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The Mindless Menace of Violence in the Muslim World

One more act of senseless violence greets us in the Muslim world this week. One more suicide bomber or assassin, or whatever we can call them these days, kills others and himself in a moment of premeditated madness.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto is tragic. There can be no doubt about that. But what shocks me today, as I am shocked on a daily basis with the stream of murders and suicides in Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and so many other countries is this nagging question: Where on earth do they find them?? Where on earth do the plotters and schemers find so many willing men and women of young age to mould into their insane vision of the world? How did those who planned this latest act of violence stumble upon this latest specimen of misguided fervour and convince him (at least it seems to be a him at the time of writing) to go and end his life by assassinating a mother of three children. How did they get through to this guy? And more importantly, why is it so goddamn easy to find self-terminating assassins in our region?

I am outraged as I was outraged on the day I witnessed the mothers, fathers and grandfathers grieving for their loved ones in an Amman hospital after the massacres of the inverted 9/11 (in Jordan, it was 11/9 if one follows the American date method, and proof that the killers and blood suckers infesting our region have a rather bizarre and morbid sense of humour that, I guess, makes some weird sense to the lunatics in our midst).

I am as outraged as I was in the summer of 2005 when a bunch of lunatics in Sharm El Sheikh drove their bomb-laden cars into a crowd of underpaid workers who apparently were not allowed the simple pleasure of a cup of coffee at the end of a long working day.

I am outraged as I was when I heard this last summer that a Jordanian Neurosurgeon thought that the best way to make use of his years of study and research is to go and bomb the world and all that is in it outside the Tiger Tiger club in Piccadilly.

Now, some of the readers will say: “Oh, come on, that’s not totally accurate; you are comparing the murders of innocent civilians with a targeted assassination of a leader who some Pakistanis discredit … etc.” But that is not the point.

I remain positive about Benazir Bhutto and what she represented. She represented a tolerant, democratic and liberal strand of leadership that is rare in our region; this stands regardless of any other questions about her political record. Her assassination was conducted in a way that was guaranteed to kill many of her average supporters, and it succeeded. Therefore, this act follows the same style as the various massacres in recent history in our region. It is once again proof of the point that I have expressed on previous occasions: Al Qaeda and all other strands of extreme so-called “jihadists” have us as their first target. By us, I mean people like me, like Benazir Bhutto, who believed and still believe with all their being that Islam is truly moderate in its core; that Islam is about justice and freedom, before traditions of some form or method of prayer or eating habits. These extremists want to kill progressive Islam, and they have more passion toward this goal than toward any of their claims of seeking to destroy colonialists or Zionists.

What worries me deeply is that, among us Muslims, it seems that guns and bombs are now the only form of true political debate. It seems, when passions run high, as they do between the two remaining strands of politics in our region (liberalism vs. Disfigured Islamism), the only real language we speak is the language of death. Politicians do not debate in parliaments or newspapers; instead, editors and parliamentarians are bombed into smithereens on the streets of Beirut, Rawalpindi, Baghdad and almost every other city where there is a real political debate taking place.

As I watched the unfolding news stories, two thoughts occupied my mind. Firstly, I thought of the two occasions on which I saw Benazir Bhutto in person. I remembered that time a few years ago when I saw Benazir and her family having lunch in a modest restaurant in one of the few understated shopping malls in Dubai. I debated with myself as to whether I should go up to her and ask to interview her for an article, and ended up deciding not to do it, as I tend to do whenever I am faced with celebrity that I truly admire. The other occasion was a speech she gave in the Abu Dhabi Leadership Summit in November 2005. I thought of how much she spoke of her father and how proud her father was of her, and how he encouraged her to realize her potential. And I thought of her and her father having now faced the same Middle Eastern fate that is the region’s special treat for the outspoken politician. The memory of her treasured relationship with her father made me think of my own young daughters and the world they are a part of.

Secondly, I thought of Robert Kennedy. As I watched the footage of mayhem and death, sentences from a speech of Robert Kennedy’s played like a reel in my head. As corny as this may sound, I felt the speech being played live in my head as Emilio Estevez did to such a great effect in the last sequence in the film “Bobby.” I am not sure if I am being too self-critical as an Muslim when I say that, at times like these, I genuinely cannot think of recent Muslim leaders who had the eloquence of Bobby.

The speech that played in my head, titled “On the Mindless Menace of Violence,” is probably one of the best political speeches in history, particularly in light of its context (Robert Kennedy speaking with the memory of his brother’s assassination in the not so distant memory, and in a sad prophetic way foretelling his own assassination). This speech should become compulsive reading in every class room in the Muslim world. Perhaps such words, if taught early, could reduce the number of suicide volunteers that are multiplying across the width and breadth of the Muslim world:

Robert Kennedy: “It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one – no matter where he lives or what he does – can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on …

Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by an assassin’s bullet.

No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason … whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.

“Among free men,” said Abraham Lincoln, “there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs.”

…. Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.

… When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force.

…. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something “ (For the full text of the speech, please check www.rfkmemorial.org )


Nasser Ali Khasawneh

Nasser Ali Khasawneh graduated in law from Oxford University, and holds a Masters in Law (LL.M) degree from University College at the University of London. He is a lawyer and writer.

15 thoughts on “The Mindless Menace of Violence in the Muslim World

  1. Senseless, eh? Or could it be that you just don’t have the knowledge or capacity to make sense of it? Instead of overwhelming unsuspecting readers with a tsunami of platitudes, why not take a moment to study the geopolitics of a region, and ask yourself why is it that so many had been warning of the inevitability of this precise ‘senseless’ tragedy, and why others had even come to refer to it as ‘a tragedy foretold’?

    And yeah, can I ask you not invoke the name of Gore Vidal in vain?

  2. Actually, when distilled to its very essence – violence is wholly senseless. It predates sense. We can dress it up however we want, but it remains the same.

    Yeah, more cliches. ‘Senseless’ is either a distanciation device applied to obfuscate the political motivations of an act, or merely a plea of ignorance. Given the general lack of sophistication of the commentary above, I am inclined to assume the later. Bush’s ‘why do they hate us’, for instance is an example of the former. It has to be based in the premise of senselessness, in order for it to be relieved of the cold tyranny of causation. Political violence could be ill-conceived, but is never senseless. There is always political calculation behind it.

    A ‘decorated war-hero’s advice doesn’t count for much, since it appears even on reflection, he failed to distinguish the ‘senseless’ individual violence of the combatant from the calculated political logic of those who sent him in.

  3. I am deeply grateful to Nasser Khasawneh for this eloquent and gutsy protest against violence in the Muslim world and for quoting at length from Bobby Kennedy’s great speech. It seems that too few who share these beliefs and the hope for peaceful coexistence and civil discourse manage to find the courage to speak out, though I am certain millions agree in silence. May we all find our voices.

  4. Nasser,
    Thank you for passion and reason in words. Thank you for saying so lucidly what seems so hard for many to frame, and to own. Thank you for quoting RFK and bringing back his words. Violence as a tool, as the ready and entitled response, is utter dysfunction. We are to teach our children well, not annihilation.
    Here’s to sharing our common lot, which is to be the common good. To peace on earth, one by one.

  5. Actually, when distilled to its very essence – violence is wholly senseless. It predates sense. We can dress it up however we want, but it remains the same.

    A decorated war-hero taught me as much. So it’s him I’ve been remembering these last few days.

  6. Natalia,

    Interesting thought, except I don’t follow. — how does violence predate sense?

    Interesting article as well. I can’t agree, though, that the assassination in particular and violence that comes from the Al-Qaedas of the world in general is senseless. I think many of us make the mistake of dismissing them as just a bunch of loons who strap bombs to themselves and blow stuff and people up for no good reason. On the contrary, most acts are carefully planned and executed, with a clear agenda in mind. And, these extremists don’t hide the core principles of that agenda from the rest of the world. Just listen to any of them talk — their message is surprisingly consistent. Some would argue that it is exactly this consistency and simplicity (coupled to other external factors) of their “philosophy” that draws so many willing young men and women to them.

  7. Nasser,

    I’m sorry you’re grieving. I’m Pakistani and I can’t even get my head around how it is that I’m feeling this bad. I understand at a visceral level what it is you’re talking about here.

    I feel however that I need to make this point: there was nothing hopeful about Benazir Bhutto, herself. It was the fact that she was a) being allowed to b) run in the elections by c) Musharraf who had just been openly and suddenly repressive in d) an election that would be *some* semblance of, but basically a sham of, democracy – it was these things, and her father’s legacy, and her party’s promises that brought any hope. She herself, God rest her, was remarkable only for her bald-faced lies and corruption.

    Her times in office were not liberal. She was a sorry excuse for a democratic leader. As is Nawaz Sharif. It was kow-tow to the military, forward the training of jihadists and keep your head down. That’s what it’s been for at least 30 years.

    I feel your pain. But I feel it for the country and the supporters. I feel it for my parents’ generation, who were PPP supporters when ZA Bhutto won elections and had so much hope, finally, in democracy. Until he also became power-hungry and failed to trust the public with anything.

    Please don’t grieve uncritically. We don’t need her to be a martyr. We don’t need martyrs at all.

  8. First of all, your tone doesn’t advance your argument.

    Second of all, it is my belief that “political violence” is just packaging. The decorated war-hero I’m referencing was someone who went through war to achieve the sort of rank that would allow him to make decisions for others. His point, and my point, since I’ve adopted it is the following: the very act of calculation is an illusion of a human being’s comparatively sophisticated, yet paradoxical nature.

    Now, I doubt very much that this is what Nasser was arguing above. His wasn’t a metaphysical treatise on the Nature of Man. His use of the word “senseless” here implied not that there wasn’t calculation behind Bhutto’s killing – but that this sort of violence is foolish and stupid (the adjective, after all, has several meanings). Perhaps I am not reading him correctly, but that’s my interpretation.

    My reply to you was not an extention of Nasser’s point – but my own viewpoint on this issue, and, indeed, most issues surrounding violence.

  9. Alex! Hello! Maybe my above reply can shed some light on my argument. My belief that violence predates sense and reason has largely to do with my understanding of humankind – in both evolutionary and spiritual terms (those two are usually taken as a contradiction, but I don’t claim to have any answers as to How it All Fits Together).

    You bring up a good point as to whether or not terrorists are “loons.” I think the answer is actually yes AND no. Terrorists (of all stripes) are no more crazy than anyone else is – if they were, they wouldn’t be able to pull off half of what they do. But it also seems that there is the case of “mad genius” at work here, if you believe in that sort of thing. Anyway, that’s one potential theory.

  10. First of all, I would like to thank all those who commented on the article and all the kind words. I also thank Fanonite for his or her feedback.

    Fanonite, I am more than happy to enter into a discussion with you but provided you tell me exactly what you are thinking. All I am getting is an aggressive tone and, frankly, such an aggressive tone is usually a sure sign of a weak argument. In any case, since you are an expert on the region and assume that I am not (and there you are simply wrong), please go ahead and tell us how you see it. For example you make a big issue of this having been a “tragedy foretold”. But I don’t quite understand how this affects any of my conclusions. Does this in any way take away from the heinous nature of the crime? Does this in any justify the act?

    Also, for me, the act of blowing up Benazir is senseless. The act of blowing a Palestinian wedding in Amman is senseless. Now, if you want to get into the mind of the lunatics, and yes they are lunatics, who committ these terrible acts, you can of course try to analyze their motives. And what I am saying above is that these lunatics are fighting liberal muslims and progressive islam more than anything else. Nothing else could justify the murder of Egyptian workers, wedding attendees… etc. Now, if you Fanonite want to give these lunatics a more rational justification, or if you fall for their lies about fighting for Palestine or Iraq, then you are far more feeble in your analytical skills than you claim me to be.

    In any case, thanks again for your comments and I am happy to enter into a debate with you provided you explain your view in clear terms. I will not respond to more senselessly aggressive email.

  11. When a subject moves a good writer, it transports the reader to somewhere new in their mind and understanding. Possibly a perspective they would not discover otherwise. The quote is a fantastic synopsis of our innate nature through the decades…but yet alongside that we still have the capacity for happiness, hope and goodness in our own lives and circles, inspite of all the negative possibilities that threaten. This is the beauty of man on the flipside.

  12. Well that’s the catch, innit? It seems that Benazir will quite possibly be more powerful dead than she is alive.

    “Kill Moulder and you turn one man’s quest into a crusade.”

    Not that I, uh, believe that she was a selfless hunter for Truth.

    Personally, Benazir, for me, is a bit like Yulia Tymoshenko (and not because they’re both women). I’m horrified that Benazir was killed, just as I’d be horrified if Yulia were killed – it doesn’t make me like their shady lifestyles any more. Unfortunately, corruption and all manner of suspect alliances seems to be an almost innate element of politics in most countries.

    I am disgusted, however, with all manner of “she asked for it” going on out there. A victim is a victim.

  13. I second everything Natalia said above. I do agree with Kyla that Benazir’s legacy is not all roses and she has a lot to answer for. That is why in my article I said that, for me, she represented something about progressive Islam which I support. And I said that this stands despite her record. But having said that, let us not do something that we always sadly do in such situations: Just focus on the famous politician who died. What about the supporters who were also killed?? What was their crime? And think about this for a second: why did the assassin not try to kill her with bullets only (which is what succeeded anyways)? Why did he blow himself up with the sure knowledge that he would kill average Pakistanis who were just attending a speech. Did they in anyway deserve this? Again, and I will NEVER be silenced on this point, when you review every act of terrorism that Al Qaeda and their affiliates conducted, you will notice a systematic desire to kill innocent people, muslims and otherwise. Please never stop asking WHY DO fTHEY DO THAT???

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