Saving Our Humanity In The Face Of Peshawar Tragedy

20 December 2014
Published in Blog

By David Peduto 

December 20, 2014

My thoughts remain fixated on the terrible attack at Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan. The killing of 145 people, most of whom were but children, is a hard thing to shake. Coming in the wake of a terrible hostage taking in Sydney and amidst the ongoing wave of evil and subjugation propagated by ISIS, the attack has left many asking what has happened to humanity. If people in the world cannot recognize so much as the innocence of children, then what possible hope can we have for our future? If the flag bearers of the world to come are taken away from us, then what does this say about the world and time in which we live?

This is an event that touches us all. According to the Islamic tradition, the Prophet Mohammad once said that to kill one is to kill all of humanity. Whether you accept him as a prophet of God or not, certainly we can all accept the universality of the statement. It asserts the same sentiment of John Donne that no man is an island. Like it or not, we’re in this together.

Since the attack, I have seen tweets flatly stating “Shame on Humanity.” I have seen a cartoon of a freshly dug grave with only the word “HUMANITY” etched on the tombstone. I have seen pictures of the aftermath of what one can do to another, to so many others, in the confines of a school building. It’s saddening, challenging, and leaves anything but optimism for all those exposed to it.

But while the event challenges our belief in humanity, may our response reaffirm our faith in it. We cannot define ourselves by what happens to us. Rather, how we give definition to ourselves is by how we deal with the cards that we are dealt. This is as true on an individual level as it is on an international one. Even in the wake of such terrible tragedy, we have been about the work of defining our humanity.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, people in Peshawar were lining up to give blood to the victims. In cities across Pakistan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, candlelight vigils have shed light on the power of solidarity amidst human tragedy. If we believe in humanity, as such events so clearly demonstrate that we do, then surely we believe in the power of good will. It is just such good will that I have seen manifested in an effort to assuage the pain of those most closely affected by the event.

And if we believe in humanity, then we must put all humans in it. We must not allow ourselves the convenience of dismissing the perpetrators of such crimes as “animals” or any other type of non-humans. No, we must face the fact cold and true that the people responsible this attack and others like it are just that – people. We must accept the fact that somehow there are people in the world who feel justified in committing such a heinous act of violence. We must accept the fact that there are conditions in our world, our very human world, that have brought people to the point of accepting wanton killing as a righteous act. We must accept the fact that there exist man-made reasons as to why people feel that it is okay to kill. It is in the hope that by understanding such reasons that we can work to remove the ills that lead to such inhumane acts in our society.

Finally, may we resist the urge to see this attack as but another event in the saga of terrorism that we so readily apply to a place like Pakistan. For many, this act is but the latest indication of the way things have always been and will always be in that faraway country. It need not be this way – indeed, it shouldn’t.

I do not believe in inevitability so much that I do not think people are incapable of righting a wrong. While we cannot change what has been done, we have all the power in the world to shape that which has yet to come. Considering ourselves powerless to positively change the way things are is hardly a testament to the human spirit. We’ve always accepted the challenge and, despite our faults, have been done better for it. That is the humanity I know.

In the wake of such tragedy, may we recourse to our shared humanity and be about the necessary work to mitigate such evil in our time and for our future. We owe it to ourselves, and to the 145 souls we lost but a short time ago.

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David Peduto is a student of Islam, the Middle East, and Arabic. He lives in Boston where, when he's not working for a Big Data company, he enjoys paddle boarding on the Charles River and performing improv comedy.

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What We See and What We Don’t in Pakistan bombings

07 November 2014
Published in Blog

By David Peduto 

November 7, 2014

It happened again. On Sunday, November 2, another terrorist attack took place in Pakistan. At least 56 people were killed in a bombing near the country’s Wagah border crossing with India.

Without even looking at a picture from the scene, you can probably draw a pretty good image of it. Pools of blood, white sheets, people crying. All these terrorist attacks, they all look the same.

While a picture can say a thousand words, what is missing from it can say millions more. In the pictures, we see blood, we see shrouds, we see the tears. These are all readymade images that we can apply no matter the place or the people involved. As one of the characters from John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, would have it, we’ve come to see what we expect.

A challenge I would pose, however, is for us to contemplate that which we cannot see in these pictures. Since this idea of believing in something we can’t even see may seem ridiculous, allow me to explain.

As a practicing Christian, I’ve come to find that so much of my faith is based on just that. I cannot see God. I cannot testify to the acts of Jesus through my personal experience. Heaven is some land in the hereafter of which I’ve heard much but of which I can draw no memory.

But hearsay is not heresy. Nor does belief belittle our being. It is belief that serves as the foundation of any faith. The power of the unseen has a potency unknown to the mere mortal works of man. Belief sustains, motivates, and enables us to believe in some Greater Good to which we can all contribute.

An example.

What you do not see in any pictures from this attack at Wagah is a middle-aged man who lives and works a stone’s throw away in Lahore. He is sitting behind a desk, eyes framed by glasses, with his nephew and myself seated before him. He has the bags under his eyes that a fifteen-hour workday might produce, but a tenacity in the pupils above that seem to operate on a different body clock.

He is a cardiac surgeon who loves what he does. He is the one to whom the “impossible” cases are sent, and then he sends the patients home with better hearts. He’s operated on everyone from government officials to street sweepers. He is a man who believes that no single life is greater than any other. It is to protecting the most valuable gift we have – life – that he has dedicated himself.

And it is for this reason that he gets animated when the topic of terrorism comes up in our conversation. He despises it, he tells us. It undoes everything that a man like him aims to do. It is an affront to his very humanity, let alone his profession. He tells us that “a suicide bomber can kill 200 people like that,” with a loud snap of his fingers, while he and his colleagues will spend however long necessary to save a single life.

The conviction and goodness of this man comes to mind in the wake of this terrorist attack so close to his home. At this moment, he may well be working to save one of the lives that the terrorist involved aimed to end.

I recognize that you have never met or even seen this doctor. But, believe me, I have and am relaying this story to you in as true a form as my memory will allow. He is there, in Lahore, with so many other kind-hearted individuals who just as vehemently despise this act of terror.

A person like this doctor may not be who we see in the pictures from this event. In a similar vain, he may not be the kind of person we would expect to live in a place like Pakistan. But I speak from experience when I say that he does, and that he and so many others make up the overwhelming majority in the Land of the Pure.

So if you see a picture from this attack, or of any other, believe that there is more to complete the image. Because there is. Just because a man like this doctor in Lahore is not caught by the camera does not mean that he is not there. He may not be what we expect, but that is more a reason for us to assess our expectations than to paint a place or a people with the broad stripes of terrorism.

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David Peduto is a student of Islam, the Middle East, and Arabic. He lives in Boston where, when he's not working for a Big Data company, he enjoys paddle boarding on the Charles River and performing improv comedy.

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The Islam You Don't Know

11 October 2014
Published in Blog

By David Peduto 

October 11, 2014

I can see where a man like Bill Maher is coming from when it comes to Islam. As he would have it, Islam is a violent religion that runs counter to all that we as Americans hold dear – freedom, justice, democracy. Of course, he is not alone in this assessment. Indeed, such a view is a majority opinion among non-Muslim Americans.

It’s an opinion that, as a child of 9/11, I grew up believing too.

But then I grew up.

My understanding of what Islam is and who Muslims are changed from being obscured by the gore of terrorism to one more rooted in reality. The slime of stereotype applied by those who touch topics in the most superficial of ways was replaced by revelations of actual experience. I took Arabic in college, took courses on the Middle East and Islam, and even studied abroad in Egypt. Then I lived in Pakistan. I worked in Islamabad which, translated, means the “Abode of Islam.”

Now, let me get something straight. I’m a Christian American, which are two things we’ve been taught that people like those Muslims in Pakistan just don’t like. In our current understanding of Islam, I’d fall into the category of the kuffar, or “the unbelievers.” As such, to all those who view Islam as evil, I should be put to death by all able-bodied Muslims. Anywhere. So how is it that a young kid like me could possibly survive even a day in the very den of this vile religion?

My answer: putting faith in people. This faith was backed by an effort to understand their state, their position, and their history so as to more aptly engage in what many would see to be a hostile environment. I did not go to Pakistan as some imperialistic, ignorant American. I went to learn and to represent my country by representing myself as best I could. That required me to live as a regular citizen. No bodyguards, no compound, no gun.

But in an effort to break my own stereotypes of this place and this religion, I had to work to show Pakistanis a different side of America than what they may be used to. Think about it: if you were a Muslim in Pakistan, what would you think when you think about America? Apple pies and the Fourth of July? Hardly. You’d think of soldiers, drones, ignorance, and probably a Big Mac. I worked hard to share a different side of the States, which I believe enabled me to see a different side of Pakistan and Islam than what I previously accepted as fact. As a result, I had an incredibly positive time in this “ally from hell” of ours. My experiences may well go beyond anything that those hung up on this hatred of Islam could comprehend.

Truly, my experience there was an introduction to an Islam that I never knew. It’s an Islam that, unfortunately, so many at home in the States seem too stubborn to ever want to know. But I have a few questions for these folks that might shed some light on the Islam that they never knew existed.

To those who believe that Islam is the antithesis of Christianity, I ask if you’ve ever heard the solemnity of the call to prayer. I wonder if you wish peace upon others (a common greeting among Muslims the world over) more than once a week in church. I yearn to know if you disown Terry Jones (the man who burned the Quran a few years ago) to the same extent that you ask Muslims the world over to speak against the self-proclaimed Muslims that all Islamist terrorists are.

To those who see Islam as anti-democratic, how is that we allow ourselves to define Islam by a few unelected individuals who no more represent someone’s faith than Donald Trump represents America? If we believe in democracy at home, surely we must apply it to our portrayal of others.

To those who see Islam as anything but tolerant, how is that we tolerate ourselves so carelessly referring to a “Muslim world,” as if all Muslims existed on another planet? Such convenient phrasing serves to externalize over a billion people in the one world in which we all live. When we use such intergalactic references, we’re not talking about Muslims anymore – we’re talking about Martians. We need to bring this conversation back to earth – this earth.

Islamophobia is real, it is a problem, and it’s a really big problem. The fact that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world should not be a concern to us; rather, it should serve as a reminder of the importance to understand it better. This necessary understanding need not involve going to Pakistan, but it absolutely requires another proud American trait of ours: courage.

We would do better to muster the mental courage to think beyond what the pundits and the pols might say about a certain place or a certain religion. When we assume this courage and are no longer beholden to stereotype, we can make our own determination of the world. We can change what we think we knew about Islam by allowing ourselves to seeing the reality so readily available to us.

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David Peduto is a student of Islam, the Middle East, and Arabic. He lives in Boston where, when he's not working for a Big Data company, he enjoys paddle boarding on the Charles River and performing improv comedy.