Friday, 27 September 2013

Peshawar and Nairobi: the opposite of senseless

In the Pakistani city of Peshawar last Sunday, at least 80 Christian worshippers were killed in a double suicide attack on a church. It was reported to be the deadliest attack on Pakistan's Christians in the country's history.

The previous day, in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, at least 67 people were killed in a mass attack on a shopping mall. The targets in the two cities: God and mammon. The attackers: Islamist fanatics whose ideology has no place for non-believers.

Two senseless and cowardly attacks, in the words of political leaders around the world. But those leaders are wrong: the attacks were neither senseless nor cowardly. I shall now attempt to explain why.

Take that word "cowardly" first. How on earth can you describe someone who embarks on a course of action that they know will end with their death as a coward? Cruel, vicious, merciless, I can think of a dozen adjectives to describe cold-blooded killers. But whatever else they were, in my book, to call them cowards is to misunderstand and mislead.

Senseless? I wish. Unfortunately, if your aim is to deepen divisions, to spread fear, and yes, to instil terror, the attacks in Peshawar and Nairobi do make perfect sense. So let's take the opposite approach to the one John Major took more than a decade ago when, in a reference to law-breakers, he said: "Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less."

Of course, condemnation of last weekend's attacks is the starting point. They were vile and unforgiveable. But if we are to have any hope of defeating those who were responsible, then surely to goodness, we need to make at least an attempt to understand what lies behind them as well as to condemn them.

Here's how I see it. First, disregard everything that was said by those who claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Taliban in Pakistan said the church attack was in response to US drone strikes which have killed innocent Pakistani civilians. In what way Peshawar's Christians can be held responsible for those strikes remains a mystery.

The al-Shabaab movement in Somalia said the shopping mall attack was in reponse to the Kenyan army's intervention in their country to defeat their insurgency. How Saturday afternoon shoppers in a glitzy mall can be held responsible for what the army is doing, again, remains an utter mystery.

So instead of wasting time on these self-serving lies, let's consider what the late Peter Ustinov wrote after the 9/11 attacks: "Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich." It's worth thinking about in the context of last weekend, because it fits uncomfortably well.

Poor, by the way, in this particular context, doesn't mean poor in the sense of being without food or shelter -- it means poor in military resources. The Taliban have no drones; the al-Shabaab have no tanks or planes. So they use what they have got: fighters prepared to die and to kill civilians without scruple.

The ideology of the jihadis has no place for dissent or difference. If you refuse to accept their vision of how things should be, your life is without value. The biggest threat to jihadism is the idea that we can live together regardless of our religious faith or ideological bent, that the life of each of us is of equal value. And jihadism flourishes best where the West is perceived to be using military might to subdue insurgencies with an Islamic hue. It's an easy enough equation, after all: "Your planes and drones kill us; our bombers kill you."

If I'm right, it follows that the best way to weaken the jihadis is to insist on not abandoning our own ideas about equality, justice and tolerance. So, perhaps understandably, but nonetheless regrettably, the Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif got it exactly wrong when in the aftermath of the Peshawar attack, he said: "We had proposed peace talks with the Taliban in good faith but . . . because of this attack, the government is unable to move forward with what it planned and envisaged."

What he should have said was: "We will not allow the killers to deflect us from our deeply-held belief that only by negotiating a solution to our differences can we hope to bring an end to violence on all sides and ensure that no more families have to grieve over the loss of their loved ones."

The trouble with abandoning even a nascent peace process after an atrocity is that it gives an automatic veto to the bombers. In South Africa in 1994, in the run-up to the elections that hammered a final nail into the coffin of apartheid, 30 people were killed during violent protests in Johannesburg; a state of emergency was declared in Kwa-Zulu Natal; and nine people were killed and more than 90 injured when a car bomb exploded in central Johannesburg. None of it derailed the elections.

Similarly in northern Ireland, where once the UK government and Sinn Fein had committed themselves to a peace process, they refused to allow bomb attacks or murders to deflect them from the path on which they had embarked. That, surely, is as it should be.

It is no coincidence that the Peshawar attack came just as some Taliban factions had agreed to start a talks process with the Pakistani government. Now that process has been abandoned even before it got off the ground, and that's why, from the point of view of the attackers, their murderous action was the opposite of senseless: it has had precisely the desired effect.

As for Nairobi, al-Shabaab wants the Kenyan government to conclude that remaining in Somalia is too costly, both in terms of political support and of civilian security, to continue. So the correct response from Nairobi would be to change nothing: don't pull out of Somalia, don't increase the military presence, just carry on as if there had been no attack.

And perhaps get a few senior ministers to visit ethnic Somali areas of Nairobi and Somali refugee camps with a simple message: "We will not allow this horrific attack to damage relations between our two peoples -- instead it will reinforce our determination to do everything we can to ensure that both you and we can live in peace and harmony."

I do not underestimate how hard it is for political leaders to react calmly in the face of mass killings of civilians. But if they are to have any hope of destroying the ideology from which these attacks stem, then a calm and measured response is exactly what is called for.

1 comment:

~ Sil in Corea said...

I agree with you. It's the best move both politically and psychologically. When they see that their "final sacrific" does not change a thing, prospective suicide bombers or attackers will think twice. Solidarity and even-handedness will win out over terrorism. There's no need to wage war on terrorism. That's what they want, so they can recruit more angry young people.