A human question

Israeli bombing in Gaza

Count me as part of the global community of individuals, organisations and governments protesting against the latest round of brutality being perpetrated by Israeli forces on non-combatant men, women and children of Gaza. Count me among those outraged by the hypocrisy of the US government which condemns the Israeli pounding of a UN-run shelter of refugees in one breath and announces its eagerness to replenish the depleting ammunition supply of the mass murderers in the next.

Count me among the admirers of Latin America’s governments which, acting virtually en bloc in an unprecedented move, have denounced the Israeli government for the death and destruction it continues to rain down on innocent citizens. While Bolivian President Evo Morales has declared Israel a “terrorist state”, other heads of state have condemned the “war of extermination” against the Palestinian people and recalled their ambassadors from Israel.

In a way it is especially reassuring that the largest protest demonstrations and show of solidarity with the people of Palestine have been not in the Arab world but in Europe and Latin America. The Palestinian question is not a Muslim, but a human question.

In India, in sharp contrast to the decades-old national consensus, the new National Democratic Alliance government did not even allow a discussion on the issue in Parliament though it had to bow to global sentiment in the UN and vote with the overwhelming majority of member countries in censuring Israel. Outside Parliament, many secular groups have organised pro-Palestine solidarity marches in different parts of the country. But to anyone who reads Urdu papers it appears that for far too many Indian Muslims, Palestine is a religious problem.

To the Muslim religious leadership and the Urdu media in India I have a few questions to ask. Are you agonising over the pain and suffering of “fellow Muslims” or of “fellow humans”? Why the inflamed sentiments over ongoing atrocities in Gaza/Palestine but near silence over the virtually parallel mass crimes being committed in neighbouring Iraq by a rogue army that calls itself the Islamic State (formerly Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) and is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who has declared himself as the new “Caliph” of the entire Muslim world? The claim of being a Caliph has been treated by most as a silly joke, I know. But what about the crimes of his followers?

Am I suggesting moral equivalence between the misdeeds of an elected government that is accountable to the UN and other international fora with that of an army of non-state extremists? No. But what about the fact that the ISIS claims to act in the name of Islam, a religion we proclaim is a religion of peace? Shouldn’t we be shouting and screaming louder than anyone else since the “Islamic State” is supposedly acting in your name and mine?

Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani author and expert on the growth of Islamist extremism in the region, sees the Islamic State as the “new Taliban”. Since capturing large parts of Iraq and Syria in the last few months, the Islamic State has being enforcing a version of Islam on fellow Sunnis (globally the major sect among Muslims) which even the Al Qaeda is unable to digest. As in case of the Taliban, women are the worst victims. Among other things, they have been forced behind the all-embracing burqa (only eyes may be seen), are not permitted to appear in any public place without a male chaperon. Shias, for the Islamic State, are apostates who deserve to be killed.

Outside Parliament, many secular groups have organised pro-Palestine solidarity marches in different parts of the country. But to anyone who reads Urdu papers it appears that for far too many Indian Muslims, Palestine is a religious problem.

If the Islam that the Islamic State is forcing on fellow Sunni Muslims deserves the strongest condemnation, al-Baghdadi’s ultimatum a fortnight ago to the 5,000 odd Christians of Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city now under their control — is despicable to say the least: Convert to Islam, leave Morsul, pay jaziya ($450 per family, per month according to some reports) or face the sword. Needless to say, the hapless Christians have fled the city en masse.

Christianity in Iraq is as old as the religion itself. “Two thousand years of beautiful history, where the Christians and Muslims for centuries had helped each other, but now it’s the end of Christianity in Mosul. It’s dreadful news,” laments Father Andrzej Halemba, West Asian coordinator for Aid to the Church in Need.

An Australian radio news channel has reported: “In Mosul, ISIS fighters have daubed the letter ‘N’ for Nazarene, or Christian, on the walls of Christian-owned houses before rounding up the residents and stripping them of their money, jewellery and even mobile phones. Another report quotes human rights lawyer Nina Shea as saying: ‘One old woman had her life savings of $40,000,’ and she said, ‘Can I please have $100?’ and they said no. They took wedding rings off fingers, chopping off fingers if they couldn’t get the ring off.”

Spare a thought for Mahmoud Al Asali, a law professor at the University of Mosul. Al Asali had the courage to assert that the ultimatum to Christians was contrary to the teachings of Islam. He was promptly executed.

Forced to flee Mosul, most Christians have found safety and shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan where 94 per cent of the population is Muslim. But the Islam they practice in the autonomous region is different from the one that the Islamic State is forcibly imposing on others. In June 2012, the Kurdish regional government had declared that education in schools will henceforth be religiously neutral; students will be taught all the great religions of the world on an equal basis.

The responses of the late professor Al Asali, Kurds from Kurdistan and the Shias from Najaf and Karbala to the pain and suffering of the displaced Christians of Mosul show that, as in case of the global protest against the plight of Palestinians, for them too it is not a question of religion but that of our common humanity. The atrocities being perpetrated by the Islamic State have as little to do with Islam as the tyranny of Zionists has to do with Judaism.

(This article was first published in The Asian Age on  August 7, 2014)





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