To look to Islam for answers to why Pakistan’s brainwashed militants are carrying on in the name of religion is to fall for the greatest red herring of this age.
It’s been a harrowing few months here, there’s simply no good spin to be put on it. It’s got to the point where one looks back to the halcyon days of Baitullah Mehsud with loving nostalgia. In the last month, attacks have taken place at crowded marketplaces, the army headquarters, a university canteen, the motorway, the offices of the World Food Programme, a bank (doing away with a queue of old men waiting to collect their pensions), the list goes on. Hundreds are dead. In terms of psychological warfare, the worst of it was probably the threat to schools, which saw them close across the country for days, and gingerly reopen to understandably low attendance. Prior the recent burst of carnage, but terribly sad in its own way, one of the country’s finest academic institutes, closely following Neville Chamberlain’s Idiot’s Guide to Appeasement, decided to issue a code of conduct regarding the banishment of public displays of affection, i.e., kisses on the cheek. It’s all looking very grim, but life goes on, and remarkably unchanged, for some of us.
I dined, following a recent art opening, with a charming London-based gallery owner who asked me, following a polite preamble over the new face of the Mughal miniature, why ‘moderate’ Muslims such as myself aren’t educating people as to what their religion is supposed to stand for. Quite apart from the fact that I’ve been lapsed ever since I discovered Muslims were responsible for the scourge upon ‘O’ level students that is Algebra, I’ll wager that this line of questioning misses the wood for the trees. If I trot out the standard bit about how Islam was the great cultural middleman that made the Renaissance possible (a fact tragically absent from too many western scholarly texts), or how anyone in their right mind in medieval Europe should have longed to be invaded by the enlightened Moors, then I’m simplifying a sophisticated socio-economic-cultural situation to people’s choice of faith. In the same way, to look towards Islam for some sort of revelation as to why Pakistan’s methodically dispossessed, uneducated, brainwashed, livid militants are using religion as a smokescreen, a legitimised excuse to seize power, is surely succumbing to the greatest red herring of this age. The incident, all in all, reminded me of a great line from Pakistani author HM Naqvi’s debut novel Home Boy, culled from a scene where a character, on the basis of being Muslim, is being questioned by the FBI for the possible reasons behind the attacks of 9/11: “As a Muslim, he figured, I would have special insight into the phenomenon… But like everybody, I figured the hijackers were a bunch of crazy Saudi bastards.” The standard complaint ‘everyone’s a critic’, I can confirm, has now been updated to ‘everyone’s an amateur theologian’.
I visited Vietnam for the first time this year (largely so I could go on to announce at parties that I was having ’Nam flashbacks), with my only cultural reference to the place being the effect it had on American society, the controversy, the introspection, the protests, the giant push for freedom of expression, the fact that it brought down the Administration and, on another note, was the last time mainstream Hollywood studios produced thinking, daring cinema—The Deerhunter, Apocalypse Now etcetera. I’m not comparing the War on Terror to the Americans in Vietnam and I strongly suspect America’s intellectual response would have been vastly different had the Vietnamese brought down the Twin Towers. But it’s a great shame, nonetheless, that nearly thirty-five years on, this war, instead of advancing critical thought, has the world’s most eminent intellectuals pondering over whether Islam Is a Religion of Peace (Yes/No, tick a box), with Hollywood’s artistic response being Iron Man.
At the risk of stating the obvious, (only so that other people would kindly stop doing it) religion, as far as I can see, is what you make of it. In terms of religions of peace, if such a thing exists, Buddhism springs to mind, with its nucleus being altruism and ethical conduct. But would you care to snuggle up to Burma’s military junta, or spend a week at a Thai prison, the only place in the country where people don’t charge at you with massage tables and orchids to pin to your lapel? Didn't think so. I’m not a theologian, I don’t have all the answers, but I can say with some certainty that we’re still asking the wrong questions.