29 August, 2014 / Ziqa'ad 2, 1435

The sacred, the noble & the cruel

Published Apr 13, 2011 02:33am

THIS past Saturday I received an email asking me to sign a petition opposing the actions of Florida's Pastor Terry Jones and his hateful agenda of burning the Holy Quran.

I have signed many such petitions, being both a hater of hatred and a believer in Internet activism. But this one, the righteous mouse clicks that are the weaponry of the ordinary against a relentless cornucopia of world evils flowed a little less easily from my fingertips. This was not because I do not support the aim of the petition, or because Pastor Jones is not worthy of the strongest condemnation, inspired as his agenda is by the most repulsive ignorance.

Here is the story of why. On Friday, April 1, an imam in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan delivered a sermon about Pastor Jones and his nefarious plan. His congregation, incensed and roaring with the fervid zeal of the wronged faithful, erupted into the streets shouting slogans against the United States and the pastor.

Undoubtedly, anger at the pastor was mixed with the frustration of the individual, the crippled man who lost a leg in a landmine explosion joining the youth who had recently been passed up for a job as a translator. Immersed in the absolution mobs render every man, they united. It did not matter whether the landmine was planted by the Soviets, or that the translator's job was with a Chinese company — passion renders such details impotent. The nearby failings of American occupiers intermingled with the faraway blaspheming of an evil pastor in the angry shouts of a population scarred by war.

No one knows how this mob ended up at the United Nations compound, but it did. Neither does anyone know how the Afghan guards that stood by its perimeter were overpowered and killed, but they were. No one knows why seven UN aid workers were dragged out of their offices and executed, or why two of them were beheaded.

Was it merely a confluence of chance or circumstance that these people, from Norway, Sweden and Romania, would pay for the pastor's incendiary acts? What was the nexus of responsibility between them and this faraway villain in Florida?

There are a lot of resigned shrugs and sighs in the aftermath of tragedy in a war zone. I have partaken of them myself … even the most compassionate and the most idealistic (and I am neither) falter in the wake of unceasing tragedy and the constant consciousness of it, the gift of our Internet-enabled omniscience. I would, perhaps, have followed that same recipe of shrugs and sighs had I not known one of the victims.

Siri Skare, a 53-year-old pilot, was one of those killed, the only female and the only mother amongst them. The first woman to be a military pilot in Norway, Siri was in Afghanistan in a purely humanitarian capacity, running UN-funded projects for Afghan women. On April 7, a C-130 plane — the same kind that she piloted herself — brought her body back to Norway to be received by her husband and 12-year-old daughter.

I met Siri last year, at a conference, when she was at the end of a year-long training stint in the US. Her courses had been completed and her family had just flown in from Norway to attend her graduation. She sought me out so she could get a perspective on how she could better serve the women she would be working with in Mazar-i-Sharif. She had painstakingly prepared a great number of questions, aiming to avoid having her own work be yet another misconceived venture that failed to consider the demands of context — providing literacy where latrines are needed and vice versa.

During the afternoon we spent together, she took copious notes, writing down the names of books to read, people to consult, everything she humbly insisted that would allow her to see the world, as best as she could, from the perspective of those she wished to help.

It is perhaps the guilt-ridden lot of the living to elevate the departed, a feeble cry against the helplessness of a tragic death. I am aware of this; but it was the living Siri whose compassion moved me that afternoon. As an immigrant, perhaps cynical or perhaps merely insensitive, I am too wont to view with scepticism the adrenaline-seeking bravado of many that venture out to deprived badlands, seeking liberation from the boring plenty of western existence.

Siri was not one of them — a rare individual who had already wrestled her way through a male-dominated institution and whose genuine concern made you reconsider your own hard-heartedness. She was committed to not offending any religious mores, of being mindful of the values of others and assisting with respect and sincerity.

War makes us all invisible, our features dulled to nothing by distant, unknown avengers: an imam at a mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, a pastor somewhere in Florida. The angry mob in Afghanistan sees no difference between UN workers committed to aiding a struggling community and soldiers killing for sport; the suspicious American sees little difference between the Muslim neighbour and the would-be suicide bomber.

This one death will not change that reality. All of us have got used to sorting out and awarding our overtaxed sympathies according to rigid prescriptions: tears for Aafia Siddiqui, not for Siri Skare. n

This eulogy in memory of a truly noble woman cannot aspire to alter that calculation, but maybe just make the maths a little more difficult. I signed the email petition condemning the pastor's acts, reminding myself of the crucial need to distinguish between an angry Afghan mob that kills and the good intentions of Muslim-Americans who seek to put an end to his Islamophobic agenda. And then I read once again the last email Siri sent me before she left for Afghanistan: she signed off by saying how much she would miss her daughter's laughter.

The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com


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