Thursday, January 29, 2009
By Kamila Hyat
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor
Through history, people have tended to come together to face common enemies or ward off a dangerous threat. The sometimes unusual alliances seen during major wars, crossing boundaries of ideology and belief, are an example of this. Such allegiances have cropped up in Europe, in China and in many other places through history. We see them too in the opportunistic political alliances that we have seen again and again in our country.
But even while we are up against an enemy of enormous dimensions in Pakistan, the realization that the scale of the threat is immense has still apparently to dawn. There are numerous divisions and sub-divisions in society and these have indeed been a factor in allowing this enemy to grow, sometimes insidiously like a kind of weed. Occasionally, on the murky city walls of Karachi, one comes across a small sticker saying 'Stop Talibanisation in Pakistan'. It seems though that this is the extent of our protest against a phenomenon that now threatens to engulf the whole country and the way of life within it.
This is not an alarmist representation of facts. While it must be hoped such an eventuality never arises, the danger signs cannot simply be ignored or wished away. Even in Karachi, our most cosmopolitan city, there are neighbourhoods where the Taliban are said to be in control of daily life, ordering people to attend mosques or adopt other modes of 'Islamic' behaviour. Madrassahs spawn zealots across the urban centre and warnings from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the most influential political force in Karachi, of a rapid growth in Talibanization have gained added fervour and pitch over the last few months. In Lahore, there have been within the last six months at least three bombings targeting what extremists see as a lifestyle that goes against religious belief. Tiny juice shops, apparently used as dating spots by young student couples, were bombed in October last year. Those who suffered most were the owners of the small-scale businesses, whose tiny cafes were damaged and who have lost many customers. Similar low intensity blasts targeted the World Performing Arts Festival and two city theatres. Other businesses and even co-ed schools have received menacing phone calls warning them that the attacks on educational institutions in Swat could be repeated elsewhere.
This indeed has already happened in Peshawar, where schools have been attacked by thugs. There is also dangerous evidence that the evil that has taken hold in Swat, leading to boys as young as 16 being beaten as they had failed to grow a proper beard, is spreading. Reports from Quetta speak of women being barred from restaurants, which have been reserved for men only, and of militants warning other cafes to enforce the same rule, refusing to serve women on their premises.
Yet, despite these developments, divisions in our midst prevent us from opening a joint front against the militants. The two largest political parties in the country, the PPP and the PML-N, remain locked in an uneasy relationship that prevents cooperation. Distrust exists everywhere, with the acrimonious tussle between the Governor and the Chief Minister in the Punjab adding to the bitter after taste that lingers everywhere. The lawyer's movement has too been effectively split, with pro-PPP lawyers more or less pulling out. In circles from where voices against Talibanisation could be most vociferously raised, the view that a democratic government, especially one led by a party that still labels itself as 'liberal', must be given a chance dampens zeal. This opinion is a legitimate one, but political affiliation must not stand in the way of principal.
These divisions though are minor ones compared to a far more dangerous chasm that exists. Everywhere, sometimes even in the most unexpected places, it is possible to find people who back the Taliban. A few do so on the basis that they are a force that opposes the US; most though believe they stand for what is good and true to religion. Such voices can be heard within the bureaucracy, the armed forces and among many citizens. The fact that they exist prevents an all-out battle from being waged against the Taliban. Indeed, there seems to be a tendency to 'glorify' the bearded fighters who have terrorized areas across the north. Tales are told of their miraculous victories, the skill and determination of their combatants and their 'good' deeds. It is only over the past few days that we have begun also to hear of undiluted evil in places like Swat.
The complication means there have as yet been few public protests against Talibanisation. Women in Lahore, Islamabad and other cities have rallied against the mayhem unleashed in Swat. But these token gatherings have not grown into anything bigger. Surely major groups, including mainstream parties, professionals, students and labour unions should all come together against the kind of madness that has overtaken us. It has already devastated the lives of thousands. The true toll is not known. Outside the northern areas too, terrifying tales are heard. In Lahore, two sisters attending an elite college suddenly quit after their father, lured into its fold by a religious group, ordered them into strict seclusion. In other city neighbourhoods parents tell tales of similar efforts to indoctrinate adult children. In Islamabad, a young man kidnapped by militants but returned after the payment of a huge ransom, has himself reportedly adopted an extremist lifestyle.
Many kinds of extremist groups exist in our midst. Some use guns to drive home their message; others nothing more than words, pamphlets or websites. In many ways both are equally dangerous. They have contributed to the dichotomy that now exists and prevents a united stand when extremists bomb schools or murder people in cold blood. The widespread perception that the US-led war on terror is a grotesquely unfair one adds to the complications. Barack Obama will need to move well beyond the symbolically significant closing down of the Guantanamo Bay prison to bring about any change in this perception.
Internally too, there is a need for a re-think – perhaps to match the one currently taking place in the White House. Some fires need to be put out immediately to prevent them destroying structures that have taken years or decades to build. An enormous mistake was made through the Musharraf years and even before that by failing to stamp out the initial sparks of militancy. Today, we are beginning to feel the full ferocity of the blaze these sparks have ignited. The question is whether we can bring it under some kind of control before it chars, blackens and finally completely devours our society.