NeverForget: A year after Peshawar school attack, voices rise in solidarity around the world

#NeverForget: A year after Peshawar school attack, voices rise in solidarity around the world
Photo Credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters
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A year ago, armed militants barged into a school in Peshawar and carried out the bloodiest school shooting in Pakistan. The tragedy that unfolded on December 16, 2014 at Army Public School left 144 students dead, including a six-year old girl on her first day of school, along with several teachers, mostly women, including the headmistress. A rescue operation launched by the Pakistan military killed all seven attackers, all foreigners – a Chechen, three Arabs and three Afghans.

With the slogan #NeverForget, many are commemorating the anniversary of the attack in cities around the world, including London, Toronto and Washington DC. In Pakistan, demonstrations are planned in cities including Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad.

The Pakistan events also oppose the mind-set that promotes violence in the name of religion – something that Pakistan, along with America and Saudi Arabia, cultivated in the 1980s. They created the “mujahideen” or holy warriors to fight Communist Soviet Union in the first Afghan war. The trajectory that has led to today’s extremist groups stems from those policies.

One of their remnants is Abdul Aziz, former cleric of the infamous Lal Masjid (red mosque) of Islamabad, who refused to condemn the Peshawar massacre.

Activists in Pakistan have since then been calling for his arrest. Their fight includes the struggle for an inclusive Pakistan that embraces diversity. On the one hand the extremists remain entrenched and powerful, to the extent that the government has still not been able to move against Aziz despite his open support to the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIS.

On the other hand, more and more people are standing against them, despite the risks.

Taking a stand

“We are disturbed by the violence in Pakistan and here,” said Rev. Joe Robinson of Christ Church, in the US town of Cambridge, speaking at a public rally organised by a small group of Pakistanis on December 13 in the Boston area to commemorate the Peshawar school massacre.

Rev. Joe Robinson addresses the Boston gathering to commemorate the APS massacre and protest against Islamophobia. Photo: Beena Sarwar
“We don’t hear about the violence in Pakistan so much from our mainstream news sources,” he added.

Several men and women from Rev Robinson’s congregation joined the demonstration, holding up placards for unity and against hate speech and violence towards Muslims or those who look like Muslims.

Such bigotry has visibly increased since the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. At the same time, so has the solidarity across communities. News of racially or religiously motivated attacks still claims more media space. However, thanks to social media outlets, people are also sharing and hearing about heart-warming stories of solidarity and compassion, including from other religious communities and those with traditionally conservative politics.

The anti-Muslim rhetoric articulated most crassly in the US by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, is ostensibly a response to Muslim militants acting in the name of Islam. But both are rooted in a political power struggle. And they are two sides of the same coin. They feed on each other, no matter what religion or politics they claim to follow.

The Peshawar school massacre was one in a long list of attacks stemming from an extremist ideology that uses religion as a tool to stay politically relevant and gain political power.

Students and participants at the Boston demonstration sign cards for the APS families. Photo: Beena Sarwar
Such attacks have claimed the lives of more Muslims than non-Muslims since 9/11. Pakistan alone has seen over 50,000 civilian and 10,000 armed forces personnel casualties. The militants conducting these attacks claim to be religiously motivated, yet they target innocents, including women and children, and those they term as apostate or the “wrong kind” of Muslim. This includes Shias and Ahmadis.

The day of the Boston rally, a bomb planted at a second-hand clothes market in the predominantly Shia town of Parachinar in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border killed over 40 people.

Denouncing Wahabism

Those who carry out such attacks project themselves as jihadis or holy warriors. In fact, as Delhi-based journalist Sameer Arshad Khatlani puts it, they are fasadis (creators of discord).

In his column aptly named “Grey Areas”, Arshad traced the Paris attackers’ mindset to their “ideological forefathers”, who were, he notes, “Islamic pariahs till West destroyed Ottomans with their help”.

Differences between the different groups – Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda, Pakistan’s home-grown militants – notwithstanding, essentially they share the same basic ideology, rooted in Wahabism. They are anti-democratic, anti-women, anti-secular, anti-culture, anti-homosexual and have no qualms about killing innocents. Their most extreme version is currently the death cult variously known as ISIS or ISIL.

Islamic scholars around the world have denounced this warped ideology. Many are actively working to counter it.

The world’s largest Muslim nation has officially banned support for ISIS. Indonesia’s 50-million member strong Nahdlatul Ulama, a Sunni organization formed in 1926 in response to Wahabbism (also a Sunni ideology) launched a global anti-extremism initiative in 2014. Their aim: “To spread messages about a tolerant Islam… to curb radicalism, extremism and terrorism”.

Recently some 70,000 South Asian Muslim clerics at an annual gathering in India, issued a fatwa(religious edict) against terrorists, including ISIS, Taliban and Al Qaeda. About 1.5 million Muslims have supported it.

Secular Muslims together with Muslim scholars and reformers have started a Muslim Reform Movement to “reject interpretations of Islam that advocate for violence, social injustice and political Islam”.

“Our ummah – our community – is not just Muslims, but all of humanity,” said their online petition, launched on December 3, 2015. The movement, it says, aims “to support a reform of Islam that advocates for peace, human rights and secular governance”.

In Pakistan, many such scholars have had to flee the country or be killed.

And now, Muslims in other countries find themselves at the receiving end of hate speech, public harassment or worse. This is not new – in the post-9/11 weeks, journalist Haider Rizvi was beaten unconscious by a group of men who didn’t like his Pakistani Muslim origin.

Recently, a friend’s American-born daughter riding the subway in Boston was shocked when a man seated nearby started shouting that that she had a bomb in her bag. She had to show her college and work identity cards and open her bag to show her work computer to a group of men who surrounded her. They backed off, but what was “more upsetting,” she said, was that no other co-passenger said anything to the man who had shouted, and none of the men apologised.

There is a long list of such threats or outright violence against Muslims and mosques especially since the Paris attack.

Reclaiming the narrative

In this atmosphere, it is heartening to see communities come together to assert their common humanity.

Slogans like “Humanity Trumps All” or “Love Will Trump Hate” – none too subtle puns on Trump’s bigotry – are making the rounds, including on a statement issued at the Boston and Providence rallies.

Rabbi Neal Gold of Temple Shirkitva was unable to attend the Boston rally in person due to a prior commitment but his December 8 letter to the head of the Islamic Center of Boston was widely shared. Posted on his blog and emailed to various list-serves, the letter expresses solidarity and empathy with the Muslim community.

“I know that each time a fanatic commits an act of violence in the name of Islam, it causes you personally an enormous amount of pain.

“I know that the largest numbers of victims of radical Islam are Muslims. I realize when an incident like the one this past week in San Bernardino, California occurs, anti-Islamic violence (in words and in deeds) rises.”

The Jewish community, he pointed out, knows first-hand what it feels to be targeted and scapegoated like this, and the implications of the rhetoric of “monitoring” and “tracking.”

Many Jewish organisations, including the Central Conference of American Rabbis, have issued public statements condemning Trump’s behaviour specifically and Islamophobia in general.

Several of those who attended the Boston rally had earlier that day been part of a demonstration on the steps of the historic City Hall in Providence, Rhode Island, an hour’s drive south.

They included Eshun Mirza and his wife Saira Hussain, Pakistan-origin physicians who were also the main organisers of the Providence rally.

“We Muslims are an integral part of this nation,” said Dr Mirza, listing some of the many professions Muslim Americans work in – as teachers, workers, nurses, doctors, first-responders, and soldiers, to name some.

The question of whether humanity will ‘trump” hate is unlikely to yield an answer anytime soon. But what’s heartening is that those determined to take back the narrative are coming together and forging ties as never before.