Peshawar: The inside story

All religions are vulnerable to gross misrepresentation, mythification and mayhem. Perhaps Pakistan over the next two decades or so can demonstrate that religion, as one element of identity, can also catalyse profound transformation inside the human mind.

Published : Dec 24, 2014 12:30 IST

In a poor neigbourhood of Islamabad. A file photograph.

In a poor neigbourhood of Islamabad. A file photograph.

NO this is not about what the title above misleadingly suggests.

There are no hot, new facts previously unrevealed.

These words are steps into darkness. The void of the murderous minds that committed the horror. Even in pitch black, there are split-second flashes, multi-second glimpses.

Desecration begins with the killers’ identities. Their faces, four of the seven, frozen by death. Two with their eyes still open. But closed to what they had wrought. One of them with an expression somewhat wry, thoughtful. One, with protruding teeth, a nasty sight. Two with fine features, possibly the only fine aspect about them. With eyes shut, unable, finally, to witness their own madness.

Then their names. Hallowed by faith and reverence. Of prophets, saints, messengers of peace, justice, virtue. Umar, Imran, Yousuf, Uzair, Abu Zar, Qari. And the odd man out called Chamnay, with a weird alias like Chamtoo. Names chosen for them by mothers and fathers who knew not then that their toddlers were soon to become monsters. What’s in a name? Plenty of history. Yet entirely disconnected with reality.

In the dense unseen, at least nine possibilities hover, and disappear. Where does the willingness to kill children, then kill oneself, or be killed originate? Revenge is probably the first source. Against the Pakistan Armed Forces for the ongoing operation named Zerb-i-Azb (The Striking Sword), against terrorists in North Waziristan. Or for previous operations in South Waziristan, and elsewhere. Against drone attacks for several years past, with the Americans as operators. But with Pakistan also complicit. For the loss of dozens of leaders. Personal friends and colleagues. Women and children used as shields. Aware, or oblivious of why they were present at a particular place and time when the drones hit. Blown to smithereens. Revenge for the destruction of their houses, spartan, frugal, but after all, homes.

A sense of betrayal jostles shoulders with revenge. Betrayal by elements, previously, or even presently, associated with the infamous agencies which are supposed to manipulate persons like marionettes. Betrayal by former patrons now under new management, no longer willing to support old shenanigans. Betrayal by the state of Pakistan, of their version of pure Islam even as the state calls itself The Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Its Constitution explicitly does declare that no law repugnant to the Holy Quran or the Sunnah will be enacted. Nor that non-Muslims are eligible to be President or Prime Minister. Despite non-Muslims being barely 3 per cent of the population. They stand little chance of being nominated, leave alone elected to those two positions. Betrayal of the Shariah, which should have been the supreme law. While not knowing much about which part of the Shariah is undisputed, or whether there is agreement about the totality of the Shariah among sects, and within sects. Those are minor details when the sense of betrayal is almost foremost. Betrayal by the state of Pakistan through its friendship with the satanic USA and its NATO allies, and their collaborators in Afghanistan.

Hatred darts forward to be a strong third. Visceral, vicious hatred of the “other”. Of modern education. Of Malala Yousafzai. Of her boy-counterparts. Who wear ties to boot. Of women principals and teachers, and females who dare to work outside their homes, who wear no burqas, even in Peshawar.

Who freely walk in markets, who look at mannequins dressed in colourful new fashionwear displayed in shop windows. Hatred of any of the symbols and substance of new conditions that disrupt the long-familiar, which comforts by its predictability. Rage against the rapid, bewildering simultaneity of new trends and technologies. Because they challenge notions of timeless heritage and honour that should never succumb to the temptation of change.

With hatred, or perhaps before it—who can ever know which rumbles first?—comes sheer fear. Of what will happen if one lets the acid of change erase what is said to be written in stone. But unlike revenge, or hatred, or betrayal, fear cannot be acknowledged publicly or privately. Fear hides within oneself, a secret to be zealously kept from everyone else, be it father, mother, wife, leader, friend. Because fear is the most unmanly attribute of all. Fear also raises questions about sexual potency. Sex can be made as fundamental as faith. So fear becomes the coward that conquers and twists the mind.

Envy glints as another possibility. There seem to be many who prosper amid all the talk about the economy’s crisis. The urban spreads to the rural. Roads, electricity, new housing estates, new shopping malls, millions of cell phones, conspicuous consumption of fast-moving brands. Beauty soaps, cola drinks, motorbikes paraded every few minutes on TV, demonstrated on billboards, even rich new mosques. All of that, and the spillover from drugs smuggling, NATO trucks for Afghanistan, other trades, pass one by. Even if these are all about exploitative market greed and capitalism at their worst.

As the children of the middle and the upper classes flock to shiny schools, specially Army Public Schools, many others are left to the mercy of solemn madrasas and government schools. One can play cricket and leap away from the clutches of the occasional paedophile who masquerades as a cleric. But there is not as much fun as there seems to be in other places out there.

Perversion coughs for attention somewhere in the cave one is exploring. Sadism wants to be noticed. Some odd gene inherited from an ancestor or a parent that permutates into a new DNA of one’s very own. To gain sickly pleasure derived from causing someone else pain. It could also have been acquired, or injected through abuse as a child. An unseen, unspeakable atrocity one had to suffer in total silence because the perpetrator was so close, so well-known to the family, possibly in the family. Though suppressed for years, or precisely because of being suppressed, the experience of child abuse simmers and festers, biding its time. To strike at others, with the same shock, and to recapture, now from the other side, the moment of tortuous control that results in instant death for complete strangers, rather than the long death one has been living with, for all the years since childhood.

Before the school mission, perhaps there were narcotics. Opium, hash, charas, heroin, crack, amphetamines, whichever or whatever. Except that drugs generally slow reflexes. Unless one takes those special pills that keep you going without sleep for days and nights. Eyes bright, unblinking, unseeing, except for the specific tasks one has been trained to tedium to carry out as per directives of the commander and the handler. One may never have heard of The Manchurian Candidate. But induced dependency for blind—but not deaf !—obedience is an option that at least requires to be listed.

Inside the tunnel through which we presently crawl, looking for a light that stays fixed and constant, rather than the flickers that go on and off in diverse directions, as in the preceding paragraphs, there comes the stench of poverty. Unwashed, undernourished, stunted deprivation from infancy. Barely any study in the village or town’s primary school. Because two more hands were needed to earn one more meal. Rugged patches of land that never yielded enough to provide adequate food, leave alone a balanced diet. The searing memory of Mother, pregnant every year, bearing one baby after another, a couple of them dying soon after. Father unable to become one of those others who migrated to Karachi or to Dubai and remit sums regularly to their families. Father remained stuck to his soil, unwilling to leave, unable to climb out of the ditch into which he was born: never was there a more willing prisoner!

So when the recruiters came by (their actual origins, identities, resources, aims unknown, camouflaged, or known and stated, as the case may be) to enlist one for paid work, the money they gave on the spot as the opening card, the money they pledged to Father for the future: the lure of lucre, the end of misery was irresistible. One was being taken to a whole new world of excitement. Closer to the mystique of God and the power of the gun held in one’s own hands, the rigorous training, the sharing, the preparing for the great task ahead. With hard cash as a bonus. But to ascribe responsibility to poverty for calculated cruelty is to demean the dignity and non-violent decency with which most of the poor bear their burden.

Surely the brightest blur of light in the darkness of the barbaric mind was the promise of Heaven. The paradise derived from sacred verses of the Holy Book purposely misinterpreted to create Hell on earth. Indoctrinated, brainwashed, robbed of humanism, to be robotised into demons. Drawn to enter mirage-gardens where non-alcoholic wine and houris without burqas await to welcome heroes who say they can make horror really holy.

Is this list of nine exhaustive? Do they motivate singly or mesh together, partly or wholly? Being the most complex creation of Nature, the human mind buries its mysteries deeply, elusively. So the search for the truth about how mass murderers of children are produced continues infinitely.

The spontaneous, unconditional outpouring of empathy and grief, from close neighbours as well as distant friends, from across the country and the world comforts and strengthens. Even as the cynical worm wriggles to whisper that a few of these may be the hidden sponsors of such wretches.

As for the living victims: the incredible resilience of mothers, fathers, siblings sometimes overwhelms even grief. The defiance of the young, their determination to persevere: like a spectacle of shimmering fireworks. Public events and official mourning were respectfully observed. Yet by deliberate choice, several private events comprising book launches, art shows, workshops were held as scheduled, as were dozens of candle vigils. To prevent the terrorists from paralysing a nation.

Meanwhile, some of the imperative actions required by the state and by society to trace and crush the sources of such evil—of which a few are visible in broad daylight—need to break self-set slow speed limits. Where in the past, some sections of the political, civil and military spheres have permitted non-violent extremism and showy piety (potential cradles for crazies) to acquire undue licence, the Peshawar massacre has stirred unprecedented solidarity to combat depravity masked by religion. To sustain this fusion of goals and to concretise actions is now the formidable challenge. To their credit, the current leadership of the Armed Forces, all its ranks, and the paramilitary forces and the police, while already rendering the supreme sacrifice of life almost every day, are now prepared to go the full stretch, whatever it takes.

To revive capital punishment is only one small and not very potentially effective option. Those who have been ingrained with the conviction that killing for a religious cause is a transition to new splendours of reward are unlikely to be deterred by the execution of others in the here and now. The National Internal Security Policy awaits measurable outcomes and new pluralism-rooted education policies by the federal and four provincial governments must be enforced soonest.

The hunt for the hounds of Hell should be as full-blooded as the blood that has forever stained a school floor. There has to be complete, comprehensive reform till this foul species becomes extinct. It is going to be a long, tough haul. But given the will to keep walking boldly through the dark, it can be done. All religions are vulnerable to gross misrepresentation, mythification and mayhem. Perhaps Pakistan over the next two decades or so can demonstrate that religion, as one element of identity, can also catalyse profound transformation.

Inside the human mind.

Javed Jabbar is a former Senator and Federal Minister of Pakistan.

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