism.

The Taliban spokesman Umar Khorasani states: "We selected the army's school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females. We want them to feel the pain."

Certainly, this is twisted and unacceptable logic. What is most outrageous is his attempt to give religious justification to it by twisting religious texts.

Certainly, the leadership of the TTP is guilty of a criminal abuse of religious sources to legitimize its vile motives and sell it to their conservative Pashtun following who are on the receiving end of Pakistan’s military offensive in the tribal areas. The TTP leaders have hands drenched in innocent blood. Even the Afghan Taliban have rejected the use and justification of such means by the TTP as unacceptable by any standards in an official statement.

But I wonder at those human beings chanting Arabic religious expressions who blew themselves up for the ‘glorious cause’ of taking revenge from innocent unsuspecting school children. I wonder how they had gone so terribly, terribly wrong in their humanity, their faith.  Certainly, they were taken in with the TTP’s malevolent ideological justification for the rank brutality they committed. Certainly, they allowed themselves to be taken in because they perceived their miserable lives had no intrinsic worth except in being given up in order to exact vengeance.

I understood too when I heard a victim student writing in pain, vowing revenge. ‘I will grow up and make their coming generations learn a lesson’, he said. In that line, I understood so much about human psychology and the psychology of victimhood, and the innate need for avenging wrongdoing.

The problem with the public perception of the war in Pakistan is that we see only part of it: we see the heartrending images from Peshawar and elsewhere in the urban centres where terrorists have struck. But there is a war that we do not see, hidden from public view. This is the war in the tribal north. The familiar images we see from the war divide the Pakistani victims of this war into Edward Herman’s ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims- both, however, are innocent victims- the ones we see and the ones we do not. But because some victims are unworthier than others, the unworthy victim claims worth to his condemned life in dying, misled into thinking that death by killing others can be a vindication.  

But sometimes the ones we are not allowed to see, make themselves visible in horrible, ugly ways; they become deafeningly loud to claim notice. And in the process, they make other victims- our own flesh and blood... And so it is our bloody burden to bear for fighting a war that was not ours, which has come to haunt us as our own.

The work of some independent journalists has highlighted the war we do not see in Waziristan- their work, however, has not made it to mainstream news. Such work has brought to light enormous ‘collateral damage’ figures. Some independent journalists have also focused on the plight of IDPs who feel alienated and forgotten by the Pakistani state and nation.  It must be noted, however, that there is no access to the media in the areas where the army’s operation is going on. The news we get from the war zone is solely through the Pakistan Army- there is, hence, absolutely no counternarrative from Waziristan. And hence our one-sided vision eludes a genuine understanding.

This unwillingness and inability to understand reflects in our uninsightful militarist approach to the problem in Waziristan. While the necessity of using military means to combat a real and present danger is understood, the need for it to be precisely targeted, limited in scope and time, and planned to eliminate or at least substantively minimize collateral damage is equally important. The need to efficiently manage the fallout of such an operation and rehabilitate affectees cannot be overemphasized. On all these counts, we need to have done more.

But perhaps the most vital understanding is that military operations are never the enduring solution. They may be needed to achieve specific necessary targets, but only with the aforementioned conditionalities to minimize the fallout. Moreover, the bigger, deeper problems have to be dealt with through a wider, more insightful non-military approach: listening and understanding, dialogue, mutual compromise and reconciliation, rehabilitation and peacebuilding. There are numerous examples in the past- even the recent past- of how war-ravaged communities drenched in the memory of oppression and pain, seething with unrelenting hate, have successfully undertaken peacebuilding. There have been temporary respites in this war in Pakistan whenever the two sides agreed to a ceasefire. That spirit ought to have lasted.

 I understand that this sounds unreasonable on the backdrop of the recent atrocity, but there is no other way to give peace a chance. Retributive justice using force will prolong the violence and make more victims.
Since religion is often appealed to in this conflict, its role in peacebuilding has to be explored and made the best of. To break this vicious, insane cycle, there has to be a revival of the spirit of ‘Ihsan’ for a collective healing- that is, not indiscriminate and unrelenting retributive justice but wilful, voluntary forgiveness (other than for the direct, unrepentant and most malafide perpetrators). This must be followed by long-term, systematic peacebuilding in Pakistan’s war-ravaged tribal belt in particular and the entire nation in general. Such peacebuilding will involve religious scholars, educators, journalists, social workers and other professionals. Unreasonable as it may sound, it is perhaps the only enduring strategy to mend and heal and rebuild. The spirit of ‘Ihsan’ has tremendous potential to salvage us, and has to be demonstrated from both sides. But because the state is the grander agency, its initiative in this regard is instrumental as a positive overture to the aggrieved party.

But this understanding seems to have been lost in the frenzy, just when it was needed most pressingly.  I shudder to think what consequences a failure to understand this vital point can bring. The Pakistani nation has already paid an enormously heavy price.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

ISIS: the need to understand


 Maryam Sakeenah

A good deal has been said about ISIS being a grotesque travesty of Islam and a defiant rejection of all that is commonly held to be moral and humane. Islamic scholars from a variety of denominations have come forward with a single voice to condemn it as a grave wrong, and this of course was vital and timely. However, condemnation alone misses a vital point; it flatly rests on the surface of a much deeper phenomenon.

It is more helpful to engage in an effort to understand- because when groups like ISIS emerge, we are warned that something about our collective humanity has gone terribly wrong. When human beings take up ruthless violence against one another, it shakes our faith in humanity. And yet the perpetrators and oppressors are not any less human than the rest of us- so what disfigured our humanity that we became capable of systematically inflicting pain on others and then celebrating it in the name of ideology?

Phenomena like ISIS are not rare in human history. But to begin to solve a recurring problem we do not need to just condemn, but to understand. A serious and honest effort at understanding is essential because when we engage in it we identify the deep-seated grievances and pent-up feelings of being wronged without redress that fuel the vicious cycle of reactionary violence.

But understanding becomes difficult when we ‘otherize’ and then condemn the ‘other’ whom we have created in our morally superior self-perception. The interconnectedness of a globalized world shows the error in viewing phenomena in isolation from contexts and other events- contemporary or historical. So much of what we see happening today can somehow or the other be traced to events that took place in the recent or not-so-recent past.

It certainly adds a deeper dimension to our understanding to remind ourselves that ISIS was born in the detention camps of the US in Iraq, and got recruits from refugee facilities during and shortly after the US invasion. This gives the context to the radicalization of many of the human beings who now associate themselves with the group.

Lest we forget, Iraq was invaded in 2003 on an utterly false pretext of the threat of what was virtually a dysfunctional and impotent weapons programme. The official strategy of the invasion was ‘Shock and Awe’, which explicitly called for ‘paralyzing the country... destroying food production, water supplies and infrastructure’; the strategy involved the use of chemical weapons- white phosphorus, to name one- in civilian areas which has so far led to hundreds of thousands of stillbirths and birth defects other than instant fatalities. 740,000 women are war widows, 4.5 million were rendered homeless. Hundreds of thousands were made refugees during the brutal invasion of Fallujah alone that left 70% of the town’s buildings completely destroyed. Prison abuse and torture by US soldiers in Iraq has been brought to light, but so much remains still shrouded in history’s oblivion. But while mass deception may hide this narrative from public perception, it lives and rankles in the memories and consciousness of the victims and the witnesses. As the African proverb goes, 'The Axe forgets what the Tree remembers.'

When disempowered human beings are subjected to ignominious occupation and oppression, they will seek redress in militant, often frenzied ways; they will cling on to ideologies that legitimize and glorify the revenge which they believe is the vent. The direct experience of torture and killing desensitizes sensibilities from the use of violence on others, and routinizes it.

The mistake we make is when we locate the root of the problem with violent groups in the ideology they associate themselves with. In doing so, we fail to see the roots that run deeper. Violent ideologies triumph in violent contexts.

When we condemn such groups and vow to strike back with force against them, we again miss the point that to stem violence we need to understand what fuels it- and in most cases, what fuels it is not ideology but the ignominy of defeat and oppressive occupation. Ideology helps later to corroborate, legitimize and sanctify. Hence military operations against such organizations have not yielded stable and enduring peace.

At the terrible risk of being judged as the devil’s advocate, I dare to understand  that it may at times and in part be the work of our own hands that nurtures extremist violence . As long as such wrongs continue to be done to human beings by the powerful, violent groups seeking lost pride will continue to proliferate in multifarious forms- sometimes as Khmer Rouge, sometimes as ISIS or as the undiscovered many who may just be in various stages of their genesis that contemporary global politics fosters.   

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Rejoinder to the trending 'Open Letter to Moderate Muslims'


Maryam Sakeenah

Notwithstanding its stated agenda, ISIS has managed to put the conversation on Islam right at the centre of the global discourse. From celebrities to con artists to apologists and Muslim scholars, all have their two cents to share on Islam. Mr Ali A.Rizvi in his ‘Open Letter to Moderate Muslims’ published in The Huffington Post  has called for ‘reforming’ Islam. He writes that Muslim moderates inadvertently defend ISIS when they attempt to defend Islam against allegations of violence and backwardness- because ISIS follows most closely and literally the contents of Islam’s most sacred texts. Moderates are at pains to explain away ISIS’s actions as ‘unIslamic’ through interpretation and contextualization of the sources of Islam. Given the accessibility of information in this day and age, religion is no longer shrouded in sacred mystery. Once the awareness of the sources of religion explicitly sanctioning violent practices spreads, Rizvi argues, sustaining faith in the indubitability and infallibility of the Quran would be difficult.

There is a problem at the heart of Rizvi’s thesis: for starters, he presumes that faith in Islam survives and thrives because its adherents are unaware of its actual content due in part to the unfamiliarity with Arabic and inaccessibility of information about its literal content. In one fell sweep Mr Rizvi declares all faithful Muslims to be largely unaware of the violent and diabolical contents of their religion- which, if brought into the light of day, will expose the degenerate ethos of their religion and put its naive believers to abject shame.

Most Muslims as a matter of faith do in fact take their religious sources quite literally, yet do not conclude from it what ISIS does. Moderates like Reza Aslan who call for a liberal reinterpretation and metaphorical/allegorical reading of religious content are but few. And yet these billions of faithful and several hundreds of trained Islamic scholars who take the Quran and hadith quite literally hold firmly to the conviction that Islam is indeed ‘a religion of peace’. How do they arrive at this generalization in the face of the actual literal texts of Islam that seem to imply everything but that?

 The problem with both Rizvi’s thesis as well as ISIS is that both have lost sight of the ‘middleness’ that defines Islam. Muslim moderates too, when they put modernist interpretation over the letter of the Quran to explain away violent meanings the extremists may derive, lose sight of this. The essence of Islam is ‘adl’ and ‘tawazun’: (balance and middleness). The sources of Islam have contents endorsing the use of force such as in the sources Rizvi cites in his article- however, these very same sources also contain teachings that command and celebrate peacemaking, justice, kindness, upholding of rights among other things. Looking at it purely quantitatively, the latter far outweighs the former. The balance between these two sets of teaching is to be found in order to develop the true Islamic worldview which mediates between the two. This poised, comprehensive understanding does not need the prop of reinterpretation, but understands that religion defines for us the extremities- conduct in warfare through teachings of firmness and courage against the enemy in war and strife, as well as, on the other end, teachings on forbearance and kindness and mercy at all other times.

As a teacher on Islam, I often feel the need to explain to my students the apparent discrepancy between the examples of Prophet Muhammad (SAW)’s forgiveness and mercy like the one at the Conquest of Makkah in which he declared general pardon, and the instances when retributive justice and execution of penal law or punitive measures were carried out. The two instances stand for and delineate the two extremities of what our responses to wrong can range from. The former stands for Ihsan (unconditional good, more than what is justly due) and the latter for Adl (absolute justice). While the latter is a necessary element a society must be based on, the former- Allah tells us- is the superior virtue. The variation in the Prophetic example leaves it to his followers to decide when and in what circumstances each of the two is to be chosen as our response. Wisdom is to be able to make that choice correctly, depending on the nature and gravity of the situation one needs to respond to, the context and the likely consequences of our choice.

To glean this holistic, seasoned vision is what Islam calls ‘hikmah’ (wisdom). When ‘hikmah’ is absent, the resultant understanding is superficial, errant, flippant and unfair. That is precisely the mistake both ISIS and Rizvi’s ‘Open Letter’ have made.     

Another vital insight is that law and commandments exist for and are bound by core ethical principles and values. Penal laws do not operate detached from the ethical base and moral foundation. The laws of Islam have to be understood holistically as guardians of the values that are the very heart of the matter. Dissociated from the ethical content, they seem to be the brutal and barbaric edicts that ISIS and Rizvi make them out to be.

The Quran says, ‘So give good tidings to My servants; those who listen to the Word, and follow the best (meaning) in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided, and those are the ones endued with understanding.’ (39:17-18) Innumerable Quranic verses and ahadith are very explicit- whether taken literally or figuratively- about the doing of good, delivering justice, making peace, holding firm to what is true, keeping promises, being kind and gentle etc. It is injustice to the Quran to pick out a few of its verses revealed in specific circumstances - which are to be applied in those specific circumstances within certain conditions, and take them to represent the entire ethos of the Islamic religion, eclipsing its much larger content on humane and egalitarian values. If these values were put at the core and followed as zealously as the letter of the law is feverishly applied by fanatical groups, Muslim societies today would come to epitomize the highest and worthiest in human civilization. With reference to these much more numerous and substantive contents of Islam, would following the very literal teaching of the Quran and sunnah engender anything but universal justice and goodness? Rizvi’s premise is clearly one-eyed. It does not hold ground.

Yet another problem is when Mr Rizvi calls for an Islamic Reformation on the pattern of the Jewish and Christian Reformation in the secular modern West. He is impressed with the fact that Christians and Jews can reject the violent contents of their scriptures and still retain faith and be considered part of their religious communities. There always have been serious doubts and questions about the authenticity and credibility of the contents of these scriptures even from within those religious traditions, and this takes away the concept of their infallibility. Yet there has been no such challenge of any serious proportions to the authenticity of the Quran’s content. The Quran begins hence: “This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah.” (2:2)

The call to ape the secular reformation model is fundamentally problematic as it reeks strongly of eurocentrism built on the neo-imperialist belief of the inherent superiority of the Western model. Karen Armstrong has taken issue with those in the developed West who criticize ISIS while failing to understand the dynamics and lessons of history that have led to the rise of groups like ISIS. She writes, Many secular thinkers now regard “religion” as inherently belligerent and intolerant, and an irrational, backward and violent “other” to the peaceable and humane liberal state – an attitude with an unfortunate echo of the colonialist view of indigenous peoples as hopelessly “primitive”, mired in their benighted religious beliefs. There are consequences to our failure to understand that our secularism, and its understanding of the role of religion, is exceptional... when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain.’

The broken lens Mr Ali A.Rizvi views the world from is a tainted one. This takes away from him credibility as a well-meaning reformist offering prescriptions and fixes for the ailing Muslim world. The prescription for reforming Muslim society lies within Islam’s own ethos.