I heard about the suicide bombing of the Brussels airport – called ‘Zaventem’ – on a flight to Amsterdam. The flight was on Wednesday night (March 23).
News of the attack had appeared on the international media on the Tuesday night – i.e., 24 hours before.
On the Tuesday night however, I was lodged in a budget hotel in the south of Thailand which had no wi-fi. In any case, after a long journey on a crowded ferry-boat that afternoon, I wasn’t interested in tuning into the world news.
The next morning, I got up early to get a flight to Bangkok, where I had to sit around all day before I could get on my flight to Amsterdam. Happily embroiled in reading Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ (it was over a thousand pages long), I was oblivious to the outside world.
So for almost 24 hours I was in a kind of news black-out zone.
On the flight to Amsterdam, I had a Belgian man sitting next to me. Along with thousands of other Belgian tourists elsewhere in the world, his flight to Zaventem had been cancelled. He was forced to change his flight and to fly to another destination in Europe. He was lucky enough to have gotten a seat on the flight to Amsterdam; from there to Brussels, it was a train journey of a few hours.
We made small talk and that’s how I found out about the terrorist attack at Zaventem; from word of mouth.
At least 30 people had died and a hundred injured, he told me.
If I’d been told about a terrorist attack like the one in Zaventem whilst on a flight to Australia – or Thailand, for that matter – I would have been shocked. But hearing about it in the context of a big city in Western Europe was a different matter. On my part there was a certain feeling of indifference.
Not that I didn’t sympathise with the dead and the injured, of course I did. I could have easily been one of the victims.
The thing was, I’d lived in Europe during 2015 and it had been a busy year for terrorist outrages: in January 2015, there was the murder of 11 journalists from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (and an attack on a Jewish supermarket, resulting in several deaths); in March, there was an attack on a chemical factory in the south of France in which a boss was murdered and his head impaled on a fence; in June, 40 tourists were gunned down on what was once a popular beach in Tunisia for European tourists (and which I had visited several times in the past); and closer to home, there was the attempt by a terrorist to board a Thalys train from Rotterdam to Paris (a train I’d been on several times) and murder hundreds of people with an AK47 – which was only thwarted by three American soldiers dressed in civilian clothing; in November there was another devastating attack in Paris when gunmen opened fire on people at a rock concert and other assorted locations, resulting in 130 people being murdered and 386 injured.
Hearing about the attack at Zaventem, I knew what was waiting for me on arriving back in Europe: a tsunami of news updates and images. I would be more or less have no choice but to pick up where I’d left off four months ago: of following the continuing story of terrorist outrages.
I arrived early on the Thursday morning and slept on and off for the next 24 hours.
By Friday night, I was up to date, whatever that meant. It was a kind of mad cacophony of disparate facts:
Five suicide bombers had launched the attack on Zaventem in the aftermath of the arrest of a terrorist wanted in the connection with the devastating Paris attack in November, 2015.
The area of Molenbeek, a deprived area dominated by Moslem immigrants, formed a nest of radicalism in the heart of one of Europe’s biggest cosmopolitan cities.
Thirty two people hailing from 16 different nationalities had died.
As for the perpetrators of this madness, it was the old story: they claimed to be members of IS but what did it matter? IS, Al Qeda, Taliban, Al Nusra, Boko Haram, El Shabab….there were plenty of these nutcase outfits to choose from. Look past the label and what one saw was: religious fanatics imbued with a deep hatred of the modern world with its openness, its travel and international mobility. Our modern world was being attacked by the ancient world, this in the form of religious fanaticism (and religious fanaticism certainly wasn’t unique to Islam).
To be honest, I felt a certain sense of indifference reading about the details of the Zaventem attack. There was this feeling of distance, as if there was a thick sheet of glass between me and the words spoken on the TV and emblazoned on my laptop screen.
Was it a result of residual jet lag?
Or fatigue from an over-exposure to horror?
I didn’t really know.
Then came Friday – and coincidentally, Easter weekend.
As an atheist I had no need to pay homage to any kind of deity.
Nevertheless, I had my own rituals.
I listened to Bach’s Mass in B and Handel’s Messiah.
Easter gave me a good excuse to indulge in what was an old and addictive pleasure. For me, the feelings of reverence from this music were far deeper than anything I might have experienced inside a church. At the same time, listening to these two pieces, I realised that after all said and done, religion had created fantastic works of art, music, literature, paintings and architecture. Pity about the bigotry that also went with it.
On Sunday (March 27) came the news of the bombing of Christians celebrating Easter in Lahore, Pakistan; 70 people were killed and 341 injured. Most of the dead and injured were women and children. As horrific as this news was, it didn’t really shock me – to force me to step outside of my self- imposed glass cage.
Intolerance and persecution was so normal in Pakistan that one more devastating attack was pretty much par for the course. Deadly attacks upon minority groups in that country – Ahmadis and Shias as well as Christians – had been going on for decades. The majority of Moslems in Pakistan were Sunnis, although it wasn’t as if being a Sunni meant being spared the depredations of the fanatics. Along with the minority religious groups, Sunni Moslems who were modern, educated and supported such profane ideas as women’s rights and democracy, were equally targets of terrorist groups. Pakistan, a country established in 1949 (at the time of Partition), was a mess, a de facto failed state managing to get by on huge amounts of foreign aid.
A shocking attack on Christians in Pakistan?
How could that surprise anyone?
Then on the Monday it finally happened.
The bell-jar of my sublime indifference to the horrors of the world was shattered.
Once again I was there, back in the real world, angry, disbelieving.
Police investigating the “religiously prejudiced death” of a Glaswegian shopkeeper believe that the man alleged to be involved may have travelled 200 miles from Bradford in a premeditated attack, according to reports. Asad Shah was founded severely injured outside his shop in the Shawlands area of Glasgow on Thursday and died later in hospital. The suspect is alleged to have stabbed him multiple times and stamped on his head. A 32-year-old Muslim man has been arrested in connection with Mr Shah’s death.
Mr Shah was a member of the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam which preaches peace and tolerance towards other religions. The suspected killer was another Muslim who allegedly struck just hours after Mr Shah had posted a message on Facebook wishing a very happy Easter to his ‘beloved Christian nation’ and suggesting people follow in ‘The Real Footstep of Beloved Holy Jesus Christ’. The murdered man’s family have now been advised by police to watch what they say and to disguise where they are in Britain because it is believed that they too could now be targeted.
An anonymous source told the newspaper: “The attacker saw what Asad was saying on Facebook and drove up to track him down. The hardline Sunni Muslims call Ahmadiyya Muslims kafir. They say they are non-believers. It’s not unusual in other countries to see them killed just for their beliefs, it’s been going on for years.”
It comes as two vigils were held for Mr Shah. At least 150 people, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, gathered on Saturday to pay their respects. Teenager Aleesa Malik, who organised the vigil, said: “He would take the effort to care for every customer.
“He would want to know how you were, what you were doing. He took an interest in everyone’s lives – old, young, anyone. You could be any colour, that would not be an issue for him, he just cared too much.”
Hang on, let me get this straight:
An Ahmadi man had been murdered by a Sunni extremist for the crime of posting a message on Facebook wishing a very happy Easter to his ‘beloved Christian nation’ and suggesting people follow in ‘The Real Footstep of Beloved Holy Jesus Christ’.
The fanatic had driven his car for 300 kilometres in order to murder Shah. He did not know Shah and had never met him. In other articles on the net I read about how the murderer had stabbed Shah repeatedly in the head with a carving knife and then kicked the lifeless body: this was a hate crime if there ever was one.
The politically correct double speak was painful: “religiously prejudiced death” and then, the truly incredible: ‘The murdered man’s family have now been advised by police to watch what they say and to disguise where they are in Britain because it is believed that they too could now be targeted.’
The police commissioner in Glasgow added that in recent years, crime rates had declined. In other words, he regarded this brutal murder as just another ‘crime’ and to assuage public misgivings, reminded people to ‘put matters in perspective.’ One couldn’t blame him really for issuing such an idiotic statement; he was simply following protocol, the rules of behaviour instilled into him by the dominant political culture. And the protocol said that even though this was a savage hate crime, no questions could be asked and no further inquiries could be made because religion was involved.
So there it was: by extending his best wishes to the Christians on Easter on the social media, Asad Shah had engaged in high risk behaviour.
It was his own fault really, and other Ahmadis could be forewarned from now on.
What was the reaction of the powers- that- be to this egregious hate crime?
What was the reaction of the nation’s politicians, opinion makers, journalists and intellectuals?
There was no reaction; there was a deafening silence.
The self-censorship industry swung into action. I had to keep reminding myself: this wasn’t Pakistan – it was the U.K.
There was a difference wasn’t there?
Amidst the refusal of British journalists, academics and politicians to investigate this incident further, one person at least showed a bit of integrity. Writing in The Spectator, journalist Douglas Murray joined up at least a few of the dots:
“On Easter Saturday a Muslim shopkeeper in Glasgow was brutally murdered. Forty-year-old Asad Shah was stabbed in the head with a kitchen knife and then stamped upon. Most of the UK press began by going big on this story and referring to it as an act of ‘religious hatred’, comfortably leaving readers with the distinct feeling that – post-Brussels – the Muslim shopkeeper must have been killed by an ‘Islamophobe’.
Had that been the case, by now the press would be crawling over every view the killer had ever held and every Facebook connection he had ever made. They would be asking why he had done it and investigating every one of his associates.
Mr Shah was an Ahmadiyya (Ahmadi), a member of – against some stiff competition – one of the most persecuted sects within Islam. Persecution against them in Pakistan and elsewhere around the Islamic world is rife. Yet despite that (or perhaps for that very reason) they are probably the most peaceable and indeed admirable sect within Islam. Among other things, Ahmadiyya Muslims formally reject the concept of Jihad that other schools cling to. In Britain whenever there is a vaguely positive news story about Islam it almost invariably involves Ahmadi Muslims. Remember the bus adverts a few years back saying that Islam had ‘love for all, hatred for none’. That was paid for by Ahmadiyya Muslims. Remember the stories of a Muslim group not burning poppies but actually selling them for the Royal British Legion? Ahmadiyyas again.
As I said, if the suspected killer of Mr Shah had been a non-Muslim things would have worked out differently. But since he was reported to be a Muslim the story has now effectively gone dead. The media aren’t that interested in follow-up and the politicians seem unbothered about following the hate-trail. Like all other stories in this area, they don’t know what questions to ask and they don’t want to ask them anyway. It’s a familiar pattern…….
…and nobody knows, or cares to know, or cares to hear the answers. They would care deeply about webs of association if the man arrested for Mr Shah’s murder had been a non-Muslim. But there is little to ask now it seems to be a Muslim. That is how these things work in modern Britain, and that in a nutshell is why things are going to go so very wrong in the near future.”
The refusal of the British media to subject this hate crime to the scrutiny that it would most certainly done so if a non-Muslim had been the assailant, had wider repercussions and it was foolish to pretend otherwise. As Murray pointed out, discriminatory attitudes towards Ahmadis were widespread amongst the mainstream Sunni Muslims (90% of world’s Moslems are Sunnis). Imams in some the biggest mosques in the U.K. – and on the mainland – regularly railed against Ahmadis (when they weren’t warning against the dangers of integrating into a western society). At the very least, Asad Shah’s murder should have led to a robust scrutiny of the discriminatory attitudes towards Ahmadis amongst the ranks of the wider Moslem community – in the same way as would have no doubt happened if a non- Muslim had murdered Shah.
Behind the refusal to scrutinise or analyse the murder of Asad Shah, was the fear of stirring up racism against Moslems, of holding an entire community collectively responsible for the actions of a tiny minority of fanatics. The fear was justified. Of course it was. It went without saying that in any analysis of what had happened to Asad Shah and why, care was required.
But a blanket ban on any kind of analysis was a completely different matter.
I was outraged at what had happened to Asad Shah.
He was a beautiful man.
I felt personally involved in what had happened to him. Which was crazy. I was crazy. The fate of one man weighed upon me far more than that of the 70 women and children who had been blown to pieces for the crime of being Christians, not to mention the people killed and injured at Zaventem.
Perhaps it is easier for us to identify with the life and the lot of a single person rather than a mass of people. Perhaps we are bombarded by such an anarchy of disasters and horrors in the blitz of news updates – which is now part and parcel of a ‘modern society’ – that we find ourselves struggling to order our moral priorities; to make any kind of sense from a chaos of ongoing misery.
I needed distance.
It was time to do something else, to direct my thoughts, my existence, in another direction: to try and find that safe haven behind the layer of psychological glass.
Anya and I flew to Innsbruck, Austria. Two days later we were in a small town in the mountains walking.
The questions, the searching questions, were left down at the lower climes.
There they would stay; for a while, in any case.