A COUPLE of weeks ago, I had written about the wall of silence that descends across the Islamic world whenever there are human rights violations committed by a Muslim government.

Almost on cue, Pakistan chose to abstain from the UN Security Council resolution demanding that Sudan rein in the Janjaweed militias that have been committing atrocities on a massive scale against southern tribes. All evidence indicates that Khartoum has been supporting these killers. And yet, rather than joining the vast majority of the international community in condemning these acts, Islamabad has chosen to abstain.

I was wrong to say that the hundreds of thousands of victims were non-Muslims. Many of them are in fact Muslims. Many readers have expressed their anger at the refusal of Muslim countries to condemn the cruelty and barbarity too often displayed by their fellow Muslims. Why an Indonesian Muslim, for example, felt compelled to defend the criminal behaviour of, say, Saddam Hussein when he felt no such need to side with the (Hindu) Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. It is true that the concept of the Ummah, or nation of Islam, is unique to Muslims. The Jews perhaps come closest to this spirit, but in their case, this is due to a shared history of persecution that has lasted hundreds of years.

However, in the case of Muslims, this desire to present a united front against the rest of the world often translates into an uncomfortable us against the world’ syndrome that only serves to deepen the existing gulf that Huntington reminded us of in his controversial Clash of Civilizations’.

The truth is that despite the show of unity that we put on when a member of the Ummah is under attack or is being criticized, far more Muslims have been killed and victimized by their fellow-Muslims than they have been by non-Muslims. From Afghanistan to Algeria, Muslims are pitted against Muslims.

For almost a decade in the eighties, Iranians and Iraqis slaughtered each other by the hundreds of thousands. When Saddam Hussein unleashed his chemical weapons, he did not do so against Israel or the West; he did so against fellow-Muslim Kurds and Iranians. When he chose to expand his frontiers, he invaded the Muslim nations of Iran and Kuwait.

After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in the late eighties, the (Muslim) Mujahideen fell upon each other, merrily killing their fellow Afghans for over a decade. If the Taliban had not been thrown out in the aftermath of 9/11, they would be still at it. As it is, their blood lust is only partially controlled by the presence of western troops. The Algerian civil war in which tens of thousands of Muslims have been killed over 25 years shows no sign of abating.

Over the centuries, a slight difference in the way Muslims worship has made it kosher to kill each other, all in the name of religion. While European Christians have put their sectarian intolerance and slaughter of the Middle Ages behind them, we continue to define ourselves by the particular sect we belong to, often killing those who do not conform to our particular narrow interpretation of the holy scriptures.

Thus, the (Sunni) Taliban killed thousands of (Shia) Hazaras. In Pakistan, this Shia-Sunni division has similarly claimed hundreds of victims over the last two decades. In Saudi Arabia, Shias are not allowed to proclaim their faith, and are marginalized in public life. In Iraq, the situation is pregnant with the possibility of a Shia-Sunni civil war.

But these Muslim-on-Muslim crimes are brushed under the carpet when a member of the Ummah is accused of crimes against humanity, as Sudan is now.

What did Pakistan gain by abstaining from the UN vote? Had Sudan been an important trading partner or benefactor, Islamabad’s decision would have made a kind of cynical sense. And if our government had evidence to prove that the charges against Khartoum were false, then we ought to have voted against the resolution. But in the event, an abstention is a cheap, wishy-washy cop-out.

If the Ummah has any relevance and cohesion, surely it must be based on morality, and not mistaken self-interest. The present you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ attitude has further marginalized the Muslim world. By refusing to face reality, we risk falling further behind.

Indeed, many sensitive young Muslims are already disillusioned by the sight of their fellow-Muslims behaving in ways that are completely out of step with our times. Many Muslims in America are furious over the plight of a young Kashmiri girl whose ears, nose and tongue were sliced off by separatist militants.

Indeed, the acts of terrorism being committed by extremist Islamic groups from Bali to Basra are polarizing and dividing the Muslim world as no western policy has. While terrorist groups are undoubtedly gaining fresh recruits among disaffected and confused youth, many other young Muslims are revolted by the senseless violence these groups are committing in the name of religion.

These are difficult days, and many Muslims are unsure of the line to take. Should they join the critics of their fellow-Muslims when the criticism is justified, or take a more comfortable, ostrich-like position? But surely, the rights and wrongs of issues remain unchanged since man attained civilization: it is as morally reprehensible to kill except in self-defence as it always was.

No cause can possibly justify the killing of innocent bystanders. And to gloss over such crimes by asserting that the perceived enemy also acts in a similar fashion is a morally bankrupt argument.

But ultimately, the question to ask is what defines us? Our humanity, or the labels applied to us at birth?

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