How do you write about the killing of children? Then again, how do you ignore it?
We all know the facts by now. On Tuesday morning, nine attackers dressed themselves in uniforms and took a whole school hostage. A few hours later, the death toll was 141. Out of them, 135 were children.
Shock, horror, anguish, anger, sorrow. We have all now cycled through these emotions several times by now. What can one say about the massacre of innocents? More importantly, should one say anything?
My answer to that question is yes. Because our first and foremost obligation to the dead children is to unite against those who killed them. Not to find excuses. Or justifications. But to identify what led us to this pass. And to unite against it.
Let’s start with the first lie: that the people who did this were not true Muslims. Obviously, they are not. But they certainly believed themselves to be true Muslims. And like them, we believe there is a right and a wrong way to be Muslim. And like them, a great many of us think it acceptable to harass, oppress and kill the wrong kind of Muslims.
The truth is that the only difference between the Taliban who murder our children and those who ‘only’ kill Ahmadis is one of degree. We can either accept that people have a right to profess their religion in peace. Or we can accept that killing people for their religious beliefs is justified. There really isn’t much of a middle ground.
As somebody observed ruefully during the awful hours of the siege, I don’t know if Pakistan was created in the name of religion. But I do know that it is being destroyed in the name of religion.
Please don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with religion. But there is a hell of a lot wrong with accepting violence in the name of religion. You may live by the sword. But then you will also die by the sword.
These are not just abstract issues in Pakistan. Nor are they issues of the fringe. The Jamaat-e-Islami held a convention barely a month ago where its former leader, Munawwar Hassan, declared that the solution for Pakistan’s problems was ‘qitaal’ and jihad. Since the term ‘jihad’ literally means ‘struggle’, it can be, and often is, interpreted in many different ways, some of them ‘non-violent’. The term ‘qitaal’, on the other hand, specifically means to fight using weapons. In Urdu, ‘qitaal’ is the plural of the word ‘qatal’ which means to kill, or more specifically, to ‘murder’. There is no kinder, gentler, non-violent translation of ‘qitaal’. It means what it means: mass murder.
Let it not be said that Pakistanis have grown completely spineless. Munawwar Hassan’s speech was condemned by a courageous few. But there was no retreat by the JI’s former ameer. Instead, he issued a follow-up statement in which he blasted liberals for ignoring the fact that he had not just advocated jihad and qitaal but ‘qitaal fi sabilillah’. In other words, his entire defence of his call for qitaal was that the qitaal be done in the name of God!
We cannot afford to live in a country where elected political parties feel free to justify mass violence on the basis of religion. We are either all governed by a constitution or we are not. We are either all subject to rule of law or we are not.
Some might say that I am barking up the wrong tree. After all, the Jamaat-eIslami did not send nine suicide bombers to a school full of children.
That is correct. But they do applaud the Talibs. And they do refer to them as martyrs. Their polite hatred and their genteel call for violence is a gateway drug, one that leads so very often to a full-scale addiction. And it corrodes the very foundations of our society.
There are other lies floating around as well. Two of the usual suspects immediately accused India of orchestrating the attack. No, you morons, it was not India. Narendra Modi had the good grace to call Nawaz Sharif and condole with him because this was a barbarity beyond geo-politics. This morning, schoolchildren across India stood in two minutes of silence to remember the victims of the Peshawar massacre. Would that we had ever shown such grace.
The final, most foul lie was being mouthed by some learned preacher as I headed to work this morning. God sends suffering on those countries which are plagued by fahashi and behoodgi, he argued. It is all your fault.
No, it is not. My God does not condone the killing of children. My God does not have children killed to send a message. My God loves children. And it is time we humans took the responsibility for the evil we bring to this world
It was foggy and freezing in Lahore this morning. As I huddled in my car on the way to work, I saw next to me a motorcycle on which two small children – a boy and a girl, both wearing school uniforms – clung with all their might to their father. Perhaps they knew of yesterday’s terrible events or perhaps, like many children, they had been shielded from the television by their parents. But this morning they were hugging their father and each other for dear life. And then I couldn’t stop crying.
The only words that come even remotely close to encompassing my anguish are from the prayer written by the man who is, in reality, our national poet. My extremely inexpert, very free translation of its first few stanzas is as follows:
Come, let us raise our hands.
Even those of us who have
forgotten the rituals of prayer,
who now acknowledge no God
but that of pleasure.
Let us beg our Lord
to infuse our poisoned days
with a sweeter tomorrow
to lighten the burden on those
who cannot bear the passage of time
And so, in the words of Faiz Sahib, aaiye, haath uthaayen …
This column appeared in The News on 18 December 2014