Saturday, 13 December 2008

Symbolic Gestures Are Necessary At Times

Veteran journalist Jawed Naqvi is the Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi. Highly respected and very much balanced, Naqvi has in the past worked for Gulf News and Khaleej Times. I have been a regular reader of Naqvi’s articles ever since they started appearing in the Dawn and have almost always been in agreement with the very sensible points of view he usually espouses. However, in his most recent article, Naqvi has taken a stand that I did not fully agree with. According to Naqvi, the refusal to bury the dead terrorists who attacked Mumbai is wrong. In support of his argument, Naqvi says, ‘they should know that no Constitution, other than perhaps the Taliban’s, endorses the abuse of dead bodies.’

Naqvi also finds issue with another symbolic gesture made by Delhi’s Muslim “leaders” “who have reportedly agreed to wear a black armband on Eidul Azha to mark their anguish at the carnage in Mumbai.” According to Naqvi, “nothing could be more cosmetic, meaningless and distractive than to make the token observation.”

Naqvi goes on to say that “everybody has been trying to carry on with life after the outrage.” Therefore, he wonders, why don’t Muslims do the same? In short, Naqvi gets the feeling (and he may be right) that Indian Muslims are forced to make these token gestures to prove their patriotism in the current climate.

Naqvi ends his article by making a very valid point. He says that it is inevitable that the Mumbai attacks were supported by some alienated Indian Muslims. Rather than make token gestures, Naqvi wants Indian Muslims to isolate such alienated brethren in their midst rather than demonstrating their sympathy with the Indian state. I have no issues with Naqvi’s final point. Identifying and isolating the bad ‘Uns in their midst is much more important for India’s Muslim community than refusing an Islamic burial to the terrorists. However, I think the decision to deny an Islamic burial was essentially right. Also, symbolic gestures can do some good at times like this, though it wouldn’t do to force a community to make gestures. Let’s admit it, thanks to Islamic fundamentalists and their activities, Islam and all Muslims have a serious PR issue – an image problem. As any self-respecting PR consultant will tell you, in order to fix an image problem, you need to get to the root of the problem. Getting to the root of a problem usually takes time and effort. Until the cause of the problem is identified and destroyed, it is necessary to undertake a few PR exercises which give some temporary relief.

Naqvi may not be aware of this, but refusal to grant a proper religious burial is one that is not unheard of among Catholics and Jews. If a Catholic commits suicide (prohibited by the Church), a Catholic burial is denied. Recently, the Dutch Catholic church extended this principle to victims of assisted suicide. Jews who practise Christianity will not be eligible for a Jewish burial and Christians who convert to any other religion will not be eligible for a Christian burial. I do not wish to use this forum to discuss whether the Catholic Church or the Jews are right in refusing a religious burial, but only want to stress that the decision to deny a Muslim burial is not unique. The Mullahs who denied the terrorists an Islamic burial have said that the terrorists have ceased to be Muslims by their heinous actions. I find this to be a very valid statement. Only Muslims are entitled to an Islamic burial and if one ceases to be a Muslim, one has no right to an Islamic burial.

If the terrorists are buried in an Islamic cemetery, even if the graves are unmarked, wouldn’t the local Muslim community be under so much more pressure for having given the terrorists a final resting place? Sure, they shouldn’t be under such pressure and they shouldn’t be forced to make such symbolic statements, but to be honest, the time for such niceties is long past.

Let me give you an example. Let’s assume a few bloggers (like me) install spy software on their blogs which allows them to hack into their readers’ computers and steal money from their bank accounts (yeah, I may be stretching it here, but do indulge me). Should I be forced to apologise on behalf of the rotten blogger(s)? No, of course not. What happens if the number of bloggers who play dirty goes up and they receive sympathy and support from say 25% of global bloggers? You can be sure that I would not be in a hurry to declare my blogging habit to a bunch of strangers in a pub after a few rounds. What if readers of blogs lose a lot of money due to a sudden spurt in such nefarious activity? The number of people who read blogs will be drastically reduced and I may be forced to make symbolic gestures to the public at large. I would declare that I have no idea as to who the bad bloggers are. I might donate some money to the people who lost money. I might put up the sign of a wreath on top of my blog, though fat lot of good it would do.

The decision to wear a black arm band is a symbolic gesture for sure, and the ones wearing it are in a sense forced to wear it, but such gestures are now necessary and are not to be written off, until the root of this problem is identified and destroyed.

After the Kargill war, when Pakistan refused to take back its dead, India gave the dead bodies a proper Muslim burial. Images of Indian soldiers conducting Islamic rites were broadcast to the world, giving India a PR coup. Should the Indian government at this stage step in and do what was done after Kargill? Offer an Islamic burial to the dead terrorists in a purpose made graveyard unconnected with any Muslim community in India, distribute photographs of the dead bodies and their burial to the world media and allow family members of the terrorists to visit the graves at any time in the future? The other alternative would be to cremate the bodies in an electric crematorium without any ceremony and scatter the ashes in the Arabian Sea. Let the terrorists float back to where they came from.

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