By Zubeida Mustafa
LAST Tuesday’s carnage by the Taliban in Peshawar has left the nation in grief and shock. Such was the enormity of the crime — more than 130 young lives snuffed out brutally — that the emotions it stirred have yet to subside.
The post-Peshawar reactions are intense. But will this be a watershed event? Many think not. Public attention has already started to wander. The discourse is changing. The lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty that has led to a spree of hangings has invited the criticism of rights activists. They have a point when they say hanging the terrorists to punish them will not wipe out terrorism from the country.
There is also the looming threat of a backlash from the Taliban that has sent the authorities scrambling to close educational institutions in the country. The winter vacations were round the corner any way. But when will schools reopen?
Now is the time for soul-searching. In the outpouring of grief and anger, people have been vocal in condemning the killers. There has been a blame game going on. No one has been spared. The government, the politicians and also the army have come under fire. They cannot be absolved of their responsibility in the matter. In such a situation, even silence is immoral.
What is most surprising about the flurry of statements issued is that they carry no hint of self-blame. After all, who is responsible for creating conditions that have made this horrific event possible. No sense of guilt pervades the nation. With a few exceptions, no word of apology to the innocents who lost their lives has been expressed in any quarter. Everyone blames the other. There have been hairsplitting discussions of a semantic nature but no acknowledgment of how each of us has been a party to this crime.
The reactions are intense. But will Peshawar be a watershed?
Have we done enough to stop this slide into the abyss of religiosity, superstition, bigotry, extremism and ignorance? Aren’t these qualities needed to make our society a fertile breeding ground for monsters like the Taliban?
Isn’t it now widely accepted that guerrilla fighters can only sustain themselves and fight in surroundings where they enjoy the support — even if tacit — and sympathy of the population? Haven’t the Taliban received the sympathy of a large section of public opinion and also the powers-that-be?
When we allow the clerics in mosques to praise the Taliban and their ilk without so much as challenging them or when we condone these prayer leaders’ failure to condemn the Taliban by name, don’t we become a party to the crime? True, as individuals we may not personally subscribe to this religious fervour, but allowing fear to determine our response makes us equally culpable.
Hence it was a relief when counter voices began to speak up. First came a text message on early Thursday morning from Anwer Rashid, chief of the OPP-RTI. He wrote, “Meray bachon humay tum mu’aaf kar do. Hum hain qatil. Humay mu’aaf kar do. Hum ney un istalahon ko zinda kia jin ko hum nay bachpan mein suna hee na tha. Al fasad; al qataal, al jihad.” (Dear children forgive us. We are your killers. We allowed such terms to be revived that we had never heard in our own youth such as mischief, slaughter and holy war).
Then came the call from a band of civil society youth led by Jibran Nasir for a peaceful candlelight vigil before the Lal Masjid in Islamabad to “reclaim the mosque” as he put it.
In a video uploaded on Facebook, Nasir expressed remorse at the public’s inaction in the face of the Talibanisation of the institution of the mosque which plays such a central part in people’s lives. He minced no words in condemning the clerics for their role in corrupting and misguiding the youth, and demanded the terrorists known to the establishment be publicly identified. He did not spare the media either for disseminating the bigotry of the mullahs. Bravo Jibran Nasir!
Not everyone will admit that his own silence on such occasions has helped the bigot. If the fear has really been broken will the silent majority now speak up? Don’t forget they have been lulled into complacency on matters of faith. The electronic media has helped fan the fires of obscurantism. Above all, we still have to learn to move away from making religion our yardstick for measuring right and wrong in public life. This approach has its pitfalls because of the diversity in the interpretation of Islamic precepts with each school of thought claiming to be the correct one. What right do any of us have to decide who is correct?
A secular approach based on a social contract can alone resolve the contradictions that complicate life under a theocratic state while allowing the civilian government and the military to get away with so much casuistry.