About a week ago, a bus carrying children back from school wasattacked near Mattani, a town on the outskirts of Peshawar. Five children died and another 18 were injured. One of the children killed was a seven-year-old boy. The other four casualties seem to have been somewhat older, but I have not managed to find any reports of their ages.
Later that day, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) released a statement in which they defended the attack. The children deserved to die, said the militants, because they belonged to a clan (of the same tribe!) supportive of the Pakistan government. And then they cited reams of Islamic jurisprudence in their favour.
This atrocity is not fresh news. Indeed, it has already been much condemned.
But despite all that, I think it is worth taking a few minutes to ponder this particular crime.
I am the father of two children and, like most parents, I would rather suffer any amount of agony than cause pain to my children. In fact, just the possibility of any hurt befalling my children is such a frightening and fearful thought that it was, and remains, something that scares the hell out of me.
I claim no special privileges for myself in this regard; quite the opposite. The birth of my children introduced me to the club of worried parents which is, self-evidently, a pretty large club. Instead, the point is that I cannot imagine a parent who would not feel the same just like I cannot imagine a parent incapable of empathising with the suffering of another parent. It is for this simple reason that the suffering of a child is a tragedy recognised by all cultures and all peoples just as all cultures and all peoples recoil in shock from the thought of deliberately causing pain to an innocent child.
Historians may wish to differ at this point. After all, isn’t the murder of innocents a regular feature of history, starting with Herod and which continues to our times? In the 20th century alone, one can point to the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking and the horrors of Partition as instances when children have been deliberately killed.
I concede these historical facts but I think they only reaffirm the horror of what happened in Mattani. To begin with, the mere fact that the slaughter of innocent children is a regular event in history only shows that people have always considered the death of innocents to be an event worth remembering. We remember Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents not just because Moses escaped Pharaoh’s wrath but also because we recognise the event itself as one that rightly deserves to live in infamy.
I also have a different point to make. It is a tragedy of colossal proportions that five children died (and then one in the suicide attack in Karachi on Monday morning). But it is a tragedy of even greater proportions that there are citizens of Pakistan, fellow Muslims, who think it is possible to justify such an act. Because, while this act is a travesty of our religion, the attempt to justify it is a sign that something has gone very terribly wrong even in our understanding of Islam.
Noah Millman, an American blogger, made the point recently that the intellectual winners of 9/11 were “The people who could imbue it with meaning”. As he explains, “To do that required a plausible explanation and the confidence to advance it. Nobody would have that confidence without the explanation being pre-packaged, ready to be deployed in any available circumstances.”
In other words, when tragedy struck the US, people wanted answers and the ones who had pre-packaged solutions at hand, became instant heroes, even though those solutions were not very good. Exactly the same phenomenon explains the intellectual bankruptcy of Islamic legalism.
The roots of Muslim rage have been much discussed and analysed. For our purposes, what is important is not why the rage exists but the fact that it does. What is also important is that the modern state has failed many of those burning with anger which leaves them questioning the whole project of modernity. This epistemic vacuum then gets filled with preachers of hate because they have a pre-packaged solution that they can confidently advance irrespective of any and all facts that may inconveniently exist. As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
So far, so good. But the real question is this: how did we get to a situation where scholars of Islam can argue, with apparent sincerity, that the killing of children is justifiable? The short answer is that Islamic law and reality parted ways a long time ago so that as good Muslims, we are now expected to make our reality conform to our laws rather than the other way around. In my view, this is our fundamental flaw.
There is a saying in the New Testament that law was made to serve man, not man to serve the law. I refuse to believe that my religion says anything different. On the other hand, what the TTP wants to do with Islam is not just make a fetish out of its rules but to treat them as a directive to recreate 7th century Arabia as visualised by 18th century Wahhabis. This is because the jihadis have stopped asking themselves the point of the laws they purport to serve and moved on to blindly worshipping those laws, instead of the God who gave those laws to them.
If we are to fight back successfully, one of the first things we must do is reclaim the right not just to re-examine all laws but also to interpret them. One does not need to be an expert to maintain that a just God would never command the killing of innocents. In fact, it probably helps not to be one.
I believe that each one of us is an interpreter of God’s words and that it is time we exercised that right. If we don’t, we will be stuck with the interpretations of people who have abandoned their humanity. And so will our children.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th, 2011.