Garnering Hope in the Heart of Darkness
By Maryam Sakeenah
19 March, 2014
The rising death toll, the blood and the gore hurts but the searing, tearing hurt like a thorn lodged in the very heart which will outlast the last rotting corpse is when these and other enormities are committed in the name of the faith of Islam: a faith that declares the sanctity of innocent life to be greater than the sanctity of the Kaabah itself... And like the humiliated Muslim woman from Madina 1400 years ago disrobed in the marketplace had exclaimed in distress, the believer’s bloodied heart cries out, ‘Waa Islamah!’ (Alas, for my Islam!)
When indiscriminate violence uses religious beliefs and ideals to seek cover under, it viciously defaces those. A grotesque wrong has been committed against Islam by extremists and fanatics, and our collective inability to reject it in clear terms has had grave consequences. Responses to Islamist extremism from Islamic scholars have often been ambivalent and ‘politically correct’ rather than passionately censorious of this being done in Islam’s name. This is for two reasons: the clergy’s preoccupation with minutiae of Fiqh, denomination and sect; and sympathy for the original motives of religious militants who launched a defensive struggle against unwarranted occupation and oppression against Muslims.
By all means, selfless sacrifice for a higher cause (justice and truth) is the most beautiful that the human being is capable of: Islam assents, through the doctrine of Jihad and the esteem in which those who undertake it are placed. But there is a lot of murkiness out there, especially on this side of the Durand Line. The original impetus for the defensive struggle has spiralled into no more than naked violence for an ideologised power struggle, and the damage done by fanatical groups in the name of Islam is irreparable in its psycho-social consequences.
It is these psycho-social consequences that are the gnawing, deep hurt. I struggle as a teacher on Islam, with confused young minds full of questions, confusions, bitterness. There is deep resentment and unease over the failure of Muslim religious leadership to provide clarity and answers. Among those still struggling to hang on to faith, there is a seething, muted anger over traditionalist scholars’ failure to rescue the narrative from politicized and ideologised contemporary Jihadism and Salafist fanaticism. There is today a clear trend of disenchantment towards religion in Pakistan’s middle and upper middle classes, the gravity of which is yet to be recognized, and to meet which we are utterly unprepared.
The media has often played the role of Agent Provocateur stoking controversy around serious subjects of Islamic jurisprudence. Sensationalist talk-shows deal in half-truths and untruths, relaying featherweight opinions on issues of gravity, by scatterbrained demagogues and con artists. Clarity remains elusive as young minds are confused over these matters of complexity. Given the fact that the source of all information for most these days is primarily if not solely the popular media, it is not surprising that many growing up post 9/11 have come to associate religion with regression, backwardness and even evil, thinking we would do better without it. When you pit a madrassa-graduate religious scholar against a squealing and irate Liberated English Speaking Woman giving him a couple of minutes to explain away the barrage of allegations of misogyny often born of a superficial understanding of religion and society, you make Islam seem incapable of withstanding the secular-liberal assault; you reinforce the idea that religion being a thing of the past, needs to be cast off for a progress that apes the Western model: Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's; Give unto God that which is God's.
The struggle is not entirely about the physical elimination of violent religious groups through military strategies. There is a greater and more formidable challenge to face: to undo the terrible damage that the religio-ideological underpinnings of extremist groups have done to Muslim societies, and to hearts and minds.
Our failure to rescue the religious discourse from its abusers who have the audacity to pose as its defenders is a huge blemish on the pages of our history. History’s verdict shall be unrelenting and merciless against us.
Islam in this society faces an unprecedented crisis. And yet, hackneyed and simplistic as it may sound, in the heart of this darkness there is a flicker of hope. At the heart of crisis is often opportunity, if we learn the right lessons: that religious violence is a hydra we created with our silence towards grave injustices against our own people on the dictates of the Global Bully, thinking the unholy alliance would bring us boons. We then nurtured this hydra and owned it with our silence towards the crimes it committed against other innocents in the name of Islam. And now the genie cannot be bottled back up again. Two wrongs do not make a right. Two silences slowly kill us all, till all we hear is the haunting echo, 'Waa Islaamah!'
A realization is slowly sinking in even though we took far too long to learn- that extremists use religious sources to justify their ideology, hence the responsibility on religious scholars to spearhead a progressive interpretation of Islam rooted in its sources is great, and that this has to come from the highest authorities on religion venerated by the generality of Muslims. Traditional Muslim scholars need to assert, as Sheikh Hamza Yusuf puts it, that indiscriminate violence in the name of Islam is‘neither from religion nor sanctioned in any reading from our pre-modern tradition. It is a modern phenomenon, and those practising it have learned it from nihilistic elements in Western tradition who innovated from Marxism and Asian philosophy like the kamikaze...’
The current crisis is also gradually bringing the realization that denomination and sectarian orientation are secondary when the attack is on the very soul of Islam, and that the reply has to be proclaimed with a single voice. It is helping us understand- though the cost of our unwillingness to learn has been too dear- that our condition cannot be traced down to an externalized enemy to give us a comforting sense of ‘We the good and true versus They the evil and false.’ Often it is more complex than that, the evil more insidious and closer to home.
The pulpit has to assume responsibility to set the record straight and disseminate the eclipsed tradition that has no equivocation regarding the rejection of fanaticism and violence against innocents, and the sanctity of human life. As the crescendo of the salvaging voice for Islam rises, the narrative will be rescued from the unworthy and undeserving. It has been a long, hard way but in Pakistan there is a clear shift in public opinion against the TTP and other religious hardliners. With their atrocious acts, these groups have dug up their own graves, as the human heart’s innate moral criterion gawks at such an inversion of basic morality in the name of religion. In the Heart of Darkness, holding on to hope is still possible.
Maryam Sakeenah is a Pakistan-based independent researcher and freelance writer on International politics, human rights and Islam. She divides her time between teaching high school, writing, research and voluntary social work. She also authored a book 'Us versus Them and Beyond' analyzing the Clash of Civilization theory and the role of Islam in facilitating intercultural communication.