Two apparently unrelated atrocities. In one, armed gunmen stormed into a school and murdered over 130 defenseless children. In the other, armed gunmen stormed into a an office and murdered a dozen journalists. The first took place in Pakistan, the second in France. The only seeming connecting between them for most people will be that both were carried out by Islamist terrorists, but this is not the whole story. Actually, what connects these two events could hold the key to stopping the terrorists once and for all.
Following the attack on APS Boys Peshawar, TTP master mind Fazlullah released a video explaining the reasoning behind the attack. It was, as usual, claims about how Taliban is at war to replace democracy with their own version of Shariah. The attack against the Charlie Hebdo was explained as retaliation for printing cartoons that were disrespectful to Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
The connection appears to be religious extremism, if we look closer we will find that it is not actually religion, but the cynical use of religion for politics. This was explained in great detail by Husain Haqqani a few years ago in a piece titled, “Muslim rage is about politics, not religion”. This does not mean that TTP or the Charlie Hebdo attackers are lying about religion. Actually, I take them at their word that they believe what they are saying. But what they are talking about is not religion. It is politics.
TTP’s agenda is not to protect Islam in Pakistan. Islam is not in any danger in Pakistan. Anyone can see this clearly. TTP’s agenda is to change the laws of Pakistan to give themselves more power. Religion is merely the path that they are taking. And we are falling for it. Here’s why.
After the Charlie Hebdo attack, a friend posted this cartoon on Facebook.
When I first saw this, how could I not agree. The more I thought about it, though, I realised that this was the point. These attacks have forced me, as a Muslim, to feel like I have to choose between my religion and the West. This is why I and so many of my friends offer such qualified condemnations of attacks.
“I condemn these killings! But I also condemn drones!”
“I condemn these killings! But I also condemn the cartoons!”
The end result is that my political power is stripped and I am politically isolated. For you and I, as individuals, this is frustrating. But it is also what is happening to our leaders, and this is where the power of the terrorists really comes from.
After parliament passed 21st Amendment creating military courts, religious parties including PTI quickly gathered to warn against any linking of terrorism with religion. This is about more than just who is tried in military courts, it is about making people choose sides. This is why Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel traveled to Peshawar to participate in recitation of Quran ceremony. Yes he was there to comfort the grieving families, but he was also there to reinforce Army’s religious credentials.
The problem is, this is allowing the terrorists to choose the field of battle, and when we do that, we give them the advantage. We will never be able to ‘out pious’ religious extremists. When we try to do that, we just become them. And that is what they want.
The same thing is happening in reactions to Charlie Hebdo. Let us all accept that the cartoons are offensive. What does such a sensational attack do to stop such material from being seen or being created? Nothing! Actually, it has caused these cartoons to be seen all the world over when they wouldn’t have been.
But maybe that was the whole point.
Remember a couple of years ago when the world was seized by protests against a blasphemous film posted on YouTube? The reality was that no one would probably have ever seen the film except that it was intentionally promoted by a right-wing TV host in Egypt.
We have to ask, why would Muslims try to promote blasphemous or offensive material? The answer is that they know that it will inflame the religious sentiments of Muslims and the political sentiments of Westerners. The world will be divided. And we, the vast majority of moderate, reasonable Muslims, will feel forced to choose between the two sides and ultimately isolated. This happened in response to the YouTube film, and the same game is being played now with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
We are being asked to prove our religious piety by condemning the cartoons instead of condemning the attack. And in doing so, we are giving in to a purely political game. Terrorists and extremists, whether they are Muslim clerics or Christian preachers or Jewish settlers, they are powerless without our participation. If we stop giving them an audience, Terry Jones and Hafiz Saeed would immediately be reduced to crazy old men talking to themselves. If we take away the prestige of Terry Jones and Hafiz Saeed, we take away the incentive for other people to follow their example.
Every day, people are murdered for non-political reasons, and these killings are treated as common crimes. The killers are punished and forgotten. But when murders are committed for political reasons, we sensationalise them. We broadcast the killers names and faces. We repeat their manifestos and we give them our consideration. Even unintentionally, we legitimise their crimes. And in doing so, we empower them.
The choice between being with the infidels or the terrorists is a false choice. Terrorists do not represent our religion, and blasphemy does not represent the West. This is a lie that is promoted to isolate us.
We have to stop playing by their rules.