Mar 21, 2009

How to defeat the barbarians among us

There is at present a struggle in Islamic communities between what might be called the traditions of cultured Islam and what might be practitioners of a barbarian interpretation of it. Cultured Islam is ancient. Those who have adopted a barbarian interpretation are a fairly new force and have reached their ascendancy only in the twenty-first century. Never before have the barbarians wielded so much power. Sure, the barbarian interpretation has smouldered for a long time in discrete locations but it has never wielded much force. So why has it emerged, in all its ugliness, over the last eighty years? The first and most important part of the answer requires us to recognize that the conflict between the barbarians and true Muslims is not a truly religious conflict. It does not have deep roots in doctrinal differences. It is almost entirely a conflict over power. It might be possible to argue that this is true of all religious conflicts that become violent, but I think there are religious conflicts (say, between some sections of Shia and Sunni Muslims) that are rooted in doctrinal differences, at least sometimes. That the barbarians now laying waste to all that made Islamic culture great are motivated simply by a desire for power is clearly illustrated by the conduct of the followers of Sufi Mohammad and his son-in-law, Fazlullah, in Swat. These gangsters went on a spree in Swat that violated many of the most deeply revered principles of Islam and of the Pakhtun code of good conduct. They murdered a much loved singer in cold blood, which could never be justified by any doctrine; they murdered girls and boys, which can never be justified by any doctrine; they murdered innocent adults of both sexes on the pretext that their victims were un-Islamic (singing, dancing, selling music, going to school, sporting clean-shaven chins, wearing insufficiently long beards, or insufficiently short shalwars, or being out at night, looking wrong, minding their own business). They destroyed hundreds of schools in which young people had received an education. They killed teachers. They decapitated people and then mocked their dead bodies (I have photographs). They desecrated sites sacred to the Pakhtun culture, like the shrine of Rahman Baba, a man good in every way that the savages are bad. This is but a short list of their atrocities. None of these actions can be justified within the traditions of cultured Islam nor within the traditions of Pakhtunwali. So what is quite clear is that the barbarians are at war with Islam itself, and, in Swat, with Islam and Pakhtunwali. The response of the present Pakistani government was to conduct an inappropriate form of war against the criminals, which killed many more innocents than savages, and then to capitulate to them. Imagine that! The government made a deal with these killers and gave them what they wanted. The phony peace was rapidly followed by a much contented group of barbarians allowing girls and boys back to school. It remains to be seen whether people will still be murdered for any of the other violations of the barbarian 'code'. What the barbarians were doing was that they were attacking all that the members of the Swati community regarded as important and valuable. They were saying: 'There is nothing sacred to you that we are not willing to destroy. So obey us, or lose all that you love: including your lives, the lives of your children, your animals and your homes!' What the savages wanted was power – and they got it. They now control the lives of all living creatures in Swat. In short, terrorism worked. Robbery with violence on a grand scale, succeeded with the help of the present government. No surprise to anyone. To understand what is going on behind these scenes, we should take a closer look at madressahs. The majority of the madressahs now in Pakistan were set up after 1980 to educate the sons of Afghan mujahideen, who were fighting the Russians on behalf of the Americans. The madressahs were financed mainly by Saudis of the Wahabi persuasion. The young boys who went there were illiterate when they arrived and still ignorant, semi-literates when they left. When they emerged they were enraged savages who had had none of the forms of education necessary to make boys into good men. They knew nothing about love, affection, kindness, tenderness, nobility, imagination, mercy, compromise or fairness. These virtues can only be learned in a loving family and a caring community. It is also true that, of the non-Mujahideen population, the boys sent to madressahs were sent by families too poor to keep them. And very often the boys they sent were, in the opinion of the parents, the least talented ones. They must have felt betrayed and abandoned. Their loneliness and grief must have been unendurable. I feel deeply for them. A good many of them also emerged enraged. Others emerged cowed (I know some of both types). Many of these people became cannon fodder for power-hungry men financed by opportunists, usually from abroad. The worst became leaders. Together, the dispossessed joined up to take what everyone else had and they had never had. Religion was no more than a recruiting device that worked with other illiterate, ignorant, dispossessed, lost, unloved young men. If the analysis I have given here of the rise of the barbarians is accurate, then it is obvious how it should be defeated. The madressahs should be taken over and run as high quality schools that actually teach useful skills. A huge amount of money and talent should be devoted to them. Families who cannot support their children must be helped so that they can keep their children at home. Dignified work must be given to everyone willing to work. The poor must have a realistic chance of social advancement. Education and real opportunity for social advancement are necessary conditions of any successful fight to counter the rise of the barbarians. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions. Much more must be done and it must be done by leaders truly committed to the welfare of Pakistan. So far, Pakistan has had no such leaders, least of all now. For even a beginning to be made, the country needs an un-corrupt government. And that in itself needs a social revolution of which there is no realistic hope. So Pakistanis can look forward to the triumph of the savages, accompanied by widespread civil war and eventual disintegration; which will suit its enemies just fine.Putting the rise of the barbarians into an historical context may help us to understand what is happening. This kind of thing has happened again and again throughout history, with minor variations upon the main theme. The main theme has always been the revolt of the dispossessed. Many different religions have been involved. Sometime no religious issue has been involved. It happened during the French revolution that broke out at the end of the 18th century (1798). It was called the Reign of Terror. Anyone who seemed to have been unduly privileged was slaughtered and their possessions taken. A number of failed revolutions of the same kind occurred during the 19th century. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks took power in Russia and within a few years people who seemed even slightly well-off were slaughtered all over Russia. After 1990, the Soviet government accepted that about 50 million Kulaks (small land owners) had died as a direct result of Stalin's policies. In some Soviet territories, anyone who even wore glasses was killed. It happened during the Chinese revolution in 1949 and again, with greater savagery, during the so-called 'cultural revolution', which was actually a revolt against culture (see Jung Chang's 'Wild Swans'). It happened in Cambodia, under the terror of the Khmer Rouge (see Roland Joffe's brilliant reconstruction in the true film called 'Killing Fields'). One of the few revolutions in which it did not happen was the Nicaraguan revolution lead by the Sandinistas against the few wealthy families that owned all of Nicaragua. It was precisely because that revolution was so admirable, just and good that the Americans devoted years to destroying it. They did not want the idea of a good revolution to take hold in Latin America. Despite these few exceptions, violence and terror are usually the 'religions' of the oppressed. They have called terror a purifying ritual, though, actually, it has been but the exercise of raw power. The troubles along Pakistan's western border and in Punjab are just proto-revolutions with a religious veneer. The only effective counter moves would be genuine reform, not hot air.

Charles Ferndale The writer has degrees from the Royal College of Art, Oxford University, and the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London.

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