If only the murderous rampage at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters were an isolated incident. It may have garnered worldwide attention because it occurred on French soil, but rising radicalism has been cutting a wide swath, most relentlessly in places like Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The initial reaction for most of us is shock at the sheer barbarism. But for those who live and work in the regions most affected, what can be done?
In its 150-year history, Forman Christian College (FCC) has weathered many regime changes, coups, unrest, and the constant spectre of extremism. Through it all, FCC has been able to offer a unique oasis for Muslim and Christian students to learn to respect one another and dream of a new Pakistan. We invited the President of Friends of Forman, Robert Johnson, to offer his reflections on what can bring back light in the midst of such darkness, especially in the wake of last month’s heinous attack by the Taliban on an army school in Peshawar, killing more than one hundred schoolchildren.
Is there any amount of explaining that can cause the slaughter of innocent children to make sense, or easier to take?
No, of course not.
Beslan, Dunblane, Newtown, Columbine and still more: each of those names makes our blood run cold. Horrifying pictures, gut-wrenching stories, and row upon row of small coffins – it is as though some light goes out of the world each time one of these catastrophes happens – light that seemingly cannot be recaptured.
First, Peshawar. And, at the hands of those who claim to be hyper-religious, and who express their faith by shooting 12 year olds in the head at point blank range.
Now, Paris, where 2 men, shouting the Islamic motto “Allahu Akbar” – God is Great — walked into the offices of a Paris magazine with Kalashnikovs and killed 12. This was after Muslim extremists, again extolling God’s greatness, had driven into Christmas crowds in Dijon and Nantes, injuring more than 20. If that were not enough, al-Queda bombed a police academy in Sanaa, killing 37 and wounding 67 cadets, workers and passers-by. And then, almost unnoticed in the press, Boko Haram killed 2,000 peacful villagers in Nigeria.
Can there be any explanation?
Well, yes, there can – but I am afraid it won’t make anyone feel one whit better about what happened. But maybe understanding can make help us find a way to bring perhaps a bit of that lost light back into the world.
For a peculiar off-shoot of Sunni Islam that springs from the Saudi-bred Salafi movement (you might have heard it called “Wahhabism”) such behavior is simply a living out of their brand of hyper-conservative, puritanical Islam.
For the Pakistani Taliban who took responsibility for the Peshawar attack, there doesn’t need to be an excuse for this action – those who were killed were only the children of infidels who would die accursed anyway. The same can be said for the killers in France, who were allied with the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or with the scourge of Nigeria, the murderous Boko Haram who are all part of the larger Salafi movement.
Salafis, especially in their most extreme form, believe nothing in life is worthwhile outside the practice of their version of “pure” Islam which they claim is like the Islam practiced in the two generations that followed the death of Muhammad himself. In the way of many “fundamentalists” of all religions, they believe their “pure” Islam is the only true practice of their faith, making all other Muslims – even those that are observant and pious – infidels in the view of the Taliban. As such, they are kafir – infidels, and no better than those who are not Muslim, or even worse since they should know better but don’t follow this better path.
The Taliban’s practice of declaring others as kafir causes the Taliban to be called takfiri, (one who accuses others of being a kafir). The men who lead this movement clearly delineate what is acceptable, and what is not, which includes dancing, music, too much schooling, “immodest” women and a host of other things which they think would have been unknown to the first Muslims, thus forbidden.
Of course, you and I can scoff at this simplistic and simple-minded rhetoric, but here is the point –
they believe this with a fervor that causes them to devalue everything except their beliefs. You and I might value human life, but, to the takfiris, not being a “good” Muslim makes you as good as dead anyway.
You and I might value civil societies, but the takfiris see any government as an impediment to adherence to their grim version of sharia law leading to the reestablishment of the Islamic caliphate.
You and I might look at a child and see worth, potential, and a human being worth protecting. They would see nothing more than a tool to use to achieve their end of making everything conform to their vision of the way things ought to be.
I told you that you would not feel any better after reading this, but there is still light to be brought back into this darkness.
First – this type of bloody, reductive and repugnant Islam is not the Islam of the masses, or even the large minorities, in the world. It holds some sway in the Arabian peninsula and in a few other places in the Middle East, but most Muslims find this type of Islam as repellent as anyone else. Actions like those in Paris drive other Muslims even further away from the ideology of the Takfiris.
Second – In Pakistan, there was some sympathy to the Taliban claim that they were faithful Muslims, practicing Islam as Muhammad’s original followers did, but the Peshawar school murders have finally convinced the Pakistani people that the Taliban of any stripe are simply murderous beasts who have let a caricature of Islam kill their humanity. Time will tell, but I cannot but believe these events will be the turning point against them for the people, government and army in Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic ummah – the worldwide body of Muslims.
Third – the time to engage in Pakistan is now, and maybe now more than ever. Although Pakistan is no stranger to violence fomented by these extremists (more than 35,000 Pakistanis have died in terroristic violence in the last twelve years), and with these awful events, public sentiment is now more solid than ever against their brand of Islam.
Having a school like Forman Christian College, which has always encouraged mutual tolerance, is the right institution at the right time in the right place.
Robert Johnson is the President of Friends of Forman Christian College (FCC) in Lahore, Pakistan.
FCC was founded in 1864 by Dr Charles W Forman, a Presbyterian missionary from the USA. Enrollment today stands at 4,664 students. Among the college’s distinguished alumni are two Presidents of Pakistan, a Prime Minister of Pakistan, a Prime Minister of India, the first Chief Justice of Pakistan, a president of the UN Security Council, numerous ambassadors, Chief Ministers, an Attorney General of Pakistan, and a Foreign Minister of Pakistan.
There is an equally impressive list of leaders in the fields of education, law, medicine, the arts and entertainment. FCC also fostered the work of a Nobel Laureate, Dr Arthur Compton, who won a Nobel Prize for physics in 1927. The college motto, “By love, serve one another” has been a guiding principle for Formanites throughout its history.