Terror talk

Published August 6, 2013

NOWADAYS in Karachi one only has to invoke the spectre of terrorism to clarify how and why violence is enacted.

‘Terror talk’ has subsumed the virtual space of media and the everyday space of living where people can accuse neighbours of being Taliban, being their informants, or having being seen in their company.

The state plays a central role in contributing to this talk as it conveniently blames most violent acts, from assassinations, kidnappings to extortion on this elusive enemy.

We do not whitewash the very real violence of mass murder and bombings visited upon Karachi, but question the way a certain kind of violence and its alleged perpetrators become shorthand for everything that is wrong with Karachi.

When terror talk permeates public and private space, it provides a readymade scapegoat for the city’s troubles. This discourse shifts attention away from everyday terrors rooted in long-standing issues that remain unaddressed in Pakistan’s 65-year history.

In public discourse, this terror is presented as irrational, without an understandable cause and is easier to accept than the terror of crippling poverty, unemployment and exploitation; consequences of class oppressions a majority of Karachi’s residents experience daily.

The violence visited by the state remains invisible as the violence of the ‘other’. The terrorist becomes the ultimate threat to the nation, to civilisation itself. This terror is a handy justification for a violent state response and for greater application of state control. It facilitates distinction between those who present themselves as sane, secular and liberal and those who are not, though not for any clear reason we can understand.

One needs to listen to the diverse ways people experience violence on ground. Moreover, to understand how the ‘war on terror’ generates new geographies of despair and scarcity where people fleeing conflict seek refuge in the city where they face precarious conditions. Terror talk takes over as they bear the brunt of state violence and the suspicions of those who feel they own this city, a suspicion bordering on xenophobia.

The handy discourse of terrorism justifies the targeting of communities firmly cast as different and seen to poach on ‘our’ resources and ‘our’ land. Meanwhile, land and resources are bartered, brokered, speculated on and exploited to the advantage of the self-appointed owners of the city.

The stories of people fleeing the conflict in Waziristan shed some light on the murky terrain that is the ‘war on terror’. Having experienced traumatic conditions, people name multiple and diverse perpetrators often belonging to the state security apparatus. “Would the Taliban desecrate the Quran and burn mosques?” they ask while recounting how they fled homes.

They talk about being humiliated by the army in its ‘clean-up’ operations that have catalysed extensive population displacements. Whilst in the inner city gangs and their leaders are again conflated with terrorists to create a seamless melding of one kind of violence into another.

Irrationality prevails as senseless violence can only be met with brute force. “Bring the army in, the streets need to be cleansed” some residents proclaim, implying unhesitatingly, that killing them all is the only response to, well, killing them all.

“What is Taliban?” asks a middle-aged, Pakhtun migrant from Mardan struggling to build her home in Karachi’s periphery. “Hindu hai? Musalman hai? Taliban kya hai?” She says her new neighbours from Waziristan are different: “They are Taliban types”. Here being Taliban conveys an ‘otherness’ where people different in terms of customs, gendered norms and practices, or with primary loyalties to family and village are cast in the familiar idiom of potential dehshatgards.

It is bad enough the newly arrived bear the trauma of displacement. Even worse they confront the uncertainty of competing for resources, jobs, housing and neighbourhood power monopolised by Karachi’s protectors.

Terror talk produces infrastructures that lubricate the wheels of state coercion. Highways, roads, streets, transport that form a connective tissue are disrupted and become an extension of a battle space in which vio-lence and insecurity are experienced.

Ham-fisted, largely ineffectual and contributing to Karachi’s maladies, Rangers’ operations symbolise the penultimate state response against the spectre of terrorism. Rangers not only secure the state’s agendas in the face of socio-political upheaval, but also are part of the problem. Their actions contribute to bouts of violence and challenge the state’s legitimacy.

Rangers’ authority often makes them difficult to control and fuels a culture of impunity ordinary citizens resent. Rangers’ operations in Karachi cover territories that extend from the inner city outward into peripheral zones where new abadis of migrants have increasingly become the object of state surveillance.

Rangers turn up at the steps of unsuspecting citizens, knocking down doors, rifling through belongings, and in the process terrify women and children. State violence insidiously weaves its way into people’s everyday lives. For those already living in precarious conditions, these interventions or ‘cleansing operations’ make peoples’ lives more edgy, insecure and vulnerable.

Predictably, it is often the poor who are conflated with terrorism. Dominant discourses are meant to consolidate the power of those who rule and make the rules. Such discourses criminalise those on the margins and provide ready justifications for the actions of the powerful.

Terror talk serves a productive purpose by creating categories into which those on the margins can be conveniently slotted.

It essentialises communities in a way that acts of violence appear to be inherent to particular identities whether religious or ethnic. These assumptions, containing many stereotypes, exacerbate existing inequalities and entrench the power relations that support them. We need to pay attention to the complex web of power relations and interests that serve to gain from such categorisations and expose them when we can.

Nausheen H. Anwar is a research fellow, Asia Research Institute, National University Singapore. Sarwat Viqar is a PhD candidate, School of Community and Public Affairs, Concordia University, Montreal.

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