Saturday, December 20, 2014

Maria Amir - Time to confront the Taliban apologists in our midst

There is so much already said and that will be said about the attack in Peshawar on the Army Public school this week. And yet, one cannot underestimate the need to keep speaking about it.
Like most people I know, I monitored my social media feeds and consumed this, worst of news cycles as it played out on December 16. I tried to keep my wits about me, alternating between journalistic rage at the insensitivity of jamming microphones in the faces of grieving parents, to the ethical implications of running pictures of dead children.
I deliberated the ramifications of turning my profile picture black on Facebook, in solidarity but also in apology for the fact that there was nothing more I could do and this helped me assuage my conscience a little.
I drew my fair share of analogies about the tragic significance of December 16th as our benchmark for massacres.
I did all of that.
I tried to say eloquent things; make meaning out of chaos, which is what we do in these situations, isn’t it?
There was only one marked difference.
I cried.
I have cried for days. It has been years since I have cried at watching the news. I covered it a few years ago, a daily deluge of rape cases and acid victim stories pouring in from Southern Punjab’s districts and there came a point where I stopped crying on my way home. A point where I treated it as ‘news’ that happened to ‘other people’.
A point where I actively separated myself as a journalist and not just a person.
It helped, and I am glad that it is no longer doing so. I am glad for the ability to still shed tears for someone other than myself. I must hold on to that. We all must. It has become a preciously rare commodity in our present Pakistan – simply to feel for anyone but ourselves.
After running through the traditional gamut of emotions: shock, rage, grief – it took me a while to recognise that the entire point ought to be that this isn’t just another one of ‘those situations’.
Pakistan has had more than its share of ‘wake-up calls’ and every time we see and hear ourselves resolving – for a day or two – to change.
We talk about ‘what needs to be done’ and ‘who needs to do it’, we lay blame wherever and at whoever it can be directed.
Who do we blame for this?
Do we blame Imran Khan’s dharna or Nawaz Sharif’s apathy?
Do we blame Zarb-e-Azb or the US?
The past two days have seen the country ‘congratulating’ itself for standing united in the face of this atrocity: Imran Khan has been revered for ‘calling off his dharna’, our Prime Minister has been applauded for ‘acting quickly’ and demanding that the death penalty be enforced on prisoners on death row. We are all supposedly ‘united’.
Really?
Is the bar so low that we now congratulate ourselves for having had the decency to muster up a human response to an inhuman tragedy that goes beyond the power matrix? Apparently, it is.
I have tried instead to take responsibility.
I no longer care what our politicians can do, what our government can do, what our army can do about terrorism.
It is about time we started asking what we can do.
First and foremost, we can confront the Taliban apologists in our midst.
I have encountered four so far in two days, one in my own family. People, who add a back channel, misdirect and misappropriate blame to feed their own personal politics and ideologies. Everyone who adds a qualifier to terrorism, inserting their own conspiracy theory agent of choice ‘government/India/America/Israel’ as the ‘actual’ culprit, in the face of the real culprits proudly boasting their actions.
I had always turned the other cheek when I encountered these responses, vowing to leave them to their lunacy. That must stop.
When we have the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan hosting press conferences claiming responsibility for an attack, anyone else saying ‘No, No … you didn’t do it – it was actually the government trying to redirect attention from the dharna/ it was the Army/ it was India” needs to be categorically labelled and called out as a Taliban apologist.
As I write this piece, surrounded by students in the university dining hall, two people across from me are saying “Aap Army ke zariye insurgency khatam kar sakte hein, terrorism toh nahin kahatam kar sakte. Terrorists to hum paida kar rahe hein” and I am struck by how these words resonate with Wallace Stegner’s words in ‘All the little live things’:
There is a sense in which we are all each other’s consequences”.
We did this too.
We handed Islam to the extremists a long time ago by not reading our own religion; by not claiming it’s spaces and its language.
The word Taliban is the plural of the Arabic Talib and it means ‘student’.
The word Madrassah means school or any educational institution.
Let us try and digest that for a moment: these were ‘student’s’ killing other students.
I am a teacher who teaches in an educational institution – technically teaching ‘taliban’ in a madrassah, if I wanted to explain it in Arabic. When did we give away these words to these people in exactly the same way we handed them our religion out of sheer cowardice?
How implausible, even impossible, it now seems to reclaim both these words and this space. And yet, we must do so.
It is about time we reclaimed the right to counter violence wherever, whenever or by whoever it is preached. About time we start reading our own religion, analysing it without letting others dictate it to us. It is about time we reclaimed the mosque, the aalim and the madrassah as spaces where we also talk and listen.
Our Prime Minister has benevolently claimed that Pakistan’s government will no longer distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, a backhand admission to the fact that it was openly doing so up to this point.
What does this mean?
Does it mean Madrassah reforms?
Does it involve challenging every instance where religious rhetoric is used to justify inhuman responses – with regards to blasphemy and other issues?
Does it mean refusing to cede space to only one bent of religious scholars who claim to have dibs on ‘what Islam says’, when no one around the world can lay claim to one monolithic definition on matters of faith and religion?
Broadly speaking, our ‘Good Taliban’ have been people who preach hate and extremism, while our ‘Bad Taliban’ have been the ones who openly practice it.
So what happens when the ‘Good Taliban’ happen to be in a bad mood?
Do we wait for that inevitability before we take action or do we finally have the courage to start cutting this off at the root?
According to the famous Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages of grief that the living go through to help cope with death and its aftermath.
The stages include Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. As a nation, we are maneuvering through each of these phases at present.
With all due respect to Ross, I simply refuse to end this where she does.
For Pakistan and it’s children, we need a sixth stage – we need Action.