Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Pakistan's Response to the Peshawar Attack


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


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.

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. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014



Maryam Sakeenah

‘Shariah’ (Islamic law) has become one of the most spine chilling, sensational words in contemporary lexicon. In the United Kingdom with its sizeable Muslim population, fear of the Shariah is palpable as we hear of alarmist articles about ‘creeping shariah’ all over the UK, concern over the proliferation of halal meat or veils. Often the fear is irrational, used by xenophobes, racists and supremacists who resent multiculturalism and are uncomfortable with diversity.

But it is not just the Islamophobes and sensationalist media con artists who make the Shariah seem grotesque and terrifying. The spurious ‘caliphate’ of sorts run by the ISIS in Iraq and its bloodcurdling atrocities in the name of Shariah. Nigeria’s Boko Haram has followed suit with its brutal misogynistic practices. Groups like this which deface and defile the Shariah’s sanctity continue to proliferate all over the crisis-ridden Muslim world. 

And yet, crazy as this sounds, the demand for Shariah is not just understandable and legitimate but also an aspiration shared by an overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide. The PEW Research Centre’s 2013 survey finds that most Muslims are deeply committed to their faith and want its teachings to shape not only their personal lives but also their societies and politics. Many express a desire for shariah to be recognized as the official law of their country. Solid majorities in most of the countries favour the establishment of shariah, including 99% of Muslims in Afghanistan, 71% of Muslims in Nigeria, 72% in Indonesia, 74% in Egypt, 84% in Pakistan and 89% in the Palestinian territories.
To make sense of this, one needs to understand that the Prophet (SAW) was a successful head of state and lawgiver, and that in statehood did Islam find culmination as an established system and way of life. The Islamic State flourished and ruled over continents for centuries. In fact, for most of Islam’s history before the colonization of Muslim lands, Islamic law was established as the law of the land. This has left an indelible impact on Muslim collective imagination, imbuing it with nostalgia in the narrative of a bygone glory. 
The introduction of ‘Anglo Muhammadan Law’ in British-ruled South Asia and the displacement of traditional Muslim fiqhi madhabs (juristic schools) in favour of colonial legal systems in other parts of the Muslim world has intensified this nostalgia. The decadence in post colonial Muslim societies is seen now as the result of the absence of Shariah law. Given the fact that many areas across the Muslim world writhe under oppression, tyranny and the systematic suppression of religious aspirations by corrupt secular regimes, this nostalgic longing has at times fuelled militancy and violence by rebel groups. The demand for Shariah is used by these militant and violent Islamist movements vying for political control and power. Secular political ambitions are sanctified with the holy battlecry for the restoration of Shariah law.
‘Whose Shariah?’, however, is a contentious, tricky question we do not have many answers to- but it is the very heart of the matter. The implications of this are seriously damaging to the wider interests of Islam.
Invoking religion and using religious rhetoric gives a religious colour to the violent, attention-seeking tactics used by these groups. Hence Islam is perceived as either intrinsically violent or with a dangerous potency to fuel religious violence. Simplified, reductionist stereotypes of Islam and Muslims are strengthened. This makes harder the task of peacemakers, healers and arbiters engaged in toning down the precarious polarization between Islam and ‘the West.’

The media shows such violence and militancy as essentially religious, not seeing it for its secular-materialist socio political underpinnings or the raw drive for winning power to redress perceived disempowerment by fringe groups.

Speaking of Boko Haram and ISIS, it has been heartening to see Muslim opinion leaders and scholars speak out against their methods, emphatically dissociating these from mainstream Islam. However, highly needful as it was, what was found wanting was a more specific refutation of the textual basis from where such actions of such groups seek justification.
In fact, there is a vital and basic understanding almost missing from Muslim collective consciousness- that many minutiae of Islamic law are rooted in cultural context. They were neither revealed laws nor stipulated as universal, absolute unalterable laws by divine will. The Quran and sunnah directly address and legislate for a few matters, and these texts are but few compared to the entire volume of Islamic juristic literature which was compiled and developed over the historical evolution of Islamic civilization.
The fairly modest content of Islamic laws in the Quran and sunnah means that for deriving the rest of the laws recourse has to be made to jurisprudence through scholarly consensus over the ages. More importantly, it means that such lawmaking has to be guided and inspired by the essence and ethical guideline of the principles of the Quran and sunnah.
That egalitarianism, establishment of justice, protection of rights and an interest in ending human misery to make possible higher ethical and spiritual functions of human existence is a core objective of Islam cannot be doubted. Islam had to deal with a society in which slavery- predating Islam- was a basic social institution. Islam regulated it by law, defining parameters and setting ethical guidelines. Wars involved sexual abuse victimizing women of the enemy side. Here too Islam set down rights and responsibilities to prevent such abuse. It is this humane dimension and ethical orientation Islam gave which shines through and endures over these temporal pre Islamic cultural traditions and practices. In this day and age when human progress has achieved the legal abolition of slavery and its associated practices, it is utterly ludicrous to invoke these ancient traditions as part of Islam. The rights of people recognized and protected in this day and age are sacred to Islam which teaches supremacy of law and human progress through constant social reform. Violating these established principles on which a silent global consensus exists, is sinful. It is important here to remind ourselves of the fact that the Prophet (SAW) wistfully remembered the signing of a pre Islamic document of rights (Half ul Fazul) and expressed his full endorsement of it as a prophet of Islam.
The failure of contemporary Muslim jurisprudence has been the inability to put the spirit at the core of the letter of the law and to make Muslims understand that the law exists to protect the essential values; that it is the protection of those values that are the heart of the matter, while laws are often bound by culture and historicity. This explains the unseeing literalism and fanaticism for restoring the letter of the Shariah in corrupt and decadent Muslim societies and the preoccupation with juristic nitpicking in the Muslim world.
It is the crisis of authority in the Muslim world due to which random groups pining for the return of Muslim glory make bold claims as to what constitutes Shariah law and give their own misconstrued versions tracing them back to sacred texts or early Muslim culture. Those who got together to condemn ISIS and Boko Haram’s actions as unIslamic must also with a single voice present a blueprint of Islamic law that is relevant, practical and applicable today, in tune with contemporary cultural and socio political context. It is a long haul, but unless such a juristic magnum opus is initiated, twisted, grotesque and soulless versions of ‘Shariah’ will keep haunting us like a spectre. Authority as to who interprets religious law and how has to be won back.
Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) writes of the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls:
“... the whole atrocity underscores the crisis of leadership which is now a grave problem for global Islam. The Boko Haram abductions have been condemned by all the traditional authorities: Nigeria’s chief sultan, the grand muftis of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the leading Islamic universities, the main Islamic bodies here in Britain. It’s been a moment of unity. Unfortunately, we can’t pretend that it has helped. For the last decade or so, across the Muslim world small but ferocious factions have defied the traditional leaders and taken religion into their own hands. In every case the result has been a disaster for communities and even whole countries. The use by these factions of religious rhetoric to validate what is often a political or economic grievance has left many religious leaders at a loss. In some cases the imams have been assassinated for speaking out against the extremists; this has happened in Nigeria, as elsewhere. So what should they do?
The founder of Islam had no time for extreme zealotry. ‘May the fanatics perish,’ he once commented. If he detected extreme or hateful behaviour in anyone he would condemn it immediately. Present-day leaders recall this, as they struggle to find ways of fighting terrorism.
So this scandal cuts more deeply. How to restore the authority of the mainline leadership, among embittered young men who trust no-one? Spies and bullets will not, in the long term, defeat these aberrations: the religious leadership must find some way of regaining its moral authority in an age of rapid change and rampant injustice.”

If the ethical spirit of Muslim law is not reinstated, if the textual bases for inhuman, brutal and violent practices not refuted, routine condemnations from Islam’s defenders will serve no more than as rhetorical generalisations. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

'HAPPY MUSLIMS': to be or not to be...


Maryam Sakeenah

While the ‘Happy British Muslims’ video would not have in itself elicited a response more than a fleeting bemused scepticism, it was impossible to get over it and move on, given the 2 million youtube views, the reams of commentary and discussion it generated. The short clip apparently became the biggest issue in the issue-ridden Muslim world, judging by social media ratings. Ardent supporters of the attempt to showcase Muslims in the West as adaptable and ‘happy’ people, as well as bitter opponents of such meaningless and inappropriate depiction of Muslims, all jumped into the fray- soon enough, there was a raging storm in a teacup.

It all signifies the contradictions, polarities, sensitivities and contentions rife in the Muslim world- like a bubbling, gurgling, steaming cauldron.

The video aims to present an image of Muslims in the West as flexible, creative, adaptable, well-integrated, cheerful and positive-minded, so as to dispel negative stereotypes that have dominated public imagination in the West since 9/11. Imam Johari Abdul Malik from the US comments on the video: ‘The narrative about Muslims is so often about being hungry and angry, people have started turning it around using the social media...’

Underlying this, however, there can also be sensed a desperate attempt to assure that ‘we are like you, too’- a desire to be accepted, owned and integrated into Western society. This desperation can be understood in the context of the consistently rising Islamophobia in these societies.

However, the problem with this appeasing, placatory attitude is not so much with Muslims as it is with Western societies. These societies seem to be growing increasingly ethnocentric, losing willingness to embrace diversity and to allow distinct ethnic, cultural and religious identities to survive and thrive without either being compelled to Westernize to be able to integrate, or being socially marginalized. This goes against the essence of the values of pluralism, tolerance and coexistence at the heart of Western liberal tradition that it prides itself in. It is ironical and interesting to note that while the ‘Happy British Muslims’ video was doing the rounds, Tony Blair reminded the leaders of the Western nations to ‘move the battle against Islamist extremism to the top of the political agenda.’ The same day that the video was released, the English Defence League held a demonstration outside London’s largest mosque against Islam in Britain. On this backdrop, given the very grave challenges that beset the Muslim world, attempts like the ‘Happy British Muslims’ video appear little more than pathetic. The efficacy of the video message as a response to a pervasive anti-Muslim campaign is highly questionable.

But that is not the only troubling thought. Equally disconcerting, if not more was the impulsive and inane, utterly dispensable video rejoinder to ‘Happy British Muslims’ video, made by some Islamic groups on the internet titled ‘Happy Muslims, HALAL version.’ This video removed the images of all women and re-released it as acceptable by Islamic standards- minus the laughing, clapping, singing females. This reflects a lopsided, immature and almost obsessive fixity on juristic intricacies of Muslim law without even a cursory understanding and appreciation of the spirit of Islam. Such fiqh-obsessed shallow-mindedness is often manifested in moral panics among Muslims over the visibility of Muslim women.

It is deplorable that the makers of the ‘Halal’ version who deservedly educed ridicule and censure utterly failed to grasp the idea of true happiness in Islam. For one, given the plethora of grave predicaments we are caught in, the despondency, frustration, defeatism, confusion and hurt, the cluelessness about the future, the directionlessness and leaderlessness, the wars, civil wars, socio-political crises and the rising monster of sectarianism- these aren’t the happiest of times for Muslims anywhere in the world. Empathy is an essential component of Islamic brotherhood- the fact that a Muslim must feel the pain of another Muslim (no matter how geographically distant) as his own. I wonder how I, as a Muslim, can clap and cheer my deep sadness away? Brecht writes,
‘Truly I live in dark times!...
A smooth forehead
 Points to insensitivity
He who laughs
Has not yet received
The terrible news
What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!’

 The prospect of declining life and time and the impending oblivion of death, and the eventuality of accountability in the eternal life is the grave and inescapable truth one must confront. The Prophet (SAW) said, ‘If you knew what I know, you would laugh little and weep much.’

Happiness in Islam is not the be-all and end-all. It is not to be pursued, but in its deepest sense, it comes to those who discover and live out their purpose in life. Orwell writes, ‘Men can only be happy if they assume that the purpose of life is not happiness.’ Fun and entertainment as temporary relaxation have a place- and a significant one- but happiness in Islam is gained by tasting the sweetness of faith through complete self-surrender to God. It is attained by giving and selfless sacrifice. ‘By Time! Man is in Loss. Except those who believe and do righteous good deeds and exhort one another to the Truth and exhort one another to patience.’   (The Quran)

Imam Johari quoted earlier, was perturbed by the image of Muslims as ‘hungry and angry’, but one cannot wish that away or pretend that is not the case by cheering and smiling away into the camera. Yes, Muslims writhe in the throes of poverty, starvation and crippling oppression, but happiness is attainable to those who do their small bit to help alleviate some of that.

This idea was tried to be conveyed in another video rejoinder titled ‘Happy Muslims: Sunnah Version’. It is a brief, beautiful and simple message that reflects the Islamic ethos of happiness- it shows clips of Muslims rescuing and saving lives of the calamity-stricken, and ends with the line, ‘This, my friend, is happiness.’ However, this video was blurred and poorly made, and circulated briefly in a few closed Muslim circles. It never went viral. And here is the very heart of the problem: the voicelessness and disempowerment of the Muslim visionary, and that ‘the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.’ (Yeats)    

Friday, April 25, 2014

Fall Before Springtime


Maryam Sakeenah

Nameless One!
Too soon gone,
While I, my puerile human self 
Dreamt of a welcome
Strewing rosebuds along your untrodden path
Too soon wilted- 
A Fall before Springtime.

And I could not say goodbye
Helpless, my hands tied
I saw you taken away;
Bereft, I saw you
Ripped from my sore, bleeding flesh
And I learnt of my crippling helplessness,
A mortal weakness I could not surmount-
Mere flesh...

And yet, not quite
For I feel the Indissoluble Bond
Decreed by an Immortal Word: 'Be!'
O Flesh of my flesh, Spirit of my spirit!
We mourn but the rotting flesh
Buried under unknown darknesses...
But I take heart in the fact
That you were, are and always will be
Lodged in my wounded heart
Bound with the silken ties of a love undying
Washed in sacred tears

And in another, better world
I see you rest in serenity
In a warm embrace
More loving than a seventy mothers

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Waa Islaamah! (Alas, for my Islam!)


Maryam Sakeenah

The rising death toll, the blood and the gore hurts_ but the searing, tearing hurt like a thorn lodged in the very heart which will outlast the last rotting corpse is when these and other enormities are committed in the name of the faith of Islam: a faith that declares the sanctity of innocent life to be greater than the sanctity of the Kaabah itself... And like the humiliated Muslim woman from Madina 1400 years ago disrobed in the marketplace had exclaimed in distress, the believer’s bloodied heart cries out, ‘Waa Islamah!’ (Alas, for my Islam!)

When indiscriminate violence uses religious beliefs and ideals to seek cover under, it viciously defaces those. A grotesque wrong has been committed against Islam by extremists and fanatics, and our collective inability to reject it in clear terms has had grave consequences. Responses to Islamist extremism from Islamic scholars have often been ambivalent and ‘politically correct’ rather than passionately censorious of this being done in Islam’s name. This is for two reasons: the clergy’s preoccupation with minutiae of fiqh, denomination and sect; and sympathy for the original motives of religious militants who launched a defensive struggle against unwarranted occupation and oppression against Muslims.

By all means, selfless sacrifice for a higher cause (justice and truth) is the most beautiful that the human being is capable of: Islam assents, through the doctrine of Jihad and the esteem in which those who undertake it are placed. But there is a lot of murkiness out there, especially on this side of the Durand Line. The original impetus for the defensive struggle has spiralled into no more than naked violence for an ideologized power struggle, and the damage done by fanatical groups in the name of Islam is irreparable in its psycho-social consequences.

It is these psycho-social consequences that are the gnawing, deep hurt. I struggle as a teacher on Islam, with confused young minds full of questions, confusions, bitterness. There is deep resentment and unease over the failure of Muslim religious leadership to provide clarity and answers. Among those still struggling to hang on to faith, there is a seething, muted anger over traditionalist scholars’ failure to rescue the narrative from politicized and ideologized contemporary Jihadism and Salafist fanaticism. There is today a clear trend of disenchantment towards religion in Pakistan’s middle and upper middle classes, the gravity of which is yet to be recognized, and to meet which we are utterly unprepared.

The media has often played the role of Agent Provocateur stoking controversy around serious subjects of Islamic jurisprudence. Sensationalist talk-shows deal in half-truths and untruths, relaying featherweight opinions on issues of gravity, by scatterbrained demagogues and con artists. Clarity remains elusive as young minds are confused over these matters of complexity. Given the fact that the source of all information for most these days is primarily if not solely the popular media, it is not surprising that many growing up post 9/11 have come to associate religion with regression, backwardness and even evil, thinking we would do better without it. When you pit a madrassah-graduate religious scholar against a squealing and irate Liberated English Speaking Woman giving him a couple of minutes to explain away the barrage of allegations of misogyny often born of a superficial understanding of religion and society, you make Islam seem incapable of withstanding the secular-liberal assault; you reinforce the idea that religion being a thing of the past, needs to be cast off for a progress that apes the Western model: Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's; Give unto God that which is God's.

The struggle is not entirely about the physical elimination of violent religious groups through military strategies. There is a greater and more formidable challenge to face: to undo the terrible damage that the religio-ideological underpinnings of extremist groups have done to Muslim societies, and to hearts and minds.

Our failure to rescue the religious discourse from its abusers who have the audacity to pose as its defenders  is a huge blemish on the pages of our history. History’s verdict shall be unrelenting and merciless against us.

Islam in this society faces an unprecedented crisis. And yet, hackneyed and simplistic as it may sound, in the heart of this darkness there is a flicker of hope. At the heart of crisis is often opportunity, if we learn the right lessons: that religious violence is a hydra we created with our silence towards grave injustices against our own people on the dictates of the Global Bully, thinking the unholy alliance would bring us boons. We then nurtured this hydra and owned it with our silence towards the crimes it committed against other innocents in the name of Islam. And now the genie cannot be bottled back up again. Two wrongs do not make a right. Two silences slowly kill us all, till all we hear is the haunting echo, 'Waa Islaamah!' 

A realization is slowly sinking in even though we took far too long to learn- that extremists use religious sources to justify their ideology, hence the responsibility on religious scholars to spearhead a progressive interpretation of Islam rooted in its sources is great, and that this has to come from the highest authorities on religion venerated by the generality of Muslims. Traditional Muslim scholars need to assert, as Sheikh Hamza Yusuf puts it, that indiscriminate violence in the name of Islam is‘neither from religion nor sanctioned in any reading from our pre-modern tradition. It is a modern phenomenon, and those practising it have learned it from nihilistic elements in Western tradition who innovated from Marxism and Asian philosophy like the kamikaze...’

The current crisis is also gradually bringing the realization that denomination and sectarian orientation are secondary when the attack is on the very soul of Islam, and that the reply has to be proclaimed with a single voice. It is helping us understand- though the cost of our unwillingness to learn has been too dear- that our condition cannot be traced down to an externalized enemy to give us a comforting sense of ‘We the good and true versus They the evil and false.’ Often it is more complex than that, the evil more insidious and closer to home.

The pulpit has to assume responsibility to set the record straight and disseminate the eclipsed tradition that has no equivocation regarding the rejection of fanaticism and violence against innocents, and the sanctity of human life. As the crescendo of the salvaging voice for Islam rises, the narrative will be rescued from the unworthy and undeserving. It has been a long, hard way but in Pakistan there is a clear shift in public opinion against the TTP and other religious hardliners. With their atrocious acts, these groups have dug up their own graves, as the human heart’s  innate moral criterion balks at such an inversion of basic morality in the name of religion. In the Heart of Darkness, holding on to hope is still possible.