When The Fringe Speaks For Us – OpEd


By Aijaz Zaka Syed

Another day, another massacre in the name of the exalted faith. Will this senseless, endless dance of death in the name of all that is holy ever stop? We have all become so accustomed to this mindless bloodletting in Muslim lands that few of us even pause to react to the latest atrocity. No killing or carnage of innocents seems to prick our thick skin or conscience. Just like those prehistoric species evolving with changing environment, we have developed a protective mental shell of indifference. No amount of blood and gore and violence seems to penetrate it.

Stalin who sent thousands to their death without batting an eyelid knew what he was talking about when he argued that while one death is a tragedy, a million a mere statistic. From Pakistan to Afghanistan and from Iraq to Yemen to Syria, death is merely a statistic for most of us. In fact, it’s not even a statistic. No one is keeping a tab on how many from our midst have been snatched away by the specter of terror in the past few years.

We are turning on our own — people with flesh and blood like us, people who worship the same God, believe in the same Prophet and swear by the same Book. The kingdom of God has become one endless killing field from one end to another.

Those six female health workers killed in Pakistan this week were Muslims and were eliminated by people calling themselves Muslims. They received death — five of them in Karachi, the nation’s largest city — for saving precious lives. They were part of a massive polio vaccination drive in the country that is considered a key battleground in the war on the disease.

A BBC report explains that such immunization drives have been strongly resisted in parts of Pakistan, particularly after a fake CIA vaccination campaign helped locate Osama Bin Laden last year. Militants have kidnapped and killed foreign NGO workers in the past to halt the campaign which they say is part of efforts to spy on them. This perhaps explains but does it justify the outrage?

And it’s not just one isolated incident of targeting health workers. We are faced with something more serious and profound. While the use of violence in the name of religion is hardly a new phenomenon, it has lately acquired endemic proportions from one end of the Muslim world to another, matching the callous indifference of host societies.

One of the girls killed in Karachi, Madiha, had joined her mother Rukhsana in the vaccination campaign to help her large impoverished family. Since her father was crippled by a surgery, Madiha and her mother had become the breadwinners of the family. And now she’s gone. Her mother and many like her wouldn’t find it easy to return to work.

What was Madiha’s crime and how does her killing and that of others like her help the cause these lunatics are championing? These women weren’t distributing arms or American propaganda tools. They were out there to help fight disease besides earning an honest buck or two for their struggling families.

It didn’t happen in some remote, tribal part of Pakistan. The killing of five women within 20 minutes of each other took place in the nation’s financial capital and its largest city. If this isn’t a wake-up call for Pakistan’s leaders and civil society, I know not what is. On an average day, half a dozen killings are reported from Karachi. And this may be just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Violence and extremism are eating into the vitals of the Islamic republic like a cancer as civil society watches in helplessness. And not surprisingly, minorities and other vulnerable sections of the society are the worst affected.

This week Anita Joshua, the Hindu’s Islamabad correspondent, wrote: “Pakistan’s Shiites are so regularly killed in targeted attacks that counting the numbers who were thus killed in 2012 is an uphill task. Even before the start of Muharram, the numbers killed had crossed 389 — the number of people the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says died in sectarian violence in 2011.”

Recent months have seen a dramatic upsurge in the anti-Shiite violence. Ironically, Joshua reminds us, the Shiites constituting about 20 percent of the population are not down and out socially or politically. The president, Senate chairman and National Assembly speaker come from the same community.

As Khalid Masud of Islamic Research Institute points out, Shiites have traditionally been leading contributors to the intellectual discourse among the subcontinent’s Muslims. Some of the finest Urdu writers and poets come from the community. Indeed, they, especially those from Uttar Pradesh, played a crucial role in the Pakistan movement. That hasn’t helped them though. And it’s not just the Shiites. The Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis all increasingly find themselves at the receiving end.

Ironically, it’s not just the minorities; the majority is not faring any better. From the crowded mosques and bustling bazaars to schools and hospitals, nothing is beyond the striking range of the cynical zealots. Indeed, if anyone is the real victim of the scourge of fanaticism, it is the faith itself. The religion that preaches and celebrates peace, universal brotherhood and equality of men has been hijacked by a demented, miniscule minority.

As one argued after the Mumbai outrage four years ago, “it’s all very well for us to say faith has nothing to do with terror. We can go on deluding ourselves these psychopaths do not represent us. But the world finds it hard to accept this line of argument. It sees the extremists take the center stage while the mainstream remains silent. The fringe will continue to speak on our behalf, until we do not stand up and speak up.”

The clear and present danger Islam and its followers face from this sinister enemy hiding in their midst is far more serious than any external threat. All the US drones and Western wars and conspiracies put together couldn’t inflict on the Ummah half the damage caused by the scourge of religious extremism. Because these self anointed defenders of faith, from Mali to Malaysia, claim to speak and act on our behalf.

Never in their long history have Muslims faced a more serious existential and ideological crisis. Not even the Mongol hordes who ransacked Muslim lands a thousand years ago posed such a threat. What’s more disturbing than the challenge itself is our helplessness and inaction.

Our intellectual and religious elites remain preoccupied with the irrelevant and peripheral, at best non-issues. What is desperately needed is a visionary leadership and intellectual fortitude to take on the challenge. Instead of obsessing over profundities like body tattoos and sartorial choices of Sania Mirza, shouldn’t our ulema (scholars) be spending their time more fruitfully like on confronting the extremists and presenting the real, humane face of the faith before the world?

Our silence in the face of these crimes against humanity is not mere complicity, it kills — literally. Speaking up against these atrocities is the first step toward liberating the spirit of our faith from the clutches of the fanatics. The fringe cannot and mustn’t speak for us.

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Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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