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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Attacks on Churches and Mob Violence in Lahore

TRANSCENDING THE US VERSUS THEM PARADIGM

Maryam Sakeenah

My parents chose to send me to a Christian missionary school- a decision I have always been grateful to them for. The Convent’s ‘Character Building’ programme instilled in me values which, owing to the essential kinship of the Abrahamic faiths, facilitated my appreciation and practice of my own faith as a Muslim later in life.

Incidentally, all serving staff in my household happen to be Christians. In Ramazan they prepare the Iftar, and at Christmas and Easter we give them an extra something to partake of the family festivity. Through all my extensive and longstanding interaction with Christian friends, colleagues, subordinates, there is no unpleasant or uncomfortable memory I have. And I know I am no exception.

In fact, when I condoled with my Christian domestic help about the unfortunate recent events targeting churches in Lahore, I sensed in their comments the same sentiment I have gleaned from my experience as a Pakistani Muslim. ‘We have been brothers and sisters living together for decades- there was never a problem. And now some unknown enemies wanting this country’s destruction want to create hate. We have nothing against each other- Muslims too are under attack from the same people. We need to be together’, said my illiterate Christian kitchen helper- (translation my own).     

There was an understanding even within these unlettered members of a less privileged minority community that something had gone wrong in recent years; that violent religious hate was not the ethos of this land; and that there was a common enemy out there whose triumph was in sowing discord and hate between the two communities.

And yet ironically I find a complete absence of this simple understanding in the opinions of vociferous social media commentators both from the secular-liberal and conservative perspectives. In fact, the polarity in their views is striking whenever I browse through my newsfeed. While sadness over the attack on the churches was palpable among all shades of opinion, there was a callous lack of sympathy for the innocent Muslim victims of the post-bombing mob-lynching by Christians, and a brazen attempt to paint the ensuing violence by Christian mobsters as ‘but natural.’ This selective sympathy shows our own deeply rooted prejudices. On the other extreme there are outrageous calls for indiscriminate reprisal against the Christian community of Youhannabad where the lynchings happened.

The problem with the narrative that emerges from these polarized, clashing perspectives is that it sees the recent events through the blood-stained lens of ‘Us versus Them’; as a ‘Christian versus Muslim’ issue which is both inaccurate as well as dangerous. In fact, the terrible mob violence that occurred in the wake of the church bombing was also a tragic result of dangerously viewing the attack on the church as ‘Muslim’ violence against ‘Christian’ victims. More accurately, it was violence by an extremist militant minority group for whom all who do not share their violent ideology are potential targets.  This is why the anger was directed at Muslims who had been engaged in routine business in the Christian locality. The two innocents picked for the barbaric lynching were lighter skinned (a characteristic of the Pashtuns) and at least one of them bearded. The mob violence was hence fired by ethno-religious stereotyping and the blind hate born of such prejudices.

In response to the ensuing violence by the Youhannabad locals there is brewing anger amidst neighbouring Muslim communities which sets the stage for potential clashes waiting in the wing. In the climate of fear and anger many families in Youhannabad are planning to relocate or have done so already. This is the triumph of the real enemy as it fulfils the malevolent agenda perfectly. The victory of the enemy is when its victim turns into a savage perpetrator like itself, continuing the cycle of violence.

Violent incidents targeting the Christian community in Pakistan in the recent past certainly fuel the anger by creating genuine and understandable grievances. However, it has to be understood that such targeting of the Christian community has always been resented and rejected by the overwhelming majority of the Muslim population of this country; and that the extremists involved in terror attacks on Christians are a fringe element rejected by the mainstream public opinion. Terrorist outfits are all out to exact vengeance that spares none- mosque, imambargah, church- Muslim, Christian, Shiite- all are fellow sufferers in this great calamity that has gripped us as the terrible cost of owning the US’s Great War on Terror.

The Christian community of Pakistan never has been, is not and should never be an oppressed minority hated and targeted by Pakistan’s Muslim majority. Those trying to reinforce this idea- whether extreme rightwingers, conservatives or the secular liberals- are utterly wrong. This is a false picture that will fuel more rage and blind hate.

What is required in the wake of this frenzied violence is a communal introspection by both communities. The Christian community needs to examine why its young members descended into such rank savagery, and must take responsibility to curtail simmering violence that utterly betrays the Christian spirit of forbearance and compassion. The Muslim community must also engage in a serious endeavour to root out the ire and vengeful streak building up in its ranks in this charged atmosphere.       
The pulpit and the minbar both must take up their vital roles to defeat this false ‘Us versus Them’ narrative. Both religions contain voluminous and powerful content on tolerance and compassion which needs to resonate to drown this madness in the name of faith. Faith must be the healing, the mending and the force inspiring peacemaking. The Quran questions the validity of a faith that justifies and inspires evil. "Say: "Worst indeed is that which your faith enjoins on you- if you indeed are believers." (2:93) It reminds us with a vital message that has never been as relevant as it is today. Let not the enmity and hatred of others make you avoid justice. Be just: that is nearer to piety... Verily, Allah is Well-Acquainted with what you do.”  (5:8)
In the midst of this senseless melee of wrathful hate, the words of Islam’s blessed Prophet (PBUH) for his Christian citizenry from Najran become a beautiful encore played to a deaf audience.

"This is a message from [Prophet] Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.
Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
No compulsion [in religion] is to be on them.
Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.
No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses.
Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate...
...Their Churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.
No one of the nation (of Muslims) is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day (end of the world)."
(Text of the Charter of Privileges, Treaty of Najran)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Pakistan's Response to the Peshawar Attack

LOSING HEAD AND HEART

Maryam Sakeenah

Tragedies like the one in Peshawar are litmus tests for any nation- either bringing out the best, or exposing the bare bones. Pakistan’s response is curiously similar to the U.S response to 9/11. The fact that the U.S’s counter-terror strategy accounts for the genesis of a much more brutal TTP and ISIS is lost to us. In the same manner as the US filled up prisons contravening law and depriving suspects and inmates of fair judicial process in its paranoia after 9/11, Pakistan is all set to establish special military courts in contravention of constitutional procedure, for swift conviction of ‘terrorists.’ The horrors that were unleashed in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in the name of national security are a forgotten narrative in the new Pakistan post 16/12.

Our collective response to the tragedy shows a febrile national demand for vengeance. Ironically, we are baying for the enemy’s blood just like the enemy is baying for ours- in the process, we lose the moral high ground we think we possess. In the process, ‘the faces change from pig to man and man to pig, and pig to man again- and already it is becoming impossible to say which was which.’

At present there are two extremist discourses in the country: the first, of course, is personified by the likes of the clerics at Lal Masjid and other fanatical groups, invoking religion to justify fanatical militancy. This religious extremism has come handy for movements like the Taliban who hide behind it for moral cover of their actions. There is, however, another extremist discourse: it comes from the liberals who have joined the chorus for an unrelenting militarist approach in response to the Peshawar attack. This high-pitched chorus decries any counter narrative or stirring of dissent. In the new Pakistan post 16/12, no one can take a different approach to dealing with the problem of terrorism in Pakistan, and have their opinion respected.
Anyone who does not take sides in these extremist discourses and believes in giving a chance to stable peace through justice and effective longterm peacebuilding is termed unpatriotic at best, and a terrorist-sympathizer, even supporter more commonly. There is no room for dissent. In this extremist furore, all hardline stances seem to have suddenly been vindicated. The iron-fisted policies of Musharraf that helped create the TTP are now being interpreted as farsighted wisdom. Frenzied calls for razing madrassahs to the ground or burning down mosques no longer sound outrageous in the spirit of febrile jingoism.

The strongly militarist strategy  gives overweening powers to the army to deal with an issue that requires a more variegated longterm approach. It is likely to turn the country into a military state. The policy is uninsightful as it aims to do more of the same that created this monster, in order to eliminate it. The TTP emerged as a much more brutal and militant force than the original Taliban movement as a result of Pakistan’s disastrous decision to support the US in Afghanistan and sending its forces in the tribal areas to stop support for the anti-US Afghan resistance. This made the fiercely independent Pashtun tribes turn their guns against the Pakistan army and state. A renunciation of this ill-advised national policy is necessary as a first step to heal and rebuild, even as we take necessary firm action against the unrelenting perpetrators. Besides, the clandestine channels of support and funding to these militant groups must be traced and exposed before the nation. The enemy is not just the gun-toting Taliban militant, but his trainer, financier and facilitator. These vital connections have always been the state’s well-kept secret. And now, questions cannot be asked as we give a free rein to the military to ‘exterminate all brutes.’

In the tide of this nationalistic fervour to exterminate the brutes, drone operations in Pakistan suddenly and silently receive endorsement by national consensus. Questions are no longer welcome about civilian casualties or other fallout of the operation in the tribal areas. Answers are no longer deserved by the nation. The supreme ultimate goal is invincible national security, and ‘to this end, all means must give way.’ While the need for security is vital and understandable, bypassing all that is legal and rational and moral ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.   

The deeper problems have to be dealt with through a wider, more insightful non-military approach: combating extremist discourse that misuses religion to justify terrorism and creating an effective counter discourse; 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 undertaken peacebuilding with some success. Possibilities to create the conditions that had led to ceasefires that brought temporary respite to the nation during this war, should have been explored with sincerity.

The series of executions after the Peshawar tragedy is also regrettable on many counts.  Many of these convicts were juveniles when they committed the crime, brainwashed and swayed by passions. Many had confessions extracted through torture. These were the small fry, while the big fish have escaped the noose. So many high profile murderers and criminals go scot free, whereas these brainwashed juvenile offenders from an ethnic minority, a disadvantaged background are picked out selectively for blind 'justice.' Selective justice is injustice. Two such cases which have been highlighted by human rights groups are that of Shafqat Hussain convicted at the age of 14, and Mushtaq Ahmed who was tortured into a confession without being given access to a fair trial.

Our uninsightful reactionary policies reflect a loss of head and heart in the wake of the Peshawar tragedy. In this feverish frenzy of extremisms baying for each others blood, voices of moderation , justice and peace are dying out.  And the rest is Silence.    


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Peshawar School Massacre

A FAILURE TO UNDERSTAND

Maryam Sakeenah

The Peshawar school attack is 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 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.” This reeks of how the media’s portrayal 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. Scheuer had said that this misunderstanding of the motives and objectives of terrorism was making us fail to deal with it effectively.

Explaining his motive behind the attack, 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. 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 wrong in their humanity, their faith.  Certainly, they were taken in with the TTP’s malevolent ideological justification for the rank brutality they committed. They perceived their miserable lives had no intrinsic worth except in being given up to exact vengeance.

I understood too when I heard a victim student 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 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 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. 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.  

And 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 which flies in the face of history, refusing to learn its lessons. We cannot do more of the same that created this monster, in order to eliminate it. The TTP emerged as a much more brutal and militant force than the original Taliban movement as a result of Pakistan’s disastrous decision to support the US in Afghanistan and send its forces in the tribal areas to stop support for the Afghan resistance from Pakistan. This made the fiercely independent Pashtun tribes turn their guns against the Pakistan army and state. Religious edicts were given by local imams and muftis to legitimize the tribesmen’s war against Pakistan. Foreign actors in the region capitalized on this to destabilize the country, setting up channels of support, training and funding to the TTP. In my understanding, continuing more of the same policies that created the problem will only bring us more misery. 

A militarist approach, instead of eliminating the Taliban, has created the even more brutal TTP. Just like Al Qaeda gave way to the much more brutal ISIS. Even the CIA concedes in a leaked report by Matt Frankel, that this approach is inherently flawed: “Too often, high value targeting campaigns are plagued by poor intelligence, cause unnecessary collateral damage, spur retaliatory attacks, and in many cases, yield little to no positive effects on the insurgent or terrorist group being targeted. Therefore, it’s vital to understand the conditions and lessons that are more conducive to successful strategies.”

The military operation in Waziristan continues with renewed vigour as we are told by official sources, of scores of 'terrorists' eliminated. There is no way to know for sure what the umbrella term 'terrorists' comprises. Even the U.S, after successfully consigning its dirty war to Pakistan, and preparing to wrap up and quit, has decided to draw a line between the 'good' and 'bad' Taliban, and sparing those who do not directly fight: "The Pentagon spokesman explained that from January 2nd, the US policy in Afghanistan would change. “What changes fundamentally, though, is (that) … just by being a member of the Taliban doesn’t make you an automatic target,” he explained.

The series of executions to be meted out to convicted 'terrorists' shows how we, like the enemy we wish to fight, have to believe in blind 'justice' that keeps the violence going in a frenzied vicious cycle. We too, as a nation, are baying for bloody vengeance, unaware of the consequences. The problem is that many of these convicts were juveniles when they committed the crime, brainwashed and swayed by passions. Many. as human rights organizations have pointed out (particularly in the case of Shafqat Hussain), had confessions extracted through torture. They were begging for mercy at the time of convictions... these were the small fry, while the big fish have escaped the noose. So many high profile murderers and criminals go scot free, whereas these brainwashed juvenile offenders from an ethnic minority, a disadvantaged background are picked out selctively for 'justice.' What about the organizations and individuals behind these? Those who fund and train and misguide and abuse? Selective justice is injustice. 

While the necessity of using military means to combat a real and present danger is understood, the need for it to be backed by sound intelligence, precisely targeted, limited in scope and time, and planned to eliminate or at least substantively minimize collateral damage is equally important. Any counter terrorism strategy must be acquainted with the fact that the TTP’s structure is highly decentralized, with an ability to replace lost leaders.  Besides, 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.

The most vital understanding is that military operations are never the enduring solution. Pakistan’s sophisticated intelligence machinery needs to trace the channels of support to terrorists and exterminate these well-entrenched, clandestine networks.  Moreover, the bigger, deeper problems have to be dealt with through a wider, more insightful non-military approach: combating extremist discourse that misuses religion to justify terrorism and creating an effective counter discourse; 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 undertaken peacebuilding with some success. 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 stem this bloody tide. Retributive justice using force will prolong the violence and make more victims. In a brilliant article by Dilly Hussain in Huffington Post, the writer states: There has to be a conjoined effort towards a political solution uncontaminated of American interference, and an aim to return to the stability prior to the invasion of Afghanistan. A ceasefire which will protect Pakistan from further destabilisation and safeguard it from the preying eyes of external powers is imperative. An all-out war of extermination against TTP will only prolong the costly 'tit-for-tat' warfare that has weakened Pakistan since the US-led war on terror.”

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, rehabilitation and development 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.