The Line Between Good and Evil | Daanish Mustafa

Apr 2013

Last week, during a visit to Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, I thought about looking up a friend at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE). The institute’s new building is behind high walls, which I thought was odd for an academic institution. But then, what really upset me, was the checking at the reception and the need for me to surrender my national ID card to get entry to the hallowed halls of PIDE. Being a bit of a busy body, I could not let it go. I had to quiz the receptionist about the logic of having GHQ style security protocols for an academic institution. The response was that given the situation in the country with suicide bombings all over the place, the administration wanted to secure the facilities. I caustically observed that it appears that the terrorists have won! If the objective is to shroud seats of learning in secrecy and removed from public space then the Taliban and their fellow travellers have succeeded famously.

In my previous blog I had talked about the deeper meaning of politics, which beyond the instrumental power and electoral politics is about performance and appearance in the world. Such politics, I argued, are in fact, constitutive of the public sphere where humans make themselves known to others and through their actions recognize their own humanity in the diversity of the rest of humanity. This non-instrumental performance of politics, what Hannah Arendt calls worldliness, on the one hand lends political valence to the most mundane and pervasive of human activities of carnivals, sports and street performance. On the other hand, I argue that because such politics are the ultimate expressions of political and cultural freedom they are the real targets of totalitarian obscurantist terror of the type that the Taliban and their fellow travelers have perpetuated in Pakistan.

Here, the use of the term terror/terrorism may give pause to some readers of the progressive bend of mind. After all isn’t terrorism a label used by the world’s politico-military elites to delegitimize the emancipatory violence of the poor and oppressed, while legitimizing their own violence in the name of national security and defence of civilization? There is considerable weight in this critique. But for better or for worse—mostly for the worse, the term terrorism is here with us and we need to contest its ownership by the world’s elites, and seek fair and neutral definitions of it, which could help protect lives, but also deprive the nation states and elites of the shibboleth to demonize others. Towards that end I propose the following definition of terrorism:

An act of violence, different from other acts of violence, e.g., genocide, war, war crimes, political assassinations, etc. in that it is (1) a spectacle directed towards a wider audience than the immediate victims, (2) directed towards place destruction, and/or (3) place alienation. (Mustafa, 2005, p. 79)

Here the point is that you are a victim of terrorism, not because who you are or what you have done, but rather where you are. The key insight here is that terrorism is a deeply place based phenomena. Here place is different from location. A location becomes a place when human emotions, memories and experiences intersect with geographical space. It is the same notion that makes a house a home, a country a homeland or a grave a shrine.

Taliban or any other violent movements’ terror is typically directed towards either destroying places of cultural, spiritual, emotional or political meaning to a target audience and/or to make people afraid of certain places and spaces, thereby constricting space for civilian life.

The Taliban in Swat gave ample demonstration of such place destruction and place alienation. They seemed to know as well as the government that public sphere is not only a descriptor of civilian life but also includes places within which life takes place—they are life spaces. Control of life—especially of human female life­must start with the constriction and ultimately total control of the life spaces. The Taliban, during their rule in Swat, routinely used public intersections in Mingora and other cities as human abattoirs where perceived spies and opponents were slaughtered like animals and their mutilated bodies left hung on electricity poles for days on end. The point of this brutality was not so much to punish the perpetrator­that could have been done much more easily with just a bullet to the head­but rather to serve as a warning to the wider audience of the Swati people about the Taliban’s control of their life spaces and the public sphere.

The Taliban were an extreme example of this constriction of the public sphere. As the great Russian writer, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, reminds us:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The Pakistani state structures and our patriarchal society hasn’t been shy about constricting the life spaces of people, especially those deemed incapable of being perfect Pakistanis, Muslims, momins or whatever the flavor of the age. Such unperfectables for the Taliban were women or Shias, for the Pakistani state they might be the Baloch nationalists or fauji-hating liberals. In the aftermath of the Swat war, in the name of security, the life space of the populace have been constricted by state through security checks, curfews and search and seizure operations. The Swati patriarchal society on the other hand, to a lesser extent than the Taliban, always constricted women’s life spaces—perhaps based upon males pathological fear of supposedly uncontrollable female sexuality. But I digress.

The point is that the best bulwark against the ingress of Taliban like totalitarian movements is the expansion and protection of spaces for people to engage in worldliness. It is through that worldliness that we negotiate the line between good and evil that cuts through our hearts. In the absence of that wordliness, we end up in an echo chamber of our fears and vanities. It is also in that echo chamber of contemporary Pakistani society that the receptionist at PIDE had to concede that, “Yes, they have indeed won, and we have lost.”

Daanish Mustafa is a Reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. He spends his time contesting the despostism of the reader over the message of the Author.

Pages: 1 2 3

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *