Aijaz Zaka Syed

Fatal disconnect in the Islamic world

Protesters condemning the Taleban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, during a national solidarity rally in Karachi on Dec 19. The demonstration was led by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a political party whose supporters are firmly op
Protesters condemning the Taleban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, during a national solidarity rally in Karachi on Dec 19. The demonstration was led by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a political party whose supporters are firmly opposed to the Taleban.PHOTO: REUTERS

Commenting on the decline and decay of the Islamic world, foreign policy expert Robert Reilly writes in his book, The Closing Of The Muslim Mind: "The fatal disconnect between the Creator and the mind of His creatures is the source of Sunni Islam's most profound woes."

I do not entirely agree with his arguments or conclusions. And I have serious issues with the whole simplistic, sectarian approach to the understanding of Muslim societies. However, his prognosis suggesting a "fatal disconnect between the Creator and the mind of His creatures" appears increasingly relevant to explaining the state of the Islamic world today.

Islamic men of learning and wisdom have preached from the pulpit ad infinitum, insisting there is no place for force or violence in religion.

Yet, those who attacked a school full of children in Peshawar on Dec 16 as if it were an enemy military outpost and methodically went about killing students and their teachers - taking more than 140 lives - with casual, spine-chilling viciousness seemed to sincerely believe in the righteousness of their "cause". A divine licence to kill, if you will.

The Taleban spokesman who claimed responsibility for the worst terror attack in Pakistan's history said the intent was to target the army and, as the school was run by the military, it was a legitimate target. If the schoolchildren happened to be in the way, well, they couldn't help it.

Indeed, the children were not "in the way" - they were the primary target of the killers.

In the Taleban's grey, primitive world filled with tribal notions of revenge and right and wrong, its members have somehow convinced themselves of the justness of their path. Even if it means killing their own kind; even if it means targeting innocent children, so they can avenge loved ones who died at the hands of the Pakistani army.

The Quran famously warns that taking one innocent life is akin to targeting the whole of humanity. Yet, there are those who believe in God but see nothing wrong and no irony whatsoever in targeting His creation. Islam preaches that all humanity is Allah's family. Yet, humanity is targeted again and again, with impunity, in His name.

This is perhaps the fatal disconnect Mr Reilly talks about. And it is not only deepening by the day - but it has also taken on apocalyptic proportions.

Where are we headed? What is the future of Muslim societies? How and when in God's name can we cure ourselves of this sickness - this all-consuming malaise that has crippled the Ummah?

Pious sermons and righteous condemnations from the pulpit have not been able to save innocent lives. Government crackdowns such as Operation Zarb-e- Azb, which has killed hundreds in Pakistan's restive north-west, and the global war on terror have not made any difference to the lunatic fringe.

But something has to give. As an anguished Kashmiri friend put it, if the Peshawar attack does not change Pakistan, nothing will. The country has no right to call itself the Islamic Republic, he added as an afterthought.

I would not go that far. However, I will say this. Pakistan would do itself immense harm and a huge disservice if it did not draw the right lessons from this tragedy and chart a new course for itself.

It would be an epic tragedy and an affront to the memory of all those felled by terrorists' bullets if it is business as usual after the initial shock wears off. Those young boys and girls, those children with bright, smiling faces were too young to die. Their sacrifice must not go in vain.

Peshawar should be the wake-up call that Pakistan finally responds to after all these years.

The day after the attack, what could be termed a "terror sitcom", in the words of security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, was already under way, with questions being raised about the culpability of the government in failing to prevent the attack, the lax security in a high-security zone, and missing intelligence.

These questions are of course relevant, but they are at best secondary to the debate. The larger issue that needs to be confronted by Pakistan and the greater Muslim world is the genesis of the problem and how to fix it.

Some analysts have chosen to describe the Peshawar attack as Pakistan's 9/11. That might be so, as the carnage was the worst of its kind by the extremists. But let's not forget, unlike the militants who targeted New York and Washington, the perpetrators of the Peshawar outrage did not come from distant lands. They were home- bred and truly indigenous. That's what makes this all the more abominable and disturbing.

That said, if the analogy is aimed at invoking the kind of indiscriminate and overwhelming response that the United States visited on the Muslim world in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, without giving a damn about the motives or causes behind them, Pakistan would do well to heed the terrible consequences and costs of America's disproportionate, misdirected war.

More importantly, the global war on terror and the methods employed to fight it - as revealed earlier this month by the fascinating, "redacted" and severely watered-down version of the US Central Intelligence Agency's shenanigans - have not put an end to terror. They have only fuelled it and helped it grow into a Frankenstein of global proportions.

As lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote recently: "The very policies of militarisation and civil liberties erosion justified in the name of stopping terrorism are actually what fuel terrorism and ensure its endless continuation."

The Taleban terror - utterly shameful, disgraceful and despicable as it is - is only a footnote to the larger terror unleashed on the region and continues in some form or other.

Just as violence provokes violence, terror begets terror. Injustice breeds extremism. So Pakistan's new "national plan to get the region rid of terror", as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif put it, cannot be carried out in isolation from the larger terror on which groups such as the Taleban and Al-Qaeda feed. The continuing wars by the West, drone strikes and targeting of civilians only play into the hands of the extremists. It's a vicious circle.

In a recent New York Times piece, philosophy professor Tomis Kapitan asked: "If what is insidious about terrorism is its callous disregard for civilian lives in pursuit of political goals, why is there not an uproar about state terrorism? Why do so many reserve their venom for people whose destructive capacity pales in comparison with those who command tanks, artillery and warplanes?"

After all, more innocent civilians have died as a result of state terror than at the hands of terrorists.

That said, we have clearly reached a point where such explanations are considered odious and no longer of any use. The increasingly vicious and barbaric nature of the Taleban terror and its kind has proved beyond a doubt, if proof was ever needed, that benign methods such as dialogue and engagement are of little use against these savages.

And it is not just Pakistan - extremism has emerged as an existential threat to Muslim societies everywhere.

However, force alone cannot tackle terror. Pakistan and the Muslim world need to fight this war on several fronts - ideological, political and societal. If overwhelming force alone could overwhelm an enemy, the "coalition of the willing" would not still be stuck in Afghanistan and the Middle East, 13 years after 9/11.

The Muslim world needs to evolve a more nuanced, thinking approach to this accusation. And it should start with an urgent recognition of the magnitude of the challenge presented by violent extremism and obscurantism in the name of religion. Mr Sharif spoke for many of us when he insisted, this is our own war and we must approach it as such.

Still, extreme crises call for extreme measures. Is the Muslim world ready to walk the talk? How about expelling all those who target innocents in the name of their faith from the fold of Islam?

The annual Global Terrorism Index recently suggested that more than 80 per cent of terror victims last year - and in the past few years - happened to be Muslims, and they died in Muslim lands at the hands of those pretending to be of the faith.

If Muslim societies do not wake up and act now to deal collectively and effectively with these forces of obscurantism, this enemy within, the consequences will be unimaginable for everyone concerned. This is no time for Muslims to hide or dither and deflect.