Zain Ali: Tragedy must not close our minds

That recent attacks hurt children and invoked Islam show how deluded perpetrators were, writes Zain Ali.

Martin Richard, 8 (right) was killed in the Boston Marathon bombings and Malala Yousafzai, 15, was shot by a Taliban gunman. Photos / AP
Martin Richard, 8 (right) was killed in the Boston Marathon bombings and Malala Yousafzai, 15, was shot by a Taliban gunman. Photos / AP

The Boston bombings are tragic on a number of levels, it is tragic for those who have lost their lives, it is tragic for the families of the lost ones, and it is tragic for those who bore witness to the carnage. Perhaps, the deepest tragedy, as I see it, is the death of 8-year-old Richard Martin. Richard was at the marathon to watch his dad finish the race. The reason why Richard's death has stuck in my mind, and my heart, is because I too have a young son, and I can appreciate the utter heartbreak that his parents must now be experiencing. I would gladly give my son to the Martin family if it could heal their pain, but I realise one cannot simply replace one child with another.

There have been a number of children who have fallen victim to terror attacks. Late last year Malala Yousafzai was shot by a Taleban gunman on her way to school. Malala was shot because she had publicly criticised the Taleban and their draconian attitudes toward women and education. The savage assault on Malala sticks in my mind, and my heart, because I also have a young daughter. It would absolutely break my heart if my daughter were assaulted in the same way as Malala.

It is fortunate that she survived and is capable of once again speaking her mind.

As a Muslim, I feel there are additional layers of tragedy as I reflect on Richard and Malala, in that the perpetrators of these heinous acts are themselves Muslim. I have grown up with the tradition of Islam, and I know that children have a special place within the tradition. Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, strongly encouraged an attitude of mercy toward children. As I reflect on Richard and Malala, I wonder whether I have misunderstood Islam, since the acts of terror are devoid of any element of mercy - in fact such acts seem to be the polar opposite of mercy. Perhaps it is the terrorists who have misunderstood Islam, and in their warped view of the world, see themselves and their actions as bringing about some higher good.

Ironically, the events in Boston coincided with a lecture series that I was delivering on faith, philosophy, spirituality and love in the tradition of Islam. I use the lecture series to expose students to a range of attitudes among Muslim intellectuals. As an example of an open minded Muslim, I quote al-Kindi (d.873 AD) - the first Arab-Muslim philosopher - he observes that "we ought not to be embarrassed of appreciating the truth and of obtaining it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us". There is openness in al-Kindi's approach, and we can contrast this with the attitude of those individuals, and groups, who murder and terrorise in name of Islam. How is it that individuals and groups who engage in terror draw meaning and strength from Islam - how do they commit cold blooded acts of terror when it is clear, to most people at least, that such acts are pure evil?

I strongly feel that the bloodthirsty individuals who murder and terrorise are very much like Adolf Eichmann - the architect of the Holocaust. Eichmann is characterised as someone who "failed to exercise his capacity of thinking, of having an internal dialogue with himself, which would have permitted self-awareness of the evil nature of his deeds". It wasn't that Eichmann was pathologically evil and took delight in committing murder, rather, Eichmann lacked the ability to think, to reflect on his own actions, to put himself in the shoes of his victims. The inability, or refusal, to think, blinded him to the evil that he was carrying out. Those who terrorise are indifferent toward their victims, or at least indifferent about the suffering they inflict. The challenge for us all, when faced with tragedy, is to resist the temptation of indifference - the temptation to cease caring, to cease loving, to cease trusting. In the face of tragedy, we must turn toward each other, open up our minds and hearts and sincerely ask what it is that has gone so wrong.


Dr Zain Ali is the Head of the Islamic Studies Research Unit at the University of Auckland. He is also the author of Faith, Philosophy and the Reflective Muslim.

- NZ Herald

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