Published on Friday, October 26, 2001
Nobody Should Have to Die Like This
by Mehmoona Moosa-Mitha
There is a recurring image in the Qur’an. It is the image of a fountain. When talking about Paradise, the Qur’an say: “In a garden sublime, wherein thou wilt hear no empty talk, countless fountains will flow therein, and there will be thrones (of happiness) raised high.”
I am drawn to this image of fountains; it reminds me of the fountains that you find everywhere in Islamic architecture; in the courtyards of beautiful mosques, palaces, and libraries. Fountains are symbols of reflection, they make one meditative, the rhythmic fall and rise of the waters, the gurgling sounds and a sense of perspective that they lend to a landscape all work to induce a sense of self-reflection. It is no wonder that fountains in Arabic share the same root word (‘ayn) as the word for eye in Arabic.
When I reflect on the images that remain with me from the last few weeks, since the tragedy of Sept. 11, one of the first is that of a man, having jumped from the top floor of the tower, falling head-first into the abyss of his death. He is perfectly straight except for his left knee, which is slightly crooked. It is this image that haunts me. What was he thinking? Was he conscious as he fell? Amazingly, my mind keeps going back to the knee. Why the crooked knee when his body is perfectly straight? “Out of the crooked timber from which humanity has sprung, no straight thing can ever be fashioned”, reflected Kant. Nobody, but nobody, I tell myself, should have to die like this. T
The next image that remains with me is of the planes crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Again and again the same images are played on television; the economic and military symbols of American Might being hit by three angry planes. I remember my heart filling with terror as I watch. Much like the Palestinian-NewYorker, Suheir Hammad, I pray: ‘first, please god, let it be a mistake, the pilot’s heart failed, the plane’s engine died. then please god, let it be a nightmare, wake me now. Please god, after the second plane, please don’t let it be anyone who looks like my brothers”.
When the pictures of the terrorists start appearing, with dismay, I see that the faces of these people could look like my brothers, cousins, friends. I stare at these men’s eyes, searching for clues, for answers as to why they would do such a thing. Congealed in their photographs, they look back, almost serene. “Why this shame at our door?” I demand of them. “Did you wish to enter and partake of the fountains of Paradise by creating fountains of Blood?” “How did Hell become a way to Paradise?” Silence, no answers.
One of the most beautiful fountains found in Islamic architecture is in the courtyard of the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain. The interior of the palace is very beautiful, consisting of ornamental columns that fill the space by repeating themselves innumerably. You could stand anywhere and the same vista of pillar after pillar opens up in front of you. The experience of being in that space, I imagine, must be like none other, reflecting a profound truth – that the center only exists from the perspective of where you stand.
From the perspective of the U.S. (at least its official voice) there are only two sides: the side of the terrorist and the side of democracy; the side of the barbaric, against the side of a civilized world on which it stands. You are either on “our” side or on the “other” side. But what side is “our” side? Is it the side that is allied with Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Russia, all countries that were charged with being involved in terrorist activities by the U.S. itself only until last month? Is the side of the “barbarians” that of the Afghani Mujahadeen and Sadam Husein’s Iraq? When both were clearly created by huge foreign aid grants from U.S. and Britain?
What about the fact that three of the hijackers were found to be Saudis, which is supposed to be on “our” side hence the presence of “our” soldiers protecting Saudi Arabia from invasion from the “other” side. Why are we not bombing Saudi Arabia for having harbored at least three of the terrorists- that is until the U.S. did? On the question of inter-connections between these sides, no answers are forthcoming by U.S. officials, only empty, evasive talk.
“Terrorism”, a word we hear gurgling everywhere rarely finds a commonly agreed definition. Eqbal Ahmad, a political activist, quotes Websters in defining terrorism as “the use of coercive violence, violence that is used illegally, extra-constitutionally, to coerce.” Which “can be used as a method of governing or resisting a government”. By this definition, history reveals that the U.S. and Canada have also engaged in State terrorism through the use of coercive, illegal and extra-constitutional force to subdue and eradicate large numbers of its Aboriginal population.
History also reveals, as Ahmad says, that the moral revulsion we feel against terrorism is selective—we “applaud the terror of those groups of whom officials approve.” Such as the Contra in Nicaragua, who conducted state terrorism, against its people; the Shah in Iran, a good friend of the Americans, who regularly conducted state terrorism against his own people; the Samosa regime; the Batista, and so on ad infinitum.
Terrorism is wrong, and we are all implicated in it – all of us, the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe, Latin America, U.S. and Canada.
And now America, along with its allies, is at war against terrorism by conducting a war on Afghanistan. In spite of its own best intentions, America has not been able to bomb military targets without hitting at civilian ones, as evidenced by its recent bombing of an entire village in Afghanistan that it later admitted had no military connections. It is in clear breach of Articles 48 and 51 of the Geneva Convention as well as the Nuremberg Charter. Article 48 says: “In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and the combatants and between the civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”
Two hundred Afghans, and several U.N. and Red Cross personnel have died so far due to U.S. bombings, and these are only the official figures released by the U.S. Two million Afghan refugees have fled from their homes to borders, which remain inscrutable barriers. Six million starve as a result of famine that has plagued this beleaguered country for the last three years. For the tragic death of each dead American asks the writer Arundathi Roy, ‘how many dead Afghans and Iraqis will it take to make the world a better place?’
But the Afghan people should not worry, because America, says President Bush, “is a friend of the people of Afghanistan”, echoing his father’s claim of friendship to the people of Iraq. A friendship that half a million Iraqi children have died for. It seems that the Afghan people are on “our” side, except that they don’t know it. And to drive the message home we shall drop food packages to them from “on high” and “every American child will give one dollar for every Afghan child”, except that it can’t be every American child, because there just aren’t as many Afghan children.
There are and will be very few images of the attacks on the Afghan people that is now underway. Just as there were very few during the cruise missile attacks on Iraq. What we do not see, we cannot know. To die so invisibly, buried under euphemisms such as “collateral damage”. Nobody, but nobody should have to die like this.
If a thing of beauty, such as a fountain has any place at all in all this hideousness, it is only because it serves as a reminder of the importance of self-reflection. Yet when the American leadership looks at the events of Sept.11th, what they see reflected back are the faces of Brown, Turbaned, Muslim, Men who inexplicably hate ‘America’. This emperor has no clothes, no color, works on a misdirected sense of certainty; it does not see itself at all and therefore is engaged in very little self-reflection.
Mehmoona is an Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work, Univeristy of Victoria