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Published: Monday, 11/2/2009

Peshawar ruined by unholy mingling of religion, evil

THE images of dead and dying people keep flashing in my mind as I think of the devastating car bomb that destroyed part of my hometown of Peshawar last week. It left more than 100 dead and twice as many injured. There was no room in the hospitals to deal with the injured and the dying. Carpenters could not keep up with the demand for coffins.

This latest atrocity - an onslaught against civility and decency - hit home for me, figuratively and literally, because it was in that neighborhood within the walled city that I was born and raised.

Peshawar is an ancient city that has stood on the crossroads of Asia for over two millennia. Its reputation as a frontier town on the wild and turbulent western frontier of the Indian subcontinent aside, it has been called the city of flowers and also the city of colors because it took its hues from the rainbow of languages spoken in the bazaars and caravan serais.

There the great Indian plains and the Central Asian steppes converged and gave rise to a unique and fascinating culture that carried the echoes of far away lands. It was in this milieu that I was born, raised, and 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.

Those vivid and vibrant memories of the people and places and a yearning for the city sustained me during my wanderings, and these are the memories I mourn today.

I am at a loss to understand why a bunch of functionally illiterate religious bigots are destroying the intricate fabric of a society and killing innocent people.

The Taliban, I guess, are driven by a weird and short-sighted philosophy that reinforces their belief that the end justifies the means. The end in this case is to control the country so they can enforce an imported version of Islam that is alien to the people of Pakistan.

These chimeras, the beasts born out of an unholy mingling of religion and evil, are not what we, on the frontier, believe to be religiously inclined and pious. Even the most orthodox of the orthodox would not cross the limits prescribed by Islam.

Those limits restrict the faithful to waging war only in defense. There are injunctions against destroying property and vegetation, killing livestock, or tampering with water supplies. It further lays out that women, children, and old people must not be harmed. The majority of victims in Peshawar were women and children.

The terrorists melt into the community and neighborhoods. They talk the language of religion, which resonates with gullible, ordinary people. They portray American support of the Pakistani government as the cause of all the turmoil. Nowhere in this line of macabre reasoning is any mention of what religion teaches.

Most people do not subscribe to this brand of Islam, but they are afraid to say so in public. Open and public dissent is the quickest way to get into the crosshairs of the Taliban.

On my frequent visits to Peshawar, I found most people to be trapped in that warped and distorted logic. Many deny that a Muslim could ever commit such an atrocity. And others, a growing number of urban youth among them, 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 the country from 1996 to 2002.

Eight months ago, the Taliban bombed the tomb of Rahman Baba, a 17th century Sufi Pashtun poet, that is in Peshawar. His devotional and romantic poetry has inspired and given spiritual sustenance to generations of Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns alike.

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

So as I think of my devastated neighborhood, I can't help but think of people I knew and their children and their children's children, some of who still live along the narrow alleys in nondescript houses. It was a place whose everyday rhythm was accented and punctuated by the five daily calls for prayers from the corner mosque. The mosque, like the people and the houses, was also destroyed in the blast.

I have often profiled the neighborhood of Muslim Meena Bazaar, as the area is called, and the people who lived there, in my articles and books about Peshawar. In my writings, I have celebrated the ordinary lives of my extraordinary neighbors: artisans, traders, shopkeepers, teachers, and the like. I have always considered myself a sum total of all those people.

Last week, a part of me died with them.

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

Contact him at: saghaji@bex.net



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