Religion brings out the saint or devil in the faithful, depending upon how it is used
The advantage of writing a monthly column is that one gets time to temper hysteria by some reflection. Writing on the morning after the assassination of the former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, it has been possible to go beyond both shock and glee of ‘the chickens are coming home to roost’ variety. While it was understood a few years ago that terrorism is the new enemy and will continue to be so, just how deadly and in-suppressible religious terrorism can be, is perhaps not adequately appreciated.
Religion can elevate people to sainthood, but it can also drive them to do commit the most heinous of violence. Imbued by religious fervour, a person can inflict such grievous injury on oneself and others as would not be possible otherwise. Throughout the recorded history, even before the Crusades started, people felt little queasiness in maiming and killing those of other beliefs, emboldened by the self-assurance that God guides them. Only religion has the power to fire this fanaticism and invoke the latent violent streak, which probably all human beings have.
There is a reason why I am meandering like this. I believe that a blanket epithet of ‘terrorist’ is self-defeating. We should not hide behind the all-encompassing statement of ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter’ because a freedom fighter may use violent means, which may kill non-combatants, but he is still a freedom fighter, who represents some people, no matter how small, some cause, no matter how untenable. It is important to make this distinction because a religious terrorist represents nobody but himself.
When he blows himself up to kill others he is doing so believing that it is between him and his god; he is doing it for his own salvation, for his own place in Paradise. He has such faith in the infallibility of his belief that for him everyone else is wrong. This is what makes him both deadly and pathetic. He needs to be both countered and helped. The reason we need to make this distinction is because a freedom fighter or an insurgent will give up his/her violent ways once the objective is achieved. And the objectives in most cases are very clear, take Palestine for instance. But if such legitimate issues are allowed to linger for too long, then there is a real fear that religion may start to creep in. After all, religion is succour and if you continue to fail despite giving in your best, you are bound to turn to God for some heavenly intervention. And because most ordinary people think that they cannot do so on their own, they seek intermediaries like religious heads who have their own glory to worry about.
To attain a short-term strategic victory over the Soviet Union, the US and Pakistan fired their foot-soldiers with religious zeal (when it could have been a secular insurgency), without realising that once kindled religious fire is almost impossible to douse. They gave a new definition to madrassas, which were meant to be charity schools for destitute children. While on the one hand, wealthy Muslims fulfilled their charity obligations by donating lavishly to these, on the other hand, it was believed that instead of ending up as vagabonds, at least poor children can grow up to become small time priests. However, with time, madrassas modernised and there are many which now impart secular education, including computer sciences. But opportunists in Pakistan and the US perverted the nobility of madrassas and ruined millions of lives. Nothing can be done about the generation which has been thus ruined, but certainly the future ones can be saved by either completely overhauling the curriculum at these madrassas or simply shutting them down. There are enough philanthropists in the world to support education of poor in regular schools.
While all religions have had their share of terrorism in the name of God, unfortunately today when the subject is mentioned, terrorism in the name of Islam comes to mind immediately. Clearly, many anguished by this reality want to set the record straight. Perhaps, driven by this desire, King Abdullah II of Jordan issued a statement in November 2004 enunciating what Islam is and what it is not. That statement gradually developed into what is now called the Amman Message. The message answers three crucial questions that have exercised Muslims across the world. These are, Who is a Muslim?; Is it permissible to declare someone an apostate?; and Who has the right to undertake issuing fatwas? The king sought these answers through senior and reputable Muslim clerics and they all agreed upon certain basic parameters which constitute the Message.
Undeniably, it is an unprecedented exercise and tries to clear many battles within Islam. But to my mind, today it is still inadequate. While it is important to resolve the conflict within Islam to prevent in-fighting (Shia-Sunni etc), it is even more important to resolve the conflict without. The biggest issue that needs clarification from the highest religious authority is the concept of Jihad. It is important to continuously iterate that anybody who kills in the name of Allah is not a Muslim. It may be a quivering flame in the face of rising tide of terrorism, but a flame nevertheless.