When Princess Diana died in a fatal car accident in 1997, a friend asked our Islamic studies teacher whether Diana, as a non-Muslim, would go to heaven for her humanitarian work. With a reassuring and calm smile, she replied, “No! All non-Muslims go to hell.”
Those who have grown up during the noughties have witnessed their schools turn into fortresses, gun-toting security guards, barbwire topped walls and sandbags — all of which represent institutions’ seriousness in tackling possible threats of violence. Their surroundings emphasise what they see on the news or read on the internet.
An entire generation has grown up accepting violence as a part of life. They are exposed to vivid displays of violence through the media. When young, impressionable students open up to their teachers and ask them to help them make sense of the violence that saw the murder of Salmaan Taseer, what answers will teachers provide?
‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. Given yesterday’s events however, ‘One man’s murderer is another man’s hero’. The Jamaat-e-Ahle Sunnat Pakistan declared the assassin, Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, ‘Ashiq-e-Rasool, Ghazi-e-Mulk’ (Lover of the Prophet, Commander of the Country).
The gulf is obvious. A large number of individuals have offered explanations, justifications and celebrated the actions of Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. That we fail to distinguish between murder and heroism speaks volumes of how fundamentalism, intolerance, glorifying self-sacrifice and death have been embedded in our national psyche.
The event, as narrated by an eyewitness, details how in a calm and collected manner the assassin committed the crime, threw his gun to the ground, raised his arms and surrendered. The iconography of the act, and the manner, in which this story has been repeated and transmitted through print and oral repetition, presents the gunman as the archetypical hero that many of us associate heroism with.
We should not kid ourselves. Salmaan Taseer’s assassination was not the act of an individual. His views and actions were shaped by a society that encourages and glorifies an individual who takes the law into their own hands. If such actions are backed by religious sanction, in this case by mass nationwide protests declaring the victim wajibul qatl, the archetype of the brave ghazi insures social acceptance, nay even hero worship.
So what will students discuss in their classrooms? How will their teachers respond when asked whether such events can ever be justified? Given the large amount of sympathy that Mumtaz Qadri has received, there is a fair chance that he will be celebrated by some.
This is why it is so important that Salmaan Taseer’s death is not met with a withdrawal of progressive voices from the public domain. Progressive forces cannot allow the latest chapter in our nation’s story to be written by those who glorify death and offer little to live for.
Children and young adults are the best exponents of new technology and are able to not only consume opinions, but also participate in reinforcing them. If progressive elements fall silent, we will allow those who preach intolerance, a monopoly in recording our present and shaping our future.
Today, we cannot agree to what constitutes murder. If we fall silent, tomorrow we may fail to recognise it at all.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 6th, 2011.