Most violent deaths of Muslims in the world are due to others claiming to be Muslims. The conflicts in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are all predominantly conflicts within the Islamic community. This is strongly felt within the communities but not usually reported in the mainstream media.
This week in Peshawar in north western Pakistan, more than 140 mainly Muslim children are killed by men who claim to follow a version of Islam that requires them to chant ‘God is Great’ whilst they execute unarmed school children. They claim this is because the military in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has attacked yet another group of people where other civilians are killed. “We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females,” said Taliban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani. “We want them to feel our pain.”
Attacks on school children are only too common in Pakistan. Only a short time before, Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and she continues her campaign to support the education of children. She has her own experience of violence against women seeking education. Her response was not to give up, but to continue her work and support for education to build a better Pakistan.
Our own Christmas preparations are confronted in Sydney by an angry, disturbed man with a gun. He has a history of violence, possibly also mental health issues, but he has a gun. He was claiming a link to a murderous sect committing war crimes in Syria and Iraq and takes hostages in a Sydney café the week before Christmas. He has been rejected by his own community for abandoning Shia Islam for the extremist Sunni Salafists of ISIS. Three people are killed; two families will have a very sad Christmas. Christmas is normally a time when gifts are given, families congregate and a birth is celebrated, not usually a time for reflecting on death.
How do we respond to this violence and death, confronting us in the week before Christmas? Do we respond with violence and vengeance, as is likely in Pakistan? Or is there a lesson in the outpouring of support and reflection that can be seen in Martin Place, Sydney. Possibly thousands have walked along to offer condolences to people they never knew, and leave flowers which are now filling up parts of the usually busy mall. Australians and visitors from many diverse backgrounds can be seen looking and reflecting on the violent outburst in our busy commercial centre.
It lead me to reflect more on how we respond to death, and how different communities commemorate their families and friends. Recently my wife and I, not being Muslims, were invited to attend the memorial ceremony for the death of a respected elder in the Hazara community in Sydney. Hazaras are ethnically and religiously distinctive in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We did not see anyone in the large group who was not Hazara, and there were many people there. We attended the Shia Mosque in Sydney and were welcomed by the Hazara community as we paid our respects during the recitation of the Fatihe – the initial verses of the Quran, commonly recited when someone dies.
Outside, we met up with many Hazara friends, who we first met in detention and are now Australians with their families helping to contribute to our multicultural society. I saw a man who was my first Hazara client, back in 1998. We met in Port Hedland detention centre and have maintained irregular contact since then. We reflected on the recent changes for new Hazara refugees coming to Australia and how their community is at risk in both Afghanistan and Pakistan by those claiming adherence to the Taliban and their Wahhabist supporters simply because they are Shia. Reports of attacks on Hazaras are all too common.
We can feel the pain of others, even those we never met, but unlike the Taliban or ISIS, we do not need to respond by inflicting more pain in revenge or retaliation. Destroying is easy. Building up takes a long time and maybe reflecting on creating, not destroying will be a more uplifting mindset for the Christmas and New Year period. Is it too much to hope that in 2015 more people will work towards building and creating rather than destroying? We can but hope for without hope what do we have?
Kerry Murphy is a Sydney solicitor who specialises in refugee law.