Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Beslan massacre: The anguish of a faithful Muslim

Many people around the world, Muslims among them, turned away in shock from their newspapers and televisions, like me sick to their stomach, as the hostage-taking in Beslan, Russia, reached its grisly climax.

Even in the litany of terrorist attacks we are now resigned to expect daily, the premeditated seizure of a school and the slaughter of innocent children in a sleepy Russian town by Chechen, Arab and other Muslim terrorists defies imagination. To think that men and women actually gathered, maybe months in advance, to plan such evil is incomprehensible; that it was done in the name of Islam is crushing.

I, too, am a Muslim. Like many other Muslims (and Christians, Jews, Buddhists and people of different faiths trying to cope with our modern age), I try to accept my religious identity on my own terms and am adamant that there be no place for politicized or even institutionalized Islam in my spiritual life. Let me promptly add that this impatience with radicalism in my faith extends equally to other religions, whether Christianity or Judaism.

My religion actually takes a rather secondary place to my spirituality. I am primarily concerned, through my faith, to find answers to those questions that have preoccupied humans from times immemorial: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where do I go from here? And, most importantly - how should I conduct a true and purposeful existence?

Still, I consider myself a Muslim. I grew up with the privilege of tolerant parents who, while creating a Muslim home for us, allowed my siblings and me to attend Christian and Jewish schools. I opted to keep my Islamic identity for at least two reasons. Firstly, there is much about Islam's rituals that I find elevating (there is of course also much about it that I simply find irrelevant to life in general and to my life in particular, like the segregation of women). I deeply cherish the month of Ramadan, for example - something holy, truly cleansing, permeates this period of the year when from dawn to dusk we commit to not eat, drink, steal, curse or otherwise misbehave. I also like Islam's sense of community and self-discipline (before these qualities were debased and deformed by Al Qaeda and the like).

Secondly, I feel a need to provide some continuity. Let me explain. Most of my family, including my devout parents, having observed first hand the brutality, ignorance and corruption that accompanied Khomeini's Islamic revolution in Iran, came to doubt Islam altogether. My father, at one time the most practicing among us, became so disillusioned with Islam that to his dying day he never again called himself a Muslim.

I sometimes feel that in a generation or two, the tolerant, humane and all-embracing Islam I knew will have all but disappeared. In its place, Osama bin Laden's version of Islam could well win the day. I feel that having been born a Muslim I should try and uphold something of the gentler culture I knew. Maybe it is too late.

Cycles of violence are, of course, perpetrated and repeated over great expanses of time - some of the seeds of Sept. 11, 2001 may well have been sown in 1953, when the United States and Britain conspired to topple Mossadegh, the democratically elected nationalist leader of Iran, thus paving the way for virulent Islamic movements that later engulfed Iran and other parts of the Middle East. Seeds for the calamity in Beslan may have been sown with the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet forces in 1979, and by the atrocities committed by Russian forces in Chechnya.

Most extremisms arise when people don't know where to turn: the gross vulgarities that pass for freedom in many Western democracies may have irredeemably frightened many moderate Muslim societies into the arms of more dogmatic, nonsecular movements. Still, Muslim countries must start questioning why so many of their sons and daughters go about claiming an Islamic inspiration for murderous acts. Who are those who perpetrated the Beslan tragedy in the name of Islam and where, pray, are Muslim politicians and commentators to condemn, unequivocally, their cruelty?

Muslims have already spent too much time blaming others for their woes. However justified, it is time to stop. Could it be that we have become more driven to begrudge others their present glories than to retrieve the glories of our own past? Where, I ask my fellow Muslims, do we turn when so many atrocities are committed daily under the banner of our faith?

I continue to believe that at its heart, as in other great faiths, there is a kernel of timeless beauty and humanity in Islam. To whoever would listen - there are fewer and fewer of them - I keep talking of the real Islam: the Islam of the esoteric Sufi tradition, the Islam of the Golden Age of knowledge and commerce, from the 8th to the 13th centuries, the Islam of tolerance, inclusiveness, science and the arts.

Today, watching the dead children of Beslan and the unbearable suffering of their parents, even to my own ears these claims are starting to sound hollow.

Nassrine Azimi is director of the Hiroshima Office for Asia and the Pacific, United Nations Institute for Training and Research. This is a personal comment.

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