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Look to Ibb to understand what happened in Paris

Updated January 11, 2015

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In this representative image, Yemenis look on as smoke rises from the site of a suicide bombing at the defence ministry in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. — AFP/File
In this representative image, Yemenis look on as smoke rises from the site of a suicide bombing at the defence ministry in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. — AFP/File

”We’ll always have Paris” – one of the most striking and memorable lines of cinema comes from the 1942 classic Casablanca. After the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris, there are apprehensions, however.

There are fears and questions; whispers and murmurs coming out of the European far-right camp are turning into mainstream discourse.

There is a question: “Will we always have Paris?”

Paris has always been there in the dreams of dreamers, in the imagination of artists, in the ploys of political activists, in the dissent of rebels, in the words of theory, in the ingenuity of ideas, and in the heart of revolutions. Much more than a mere city, Paris embodies the radicalism of that political and artistic activity in Europe which emerged from the Enlightenment and swept the whole world thereafter.

Such was the grandeur of the French Revolution in 1789 that the term 'liberty' – before 1800 merely a legal term denoting the opposite to slavery – acquired altogether a different political meaning and became the shibboleth of the wretched of the earth around the world.

Intellectuals, artists, and activists banished from their own communities flocked to Paris to ward off persecution and the city embraced them. It has been a tradition since then.

Only to give a few examples from our part of the world, Jamaluddin Afghani – one of the foremost modern Muslim reformists – published an Arabic newspaper The Indissoluble Link from Paris in 1884.

The first supreme leader of post-revolution Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, had to spend some time in Paris in exile.

Ali Shariati, ideologue of Iranian Revolution, conceived a large part of his revolutionary ideas while his stay in Paris.

Apart from that, the works of French theorists have greatly inspired the 20th century liberation movements in North Africa and Middle East against French colonialism itself.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo has widely been perceived as an attack on freedom of expression – an assault on artistic and political freedoms in France in particular and Europe in general.

This, however, is not the whole picture. There is another part of the story. There was another attack, in another part of the world, which went under-reported.

In order to contextualise what happened in Paris, it is important to understand the dynamics of the other attack.

Bloodshed in Ibb

In the western foothills of the Ba’adan Mountains in Yemen, there lies a city called Ibb. It rains there the whole year-round and the region has been given the nickname, ‘the green province’. The city was an important administrative centre during the times of Ottomans.

On December 31, 2014 around 500 people, mostly Zaidi Shias living there since centuries, gathered together at a cultural centre in Ibb to celebrate Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) birthday.

Around 11 am, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the congregation, killing as many as 49 people.

 A soldier is seen outside a cultural centre following a suicide attack in Ibb, central Yemen December 31, 2014.—Reuters
A soldier is seen outside a cultural centre following a suicide attack in Ibb, central Yemen December 31, 2014.—Reuters

There has been Al-Qaeda insurgency in Yemen since 2001, and the government has declared an open war on Al-Qaeda.

The Prophet’s birthday, called 'Mawlid', has always been an important occasion for the majority of Muslims around the world. From Cairo to Jakarta, there are carnivals, celebratory gatherings, and collective prayers on this particular day. Muslims in different countries celebrate it according to their respective indigenous cultural traditions.

Lately, however, the Mawlid celebrations have come under attack in different parts of the Muslim world by the hardline militants that consider this ritual incompatible with Islam. Recently, on January 2, 2015, Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz had pronounced such celebrations as sinful in Riyadh.

Read on: Fanaticism: From Peshawar to Paris

Thus, within a few days, people were killed in two different parts of the world – Paris and Ibb – both in the Prophet's (PBUH) name: avenging disrespect of the Prophet, and for celebrating his birthday.

But both attacks are an assault on values near and dear to the people.

The rationale is to coerce people into giving up their respective traditions, intimidate them, and impose a particular ideology through the barrel of gun.

The same fanatical ideology is at work in both attacks, which is thoroughly anti-people irrespective of their religion, language, or political affiliations.

History tells us that religions are never static, nor are they monolithic. They evolve over time, incorporate cultural values, and mean differently for different people. While blaming the whole religion and its followers for the deeds of a few is outright bigotry, it is also true that these terrorists invoke religious sources in defense of their actions. To brush aside this dangerous reality by the sweeping statement that they cannot be Muslims is tantamount to closing our eyes to reality.

Also read: Charlie Hebdo suspects killed as French siege ends

This is not the West vs Islam. It never was.

The tragedy that struck Paris and Ibb emanates from the same source.

It is Frankenstein’s monster swallowing our cities, our values, and our people everywhere in the world. It is militants using Islam to further their own twisted agenda.

The question 'if we would always have Paris' is interlinked with the question of whether or not we can go on living in Ibb in accordance with our values and our culture.

And all of that boils down to:

“Can we defeat the militants together?”