Three weeks ago, on 16th December 2014, eight heavily armed attackers with backpacks containing extra ammunition scaled the walls of the Army Public School in Peshawar and set about slaughtering the children and their teachers. Dizzied by religious passions, the men roamed the classrooms searching for children cowering under desks and shouted Allah-o-Akbar before shooting them. Hit in both legs, Shahrukh Khan, 16, says he survived by playing dead. Another surviving student, Aamir Ali, says that two clean-shaven gunmen told students to recite the kalima before opening fire. The heroic principal rescued a batch of younger students to safety and then returned to returned to fetch more but her mission proved futile. The attackers tied her to a chair, doused her with gasoline, and set her alight before her students. Of the 142 dead, 134 were children. Taliban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani released pictures of the 8 “martyrs”, justifying the killing of minors with reference to the Qur’an and Hadith. According to the Taliban, the Pakistan Army is the enemy of Islam and an agent of the United States.
A decade that has claimed over 50,000 lives has left Pakistanis inured against atrocities. But this gut-wrenching massacre left the country aghast and sickened. Political leaders, commentators, and anchor persons called for unity against terrorism. Prisoners convicted on terrorism charges were rushed off to the gallows, political parties reluctantly sanctioned military courts, and TV channels were uncharacteristically dominated by calls to fight terrorism. The 4-month long sit-in by supporters of Imran Khan, an opposition politician who alleges fraud in the 2012 elections, had to be called off.
What of the claims that the Peshawar massacre is a 911-like moment that will weld the nation together against Islamic terrorists? The fact is that all tragedies provoke emotional exhortations. But the divides are too deep to be bridged by one more. Nothing changed much after Lakki Marwat when 105 spectators of a volleyball match were killed by a suicide bomber in a pickup truck. Or, when 96 Hazara Shias playing in a snooker club died in a double suicide attack. The 127 dead in the All Saints Church bombing in Peshawar, or the 90 Ahmadis killed while stooped in prayer, are now dry statistics. In 2012, men in military uniforms stopped four buses bound from Rawalpindi to Gilgit, demanding that all 117 persons alight and show their national identification cards. Then, in Gestapo fashion, those with typical Shia names like Abbas and Jafri, were separated. Minutes later 46 corpses lay on the ground.
If Pakistan had a collective conscience, just one single fact could have woken it up: the murder of nearly 60 polio workers – women and men who work to save children from a crippling disease – at the hands of the fanatics who think of polio vaccine as an American plot to reduce fertility in Islamic Pakistan.
Hence the horrible inevitability: from time to time, Pakistan shall continue to witness more such catastrophes. No security measures can ever prevent attacks on soft targets. As of the time of this writing, all schools and universities in the country are closed. But will this really help?
The only possible solution is to change mind-sets. For this the country must grapple with three hard facts.
First, Pakistan must shed its delusion that the killers are outsiders or infidels. Instead, they are fighting a war for the same reason Boko Haram fights in Nigeria, ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Al-Shabab in Kenya, etc. The men who slaughtered the schoolchildren are fighting for a dream – to destroy Pakistan as a Muslim state and recreate it as an Islamic state. This is why they also attack airports and shoot at planes bearing the Pakistan International Airlines insignia. They see these as necessary steps towards their utopia.
Many have bought into the propaganda over TV and newspapers that terrorists who have attacked schools, airports, mosques, and other public places are Hindus, Jews, Christians, or Ahmadis. This has confused the public and diverted attention away from the real enemy. Television anchors and political personalities have made their fortunes and careers by fabricating wild theories. On numerous occasions I have had the chance to confront the right-wing ideologue General Hamid Gul and his son Abdullah Gul on various TV channels. They adamantly insisted that suicide attackers targeting public places were not circumcised and hence not Muslim. Though body parts are plentifully available for inspection these days, they have not retracted earlier claims.
Second, Pakistan must recognize that sympathy for terrorism is widespread among the public because they are seen as fighting for an Islamic cause. The hanging of two convicted terrorists after the Peshawar massacre drew thousands of mourners. An overwhelming majority of Pakistan’s youth thinks of itself as Muslim first and Pakistani second. In a Pew Global survey, 84% of those polled favoured sharia over secular law.
Among political leaders who have created space for terrorism, none is more blameworthy than Imran Khan, the icon of millions of immature minds. His opposition to US drone strikes made him a hero for many on the left, but his sympathy for the Taliban was never in doubt. Even when they claimed responsibility for various atrocities, he chose to blithely condemn the acts but not name the perpetrators. The Peshawar massacre was the first exception, but the condemnation is contained only in a tweet. For a man who uses the strongest language against political opponents and has hogged TV channels for months, he has yet to speak up.
It was even worse earlier. In 2009, as the Taliban took over Swat, we argued this out on prime-time TV. He claimed that the Taliban in Swat were fighting a war of liberation against the Americans. When I asked why they were fighting in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan – and killing Pakistani policemen, soldiers, and teachers – he accused me of being an American agent and then later attempted to physically attack me. Readers can google this video.
Third, if Pakistan is to be at peace with itself then it must seek peace with its neighbours and begin disassembling the apparatus of jihad. Created by the joint efforts of the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it was seen after the Soviet collapse by the Pakistani military as a cheap way of bleeding India in Kashmir and having a Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul.
But the bitter truth is that you reap what you sow. Massive militant establishments now hold the Pakistani state hostage. They run their own training centres, hospitals, and disaster relief programs. When Sartaj Aziz, adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs, said last month that Pakistan was not going to target militant groups which “did not pose a threat to the state”, he accidentally spilled the beans. In fact he was merely restating Pakistan’s well-known zero-sum paradigm – we live to hurt others, not to better ourselves. While bewailing the murder of its children, Pakistan needs to acknowledge that its soil has been used time and again for inflicting grief and sorrow across the world by those on a mission to Islamicize the world. Today it is not just India and Afghanistan who accuse Pakistan, but also China and Iran.
There are only some signs that the massacre might lead to a greater understanding of the causes behind terrorism. For over a week a few hundred civil society activists have been holding vigils outside Islamabad’s Red Mosque. They were initiated by a hitherto unknown young man, Jibran Nasir, who is now braving assassination threats from the Taliban spokesperson, Ehsanullah Ahsan. We have been demanding the dismissal of Maulana Abdul Aziz, the head cleric of this government mosque, and an outspoken supporter of ISIS. Aziz and his brother led an insurrection in 2007 against the Pakistani state, and then called in suicide bombers once they were defeated. Years later, the state is still too afraid to take action against him but we are heartened by the issuance of an arrest order for Aziz. This is, of course, only a moral victory and not something that we expect the state will implement.
By launching military action in North Waziristan some months ago, Pakistan’s new army chief has done well to break with his timid predecessor. North Waziristan should never have become the epicenter of terrorism. General Raheel Sharif has also met with President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul to demand the extradition of the Pakistan Taliban supremo Mullah Fazlullah, now ensconced on the Afghan side. But what of Mullah Omar? The Pakistan Taliban, mortal enemy of the Pakistan Army, and the Afghan Taliban, friend of the Pakistan Army, are two sides of the same coin. I wonder if President Ghani asked General Sharif to help extradite Mullah Omar for facing justice before the Afghan people.
Like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, and many other countries with Muslim majorities, Pakistan is engaged in an existential war with religious terrorism. This is likely to take generations and the outcome is uncertain. Impervious to reason and evidence, the primitive-minded fanatic has increased his lethality by borrowing modern weaponry and communication technology while insulating himself from modern ideas and norms of civilization. The prognosis is grim: the seductive promise of a sharia utopia will inspire him towards ever more destructive and cruel actions.
The author teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad
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