Thursday, May 5, 2011


“I am happy… Without question, I am happy about his death!”, he said with a calm confidence that belied his years. I was surprised. I wondered if he was saying that because he was worried about how I might judge him if he said he wasn’t.

Zuhaib is a cousin of mine through a marriage or three. He graduated recently, and in spite of the ten years or so between us, we have become rather friendly. He is really mature for his years and I am not, so we always manage to find a happy middle ground whenever we meet to talk away the hours. And between talk of Cristiano Ronaldo’s twinkle-toed switch and Stanley Kubrick’s creative twitch, we always find the space and time to squeeze in a chat about religion. Now, he is Sunni Muslim and I’m a Hindu, and yet we manage an easy discussion, even a debate, about the goods and quaints of the faiths we were born into. So when we met last evening, and talk veered toward Osama’s death, I just had to ask him how he might have felt about it, as a citizen of the world… and as a Muslim.

Monday morning television made for confusing viewing. I heard of the operation in Abbottabad from a friend and fumbled through to CNN for confirmation. And confirmation came from the much barracked Barack, no less. I felt numb. Messages celebrating the killing poured in and I saw the crowd dancing on the streets in front of the White House, on the streets of Georgetown and in New York city. And yet I didn’t know what to feel. Osama had wronged the world. There was no denying that. And yet, does a death, even if it be the death of the man half the world calls the greatest villain since Adolf Hitler, warrant celebrations? And that, notwithstanding the fact that many in the other half of the world think of him as the greatest hero to have ever picked up a gun for a cause since… er… since… John Rambo, I guess (I couldn’t think of a historical figure who comes anywhere close to the gory glory of Osama’s methods).

I was confused because while we were celebrating the death of a terrorist who plotted and planned the death and destruction of thousands of innocents, there were homes and lanes and towns and whole districts in every part of the world, from London to Lahore and from Kuala Lumpur to Kashmir, where there was silence and anger; where a father or a widowed mother would hold a 10-year-old child close and say, “Osama, that man of God whose name you carry has been killed by American terrorists. He was a prince who could have lived in luxury. But he heard God’s voice in our cries. He was an educated man but he put down his books and picked up a gun… for us. He traded his life in a palace for the hardships of battle… for us.

He fought them like David (Dawood) fought the giant and brought them to their knees. The cowards killed the Sheikh while he slept but promise me that he did not die in vain… Promise me that you will live up to your name and avenge each drop of his blood that was shed… promise me that you will fight for our honour, for human dignity, for our rights, just like the sheikh did all his life”

Many homes in many countries would have heard these words being spoken as news of Osama’s death poured in. But I wondered if that was typical. Journalists were reaching out to separatist leaders and religious figureheads as well as to the common man in an attempt to understand what the people Osama claimed he represented felt about his death. The reactions ranged from outright condemnation to religious leaders blaming American policies for his admitted excesses. On the other hand, during the course of my interviews with militants and separatists, I had begun to see a human side to the Kalashnikov toting wild eyed mercenaries. I had begun to see them for what I now believe they are – men, women, oft en even children, who are hurt and angry; who believe they have no one and nothing left to turn to; who mistakenly believe, that the blood on their hands is the work of God and that it is something they believe in with such passion, that they would not regret their losses, of limb, life or love, in the pursuit of their goals. Speak up if you think I’m wrong but I think it takes a good heart, perhaps a bitter one too, but definitely a good one, to embrace death with pride.

Was Osama such a man? Was it empathy, or perhaps even compassion, for the oppressed Muslim that fuelled his passions? Was he a good man who fell victim to geo-political circumstances and the well modulated rant of a charismatic cleric? Or was he a misanthropic bigot tempted by a sense of history? And who is the real Osama – the feted war hero of the Russo-Afghan wars, or is it the man who plotted the murder of thousands in cold blood? And is an Osama any different from a Che Guevara or some other such freedom fighter or revolutionary? They all killed for a cause they believed in… then why is one a pop icon while the other a pariah?

Well the last one is easy. A Che Guevara never targeted civilians and non-combatants the way Osama did and as for the rest of the questions, perhaps it’s a case of the elephant and the blind men. But before I forget where we began, let me tell you what young Zuhaib made of the moment.

“I am happy… Without question, I am happy about his death!,” said Zuhaib. And no, he did not say that because he was worried I might take him to be a sympathiser if he didn’t. “I am glad the man was killed,” he continued, “… because not only did he deserve to die because he killed innocents, knowing fully well that even killing one innocent civilian is tantamount to a crime against all of humanity, but also because of what he did to me, as a Muslim. Before Osama, the faith had an aura of tranquility, civility and even tolerance. But aft er 9/11, every Muslim is a potential suspect. We are looked at with suspicion and skepticism and we cannot escape it. Even when people see me entering a mosque, I see the skepticism in their eyes. And I’m not just blaming non-Muslims.

I too am guilty of having lost faith in my fellow Muslims. Today, if I’m stopped near a mosque by an elderly gentleman and asked a few innocent questions, instead of being touched by his kindness and warmth, I would eye him with suspicion and wonder if it’s the first step in an attempted indoctrination. If tomorrow, a Muslim lad wants to rent my house, I would be extremely suspicious and might not even let it out unless I was 200 per cent sure that man is above suspicion. And I have become so wary of being seen with the ‘wrong kind’ that I actively avoid interacting with people I don’t know, especially if they ‘look the type’… you know, with the traditional beard and skull cap. It’s wrong, and it’s unfair, but that’s what even I have become, though I am every inch a proud and sincere Muslim… This is what an Osama has done. He destroyed faith in the faith and so I am glad he is dead.”

I nodded. Osama’s death was no victory. Inconsequential in real terms, it only has symbolic significance, as our reactions to it underscore the civilisational fault lines of the day. But yes, it definitely was justice. Delayed, diff used and perhaps one that matters only as much as a pacifier might to a hungry child but it was justice nevertheless…


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