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Are terrorists human?


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It happened over a year ago, on June 21, 2011, in the flat heat of Lahore’s unforgiving midsummer, Jamaat-ud-Daawa Chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed trooped up the stairs of the Lahore High Court and filed a petition. This was not in itself a novel occasion. In the age of the courageous courts, Pakistanis are used to all the flavors in the pot of justice; beards and men and petitions, all providing the ingredients for our nightly feasts of political smut. The head of a banned terrorist group standing up for Pakistani sovereignty and the rights of invisible unseen victims of drone attacks means only the promise of some rowdy political jousting at the end of another day. Irony, even this perverse piece of it; is lost in a Pakistan mourning too many deaths.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed December 10, 1948 in a place very far away from Pakistan and for problems very different from drones. In the shadow of World War II, the weary world reeled against the catastrophe of the Holocaust and its own belatedly awakened apathy, at help provided too late and after too many had died. In the hopeful years after it became the rallying call for unity; for the value of an individual life to be apportioned some dignity, to provide some bare boned armor against the action of a bully nation or bloodthirsty dictator bulldozing weak nameless others. The idea was that if a universal maxim on the protection of human dignity could be agreed upon by the world; a prerogative for upholding the essentially human beyond the specificities of belief or nation or race, then the world would be spared future cataclysms of human depravity.

For a time the recipe seemed to work; if imperfectly. Nations were shamed for imprisoning political opponents, their pomp and glory questioned when they mowed down protestors in Squares, used soldiers to rape women and allowed dictators to exterminate entire populations of ethnic rivals. There were some near pristine victories; strong countries intervening to stop genocides in weak ones, a vast UN peacekeeping force was created and funded for the very purpose watching out for those that had no guns and no watches. The world it seemed had developed some muscle on the bone of some core humanity; or so it seemed then.

Terrorism existed a long time before this new millennium began, but it was in this millennium that it began its slow murderous assault on human rights. In not belonging to no country, or to any country where they chose to set up shop, terrorists, the Mohammad Attas and Osama Bin Ladens of the world evaded the nation state model. They killed and slaughtered and bombed and made humans into bombs and they did it over and over and over again. The test for who is considered human, worthy of human dignity, came not from those who were being killed, but from those who were doing the killing. Is the terrorist human; and in the words of the Declaration “free and equal in dignity and rights” and worthy of being treated as such?

No one knew. The world watched and worried and the United States developed the drones. The drones were like the terrorists; elusive and silent and secret. Their victims became terrorists when they fell under their shadow. If the terrorists had cast the first blow on human rights by begging the question of whether a terrorist was human, the drones killed human rights by casting the final blow in the insistence that everyone they killed was a terrorist. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was one thing; these scenarios begged the question: if a human who was a terrorist could not have human rights, a drone that killed terrorists was not killing humans.

Hafiz Saeed’s petition is our own Pakistani allegory for the millennial decline of human rights; for it pokes and prods at this very question. Is the terrorist still human and if not, whether there is any validity anymore to an international human rights discourse that is based on a Universal Declaration that may no longer be universal. There can be special rules of course, such as the ones the United States alleges exist for drones; we can debate them and question them; we can evaluate the relative guilt of Hafiz Saeed or of the health worker shooting Taliban, but in the arrangement of the weighing scales of human depravity we still remain without an answer.

In the meantime, Hafiz Saeed’s petition on drone attacks continues its course through the maze like rifts and valleys of Pakistan’s creaky court system; there are hearings and adjournments and submissions and objections. The midsummer of Lahore’s June has passed through the seasons to another winter. At one hearing held on October 14th 2012, the Lahore High Court rejected the Government’s response to Saeed’s petition as unsatisfactory. The hearing was adjourned again.

The case will not go anywhere, but with every appearance, Hafiz Saeed casts one more blow on the idea of human universality, of a set of basic rights that were believed to apply to all; but that seem in our present moment of utmost evil, universal no longer. Drones, in their remote, robotic mechanistic killings say no and beg for an exception. Once universality has an exception; it is universal no longer, ailing and flailing, if not simply dead and defeated. If the ambition to expose international instruments of humanity and solidarity is the chess game initiated by Hafiz Saeed, then his sweaty petition pushed through the dusty desks and crowded dockets of the Lahore High Court; may have won this round.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times,  Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (31) Closed

naresh Sharma Dec 21, 2012 01:16pm
they are sick humans and they deserve no place on this earth...
Dr Farrukh Chowdry Dec 21, 2012 08:58am
If you have cockroaches in your kitchen , what do you do ? Negotiate with them or use a pesticide ? These terrorists are infiltrators out to destroy Pakistan. You can either destroy them and the people who harbor them or they will destroy civilization as we know. These people would have killed Hazrat Abubakar Hazrat usman and all caliphs if they were the rulers today. These terrorists deserve no mercy.
chump Dec 21, 2012 10:53am
Unfortunately they are not cockroaches. The are wild elephants,literally uncontrolable. BUT if you control them they can be really usefull. We do need guerillas for some unresolved problems.
Adam sith Dec 21, 2012 01:47pm
while alive they are not. After death, they are human
SUNIL Dec 21, 2012 10:22am
Drones ???
Morad786 Dec 21, 2012 09:35am
A Terrorist is like a Computer with Virus! Basically, they are human but have been indoctorated by a destructive ideology by the evil forces! These forces are not exclusively religious and include politicians, agencies (foreign & local) and the actions of othere people or nations against the innocent.
ggggg Dec 21, 2012 01:51pm
Too many people who have become victims of the terrorists, It becomes very easy to change their minds. that's why suicide bombers are formed and it becomes very much difficult to stop them. They are teach if they die as a suicide attacker, they will definitely go to the heaven. But its wrong we as a human being try to escape our youngsters and brothers from such creepy person who does not know anything about Islam. These are real terrorist and we can stop them if we want.
Deb Dec 21, 2012 10:05am
I don't know about Pakistan, but here in India often times terrorists are elavated to the status of humans, thanks to some pseudo-liberal NGOs and Amnesty International. Amnesty International, quite strangely find human right violations only beoynd the borders of western world and only those committed in and by the non-western nations. It only dent their credibility and that is unfortunate.
p r sharna Dec 21, 2012 09:58am
terrorist does not deserve to be called human and not entitled to human rights. Now who is a terrorist , depends on your perception and prism through which you look at .
Bakul Dec 21, 2012 03:07pm
The person who terrorizes innocent people is a TERRORIST. The person or group who stands for freedom is a freedom fighter. No country or no media could ever label Gandhiji as Terrorsit. Each person, no matter on what side he was, refered to him as a Freedom Fighter. He must have done something right.
A very annoyed person Dec 21, 2012 02:41pm
Human rights for the terrorists? Is it April fool's day? What about the rights of the people killed by these terrorists?
Kesar Dec 21, 2012 09:24am
Hafiz Saeed and human rights is a contadiction in terms!
ggggg Dec 21, 2012 01:56pm
But if we do not give mercy to them we will create more terrorists in our country which is truly a destructive activity.
H.Mani Dec 21, 2012 03:01pm
Read the Islamic history,3 out of 4 Caliphas were killed by terrorist,terror and religion always existed then in 632 and as well today,I thought with doctor in front of your name you are better informed or like rest of you ,you write your own history,as usual,the Dawn's remedy is supress infomation which are damaging,it hurts your Awam more than non-muslims,we know but you help your good folks ignorant.Think about it.Nice day.
gangadin Dec 21, 2012 11:22am
One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Its the way you define it and where you stand. It is very easy to dismiss them as terrorists and start making new laws that they have already rejected. So if you want retaliation to end, then back-off and think.
Raj Pal Dec 21, 2012 12:28pm
Erm! People like Hafeez Saeed and their bretheren (for men they always are) such as the Taliban and assorted jihadi and Islamist groups can be called many things. But 'freedom fighters'? I think not. They have a nihilistic vision of a particular type of society and anyone who differs from that or opposes them is to be eliminated. Freedom is essentially about providing individuals with a shared pluralistic space in which to live their personal lives as they wish and participate in public life without fear of censure or threat of violence for having opinions or a life style that differs from those with the power to oppress and enforce their writ through the exercise of violence.
dhk Dec 21, 2012 05:07pm
yes, that is the line of the thinking that led us here. It is liking riding a tiger, you can't get off them or they will eat you.
Beg Dec 22, 2012 12:26am
The absolute terrorist are not individuals but the states and countries and systems which create environment for breeding individuals who become tools in the hands of these states to serve their hegemonous designs. Individuals and small groups are either created or occasionally are formed in retaliation to the injustices committed by these states, countries and systems ,all of which want to control the world resources to be used by only few while the bulk of the world populace remain hungry and these countries are so deft in this that they paint oppressed as the culprit and hide their oppression in the disguise of human rights when they are the ones who are violating human rights every where and they support each other in these heinous crimes. Examples are Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, afghanistan, Bosnia etc
Mohammad Adam Khan Dec 23, 2012 08:25am
One thing is very important to understand; How good you are, to cope with any situation, expected or unexpected come in your life. In chess, Queen is the most precious piece, but sometime sacrifice of Queen has brought victory for you.
Satish Kumar Nallamothu Dec 23, 2012 03:20pm
It is very sad to digest the fact that , These terrorists are attacking and killing Country top most Political leaders..It is the Pakistan as a nation to take aggressive steps and massacre them in go with out mercy.You have to have Iron will when dealing such crooks otherwise they may occupy whole Pakistan one day.
Abbasi Dec 22, 2012 08:47am
Thank you for a beautiful piece of writing.
Mustafa Razavi Dec 22, 2012 09:51am
Terrorism would be with us till the world shows some honesty in defining this term. The Western media does not use that term for any of it's soldiers who have committed the most horrific atrocities against people of third world nations. The Indian media did not employ that term for Mayabhen Kodnani who was convicted of murdering 97 Muslims in Gujarat.
farid Dec 22, 2012 10:45am
Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Mike collins,Gerry Adams,Martin Luther King were labelled as terrorist and later they became statesmen.
Blade Dec 22, 2012 12:20pm
Rather than the computer virus analogy given below, I prefer seeing society as a human body, and people like cells in the body. A terrorist is cancerous cell that threatens the body. Just as we show no mercy to cancerous cells and destroy them, the same approach should be taken with terrorists. However prevention is better than cure in the case of cancer, and similarly all measures must be taken to prevent humans from becoming cancerous terrorists in the first place. A human body needs proper diet and exercise to stay healthy; similarly a healthy society needs freedom, justice, and compassion to prevent cancerous terrorists.
Morad786 Dec 22, 2012 12:55pm
Great observation!
Morad786 Dec 22, 2012 12:58pm
This applies to all terrorists whether religious (any religion), governments (through wars or oppression of people such as in Kashmir) or Agencies (CIA, RAW,ISI)
Shan Dec 22, 2012 03:38pm
Terrorist should be burned alive just like they will burn in life after death. Now let's see how we can make our days on this earth safe for all.
Lakhkar Khan Dec 22, 2012 07:11pm
Are they human? NO. Anyone has no regard for human life is not a human.
saju Dec 23, 2012 04:06am
terrorism within every human beings, but it agrivated to the society then it is serous, real root cause could be wrongly motivated administration intention with eassy methode of counterrism to truth and sustainabilty of leadership intension. religion is one of the better tool as without any honey spend to achive this leadership conclusive, better pak citizen to be carefull.
Vishwajeet Dec 24, 2012 10:38am
Yes,they are pakistani human..
Cynical Dec 24, 2012 01:33pm
Factualy wrong and very misleading. I do not know about Mike Collins, but Gerry Adams was involved in terrorist activities. Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King NEVER professed terror as a means to achieve their objectives.