Pakistan’s mini-9/11?

Jan 2015

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

“A German officer visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. There he saw the Guernica and, shocked at the modernist chaos of the painting, asked Picasso: Did you do this? Picasso calmly replied: No, you did this.”

Slavoj Žižek, Violence

After enduring disastrous experiments with sectarian and ideological terrorism, Pakistan has found itself behind a one-way mirror, trying to identify its personal 9/11 from an endless parade of tragedies.

It is a painful and difficult list to pick from; the face of atrocity is the same everywhere – be it the bombing of the All Saints Church in Peshawar, the genocide of the Hazaara community, or the routine demonisation and public denigration of the Ahmadi sect.

I have to pinch myself when I think about the point-blank shooting of the then 12-year-old Malala Yousafzai and the subsequent fabrications and conspiracy theories that were concocted to disown and demean her ordeal; or when I go through the other indistinguishable memories that reel out like a state-endorsed snuff film: the lynching of a young Christian couple by more than 1500 people, the storm of bullets summoned by Salman Taseer’s own security guard that brought his life and the debate around the treacherous blasphemy law to a deafening silence. The list seems unreal and rolls out like infinity as we sit in our boardrooms, watching and waiting.

To impose distinctions upon these tragedies is a strictly arbitrary exercise, which is why it becomes important to understand and reflect upon the following on the one month anniversary of the school-massacre in Peshawar: Why did it elicit the most ‘game-changing’ exhortations?  Why did the incident galvanize the most ardent Malala-haters into experiencing a divine moment of doubt? When so many tragedies have been laid to a meaningless waste due to our apathy (or our powerlessness – but let’s be honest), why has this tragedy triumphed where others have failed?


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It can’t be the simple provocation of our innate desire to protect children – after all, who is lamenting the number of children killed (or orphaned) by U.S. drones or in Pakistan’s own military escapades? How many of those orphaned by state (or fate) have perished under traffic signals, begging for some spare change? The answers to these questions portray a picture in which Pakistan does not seem very sentimental about children and is yet to demonstrate any meaningful concern about their safety.

However, children are offered symbolic exaltations: Uncontaminated by the difficult moral choices an adult has to make, they represent innocence and possibility. We call them the future of our country. The vigils that were organized in honor of the victims alluded to this symbolism: invitations read out ‘walk for the innocent’, etc. Watching pictures of a school auditorium flooded with children’s blood is bound to penetrate our sensory filters and strike deep.

But if what makes this tragedy different is the invasive brutality with which the innocence of our newest victims has been violated, then we are emphatically and inadvertently insinuating guilt on all the victims of previous atrocities; The aforementioned Christian couple, lynched and burned alive – were they asking for it? The Ahmadi doctor, murdered whilst volunteering his services at a Cardiac Hospital – was he asking for it? Malala Yousafzai and her friends, shot inside a school van – were those children guilty of some sin which made them deserving of such barbarity? Pakistanis need to reach a coherent consensus on these questions in order to avoid future catastrophes. No doubt, this atrocity has shocked Pakistanis into wondering how an act so heartless could ever occur in their country. It has riled the cautious into action – we are witnessing the picketing of dubious state-endorsed ‘mosques’, court actions against those who preach hate and an albeit small campaign to push for a policy-shift in the country’s notorious military (#AskGHQ). These are tiny measures towards a promising future. In that sense, we are still a hopeful people.

But in a confused and violent frenzy of emotions, Pakistan is acting on a sense of urgency. It feels it needs to do something and for that purpose, it is turning a political brain-storm into a piecemeal response which does not question but rather strengthens those ideologies and institutions responsible for  the nexus of Jihadi activity in the region. Key questions regarding the way Pakistan ought to comprehend its problems and how it can envision their solutions are being suppressed, as if they were unpatriotic interruptions in Pakistan’s freshly ordained mission against terrorism. This nationalist hubris, however, is at the heart of Pakistan’s ideological failures and it is already showing signs of the country’s sad return to the status quo.

Some Pakistanis demonstrated a penchant for absurdity by requesting nuclear force against the Taliban in Waziristan. For those who are not familiar with a map of Pakistan, Waziristan is in Pakistan!


Front page of The News the day after the attack. – Read: Why Peshawar Must Not Be Our 9/11 by Junaid S. Ahmad and Sania Sufi

Some others, who can accurately imagine the radius of an atomic explosion have asked for it to be used in the neighboring Afghanistan, whose supposedly lethargic government does not seem serious about combating terrorism. It is interesting to highlight the way Pakistan claims its own  sovereignty when India expresses condemnation over Pakistan’s cozy relations with certain militant groups who commit atrocities on their soil. It is as if this tragedy has transformed us into innocents, who have always been right and can never do any wrong. However, the above mentioned reactions are emotional outbursts of those who express their frustrations vicariously. There are other, more powerful, more influential players involved whose reactions will have a more enduring impact on the future of this country. It is these reactions which should worry the wider public because they produce  a multitude of reasons  in support of the status quo: there has been gossip about foreskins, and eye-signals have darted toward the eastern border. The constitution which during the preceding political turmoil was cited as a milestone of democratic order in the country, is being revamped to accommodate the inclusion of military courts.

How does one plan to establish the rule of law by legitimizing opaque trials is a question that should baffle the Pakistani public. One is discouraged to think that there might be any popular objection to a constitutional tampering with the legal process, when religious clerics and televangelists feel free to go on national television to incite blame and bigotry against minorities without any fear of prosecution nor any regard for evidence or proof of their claims. A man belonging to the accused minority, the Ahmadi Muslim community, was murdered five days after the above mentioned program was aired. Has the military swooped in to take these apologist-clerics and televangelists to task behind the closed doors of their newly furnished courts? Is their a public outcry against this act of terror? Terrorism will prevail until Pakistan uproots extremism, and extremism is entrenched in the following popular beliefs which often intertwine into a dangerously warped world view:

1. The Denial Twist. “No Muslim could ever kill another Muslim, or slay an innocent civilian in his line of duty. If Muslims and innocent civilians are being killed, then their killers must be non-Muslims. This proves that terrorism is not an indigenous issue, it is a Jewish/Indian/American/Ahmadi conspiracy.”

2. The Reluctant Apology. “No Muslim could ever kill another Muslim or slay an innocent civilian in his line of duty. So, these so-called Muslims are dying because they’re corrupt Muslims who have been poisoned by the liberal systems they support, and these innocent civilians must  not be innocent, but rather guilty of opposing the final exaltation of Islam. We feel protected by a Jihadi ideology, because we have benefited from it, both financially and politically. However, terrorism is an unpleasant and reactionary consequence of a misguided but ultimately legitimate cause: the establishment of Islam and Sharia as the supreme protection against the excesses and immoralities of the west and its supporters. We can make some leeway for disagreements regarding how this goal is to be achieved, but any disagreements about the nature of the goal itself will amount to direct treason/blasphemy.”

Frankly speaking, Pakistan is still reluctant to let go of these beliefs and hence, miles away from a ‘game-changing’ moment. One cannot expect any ideological shiftin the aftermath of this atrocity, especially if Pakistan is unable to tear apart the belief that it is an exceptional victim and thus, entitled to be a ruthless reactionary. Pakistanis are calling this massacre their own mini9/11 despite having spent the last decade espousing dismissive drawing-room myths about 9/11 and how it was orchestrated by a so-called Jewish lobby to give a bad name to good Muslims such as the freedom-fighting Taliban. Surely, it is time to eat the parabolic humble pie.

If the irony of our failures as an ideological nation-state is lost on us, then we are bound to make mistakes. One of the truly disturbing responses to the massacre is the vengeful exclusion of the moratorium on capital punishment for terrorism cases. Given a context where the relationship between activists and the state is a problematic one; where the PPO (Pakistan’s version of the Patriot Act) makes every civilian – without justification – a terror suspect in the eyes of the military; and where the judicial system seldom convicts the guilty, the death penalty legitimizes the ‘extra-judicial’ injustices that are already rife in this country. And if the idea here is to establish the writ of law, then a more inspired idea is needed because hanging someone to deter suicide bombers is hardly trying.

While we hang alleged terrorists who have been languishing in jails due to confessions extracted through torture and coercion, Salman Taseer’s assassin is providing sermons and ordering murders from his prison cell. And we are not even close to taking action against those who killed Benazir Bhutto, who died, seven years ago, yesterday.

Some commentators, who have otherwise been vocal on the defense of basic rights, have been ready to dismiss them in the establishment of military courts. They have outright defended this newest initiative in a knee-jerk attempt to solve a complex challenge. Such sensationalist initiatives have arguably duped these commentators, and many Pakistanis, into thinking that the government is taking a serious and sustainable approach to solving militancy.

If Pakistan truly wishes to say never again, then it needs to accept that the real solution lies in destroying the infrastructure of extremism, rather than attacking its symptoms chaotically – and in the case of capital punishment, irreversibly. In that respect, we are still a mess.

So far, Pakistan’s response at state-level has lacked the commitment required to make amends in a diseased system of self-perpetuating violence

In the coming months and years, Pakistan will have to address the fundamentals of this horrific massacre. Standing flabbergasted, as if pondering the modernist chaos of Picasso’s Guernica, Pakistanis will ponder on a number of issues: How could this happen and who did this? But, whatever these inquiries uncover, here is to hoping that these children will still have a future in the history of this broken country.

Farhad Mirza is a free-lance journalist, based in Lahore. He is a regular contributor to various publications in Pakistan, Kosovo and the UK.

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