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Liberating faith from the fringe

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 the changing environment, we have developed a protective mental shell of indifference. No amount of blood, gore and violence seems to penetrate it.

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 spectre of terror in the past few years. We are turning on our own people who worship the same God, believe in the same Prophet and swear by the same Book. The Muslim world has become an endless killing field from one end to another. The six female health workers killed in Pakistan this week were Muslim and their killers also call themselves Muslim. They were awarded death – five of them in Karachi, the nation’s largest city – for saving 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 reveals that such immunisation drives have been strongly resisted in parts of Pakistan, particularly after a fake CIA vaccination campaign helped Osama bin Ladin last year. Militants have kidnapped and killed foreign NGO workers in the past to stop the campaign, which they say has been launched to facilitate espionage. This perhaps explains the outrage in some quarters but does not justify it.

This is not an isolated incident where health workers have been targeted. 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 in the Muslim world, 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 won’t find it easy to return to work.

What was Madiha’s crime and how does her killing and those of others like her help the cause these fanatics are championing? These women weren’t distributing arms or American propaganda tools. They were out there to help fight disease besides earning an honest living to support their struggling families. These killings didn’t occur in some remote, tribal part of Pakistan. These five women were killed within 20 minutes of each other 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 don’t know what is. The security situation in Karachi is bad. On an average day, half a dozen killings are reported there. There is no knowing how many go unreported.

Violence and extremism are eating into the vitals of the Islamic republic like a cancer as civil society watches helplessly. 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 Shias 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 anti-Shia violence. Ironically, Joshua reminds us, the Shias 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 the Islamic Research Institute points out, Shias 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 Shias. 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 (that) these psychopaths do not represent us. But the world finds it hard to accept this line of argument. It sees the extremists take the centre-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 half the damage caused by the scourge of extremism on the ummah. Because these self-anointed defenders of faith, from Mali to Malaysia, claim to speak and act on behalf of the majority.

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 elite remain preoccupied with the irrelevant and peripheral – at best non-issues. What is desperately needed is 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 be spending their time more fruitfully like confronting the extremists and presenting the real, humane face of the faith to 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 towards liberating the spirit of our faith from the clutches of the fanatics. The fringe cannot and must not speak for us.

Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

Aijaz Zaka Syed, "Liberating faith from the fringe," The News. 2012-12-21.