By Jawed Naqvi
14 January, 2014
I HEARD it from a Buddhist monk, I think. He sees human beings as the most astonishing of all living beings. They mess up their health to earn money, only to spend it on recuperating. The trajectory of religious fanaticism is pretty much ditto. We sow it to reap short-term profits, and then invest much of what we earned in the unending fight to limit its poisonous reach.
Suicide bombing has added an even more intractable element to the spiral, partly because the killer doesn’t believe in short-term material gains on earth, eyeing as he does the rewards in the hereafter. There was subdued celebration the other day when the 15-year old Aitezaz Hussain confronted a young man with a vest at the gates of a school in Hangu. Both were killed in the ensuing blast. Hussain became an instant hero and the unnamed bomber a villain.
Exultation, though understandable, could be self-defeating if we are looking for a cure. Hussain’s success will remain an incomplete triumph over the menace of mindless killers if only because it is not easy to track a determined bomber all the time.
Moreover, the complex mind of a religious fanatic is yet to be fully grasped. I wish the Hangu bomber had survived by some miracle as Saudi Arabia’s Ahmad al Shayea did after ramming his rigged truck on his suicide mission in Iraq eight or nine years ago. Al Shayea claimed Al Qaeda fooled him by asking him to deliver a tanker truck, which they had rigged with a bomb. He survived by jumping out of the truck.
A slice of Al Shayea’s mind is revealed in the book Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals, by former US federal prosecutor Ken Ballen. The Saudi bomber, it turns out, had a difficult relationship with his father. According to Ballen, Al Shayea was shaken when his father hit him, and he felt that because his father hit him, he was going to hell. Going to fight against the Americans was the young man’s way of fixing the negative image he had of himself. Who knows what motivated the youth who blew up Aitezaz Hussain in Hangu.
Fanaticism of course assumes diverse avatars though Muslims are currently deemed more susceptible to its lure. There was this debate in the British parliament last year when a rightwing peer spoke of dark shadows looming over the country’s Muslim populace. Lord Pearson quoted from the Quran to make his point. Minister of Faith and Communities, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, fixed him neatly with the help of Aaron Sorkin’s popular TV serial The West Wing. The New Statesman columnist Mehdi Hasan recalled the issue nicely in a piece he wrote.
In the show, according to Hasan, President Jed Bartlet took on a Christian evangelical radio presenter who had called homosexuality an “abomination”. “I don’t say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr President. The Bible does,” she replied, citing Leviticus 18:22. To which Bartlet responds:
“I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7 . . . What would a good price for her be? . . . My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it ok to call the police? . . . Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you?”
Being a person of faith requires understanding of not just the values, wrote Hasan, but “the context in which that faith was formed. To be an adherent, one must also be a historian.”
For several years Indian cities have been targeted by fanatical terrorists — home-grown, but mostly from the neighbourhood. An obvious result is death and destruction, but the corrosion of democratic institutions is another devastating outcome. A Mumbai-style incident also gives oxygen to majoritarian Hindutva propaganda. Often enough Hindu and Muslim extremists become comrades with a common purpose — the consolidation of each other’s constituencies.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lost his composure at a recent press conference to warn of disastrous consequences for India should Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi actually become prime minister. While that scenario has receded significantly with the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party as an alternative to the Congress, fanaticism is poised to bare its fangs at will.
It was an act of unusual courage by the young Aitezaz Hussain to foil his killer’s larger mission. The battle he joined last week has a long history, though, and could take a longer toil to win. Speaking at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Chicago in 1893, Swami Vivekanand— whose 150th anniversary is being celebrated in India — recalled:
“Sectarianism, bigotry, and it’s horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilisation, and sent whole nations to despair…But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.” The battle ahead is more nuanced than the familiar Hindu-Muslim, Shia-Sunni standoff.
Jawed Naqvi is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.