Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on Dawn.com.

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience

.

Smokers’ Corner: The meaning of violence

February 17, 2013

Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Propagating or eulogising terrorists or acts of terror as heroic is usually a product of populist apologists. They then proceed to inflict more harm to  society than the terrorists.

This kind of callousness is at least one of the reasons behind many an impressionable mind convincing itself to have found some sort of identity and meaning in life. Even if it is in the shape of a violent act passionately justified to be an episode of true faith.

Many of us have wondered what makes a perfectly normal looking person take a life (or lives) and sometimes his own. Secure in a rather convoluted and perverse knowledge that his act is sure to place him in the good books of the Almighty or find him pleasurably loitering in the gardens of paradise.

Sociologists, psychologists and political scientists have often come up with various explanations. Some suggest that bad economics is to be blamed for some young people desperate enough to be exploited by the violent patrons of faith to go on a killing spree for money as well as God.

But then there are also those who remind us that if it was all about economics, how would one explain acts of faith-driven terror undertaken by young men and women from well-to-do middle-class families?

Faisal Shahzad, Omar Sheikh, the 7/7 bombers in the UK, all of these men came from educated, urban and middle-class Pakistani families. In such cases it is believed that the mad urge to kill in the name of faith transcends economics and becomes a blatant example of a time honoured theory.

This theory, found in various Marxist and left-liberal philosophies, suggests that throughout history religion has been the most easily exploited element for those desiring to gain political and social power, easy money and/or worse of all, unleash a spree of bloodletting on the bases of religious bigotry and fanaticism (for gains and aims that are largely cynical).

All these theories have merit. However, what gets missed in this context is the role played by those non-violent men and women in politics, media and the academia who actually end up somewhat justifying (if not entirely applauding) certain violent acts of men they believe are a product of bad economics, injustice and some kind of a noble war.

Such people who can emerge from both the right as well as left sides of the conventional ideological divide are usually called apologists.

Of course, when one accuses them of this, many of them lash back with their own handy terms: Liberal fascist; anti-religion; et al.

Funny thing is that when pressed to describe a person who has no qualms about strapping a suicide belt around his waist and then blow himself up (in the name of God) in a crowded mosque, a Sufi shrine or a congested market buzzing with men, women and children, the apologists would strike a pose of the unbiased and objective thinker to suggest: ‘You see, one man’s terrorist can be another man’s freedom fighter.’

That’s why what needs to be looked at and studied is the impact apologists in politics, media and the academia are having on a society quivering under the weight of unabashed terrorism taking place in the name of God and sects.

Yes, bad economics and the vulnerability of religion to be exploited in the most violent manner is making many Pakistanis sully the idea of the Almighty by committing unabashed acts of terror in His name.

But maybe such misguided and deluded souls are also finding a justification of their madness from those who refuse to call them terrorists, or explain their mutant ideas of heroism, faith and glory as a reflection of some noble anti-imperialist and anti-establishmentarian cause.

Back in the late 1970s and just before a revolution toppled the all-powerful Shah of Iran, segments supporting Iranian spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, began finding the act of torching cinemas a rather satisfying and pleasing act.

Hundreds of cinemas were torched in Iran between 1978 and 1979, but only when there were no crowds inside the cinema halls.

Iranian intellectuals and leaders who were supporting the anti-Shah clergy under Khomeini (who was in exile in Paris), instead of condemning the act of burning down public property, explained it as an attack on the symbols of the Shah’s regime.

Hosien Takbali, a young drug addict from the Iranian city of Abadan, was buying and selling drugs on the streets of his hometown when his family and friends intervened and convinced him to travel to Isfahan and get admitted to a drug detox centre there. He did just that. The revolution against the Shah was intensifying when young Takbali was in recovery.

Since this was also a time in Iran when religious as well as leftist ideas were enthusiastically being absorbed by the country’s middle and lower middle classes, Takbali was encouraged by three other young men whom he had befriended in Isfahan, to supplement his recovery with the study of faith.

When Takbali returned to Abadan, he came back as a man who had kicked his addiction and had become pious.

Nevertheless, he retained his love of movies, but unfortunately, these were days when cinemas were going up in flames in Iran.

In August 1978, his three new friends visited him at his home. They came with an issue of a British newspaper in which a few members of the clergy were quoted as saying that cinemas were a way to distract Iranians and make them ignore their religious duties.

Takbali’s friends informed him that inspired by the way the clergy was explaining the torching of cinemas, they too have decided to set a cinema on fire.

‘Everybody is burning down cinemas,’ one of his friends said. ‘But we’ll do it in a way that will make us genuine revolutionary heroes.’

This meant burning down a cinema while it was screening a film and was packed with people.

The young men all bought tickets to an Iranian film called The Deer, at one of Abadan’s oldest cinemas, Rex. The hall was packed with men, women and children when Takbali and friends poured kerosene oil inside the hall and set it on fire. Over 350 people died and were turned into ash. Only a few people survived, including Takbali.

The incident is still considered to be one the most horrific acts of violence and murder that took place during the turbulent years of the Iranian Revolution.

Of course, the apologists who were praising acts of burning down cinemas previosuly, now changed track. Fearing a backlash, they began accusing ‘agents of the Shah regime’ for torching Rex.

A year after the imposition of Iran’s post-Shah Islamic government, some Iranians demanded an inquiry into the Rex tragedy.

Takbali, who was expecting to be hailed as a hero of the Islamic Revolution was arrested and accused of being an agent of the old Shah regime. He was hanged.

The apologists hailed the hanging as a great act of Iran’s Islamic justice.