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Published: Monday, 4/6/2009

Islam's uncouth custodians wreaking havoc

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - My annual and occasionally semiannual visits to Peshawar, the city of my birth, have been a source of joy and renewal for many years. I have believed that one could always go home. Now I'm not so sure.

Located at the crossroads of Asia, this ancient city was once called the city of flowers. A famous American traveler called it the Paris of Asia and its main street, the Street of Story Tellers, the Piccadilly of Central Asia. Comparisons to Paris and Piccadilly were always a stretch, but as metaphors for a romantic and exotic place it was very apt.

Here the great Indian plains and the Central Asian steppes converged and gave rise to a fascinating culture that always carried the echoes of far away lands.

It was through the high mountain passes in the Hindu Kush that all invaders, beginning with Alexander of Macedonia in 320 B.C. and many more who followed the trail, came to the Indian subcontinent.

It was in this milieu that I was born, raised, and was steeped in the culture and languages of the city. When I left Peshawar in 1963 for America, I shed a few tears, as most young men and women do when they leave home. I took with me nothing but a few snapshots and a rich album of memories.

In the past eight years, the face of this city has been changing. It is not the physical appearance, though that has changed too, but the values that were the essence of life here. Terrorism and random violence have had a profound effect on the psyche of its people.

Recently, while walking in one of the bazaars in the old city, I accidently stepped on a discarded empty bag of potato chips. With air trapped inside, it burst, making a loud noise and causing me and everyone around to jump in panic. People are on edge, and any loud noise reminds them of the ever-present possibility of bombing, or, worse, a suicide bomber.

If these shadowy terrorists were anarchists, social radicals, or even militant communists, people would have stood up to them. But the terrorists speak the language of religion and even though most people do not subscribe to their brand of Islam, they are afraid to say so in public. Public dissension is the quickest way to get in the crosshairs of the Taliban.

I found most people in my home town to be trapped in that warped and distorted logic. And, of course, there are some, a minority I must add, who think the Taliban would cure Pakistani society of all its ills. They seem to have forgotten what the Taliban did in neighboring Afghanistan when they ruled there from 1996 through 2002.

The Taliban systematically destroyed Afghan and specifically Pashtun culture by banning music, the arts, and any kind of artistic expression.

Their hand was visible when last month they bombed the tomb of the 17th-century Sufi Pashtun poet Rahman Baba just outside the city. His devotional and romantic poetry inspired and gave spiritual sustenance to many generations of Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns.

Al-Qaeda and the Taliban believe only in the austere and harsh Wahhabi Islam and they are committed to destroying anything that comes in its way, including the tomb of an ancient poet-saint that stood as a symbol of religious tolerance and brotherhood of mankind. I wept when I saw the desecrated tomb.

It used to be delightful to walk the streets of Peshawar at all hours of the day and night. It used to be a great feeling to walk the crowded streets and to come across a familiar face and reminisce for few minutes on the curb, or to accept an impromptu invitation for cup of green tea. Not anymore.

My favorite time of the day is when I walk to the neighborhood mosque for early prayer service at dawn. It is always a peaceful and spiritual interlude before the start of daily activities. On the way back from the mosque, one could smell the aroma of freshly baked bread wafting from the bakery, or the sweet and aromatic smell of halva - cream of wheat pudding - being cooked in a big caldron at the sweet shop.

A few weeks ago, a man was kidnapped from another mosque. Needless to say, I felt vulnerable in my own neighborhood and now I do not venture out at that early hour.

One wishes things were different. For me there is the escape of flying home to Toledo. That can't be said about millions of people who are being terrorized by these self-appointed, self-anointed, uneducated, and uncouth custodians of my faith.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net



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