A Tale of Two Cities: Paris and Peshawar

09/01/2015 11:23 GMT | Updated 10/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Two cities joined by one tale. On January 7, 2015, twelve people were killed in Paris. On December 16, 2014, 146 people, mostly children, were killed in Peshawar. In both cases, achievements of modernity - free speech and education - were attacked; Islam was invoked; a huge outpouring of shock and grief followed; and, narratives of revenge were offered by the attackers as justification for killings. In Paris, the justification was the perceived insults to the Prophet and in Peshawar it was to avenge the deaths of children in drone attacks and army operations. When juxtaposed, the two cities call out that no one is safe until everyone is safe, that the victims can be from any colour, age, religion, gender or, nationality and that beyond geography and culture there is something sublime that binds us together.

How should one intellectually engage with these events? To begin with, there should be categorical condemnation of both the attacks, rejecting any thinly veiled justification of violence by trying to equate pen and gun. Feeling offended does not give a licence to kill. Second, there should be no denial of the Muslim identity of the attackers. Muslim extremists have a narrative of death which appropriates elements from Islamic sources and traditions just like the moderate Muslim narrative of peace appropriates elements from Islamic sources and traditions. Religious injunctions are interpreted and both violent and peaceful interpretations are possible. Third, we should challenge responses that shirk responsibility and put the blame solely on the other. One reaction to Peshawar calamity was to see the event as foreign state sponsored. One response to Paris tragedy is to claim them to be the causal outcome of Islamic teachings. Both are wrong as they are partial and simplistic.

It is imperative now to uncouple analysis from identity politics and to think through the lens of humanity keeping in check the tendency to privilege national or religious interests. We need a complex, historical, unapologetic and phobia free (be it the phobia of Islam or of the West) analysis of the phenomenon we are confronted with. Such an analysis must start by recognising that there is no such thing as Islam out there - as a religion of violence or of peace. Islam, like all religions, is ultimately, what its followers make it to be. If we take this approach then we are faced with a question, why are the violent narratives of Islam gaining grounds today across many parts of the world. Political Islam may be an ideology but the question is why this ideology is so attractive in recent decades. With this question the analysis of extremism requires not only religious but also socio-political and historical investigation.

All the ingredients of carrying out such an analysis are available but they often remain in silos. We know the history of gradual sharpening of Muslim extremist narrative from the formation of Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami to the propagation of Wahabism to the creation of Taliban, al-Qaida and finally Daʿish (ISIS). We also know about the processes which transformed fundamentalism into violent militancy during the Afghan war in 1980s when Jihad was deployed by establishments of several countries in the service of free market's victory over socialist USSR. In some ways, Muslim extremism is a cost we are paying for winning the Cold War by deploying religion in the service of capitalism. We also know that politics of revenge, violence and invasions instead of containing extremism, end up providing it legitimacy and recruits. We know of the political wounds which must be healed to deny extremism its continuing sustenance and justification to divide the world into us and them. We know that traditions, including religion, matter to people, particularly in times of rapid change. Finally, we know that the best way to avoid Frankensteinian outcome is not to create monsters in the first place, even if they give short term benefit. What we have not done enough is to bring these ingredients together. Rather, depending upon where the extremists strike, different ingredients are highlighted, leaving the analysis incomplete and partial.

Can the present occasion be different? Can it help put these ingredients together to develop a shared understanding of the dangers of extremism and its causes?

So far I have brought out the similarities between Paris and Peshawar. But, there is one important difference as well. The attackers in Peshawar were killed during the attack while those in Paris are alive. This fact makes the Paris event different from New York (September 2001) and London (July 2005) as well. Let us hope that the attackers are caught alive. This will then give a chance for the law to take its course. This opportunity must not be missed. The trial should be open and transparent. It can create a public discourse about extremism which can bring together all the ingredients I mentioned above. Fortunately, we have precedence in Nuremberg trials that can guide.

It is time to choose between frenzy and rationality; between revenge and justice; between short term political mileage and long term solution; between national interests and cosmopolitanism. Our choice will determine the shape of the twenty-first century. Perhaps remembering that it is a tale of two cities' pain - one in the heart of a Muslim society and the other in the heart of the West - can help make the right choices.