Written By: Dr. Amineh Hoti
The sister showed me the boys’ schoolwork – the writing was neat, logical and it had the teacher’s remarks in red, “well presented work!” On the cover of the schoolbook it read, “I shall rise and shine.”
mages are based on histories, encounters, and the ability of those represented to fight for an equal voice to express themselves. Creating negative images of “the Other” is deeply problematic for the idea of human morality, as it implicitly rationalizes the condoning of violence against “the Other”.
Similarly, images are built of countries as images are built of men and women: this one is a “good”; that one is “bad”. This one is “friendly”; that one is an “enemy”. Beneath this surface of media world and propaganda in which each country perceives itself as inherently good and “the Other” as inherently evil, there are real people struggling to survive, to find their next meal, to live a life of dignity. In Pakistan, loving grandparents, self-sacrificing parents with babies, innocent children and know-it-all teenagers must search for tools of peace building to heal our fractured but shared world.
Frankie Martin, an American researcher, and a student of my father, Professor Akbar Ahmed at the American University in Washington DC accompanied my father on his research project, Journey into America. Sharing his experience with me about same trip, he told about his meeting during a walk in Florida with a friendly elderly woman who was gardening. During their conversation, he told her about previous exciting learning research project called Journey into Islam, where we visited nine Muslim countries, including Pakistan. He told me that lady stopped him after listening the name of Pakistan, exclaiming, “Wait! What? Pakistan!” then after a pause she said, “Do people there love their children?”
Frankie, who has been involved in a lot of bridge building work with Professor Ahmed calmly replied, “yes, they do – just like us. They are very family-oriented and are indeed very loving to their children.” The woman shouted back in the direction of her husband in the house, “See darling, I told you they love their children there.” She explained that violent images of Pakistan dominate local news. However, she owned a sweater that bore the tag, Made in Pakistan, which gave her hope that people “out there” did normal things (not, as the news reflected, kill and hate). She felt deep down that people everywhere were good and productive – her sweater spoke more to her, in this case, than the image of Pakistan that, unconstructively for all of us, has systematically been conveyed through the media.
Negative images of “the Other” are harmful to the ones that are the object of this construction as it can drive them into self protective behaviours that push them towards the periphery and further marginalization. Muslim immigrants to the West encounter the differences between cultures more sharply which are often exacerbated by media depictions of Muslims (all South Asians get affected – Sikhs and Hindus included – and we hear stories of them being beaten up by local people thinking they are all “Pakis”). The media’s depictions of “the Other”, at present, especially Muslims, drive people apart, create walls of misunderstanding, increase stereotyping, and degrades mutual respect. Instead, I think, media can and should bring the world closer together through fair and equal representation of all sides within conflict stories, and more scholarly and positive analysis.
The outcome of this gap between how different people perceive each other is a propagation of dislike and intolerance of “the Other”, which can lead to the kind of violence we see today in the world. Violence begets violence and locks people into cycles of revenge. A famous tribal Pukhtun proverb is: “he took revenge after a hundred years and said, ‘I took it too soon!’.” In this scenario, when tribal people and modern states encounter each other through violence and force, the masses who suffer the most are the ordinary helpless people and children as seen when the Taliban took revenge on Army Public School in Peshawar killing 150 children and teachers. The Taliban had announced that they would take revenge on the children from army families for carrying out operation in North Waziristan Agency (NWA) by Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs). In all eventualities, there are civilian casualities including children in addition to the soldiers participating in the “war on terror” – they happened to be in the right place (schools) at the wrong time (time of global war not of their choice). Ironically, the Arabic-Urdu word “Taliban” is plural for “students” and students symbolize a thirst for learning and development and is something we, in the educated Muslim world, regret being associated with violent extremist fringe groups. The Attack on Army Public School (APS)
The seven armed men who attacked the army school in Peshawar were not of mainstream Pakistani origin (they are said to be speaking a non-local language – this was confirmed by all the parents to me). One of the parents told me that, they had blackmailed the canteen worker, who was an Afghan immigrant, by kidnapping and threatening his children. I was told by the parents of the boys that on entry, they first killed the canteen men, armed themselves, and proceeded to the female Principal’s office. They demanded the list of the boys who were sons of army men (the majority of the children were of civilian parents). The Principal, a dedicated educationist like so many other brave and bold female principals in Pakistani schools, refused to give the men any names. When we saw her husband in his apartment in Peshawar to offer Fateha, he described her as, “determined, kind and a dedicated educationist.” Her son pointed out, “she was more dedicated to her work, school and children than her home.” During the incident, she wanted to protect all the children. For her, they were all her responsibility as precious young adults. They threw petrol on her and burnt her alive just as they did with another 24 year old female teacher in front of her students who resisted while trying to protect her young students (this was narrated to me by the parents and friends of the boys killed).
I was shown the beds of two deceased brothers (one 15, the other 19) by a young sister who shared the same room. She felt lonely without her brothers, and now every night she hoped they were there in their own beds before she slept – the pain was horrendous for her.
The men were well informed about the school’s layout and timetable it seems, for they came into the hall at a time when all the senior classes of boys (Class 8 & above i.e. 15 to 18 years old) had gathered for an assembly that morning. Dressed in their crisp white shirts and green sweaters, the Army Public School boys – I reiterate most of them children of civilians – ended this morning’s assembly in terror. Every boy in Class 8 was killed – 15 years old in their prime – innocent of the world around them and not involved in the politics of people that had killed them. Some were shot in the limbs then savagely killed with knives. Pakistanis are asking who these ‘people’ were and who funded them?
Accompanied by family and a friend, I went to offer condolences to the mothers of the boys massacred in Peshawar. I did not know them personally, but as an act of humanity and compassion, we wanted to share their terrible loss and deep grief. When I sat with the mothers in their homes, I saw the deepest of human pain, impossible to express through mere words. After the traditional prayer offered for the souls of the boys, there was a struggle to find the right words. The pictures of the boys were freshly mounted on frames on the walls. These were middle class homes – people not involved in the politics of war but wanting to better their everyday lives and that of their children. The boys wore western clothes to school, spoke and wrote fluent English and had dreams. Mothers and sisters told me how intelligent, hard working, and wise these boys were – some wanted to be engineers, others doctors, and few others scholars.
I was shown the beds of two deceased brothers (one 15, the other 18) by a young sister who shared the same room. She felt lonely without her brothers, and now every night she hoped they were there in their own beds before she slept – the pain was horrendous for her. She showed me the boys’ pictures, school bags, piles of books with a prayer mat on top of them and a scrabble board right at the bottom of the pile – the 15 year old had three bags full of books which now lay there in the entrance to the house newly built by their parents – the father a banker and the mother a school teacher. They had worked all their lives for their children and moved from the village to the city of Peshawar to give their children a better future. The mother held their pictures to her eyes and cried her heart out for her beloved sons. It was unbearable – and deeply heart breaking. Together we cried and cried again – she for her sons, and I for the loss of such truly beautiful and brilliant young boys. The sister asked me crying, “Can someone tell me why they were killed, tell me one thing they did wrong? They were the best boys – so good, they were so loving and so caring.” Shamowail Tariq loved bringing people together. He dreamt of making a multilayered house to bring all his relatives together. With him, there was “ronak” (liveliness). He would tell his younger sister when she would say let’s do this tomorrow, “don’t leave it till tomorrow” (da maze bia bia narazee (this life/fun may not be there tomorrow). He would tell his younger sister, “I want to challenge you so that you think beyond the average level.” When he had typhoid and was out of bed in winter, ready to go to school, his elder sister scolded him. He replied, “we are zinda (alive). We are not affected by the cold. These all (who are living as a disconnected world community and are dominated by hate and divisions) are murda (dead: not mentally challenged and connected enough). He loved education, peace and faith. He would say his five times prayers and sit for long in the mosque behind our father.” His sister said that he told her, “something would happen and the whole world will remember us.” She cried, “Why! Why! Why!” The sister showed me the boys’ schoolwork – the writing was neat, logical and it had the teacher’s remarks in red, “well presented work!” On the cover of the schoolbook it read, “I shall rise and shine”.
The mother softly told me “I do not want any compensation for my sons – no money; nothing from the government. I just want the honour for them of the Nishan-e-Haider.” Martyrs are given this honour upon the ultimate sacrifice of life for their country. In another house, a Pukhtun army officer and father of a 18 year old boy, Saqib Ghani, who was killed in the massacre told me that, while he puts on a brave face in front of his family, when no one is looking he goes into the bathroom and cries his heart out for his precious and youngest son, whom he lost at such a young age. The father from Mardan said, “for our country we have done qurbani (sacrifice). When we first joined the army, we wanted shahadat (martyrdom) – it was a matter of fakhar (pride). But now I am a shaheed’s father. He was Allah’s amaanat (belonged to). He was the youngest of my five children. His way of talking was very pleasing. Sons bury their fathers but I buried my son! He was good in studies – he was brilliant at computers – he never teased us – he had very pleasant manners.”
This father told us of another boy who was kidnapped and released for ten million rupees. “His parents put him in APS where he became shaheed. He was doing hifz-e-Quran – he was brilliant and very good boy.” The Problem with Our Global Panic over Terrorism
This is indeed a deeply sad comment on the nature of humanity – when people become so brutal that they use force and kill because someone holds a different point of view or is born in a different family. It is important to highlight the point that although the media has created a panic over terrorism, it is these Pakistanis (the families of the people killed in terrible acts of terrorism) who are the real victims. While the Western media tends to paint a simplistic image of Pakistan as the hub of extremist activities, in reality the majority of Pakistanis are the victims of terrorism (thousands of innocent people in Pakistan have died since 9/11). A terrorist cannot and should not define Pakistan to the rest of the world. Consider an instance of the reverse – the man who killed three Muslim students in North Carolina. If that was the only person or story we heard around the world and in America, then he, as a white American, would define every white American for the rest of the world, ignoring the reality of his particular extremist view. Similarly, the Taliban cannot and should not define Pakistan. If this is allowed unthoughtfully, then it provides no moral support, understanding, or compensation from the international community for the families in Peshawar. As human beings, we are connected across borders to each other’s pain – we cannot deny this natural instinct in ourselves or the responsibility of connecting to others across borders as fellow human beings. What Can be Done
This followed by President Obama hosted a global summit on Countering Violent Extremism (now called “CVE”) with the aim of dealing globally with the growing threat extremism poses to all societies and states. Currently, as pointed out by Moeed Yusuf (United States Institute of Peace and also In Dawn, Feb 24, 2015) the number one, two and three strategies of states (such as the USA) dealing with violent extremism is by the use of force, and mostly in Muslim societies and countries. This will not work and can lead to creating more, not less, terrorism in on-setting cycles of revenge amongst tribal peoples who use a distorted understanding of religion to exploit impoverished and disadvantaged people in a vacuum where their own states fail to protect them. Non-violent policy options, for Western states, unfortunately are only at the stage of talk and not action. I agree with Moeed, that CVE can only be rooted out by changing mindsets through communication – dialogue, mediation, persuasion, deeper understanding, and above all peace building education, which introduces potent counter-narratives. In Muslim countries, one way is to educate students in counter-narratives by discussing and holding up heroes as role models who challenge the frame work of extremists – those role models who within an Islamic frame work of middle path represent moderate religious voices. The dialogue of civilizations, not clash is what states like the US need to promote. The world needs to be better informed about the array of Muslims and Islam, and Muslims themselves need to know much more about the Islamic culture of tolerance and their own rich history of co-existence. This knowledge will help end the cycle of extreme hate against “the Other”.
Before we take the first step towards creating a peaceful world, we have to stop building barriers of “us” versus “them”. There is much more to the story than simply “good guys” and “bad guys”; “good countries” and “bad countries”. Reality is far more complex and there is both good and bad in every story and history of nations. Understanding history and reading about the perceived “Other” helps. In Pakistan particularly, as the everyday life goes on: a country of two hundred million people where mothers drive their children to school, teachers begin the effort of teaching little reluctant 4 year old children how to read and write, and where female friends in beautiful lawn clothes “made in Pakistan” meet up at homes over coffee worrying, in English, Urdu and Pashto, about the safety of their beloved children. Teachers, students, and staff are worried and concerned about the way demonization of the “Other” and the growth of violent extremism in their lives is shaping world events. The principals of educational institutions worry about terrorism and the continuous cycle of revenge: one principal said she could not function for ten days after the Peshawar incident, despite a pile of papers demanding attention on her desk.
Mrs. Pracha a seasoned and dynamic Pakistani Principal said, “I am reminded of what Abraham Lincoln wrote to his son’s teacher: ‘Teach him that for every enemy there is a friend’.” She continued, “We in Pakistan need to remember this during current atmosphere of distrust and fear.” She said, “people in Pakistan are not all black and white – fundamentalists and liberals – we did not become Muslims in 1979, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan and the jihadis (as the west calls them) were created, nor will we stop being Muslims as the world turns in revulsion from the ISIS outrages. The state of being Muslim is not dependent on the depiction of a fringe splinter group. Its essence is more diverse and inclusive – welcoming of all sects, races, colours, and creeds. Witness the Moors in Spain: a pluralistic, highly civilized, and creative society. We must build bridges of economic hope and educational outreach.” She ended by saying, “Our hope lies in the extraordinary courage shown by those children who survived the Peshawar school attack. They, along with the Army Chief General Raheel Sharif and his wife, re-entered the building, saluted the flag, and went back to work.” General Sharif in his character and behaviour has displayed two of the key qualities of heroes – great strength combined with gentleness and understanding. All these examples provide us a glimpse of hope and of human courage when the threat is enormous and humanity seems to be at its lowest ebb. And from the perspective of a young Pakistani student, your nation seems to be misunderstood, your fellow students killed for attending school, and yet you continue to struggle to learn and participate in the idea of schooling, knowledge, and peaceful education. Many ordinary citizens and scholars working hard to change their world around them for the better. Because of these and many more reasons we can say, Pakistan is fighting hard for peace. And as the APS text books rightly say, I [we shall rise and shine].
The author is a PhD Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Presently she is Director at Centre for Dialogue and Action.