View Full Version : The murder of Professor Hussain By Ali Nobil Ahmad - 31st January 2016

31st January 2016, 01:17 PM
Grief-stricken relatives. Blood spattered floors. Low-grade footage of hospitalised survivors. The scenes after last week’s attack on Bacha Khan University were too familiar to trigger more than a momentary pause for national reflection in Pakistan, a country painfully accustomed to lighting candles of remembrance.

Amidst the debris of shattered lives in Charsadda, one man’s final moments captured attention.

Assistant Professor Syed Hamid Hussain cuts a curious hero. The first (hopefully last) lecturer in organic Chemistry killed in an exchange of gunfire with a death squad of Islamist militants, his defiant stand poses awkward questions for those who speak of terrorism with so much rhetorical flourish.

However much officials hail his valour and that of other ‘patriots’ who ‘embrace martyrdom’ in attacks such as these, Hussain’s courage is embarrassing for the doubt it casts on the ability of the state to protect its citizens. The fact that he packed a pistol and used it with the certitude of a man encountering a fate already predicted is hardly a vote of confidence in security arrangements provided by the authorities.

For critics of the army tempted to assert their own priorities, the ‘martyrdom’ of Professor Hussain is troublesome for a different set of reasons. Within mainstream and social media, progressives have been quick to point out the university was targeted on the day of a poetry recital at which hundreds were gathering to commemorate Abdul Ghaffar Khan, whose honorific title, Bacha Khan, is shared by the university itself.

Tributes to the ‘Frontier Gandhi’, celebrated for his unstinting commitment to political and social justice through non-violent struggle, jar disconcertingly with reports of a man found with a pistol in his hand; a man whose legend has been established precisely for his apparent refusal of the very non-violence many Left-leaning voices uphold as a model of resistance to tyranny.

Talk of arming teachers in schools since the Peshawar attacks of 2014 has caused alarm among academics and civil society activists who struggled last week to reconcile their views with Professor Husain’s apparently active participation in the violation of the university campus as a sanctified space of learning. Left-liberal priorities remain the protection of civil liberties and rational debate of terrorism’s ‘root causes’ in a context of deteriorating freedom and militaristic jingoism. These concerns are articulated alongside criticism of ‘the establishment’ for treating militants as assets and for cynically glorifying the tragic deaths of students and educators as acts of patriotism.

Despite raising awareness in human rights circles and winning important concessions in individual cases, anecdotal evidence would suggest this platform has failed to resonate among many ordinary people. Even allowing for the obvious limits on press freedom that curtail criticism of the authorities in Pakistan, the one thing that emerges clearly from the typically tasteless and intrusive interviews with tearful escapees pressured into recounting their ordeals for the benefit of TV channels chasing ratings, is that there is limited appetite for criticism of the army among communities subjected to the full wrath of terrorist militancy in Pakistan. Less still for critique of the increasingly panoptical surveillance that regulates life and mobility in this heavily securitised state.

How to explain this paradox, by which conservative hegemony grows stronger with each spectacular breach of security, undermining the intelligentsia’s calls for protection of civil liberties and democratic norms? Clues can be garnered from demands of Balochistan’s Hazara leadership back in 2013, when after a string of murderous attacks by sectarian outfits thought to be patronised by the state, community leaders called for martial law. For progressives critical of drone attacks and human rights abuses, it was perplexing to see the military being hailed by those it had supposedly done most to alienate, as their sole savior.

The reasoning of the Hazara leadership was simple enough: faced with the existential threat of terrorist militancy, a significant proportion of ordinary people want nothing more than for the state to step in and establish its authority — if necessary, with force. This can be true even where they are under few illusions as to the role of prior state actions in having created the conditions for the rise in such threats; and even when the state’s presence is associated with the oppression and intimidation of local citizens.

An increasing proportion of Pakistani Pakhtuns appear largely unconcerned with the priorities of intellectuals and commentators located in cities thus far spared the sort of violence and chaos that has engulfed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas. Like the Kurds locked in conflict with Daesh and Syrians of Aleppo, many are not nearly as pacifist as the anti-war Left, which opposes military action against even the most fascistic of state and non-state actors in regions devastated by anarchic violence.

Perhaps it should not surprise us that those most directly affected by terrorism turn not to Gandhi, Bacha Khan or the blanket isolationism of ‘critical’ thinkers referenced by scholars and opinion-makers; that they seem distinctly uninspired by the familiar sight of ageing radicals rock the mic at demonstrations against ‘imperialism’ in faraway metropolitan locations; that, embarrassingly for the Left, they yearn for an all-powerful Leviathan of the sort associated with the distinctly unfashionable Thomas Hobbes. As residents of peripheral provinces, they understand perfectly well the role of ‘contextual’ factors in creating some of the conditions for terrorism that progressives like to emphasise. But unlike so many peace-loving sophisticates, they cannot afford to wait for the addressal of ‘root causes’ — least of all those that would require revolutionary transformations nowhere in sight.

If chemistry teachers in Pakistan’s northwest now arm themselves with pistols in anticipation of terrorist attacks, it is not because they swallow wholesale the mantras of right-wing nationalism. Nor is it evidence they support the mistreatment, torture or execution of individuals dragged through an increasingly opaque system of justice on charges of terrorism. It is because they — like you — care less about these matters than the lives of their offspring. Thanks to a series of clearly articulated statements and actions expressing overt commitment to the perpetration of divinely sanctioned genocide, these innocents now live with the nightmarish possibility of being slaughtered in a nihilistic bloodbath at school or university.

In Pakistan, as in the US, statistics can be produced that show guns make nobody safe. But the pastoral impulse to protect one’s flock will be familiar to any anyone who has worked in education; just as the human impulse to insist on some kind of minimal say in the manner and timing of one’s death will be understood by anyone who has ever lived.

Before their invasion of the university campus in which he taught, Professor Hussain would have rehearsed confronting his assailants. He’d have known they’d be armed with automatic weapons and come bent on obliteration of anyone in sight. As the firing commenced, he could have frozen, buckled, bolted — perhaps survived. Instead, he turned to face the cacophony of explosions heading towards him, and according to some reports, gave students cover to run, saving lives.

To those who view his actions as unbefitting an educational professional, that widely circulated picture of Professor Hussain smiling in a lab coat is a powerful riposte. He is reported to have completed his PhD in Europe, then returned to Charsadda, where purveyors of the scientific Enlightenment — so detested by the Taliban (and radical chic academics) — are unlikely to earn much more than $15,000 a year.

If this proud local is remembered with admiration, it is not because Pakhtuns need reminding of their history. It is because Assistant Professor Syed Hamid Hussain — father-of-two, populist hero — is a worthy successor to Bacha Khan’s noble legacy. In years to come, he will be revered, like the Frontier Gandhi, for his outstanding courage — a symbol of dignity to the many others who have lived, loved and died anonymously among their people in troubled times.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 30th, 2016.