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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A Massacre in Africa

Gordon Brown

WHY is it that schools and schoolchildren have become such high-profile targets for murderous Islamist militants? The 147 students killed in an attack by the extremist group Al-Shabab at a college close to Kenya's border with Somalia are only the latest victims in a succession of outrages in which educational institutions have been singled out for attack.
Last December, in Peshawar, Pakistan, seven Taliban gunmen strode from classroom to classroom in the Army Pubic School, executing 145 children and teachers. More recently, as more than 80 pupils in South Sudan were taking their annual exams, fighters invaded their school and kidnapped them at gunpoint. Their fate has been to join the estimated 12,000 students conscripted into children's militias in the country's escalating civil war.
Every day, another once-vibrant Syrian school is bombed or militarized, with two million children now in refugee camps or exiled to makeshift tents or huts. And next week will mark the first anniversary of the extremist group Boko Haram's night-time abduction of 276 schoolgirls from their dormitories in Chibok, in Nigeria's northern Borno state. With continued assaults on local schools, Boko Haram has escalated its war against education – making the last two years Nigeria's worst in terms of the violation of children's rights.
In the past five years, there have been nearly 10,000 attacks on schools and educational establishments. Why is it that schools, which should be recognized as safe havens, have become instruments of war, and schoolchildren have become pawns in extremists' strategies? And why have such attacks been treated so casually – the February abduction in South Sudan elicited barely any international comment – when they in fact constitute crimes against humanity. 
In the depraved minds of terrorists, each attack has its own simple logic; the latest shootings, for example, are revenge by Al-Shabab for Kenya's intervention in Somalia's civil war. But all of the recent attacks share a new tactic – to create shock by exceeding what even many of the most hardened terrorists had previously considered beyond the pale. They have become eager to stoke publicity from the public outrage at their methods, even transmitting images of their crimes around the world.
But there is an even more powerful explanation for this spate of attacks on children. A now-common extremist claim is that education is acculturating African and Asian children to Western ways of thinking (Boko Haram in the local Hausa dialect means “Western education is a sin”). Moreover, extremists like Boko Haram and Al-Shabab calculate that they can attack schools with impunity.
Hospitals tend to be more secure, because the Geneva Conventions give them special protection as safe havens – a fact often recognized by even the most murderous of terrorist groups. Until recently, we have done far too little to protect schools and prevent their militarization during times of conflict. But, just as wars should never be waged by targeting hospitals, so combatants should never violate schools.
Once slow to respond, the world is now acting. Thirty countries have recently signed up to the Lucens or Safe School guidelines, which instruct their military authorities how to prevent schools from being used as instruments of war. Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, recommends designating abductions of children from schools a “trigger violation” for the naming of terrorist organizations in the secretary-general's annual report to the Security Council.
And, thanks to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, the Global Business Coalition for Education, and former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria has now piloted the concept of safe schools. This has meant funding school guards, fortifications, and surveillance equipment to reassure parents and pupils that everything possible is being done to ensure their school is safe to attend. Now, under Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan is adopting the safe school plan.
In a year when there are more local conflicts than ever – and in which children have become among the first (and forgotten) casualties – it is urgent that we make stopping attacks on schools a high priority. In dark times, children and parents continue to view their schools as sanctuaries, as places of normality and safety. When law and order break down, people need not only material help – food, shelter, and health care – but also hope. There is no more powerful way to uphold the vision of a future free from conflict than by keeping schools running.

The writer is former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, is United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education.

Source: The Daily Star, 07 April 2015

Commitment and resolve required to fight terror

Muhammad Zamir

One of the unfortunate elements used by terrorists and those wishing to achieve their goals through the invoking of fear is to try and establish a nexus between faith (as they interpret it) and any issue they might be involved in.  On the other hand, a common aspect in all religions is promotion of the welfare of others, peace and understanding. It is also denoted that violence needs to be avoided. It is also reiterated that within a community and between different communities, there will be efforts to facilitate dialogue, equal opportunity, transparency, good governance and accountability. 

Yes, there is recognition that there might be the aberration of fundamentalism or strict, orthodox interpretation of religious tenets or rituals. There is also however the general realization that in the contemporary world, one without frontiers, thanks to digitalization, there will be efforts made to avoid violence arising out of mixing religion with politics or the socio-economic dimensions. It is believed that if such a course of action is not followed then conditions within the state structure might unravel leading to behaviour that result in bloodshed.
In Islam in particular, compassion and understanding is underlined and believers are asked to respect others in the pursuit of their faith. Tolerance is underlined in Ayat 6 of Sura (109) Al-Kafirun. Unfortunately, sometimes this is forgotten because of mixing religion with politics and because of political ambition. Points are then sought to be scored through violence, intimidation and wanton killing.
We are witnessing today evidence of such transgression in the manner in which activities are being carried out in several parts of the world- in Africa, in the Middle East, in South Asia or in South East Asia. 
Potent in character and nature, the juxtaposition of belief (faith) and politics is proving to be a undesirable catalyst that is undermining the potential of the 
peaceful path of growth. It is affecting children and the latent possibilities for movement forward that a society is entitled to. 
Consequently, it is most unfortunate to note that over the last decade and half, extremists from different religious faiths have resorted to their own selfish agenda at the cost of amity, peace and stability. This has created uncertainty, fear and anger. This in turn has contributed towards instability and prejudice.
Terrorists appear to have hijacked religion as an instrument for justifying acts which are not consistent with existing international legal process or human rights or principles enshrined in different constitutional documents. Misinterpretation of secular measures and quest for political dominance have resulted in killings and maiming of innocent people, mostly civilians of both genders located in soft targets in urban areas far away from armed conflict zones. 
Anger transformed to hatred resulted in the most unfortunate attacks on 9/11 in New York and Washington, USA resulting in thousands of death. Then there was the 2004 siege of the Russian school in Beslan by Chechens where more than 300 died. The same year witnessed the Madrid train bombing which killed 191 and wounded more than 1,800. There was also the multiple bombing in the London underground which killed 53 and injured more than 700 innocent civilians. One cannot also forget the serial bombings in Delhi, India in 2008 that left 30 dead and 130 injured. The multiple bombings in Mumbai the same year killed 166 and wounded nearly one hundred, 
There has also been the despicable kidnapping of 276 school girls by the Islamic militant Boko Haram group in Nigeria and their forcible conversion to Islam. It is understood that most of these girls have since been forcibly married off to Boko Haram members. This has been followed by the kidnapping of nearly 400 other women and children by the same group. 
We have also noticed similar outrages that have been carried out by the ISIL group in the Levant, particularly in Iraq and Syria. 
One would have expected Islamic theologians living in the Middle East or in other countries belonging to the OIC coming forward and expressing strong condemnation of such terrorist acts. That unfortunately has not happened. 
Their lack of criticism, possibly, according to some analysts, has been due to the rising number of deaths of civilians (termed as collateral damage) caused by drone attacks on alleged terrorist targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. 
These actions are (as claimed by the perpetrators) supposedly undertaken to ensure security in the context of national interest but some have pointed out that indiscriminate drone attacks may also be described as ‘extra-judicial killing’ where the accused is not given a chance to defend himself.
Mass violence has been particularly evident in Pakistan over the last decade. The earlier nexus between their armed forces and the Taliban (to promote Pakistani interests in Afghanistan) has now taken an inverse turn for the worse and infiltrated into Pakistan through osmotic effect. An attack on a Shia shrine in 2013 resulted in 120 deaths. This was followed in September 2014 by a terrorist attack on a Church that cost nearly 80 lives. 
The latest attack on a school in Peshawar on 16 December run by the Pakistani military authorities for their children as well as children from the civilian community was gruesome to say the least. A suicide squad belonging to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacked the school and this resulted in the death of 136 school children, eight members of the school staff and all the terrorists engaged in this attack. The children were shot dead in cold blood while engaged in the pursuit of education and knowledge, a process that has been strongly supported by no other than our Holy Prophet (pbuh). The attack was carried out on the doorstep of the Army Cantonment.
Analysts have since pointed out that the killing of the children of the army personnel by TTP was meant to convey a clear message to the Pakistan Armed Forces that this was revenge for military campaigns that had been carried out by these Forces against militants in North Waziristan where Islamic fundamentalists are trying to impose forcibly their socio-political version of Islamic tenets on inhabitants living in this region. 
The attack on the innocent school children in Peshawar has quite justifiably been seen as an outrage by the world. 
Since then, the Pakistan government have also swung into action. Ground assaults and air strikes on Taliban units in areas near the border with Afghanistan have resulted in the death of 77 alleged militants. Such action has been particularly undertaken in the Provinces of the Khyber Agency and North Waziristan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has also lifted the six-year moratorium on death penalty in terror cases and this has led to executions of four guilty militant prisoners. Human Rights Watch has termed the executions ‘a craven politicized reaction to the Peshawar killings’ and demanded that no further hangings be carried out.  Pakistan’s Army Chief General Raheel Sharif has however gone on record expressing his determination to push for the 
‘final elimination’ of all the militants. 
This tragedy in Peshawar took place about the same time as the senseless and unfortunate siege of the Cafe in Sydney, Australia which resulted in the death of two innocent persons and also of the misguided gunman, trying to prove a point that was essentially a misinterpretation of the Islamic faith. 
Both these recent incidents have managed to convey a wrong branding of Islam.
In Bangladesh, we have also witnessed coordinated acts of militant terrorism carried out by the banned outfit –Jamat’ul Mujahedin Bangladesh (JMB) - in 2005. It may be recalled that almost at the same time; around 500 bomb explosions took place in 63 out of 64 Districts. The presence of ‘Bangla Bhai’ at that time was described by the then government as a ‘figment of the media’s imagination’. Fortunately, more realistic pre-emptive monitoring and coordinated counter-terrorism efforts since 2009, has led to potential for terrorism being brought under somewhat of a control. 
One feels that time has come for serious soul searching and introspection. The Islamic communities all over the world have to identify the causes for this persistent growth of militancy in different parts of the world. The western world, the guardians of democratic behaviour and upholder of human rights also need to take a step back and question themselves as to whether their action or inaction in certain areas are contributing to this emerging hatred.  For example, they will need to satisfactorily address the unresolved question of Palestinian Statehood and justice for the battered people in Gaza. There cannot be two value systems of justice.
Similarly, there has to be a coordinated effort by the Arab countries as well as countries in North Africa and Afghanistan to seriously address issues related to corruption, violence, sectarianism and problems arising out of elitist governance systems. 
If this can be done expeditiously, it will take the wind out of the sails of terrorist organizations like ISIL and 
Al-Qaeda. Militancy thrives on perceived inequality of opportunity and partisanship. If that ends, it will be better for all of us. 

Source:  The Independent, 06 January 2015