The Chechen cause is now poisoned and the world views Muslims as monsters

For now, for me, this crime has no place even within the farthest boundaries of human behaviour
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It would be an affront and a lie to say I know how to react to Beslan, a place with, until now, presumably small, local concerns and the blessings of an ordinary life with shared rituals and expectations. On the first day back at school after summer, the tradition was to bring in flowers for the teacher, and balloons too. How touching, how courteous, how unlike the raucous and weepy beginnings of our terms here. The thought of dehydrated children eating these petals before so many perished pricks the back of the eyes.

It would be an affront and a lie to say I know how to react to Beslan, a place with, until now, presumably small, local concerns and the blessings of an ordinary life with shared rituals and expectations. On the first day back at school after summer, the tradition was to bring in flowers for the teacher, and balloons too. How touching, how courteous, how unlike the raucous and weepy beginnings of our terms here. The thought of dehydrated children eating these petals before so many perished pricks the back of the eyes.

How fresh and clean they went to school, how soiled when they were taken out, naked, lifeless and wounded. The stench of indescribable brutality and death must have mingled as frantic, inconsolable families and friends tried to find their own. Can you imagine the noises, the screams, the wails, the cries of these innocents? Those who had to bear witness, rescue victims and walk through blood must have come upon what looked like an abattoir, only more chaotic, a place where even Satan would fear to tread.

When confronted by such abominable crimes, we have an obligation to cross over the horror which wells up and try and comprehend (not forgive, but understand) the perpetrators and the circumstances which led to the violence. Today I find I such searching analysis almost impossible. For some people that line was crossed with 11 September attacks. There are events which silence the voice, as the Holocaust writer Primo Levi said: "Our language lacks the words to express this offence, the demolition of Man."

In time, perhaps, this will change. But for now, for me, this crime has no place even within the farthest boundaries of human behaviour; it has destroyed the fundamental definition of what it means to be human.

I can see how one or two people can become demented and depraved and psychopathic so they can inflict pain and kill without any regard for their victims. Much as it infuriates my detractors, I can even make myself imagine the rage and mental state of young suicide bombers brutalised by political oppression. It is possible to explain modern nihilistic vandalism.

But I cannot understand how a large group of Muslims could systematically lay down explosives in a school, kick babies, stab to death some of them, violate, terrify and torture children, parents and teachers, deny them water and sustenance. Before the dead are buried in our Muslim community, you put water on their lips so they don't go down thirsty. These fiends made their victims pass out, pass on even, without giving them water.

As the naked bodies were carried out they looked thin and frail. The living had dead eyes already, having met such degradation. I was reminded of the reproachful stillness on the faces among the rescued inmates of Auschwitz and Belsen. And we now hear that some of the parents had to make Sophie's Choice, taking out one child and leaving the others to die in hell. This is only the beginning of the agony. The grief that won't recede, the madnesses, suicides, and lifelong hatreds are waiting to roll in. They will bury the dead, but the dead will hound the land.

Supporters of the villains may believe this is all justified because Chechens, young and old are also being killed, maimed, sexually abused, broken by the mighty Russians while the world looks away. For the most twisted, this may even be regarded as a spectacular "victory". But even the most ardent believers in an eye for an eye must see that this attack and its savagery will only lead to even more blind retribution. There were a few enlightened Russians willing to side with the Chechen struggle for self-determination. Today that cause itself is poisoned. No political solution in Chechnya is now possible. The dignified, and infinitely patient Chechens who resist the Russians through legitimate means are also blighted and identified with violent extremism.

Putin meanwhile will go down well as he promises a Bush-type "war on terror", a dangerously emotive battle cry which has the power to incite but no meaning. All Chechens in the Caucasus can expect to be treated with dread, suspicion and revulsion. All people who look like they might be Chechens or Arabs can expect the same.

And what are worldwide Muslims to say and do to atone for this sin of sins? Just as in Palestine, the political struggle in Chechnya is now dissolved into the messy problem of Islamicist terrorism, and all Muslims are held accountable for these crimes. Of course this is grossly unfair, particularly as so many victims of world violence and repression are also Muslims. Christians are not blamed for their brigands and villains - I don't recall British Christians being called upon to denounce Milosevic after Srebrenica or the crimes against Iraq by Bush and Blair.

Having said that, is it really possible to deny that the image of Islam is contaminated and by Muslims themselves? Our faith is now inextricably bound up with images of pitiless repression in spite of the fact that the majority of Muslims live blameless, quiet lives and are appalled by what is done in our name. Quoting the divine texts may be consoling, but the world judges us for what we do. It is a travesty to believe all Muslims are terrorists, but there is a painful truth to be faced.

As Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, a prominent Arab writer, puts it in a polemic in an Arab newspaper: "All world terrorists are Muslim ... we must admit the scandalous facts ... our terrorist sons are an end product of our corrupted culture."

The writer Ahmed Bahgat, who has conservative Islamic values, also believes that no enemies could destroy Islam as effectively as "the sons of Islam have by their stupidity, miscalculations and misunderstanding ... Muslims are seen as monsters who are fed by the blood of children and the pain of their families."

If there is a sliver of hope to come out of this heartbreaking episode, it is in this long overdue self-examination by some of the great and the good in the Muslim world.

It was a week of reckoning. First the sickening slayings of the Nepalese cooks and servants in Iraq, the kidnap of the two French journalists held by Iraqi fanatics over the French hijab ban, the bombs which broke the uneasy silence in Israel, bringing back mayhem, and then Beslan. By the final atrocity, some influential Muslims were jolted awake to take up their responsibilities. Imams around the Muslim world have pronounced kidnappers as "un-Islamic" and "monsters". In France, the French Muslim leadership has thrown itself into saving the journalists and into committing themselves to France and its laws. All the seething confrontations over the hijab ban have been put aside.

If they succeed in getting the French journalists released, we may just begin the long journey back to human decency. If not, and the passing of deadlines is not a good sign, yet again the world will perceive all Muslims as barbarians unfit to share the planet with the rest of humanity.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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