Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 June 2009
Issue No. 952
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Confronting the enemy within

It's time for Muslim societies everywhere to take on the spectre of extremism, just like Pakistan's tribesmen are doing, writes Aijaz Zaka Syed*

A strange thing happened this week. Hundreds of villagers in Pakistan's Northwest Province turned on Taliban fighters after a suicide attack on a mosque killed more than 40 worshippers during the Friday prayers. As the Pakistani army cracks down on the militants in an offensive that has also killed hundreds of innocent people and displaced nearly two million, ordinary people have launched their own war on the forces that have brought so much misery and destruction to their beautiful land.

After the mosque attack in Upper Dir district, tribesmen attacked the battle-hardened Taliban in their own strongholds, forcing them to run for their lives. The villagers have also formed a militia to deal with the menace that has destroyed a region often compared to Switzerland. The tribesmen are helping the military and civilian authorities take control of the area, as they rally around the slogan, Pakistan jaag gaya hai! (Pakistan has woken up!).

What's going on? Clearly, Taliban chickens have come home to roost. The tide is finally turning against the militants in their own backyard. Ordinary people are not willing to suffer and die in silence anymore, as the Taliban and security forces fight for Pakistan's soul. This is perhaps the most critical turning point in this most unfortunate war. Too much blood has been shed. Far too many innocent people have been killed with impunity on both sides.

While we in the Muslim world have often and justifiably taken the US and its allies to task for their crimes against innocent civilians, we haven't been as brutally honest when it comes to the fanatics who claim to speak on our behalf.

Maybe because we saw them as the creation of the decades of injustice and exploitation by big powers. Our failure to condemn the terrorists in stronger terms has sent the wrong message to both the extremists as well as the rest of the world.

Of course, we have from time to time insisted that extremist forces like Al-Qaeda do not represent Muslims and their actions have nothing to do with Islam. I wrote some rather strong pieces after the 2005 terror attacks on London and the despicable strikes on Mumbai's landmarks in November last year. Of late many others, far wiser and more learned, have been trying their best to drive home the message that violence targeting innocents violates the spirit of tolerance and fundamental teachings of Islam.

From Sheikh Sayed Mohamed El-Tantawi, the venerated grand mufti and rector of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, to Sheikh Sudais, Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, some of the top religious authorities have condemned extremist violence, especially suicide bombing, as un-Islamic and inhuman.

This year's hajj sermon repeatedly underscored this message, with three million pilgrims praying for world peace and reconciliation. Unfortunately, these voices of sanity seldom reach the world at large.

Tareq Ramadan, grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan El-Banna and one of the most respected Islamic scholars of our time, has repeatedly written and spoken on the issue in the Western media. But the massive challenges we face on this front can hardly be confronted by individual voices and solitary efforts here and there.

What we need is a global movement to present the true face of Islam before the world. This would be possible only when Muslims, wherever they are and whoever they be, speak out against this nihilistic celebration of death and violence and despicable targeting of innocent people in their name.

We have to tell the world in the strongest possible terms that this is not what Islam is all about. We have to demonstrate through our actions that this is not us. This is not what our faith teaches us. We are taught to respect and cherish life, not reject and annihilate it.

What Pakistani tribesmen did to take on the Taliban menace is perhaps the most cheerful news to come out of that country in many years. This Asian nation was supposed to have been a model Muslim society and state, but what has happened to Quaid-e-Azam's dream? It has emerged as a symbol of all that is wrong with Muslim societies today: corruption, abuse of power, violence and extremist chaos of all sorts.

Of course, much of this could be blamed on the mess next door and constant interference and manipulation by big powers. But who gives them an opportunity to fish in troubled waters? In the end, every one of us is responsible for what happens in our part of the world. Besides, how long will Muslims continue to blame the rest of the world for their woes?

True, Bush's war visited a catastrophe on the Muslim world, adding to its myriad problems. More than a million innocents have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and more are dying as you read this.

But what the so-called champions of the believers have unleashed on the Muslim world is not in any way less damaging. In fact, the extremists in their midst are greater enemies of Muslims, because they have sought to hit at the very soul of a faith that came as a blessing for all mankind. What enemies could be worse than such friends?

By targeting innocent bystanders, unsuspecting women and children and people quietly praying in mosques or going about their business and by blowing up schools and hospitals and banning girls' education, the extremists are distorting the liberating teachings of an infinitely compassionate and humane faith.

As US President Obama quoted in his Cairo speech, the Quran warns that taking one innocent life is like killing all mankind and saving one life is akin to saving all humankind. There cannot be a greater calumny against the faith than killing innocents in its name.

The extremist actions are as lethal to Islam and Muslims as the Western coalition's bombing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The sooner this reality dawns on the believers, the better for everyone. Before 9/11, Islam was the fastest growing religion in the world including the US. Today, if we are perhaps the most hated and reviled community on earth, you know whom to blame!

All of us should be happy that those poor, semi-literate tribesmen in Pakistan stood up to fight back the terrorists. They have shown that ordinary Muslims are as sick and tired of this endless bloodshed as they are by that of Western forces. This is what we badly need. We need more and more people across the Islamic world to follow in the footsteps of the Northwest tribesmen.

In the end, if Muslims want to clear up this mess, they will have to help themselves. No angels will descend from the heavens to rescue and set things right for them. No amount of verbal entreaties and sanctimonious lectures insisting this is not what Islam is all about will do. We need action now.

The Pakistanis, Afghans and Muslims everywhere will have to do more to prove that what a tiny, lunatic fringe is doing in the name of Islam is nothing but a grave injustice to the great faith. It's time to confront the enemy within.

* The writer is opinion editor of Khaleej Times.

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