international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Charlie Hebdo and Kang Xi

Published by The Islamic Monthly on January 17th, 2015

What happened earlier this month at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo has been commented upon ad nauseam; some really good pieces have resulted alongside some terrible ones.  What needs to be said has probably been said already, and readers can look here and here if they are interested in what I have to say about the tragedy. The incident is being imprinted onto our collective psyches as an event with the clear-cut imprimatur of “Islamic terrorism.” Without going into the myriad stupidities and misunderstandings that mediate much of our popular interpretations of what happened, I dare say that the event is emblematic of much more than meets the eye.

The world is a transitory place, and the globalizing effects of commerce and travel have prompted many in the so-called “East” to migrate out of their geographical, social, political contexts, and into the Western world. This broad physical transition has resulted in the proliferating of communities in the West that represent ways of being that, at once modern in appearance, is the 21st century representation of pre-modern traditions that used to dominate mankind. The West’s primary alphabet of secular materialism is often unable to fully penetrate and comprehend the complete meanings of such modes of being, resulting in a kind of tension that makes it difficult for many to see the world through the migrants’ eyes. Islam, as is often the case in the modern era, finds itself caught in the middle of this interaction.

The miscomprehension of lived Islam in the Western world is directly related to the misinterpretations of the violent episodes of Muslim fundamentalism. It’s quite ironic that places like North America and Europe, where political repression of the dictatorial kind is supposed to be least pervasive, are often incubators for the least sophisticated sort of cross-cultural understanding. There are many barriers: institutional racism, historical baggage, personal prejudice, etc. But an opportunity does exist. Today, for example, it’s impossible to talk about the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in China. The Communist Party censors all searches of it on Google, and other search engines. It’s very difficult under such circumstances to form a comprehensive history of China without Big Brother looking over one’s shoulder. So, ironically (some would say, with sadness), much of the great works on Chinese history, philosophy, and literature have originated in institutions in the Western world. Jonathan Spence’s seminal 1990 masterpiece In Search of Modern China is a primary example.

So goes for pre-modern traditions like Islam, which, like many other traditions, is most misunderstood in lands that have the most potential of accentuating its public comprehension. The most overlooked tragedy to result from centuries of imperial/colonial activity and its subsequent post-colonial effects is the degradation of one’s heritage. It is, to take one example, why the masterful 20th century writer Lao She, who wrote Rickshaw Boy (Noam Chomsky’s favorite novel when he was a child, incidentally), and who once taught at SOAS, University of London, ended up committing suicide after being humiliated by the Red Guards during China’s tragic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A parallel can be made between this kind of tragedy and the bizarre post-colonial aftermath in the Muslim world, where, in certain countries, the Friday khutbah has to be of a certain flavor according to the state. Such strictures don’t necessarily exist in the so-called liberal, democratic West, which presents its own set of head-scratching oddities, tensions, and crudities.

Yet, within this cauldron of confusion lies an opportunity. As the post-9/11 West staggers onward in its own confused struggle to understand the “Other”  (a generalization, I know), banal crudities have received far more favor than nuanced understanding or deep empathy. Detailed explications of certain traditional or religious principles are often seen as a kind of “liberal” obfuscation conducted in the name of superstition, backwardness, or pure ignorance. The negation of this pattern toward a one-off glossing-over of complex systems is where the opportunity lies for young, non-Western (or, perhaps, partly-Western) intellectuals (Muslims or otherwise) to reclaim their own heritage. Here, in the West, is where the staging point can be for the recollection of memory and history. Not to do so would be, in fact, to surrender any opportunity of narrating one’s own existence.

The present state of affairs reminds me (as a matter of contrast) of how the first emperor of China’s last dynasty (the Qing, 清朝), Emperor Kang Xi (康熙), who came to power in 1661, spent a lot of money and time wooing the Han Chinese intelligentsia, most of whom were loyal to the Ming Dynasty (明朝) rulers that the Qing displaced. Kang Xi, the representative of the nomadic Manchu people of the North (hence, Manchuria), ruled China for an astonishing 61 years. His problem was that the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty were not established by those who held the same Confucian traditions that the Han Chinese (who continue to make up the vast majority of China’s population) did, and therefore didn’t have the loyalty of much of the empire’s most brilliant minds. The Han see themselves as a distinct ethnic group who are central to China’s over-all makeup, and regarded the Qing as outside invaders to their long-established homeland.

Faced with this administrative challenge, Kang Xi didn’t impose a monolithic set of Manchu dicta to marginalize the traditions that featured centrally in the lives of his Han subjects. Instead, he treated the Confucian legacy (which, by then, had many centuries to permeate China) with the kind of sensitivity that’s quite uncommon among most rulers. He assembled a team of tutors (comprised of both Han and Manchu intellectuals) to teach him all the Confucian classics, and, in 1670, issued the “Sacred Edict,” a list of 16 maxims that summarized what Kang Xi thought it meant to live the Confucian life. Whisperings of his scholastic efforts were “leaked,” and, soon enough, many were praising his majesty’s intellectual precociousness and cultural sensitivity. Combined with nation-wide strategies to incorporate more and more Han minds into his orbit of power, Kang Xi made it clear that he didn’t want to caste aside thousands of years of complex philosophical tradition.

Without romanticizing the Qing emperor’s reign (it was not, after all, sensible to dissent against him, for obvious reasons), I wonder how many rulers in the democratic West even have the time to learn just a little bit about the traditions of those they claim to represent? Probably not many. So the work is to be done, then, by civil society—by those who, with one eye on their own past/tradition, dare to peek over the fence to see what’s happened on the other side. This is a crucial intellectual pluralism from which Western Muslims can benefit (if adopted), as the task of explaining one’s own self is often coupled with that of being in someone else’s shoes for a bit. This is the essence of being an migrant, or exiled person, I think: one who discovers him or herself not through narrow provincialism or angry selfhood, but through the painstaking, though worthwhile, interpretation of others.

Photo: Inside the Palace of Preserving Peace (保和殿), one of the major halls within the Forbidden City (故宫), which was the imperial palace of China’s monarchs from the Ming to the Qing Dynasty/CC

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/charlie-hebdo-and-kang-xi/]
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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Khaled al-Qazzaz Released from Detention

Glad that my 100th post for this blog is about something uplifting–that is, genuinely good news. Khaled Al-Qazzaz, a permanent resident of Canada, former adviser for Muhammad Morsi in Egypt, and a long-time, active member of the Canadian Muslim community has finally been provided with an order for release by Egypt’s Sisi regime who detained him 558 days ago under very suspicious and unfair circumstances. 

It’s not over until he returns to Canada and meets his family, but this is a big step. Alhamdulillah

Here’s the press release from the Toronto-based campaign for his freedom:

_____

January 11, 2015
 
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
 
558 Days 
Khaled Al-Qazzaz Finally Released and Looking Forward to Being Reunited with Wife and Children
 
On Monday December 29, 2014 the Attorney General issued an order for Khaled Al-Qazzaz’s release.

Today, Khaled was released from his hospital room.
 
Today Khaled and his family are extremely elated and grateful for his release.
 
While we celebrate Khaled’s freedom, we remain very concerned about his health and reuniting him with his wife, Sarah Attia and their four children in Canada.
 
Khaled and Sarah [his wife] are praying for his speedy return to Canada. “We are all so happy, but it’s not over until he’s home with me and our children,” said Sarah. The family has already raised the funds and made the arrangements necessary for him to receive appropriate medical care.  We are hopeful that the Egyptian and Canadian governments will expedite the processing of this humanitarian case so that Khaled can finally come home.

Most importantly, on such a joyous day Khaled and Sarah are forever grateful to friends and supporters..

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international affairs, middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

The Left’s Ignorant Islam Critics

Published by The American Conservative on January 9th, 2015

Criticism of Islam has become a staple of contemporary politics as observers and practitioners alike wrestle with the myriad implications of Muslims living in the post-9/11 West. For the most part, one could argue with great force that the social panic generated by current fears have been “much ado about nothing,” as Muslims have not shown themselves to be an existential threat to their civilizational counterparts.

That’s not to say that no one can or should criticize Islam, as many have. The problem is whether or not such criticism stems from true understanding or total conjecture. Sadly, the latter has been much prevalent, and the culprits aren’t always raving Christian fundamentalists who, in depicting Islam as a “Satanic religion,” prefer an Armageddon-style showdown between faiths. Rather, it’s arguable that some of the most unfair and ignorant assessments of Islam and Muslims have come from those who label themselves as “progressive.”

The attack on France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is a horrid and barbaric response to some of worst, most unfair “criticisms” of Islam. The cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammad are meant as a provocation, as was the ensuing massacre which left a dozen people dead. The magazine is now being lionized as a platform that’s been at the forefront of free speech guardianship. A look through its so-called satirical treatment of Muslim figures and it’s quite obvious that the outlet’s top priority when it comes to Islam is to offend and provoke—none of which are crimes, let alone offenses punishable by death. There’s a difference between having one’s expression being protected by free speech principles and actually being a defender of such principles. All of Charlie Hebdo’s writings and cartoons deserve protection (even though their management has fired cartoonists before for anti-Semitism), the framework used for their (mis)interpretation of Islam is awfully similar to those used by the far right.

Fittingly, last year’s polls show Marine Le Pen of the Front National, France’s ultra-right party, as the leading presidential candidate. Le Pen has wasted no time in linking the Charlie Hebdo attack to immigration, something she’s vowing to crack down on, all the while emphasizing the “religious” dimension of the massacre, and even calling for a referendum on whether to bring back the death penalty. Given all their differences, it’s almost strange that part of the left finds itself aligned with ultra-rightists when it comes to assessing Muslims and their religion.

Take Michael Moore’s recent defense of the odious Bill Maher, host of “Real Time,” who, along with Sam Harris, faced off against actor Ben Affleck on Maher’s show, setting off a firestorm of Internet commentary. Moore, a prominent progressive, argues that Maher shouldn’t be vilified for his harsh criticisms of Islam, and portrays his friend’s insults as being limited to the bashing of “crazy people professing to be Muslim.” One need not look all that far to identify the misrepresentation here of Maher’s vitriol, which hardly ever bothers to distinguish between traditional Islamic beliefs and extremist misinterpretations of the faith. The truth is that those who perpetuate ISIS or al-Qaeda-like violence in the name of Islam are very small in number. The vast majority of orthodox Sunnis, who make up most of the world’s Muslim population, fall within the mainstream of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), which is divided up into four main schools of thought (among others), none of which permit the killing of innocent people.

Within this huge corpus of scriptural interpretation can be found laws that govern essentially every important aspect of life (marriage, commerce, jihad, etc.), and though there’s much overlap, the schools recognize each other’s positions and the reality that there’s much room for interpretation when it comes to God’s words, as well as the actions of His messenger (known as hadiths or “Prophetic traditions”). The most “liberal” interpretations of certain verses or hadiths can be found within the existing body of Sunni orthodoxy. Yet, progressives who see monotheistic religion as a relic of the medieval past essentialize Islam in a way that doesn’t recognize its internal diversity. Perceiving the Islamic tradition as one, big, monolith akin to a desktop computer from the 1980s, they call for a “reformation” within Islam so the religion can update its hardware, making it more palatable to the modern world.

The analogy here is obviously with the Christian Reformation associated with Martin Luther, who some progressives misinterpret as a solely democratizing figure, eliminating the middlemen priests so believers can interpret scripture for themselves. What they fail to note is that present-day manifestations of Christian fundamentalism derive their origins from the consequences of the Reformation (which also involved a good deal of bloodletting). Seeing this Protestant transformation as inherently “progressive” in its “democratizing” effects, the logic is now applied to Muslims and to Islam, religious content be damned.

Even a scholar like Cornel West, who has consistently argued against some of Maher’s caricatures of Islam, has often talked about Muslims having to develop what he calls “Prophetic Islam.” The term sounds pretty and comes from West’s desire to see an Islam that takes up causes of justice, but the underlying assumption is that the religion needs to wake up to some sort of modern condition that demands inherent change. It’s ultimately a proposition borne out of “progressive” ignorance, blindly assuming that Islam doesn’t have the tools to engage with the world that preserves both tradition and the rights of others. The truth is that Islam isn’t quite as amenable to reform as its monotheistic cousins. In a way, it sees itself as a religion that came to reform Judeo-Christian sectarianism.

In Western modernity’s virtual casting aside of faith, the necessity of having to understand religions prior to issuing criticism also seems to have gone out the window. This is exacerbated when it comes to the post-9/11 scramble to make sense of the Islamic tradition and how it ought to comport to modern sensibilities. Since secular modernity and/or liberalism are portrayed as the default settings of contemporary Western societies, then, the argument goes, it’s reasonable and logical to expect older religious traditions to conform to its demands. There’s no sense of mutual understanding or negotiation, and the relationship is inherently imbalanced.

The tendency of many progressives to internalize this deep assumption has caused much of their interpretation of Islam to square with that of the extreme right wing, whose criticisms stem from a much simpler kind of antagonism. Yet both groups’ misgivings and misunderstandings can be traced back to a basic ignorance that has plagued the West long before the tragedies of 9/11, and can only be mended if observers of all stripes are willing to assess Islam on its own terms.

Photo: Some volumes from the “News Atheism”/CC

[http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-lefts-ignorant-islam-critics/]

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middle east, muslims, politics

Western Muslims and the Obsession of Liang Qi-Chao

Published by The Islamic Monthly on January 3rd, 2015

Ever since the imperial armies of the West, fuelled by technological and material advantages, encroached upon its eventual colonies a few centuries ago, intellectuals in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere have struggled with what may be the world’s greatest conundrum: how to derive goodness from Western modernity in a way that won’t destroy one’s own sense of historical and cultural self.

From the time when the Japanese navy routed the Russians in 1905 at the “Battle of Tsushima” (日本海海戦, nihonkai-kaisen), the prospect of Asian countries modernizing industrially to “catch up” to the West began to seriously crystallize. It was the first time in modern history that an Asian country had defeated an expansionist European power. The great Liang Qi-Chao, one of China’s foremost modern thinkers, along, with several other thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and even Gandhi, who was a lawyer in South Africa at the time, also recognized the importance of this victory. Sun Yat-Sen, the first President of the Republic of China, who was passing through the Middle East soon after Tsushima, had throngs of Arabs congratulating him (they mistook him for a Japanese person).

China’s global stature was faltering at the time, and Liang Qi-Chao recognized it even in 1895, when the Qing Dynasty of China decided to surrender after months of battle with Meiji Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War. Originally from a traditional Confucian family and on his way to the civil service, Liang became a travelling intellectual whose ideas articulated China’s sense of civilizational humiliation. His writings influenced a whole generation of Chinese thinkers and doers, including the infamously important Mao Ze-Dong.

Nonetheless, many around the world were excited after the Japanese victory against Russia that a “backward” continent could improve in ways that allowed them to compete in the modern world. [If you haven’t done so, pick up Pankaj Mishra’s ultra-important book From the Ruins of Empire, an intellectual history of how Asia reacted to imperial aggression.]

This issue has become, I would argue, the underlying obsession of much of the world, which has adopted a “social Darwinian-lite” view of the planet in an attempt to modernize themselves industrially (and rapidly). Thus the utterly shocking amount of pollution (among other things) coming out of China and India—the world’s two “rising” powers, or so we’re told. Yet modernity isn’t just a set of political and economic changes, but a comprehensive worldview that has come into opposition with many pre-modern traditions. The 21st century’s current maladies, some of which are disproportionately reported on in the post-9/11 era, are a contemporary manifestation of this much older tension. It’s as much an Asian question as it is, say, an African one, and as much a query involving religious belief as it does more secular outlooks.

That is, can people around the world prosper consistently and stably only if they accept the prescriptions of the West? Plainly, for reasons to do with simple capacity, not everyone in the world can have two cars, a garage, and a house in the suburbs. Such a model is unsustainable and physically self-destructive. This doesn’t mean that technological and civilizational progress can’t be appropriated proportionally to lift people out of poverty. What it points to, though, is the physical aspect of a modernizing trend that has globalized and metastasized to a point of negative return. Alternatives are needed, first and foremost as a matter of economic and environmental justice, but underlying this need is a less empirical reality concerning the human urge for spiritual nourishment—and urge that the modern world has largely ignored or dismissed.

Why believe in pre-modern concepts like a “soul” or “spirit” when shopping malls and Prozac can fill the void? Of course, if things were so simple, this column wouldn’t have to be written at all. The truth is that for all the talk about ISIS or Al Qaeda wanting to paint the world in their monochromal fundamentalisms, it’s the Western world’s financial and cultural influence that has forced its way throughout the world, imprinting its image upon us all. Older traditions that acknowledge and engage with the non-rational aspects of human nature have had to adjust, with some morphing into cells of paranoid violence that don’t amount to even a shadow of its former glory. Islam is at the center of this mess. A tradition once known for an ecumenical existence and an awe-inspiringly intellectual approach has now, through the world media, become distorted due to what’s perceived to be a crisis of authority.

Yet traditional Islam lives, and continues to inspire millions of people around the world. Here is where things get interesting for Muslims who grew up and reside in the Western world—especially when it comes to the US or Canada. Muslim communities in this area of the West have come closest to obtaining a model of sustaining religiously informed principles within a modern social context. It’s not perfect by a long shot, and there’s much to indicate that Muslim religio-cultural realities may become deemphasized in the next couple of generations as a result of further integration, but, truthfully, evidence for the opposite trend also exists.

There resides within these Western geographies an attempt to figure out a way to distance oneself from the corporate state and the excessive realities of modernity via a preservation of religious and intellectual tradition aimed first and foremost at improving modern man from within. I mean “improving” as in helping him or her approximate toward Transcendent Truth (God), which, in my opinion, when done accordingly, will manifest itself outwardly as civilizational stability and sustainability. If this endeavor continues to grow by filling in the gaps within our spiritually impoverished and existentially stale environments, then Muslims in the West would have provided a possible answer to questions that intellectuals like Liang Qichao and others went to their graves asking.

Therein lies the truly exciting potential of Western Muslims, who constitute a microcosm of the world, both conceptually and historically. We have a chance to find an improved response to the overt and covert neo-colonial tendencies of the West, imposed upon everyone else for better or worse—once the primary challenge for those clinging to their identities in the face of encroachment, the residue of which remains scattered throughout all our lives.

Photo: Backstage at a Chinese opera/CC

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/western-muslims-and-the-obsession-of-liang-qi-chao/]

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muslims, politics, war on terror

Racism in Stephen Harper’s Canada

Published by Jacobin on December 18th, 2014

Politicians seeking reelection have long adapted their stances to fit the political climate and tailored their rhetoric to galvanize their base. In the post-9/11 climate, shot through with hysteria and xenophobia, fear has been the choice propeller for rightists. And aside from that of George W. Bush, no governing administration has more adeptly harnessed fear for its own ends than Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Simultaneously pushing austerity, Harper has used economic uncertainty to make that fear even more potent.

Just a few months ago, Harper’s chances of reelection in next October’s general election looked slim. Currently in his second term, Harper’s Conservative Party has shoved the country’s domestic and foreign policy far to the right. Polling in September showed the party’s support at 31 percent, eclipsed by the seemingly resurgent Liberals.

But in October, two acts of political violence disrupted the status quo. First a man ran over two soldiers in Quebec, killing one; a few days later, another shot up Parliament Hill, slaying an additional soldier along the way. Just like that, the fear of “homegrown terrorism” and “radicalization” were revived in Canada, and it was time for Harper to do what he does best: exploit the moment. The prime minister immediately announced that his party, still possessing a parliamentary majority, would propose new security laws to expand the powers of Canadian spying and law enforcement agencies.

Unlike the Australian government of Tony Abbott, which, however reactionary, actually reached out to the Muslim community after this week’s Sydney café siege, Harper made no such gesture until much later. Isolating one’s opponents, of course, is a common political strategy. But with Harper’s Tories, it’s a modus operandi that hardly bothers veiling its racism. Often coming out of a conservative Christian tradition, many in the Conservative Party didn’t get to where they are today by being nice to Muslims.

The Conservatives have gone after many Muslim and Arab groups that have publicly challenged the party’s hawkish foreign policy stances. These crackdowns have laid the groundwork for further repression and histrionics when the Tories need a boost in the polls.

The Harper’s administration’s new “anti-terror” legislation is coming even after the passage of laws that its own watchdogs deemed excessive.These laws will degrade civil liberties and further antagonize targeted groups. One example is Bill C-44, which expands the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service’s ability to spy on Canadians abroad, thus extending the agency’s largely domestic mandate. Informants and sources who provide secret information to the agency will also enjoy better protection of their identity under the new bill, making it harder for the accused to face their accusers.

What’s more, it’s patently apparent that Tories are hardly concerned with ensuring domestic tranquility. Right after two prominent Muslim groups unveiled a handbook on political violence that they put together with the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Mounties decided to pull its support for the project, citing “rhetoric” that they found troubling. (The prime minister’s office had some influence over this decision as one of the co-producers of the handbook, and the National Council on Canadian Muslims (NCCM), is suing the office for defamation.)

The Harper administration has always been very good at playing into the so-called “jihadi­-narrative,” which likes to frame a civilizational showdown between Islam and a Western world hellbent on destroying Muslims’ way of life. The latest video from “Islamic State” member John McGuire, who was a university student from Ottawa, is a good indication of this nearly cyclical dynamic. His rhetoric clearly builds on the assumption that the Harper government, in conjunction with the US and other allies, have violently antagonized Muslims around the world.

But Harper’s cabinet isn’t just good at exploiting fears of homegrown terrorism within Canadian borders. It’s also gone out of its way to show how vigilant the Tories are at policing those borders. One development is the tabling of the hilariously named “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act” by Citizenship Canada’s Chris Alexander, who’s helping his party play the “foreign barbarian” card.

The law bans polygamy, child marriages, and honor killings, as if the Canadian criminal code doesn’t already ban all of these practices. Alexander has said specifically that the target of his law are immigrants — who, as it turns out, don’t have an established tradition of polygamy like the Mormons of Bountiful, British Columbia. The bill is so obviously pandering to bigoted fears that it’s hard to tell if the government is even trying anymore.

If there’s any doubts about whether Harper’s party is really as racist as it seems, their recent handling of the country’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis provides more than enough confirmation. After dragging its heels, Harper’s reply to the United Nations’ appeal to resettle ten thousand refugees in the next two years has been to cherry-pick “persecuted religious minorities” (Christians, Yazidis, etc.) before considering Sunni Muslims, who’ve borne the brunt of their country’s civil war. Of no concern to the Harper administration are the recommendations of the UN High Commission for Refugees about who’s most in need of help. It’s content to go ahead and determine that for itself.

These developments and strategies have been talked about in the Canadian media in an isolated fashion, as if each event has unfolded outside of a historical, economic, and political reality. The truth is that they’re each part of a larger scheme, one that has animated a good portion of Canadian politics for the past decade or so. It is a strategy to galvanize a political base (in a time of austerity and economic uncertainty) through fear, thereby dividing the citizenry along racial and religious lines to create the kind of political playing field most advantageous to the Tories.

Canada is experiencing around seven percent unemployment and wage stagnation, with high joblessness projected in the future. Focusing on immigration and homegrown terrorism is a short cut to jolting their political base into outrage and action. It’s an old story, and should effect an equally collective response from groups who’re most afflicted by it. Though some organizations like NCCM have pushed back, many minority communities in Canada are still building their own capacities, and are too politically nascent to respond in an effective way.

Fear is a powerful tool. It’s why the Bush cabinet (namely John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld) pressured former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge to raise the “terror alert levels” before the 2004 US elections. Unfortunately, the Canadian polity is susceptible to the same kinds of manipulations. The onus is now on the broader Canadian left to organize a concerted antiracist response, or state repression will only expand.

Photo: Stephen Harper/CC

[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/12/racism-in-stephen-harpers-canada/]

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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Fire with Fire

The cries of Sony following the hacking of their online systems, though justified to a large degree, ring rather hollow (the company is referring to the hack as an “act of war”) after the Taliban killed over 140 people in Peshawar and a lunatic held over a dozen people hostage with a rifle in Sydney, Australia earlier this week.

Man Haron Monis, a deranged, violent man who was out on bail after being slapped with dozens of sexual assault charges, took visitors inside a Lindt Cafe in central Sydney hostage for 16 hours earlier this week, and ended up getting shot dead by Australian police. Two hostages, a barrister and a manager at the cafe, also died. Unlike Stephen Harper’s administration, which never bothered reaching out to the Muslims community during the Parliament shooting in October, Tony Abbott, by no means a left-winger, actually took some time to reassure Australian Muslims that an isolated lunatic like Monis wouldn’t be used to paint an entire population black. The event caught the world’s attention as Monis, who took with him a black flag with the shahadeh painted on it in white, asked for an ISIS flag instead–along with a conversation with Abbott himself and for his diatribes to be broadcast live. None of these requests were granted.

Equally tragic, if not more so, is the mass execution of scores of children in Peshawar by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), a loose collections of “jihadi” groups formed in 2007 that wants to overthrow the government in favour their own version of the shariah. Due to a prolonged, cherry-picking policy that divides these groups into sections of “useful” and “un-useful” (depending on the moment) for political purposes, the Pakistani establishment–especially its influential armed forces–has exacerbated a threat that’s existed since the last days of the Soviet Union. The Afghan Taliban and their allies are given safe haven on the Pakistani side of the border (and Pakistani intelligence has shielded extremists in North Waziristan from attacks) since many Pakistanis travelled to Afghanistan back in the day to fight the Soviet occupation. This history has resulted in the kind of pick-and-choose engagement that has to stop, say most experts on the issue. Other observers have also criticized the large invasion of the TTP-strongholds in Waziristan which commenced this summer, and have pointed out that the Pakistani army’s scorched-earth strategies are being pursued while the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, are probably still in contact with the Afghan Taliban. Nevertheless, this latest attack is probably of a weakening TTP that has seen around 2000 members of its loose-knit cohort perish at the hands of the incursion.

There’s much talk about how the Taliban, a bunch of lunatic Muslims who misappropriate the religion in the most baseless and violent of ways, are impervious to reason and negotiations. This is a reasonable argument given that peace talks with them have gotten nowhere thus far (some point out that neither side displayed much good faith, and that the US drone strikes disrupted the talks). But, and I say this as a novice when it comes to Pakistan’s situation, I’ve not witnessed a single instance when an entrenched insurgency, hiding out in the mountains where the terrain is hardly navigable, has been exterminated/uprooted by a conventional/counter-insurgency effort from the state. That kind of muscling just doesn’t seem to work out very well. The war is a war of attrition, and it seems that the government, afflicted by age-old corruption and systemic dysfunction, will have to reform itself and invest in everyday infrastructure to strengthen their society to be more resilient to the TTP–and to undercut the “jihadi” narrative.

It’s easy to forget, when one tragedy follows the next, that each episode in our recent history is embedded in a larger historical and political narrative. The post-9/11 era and the “war on terror” are not quaint labels from the beginning of this century, but ones that still apply to the forces that produce much of today’s violence. Whatever the response to these heinous acts of political violence, it’s important that we do not ignore history, which shows that an overbearing, indiscriminate response to terrorist attacks only seem to make the situation worse.

It’s not a secret by now that dysfunctional societies (or the more dysfunctional aspects of some societies) produce reactions in the body politic that reflect the polity’s sickness. Governments that invest in the right aspects of their societies–education, health, social services, etc.–tend to have less of a problem with these issues. (The Pakistanis have nuclear bombs but can’t eradicate polio, for example.) The same goes for governments that don’t kill innocent people in developing countries in search of “terrorists.”

The solutions are much more complicated than “go over there and kill them all.”

Photo: A journalist paces the Peshawar school where the TTP massacre happened this Tuesday/CC

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