DAWN - Opinion; November 6, 2001

Nov 06 2001

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New headlines speak volumes

By Shahid Javed Burki


PAKISTAN is now cited as the West’s most important ally in the war against international terrorism. That Pakistan willingly joined this enterprise reflects the thinking of the leadership in Islamabad. It is their reading that, by taking part in this effort, Pakistan may be able to solve some of its own problems.

For the last several years, there has been a palpable increase in the number of people who have abandoned modernization in favour of fundamentalism. While General Musharraf is correct in suggesting that the fundamentalist forces command the allegiance of only a small fraction of the population, the people who have been caught in this net are noisy. They are also capable of disrupting life in the major cities of the country. And, as tragically demonstrated by the attack on a church in Bahawalpur on October 28 that claimed the lives of 16 Christians, they are capable of mounting bloody attacks on innocent people in Pakistan. The war on international terrorism gives Pakistan the opportunity to address this menace.

There is also an opportunity to deal with Pakistan’s economic problems. It has been apparent for quite a long while that without the support of the international community, Pakistan will not be able to climb out of what the economists call a low-level equilibrium trap. The country immediately needs a large dose of foreign capital to remedy the situation created by the conflict in Pakistan. There are reports that Pakistan may lose $2 to $2.5 billion in export earnings as a result of the cancellation of orders by foreign buyers. The immediate relief offered needs to be followed by longer-term commitments of official development flows.

They are required to reduce the enormous burden of debt carried by the country and also to augment our meagre savings. And official development assistance must come in company with a constant flow of foreign direct investment and access to the markets of the West for the goods in which Pakistan has a comparative advantage. The West has expressed a willingness to help Pakistan in these areas. But will it persevere in this effort?.

For these reasons, the conduct, the scope and the growing debate in the West surrounding the war in Afghanistan acquires great importance for Pakistan. In this two part article, I have raised a number of issues of great relevance for Pakistan. I will begin with a discussion of the debate on the duration of the war. There were two possible outcomes for Pakistan’s current engagement in Afghanistan, the third in just over twenty years. After a few days of ceaseless and intensive bombings, the United States, Pakistan’s partner once again in the Afghanistan project, could have destroyed the governing infrastructure of the ruling Taliban regime, and killed or captured Osama bin Laden and Mulla Muhammad Omar. With these two men taken out of circulation, the world-wide al-Qaeda network would have been weakened. Over time, the US, working with its allies around the world, could have destroyed the al-Qaeda organization cell by cell in dozens of countries in which it supposedly exists and from which it is said to be preparing more attacks on the West.

The other outcome was to have the beginning of the October 7 bombings of Afghanistan’s major cities become the first short step in a long journey towards the conduct of what President George W. Bush has described as the first war of the 21st century. This war would last not for a day or two, or even for a few weeks. It would be fought for many months and years and its aim would go way beyond the destruction of the Taliban regime and the elimination of its main leaders and supporters. The objective of this war, then, would not just be the conquest of foreign territory, or the subjugation of foreign people, or even the killing or capture of a group of leaders. It would be much more subtle than that - and, therefore, much more difficult. It would involve changing and conquering the minds and hearts of thousands of young people across the globe.

That appeared to have been the objective when the United States began preparing for this new war. That objective also seems to have been conveyed to the dozen or so allies the United States assembled to launch the counter-assault on international terrorism. In his address to the US Congress, President Bush used the language and rhythm of the Biblical texts. He promised to bring the terrorists to justice or justice to the terrorists. Justice will be done, he assured not only his immediate audience in the Congress Chamber, but also the millions of people who watched him on the TV across the globe. It was clear to all those who heard his speech or read his words that the US was entering a conflict that could last a long time.

With the objective defined in such a nebulous way, it would be difficult to see how — and when — this first war of the 21st century would come to an end. In the presidential campaign, George W. Bush criticized President Bill Clinton, his predecessor, for entering regional conflicts without a well-articulated exit strategy. But, as it turns out, the first war President George W. Bush was to fight would be very different from all the other wars in which the US has participated in the past. In the open-ended struggle against international terrorism, the term ‘exit strategy’ has little meaning. In the same vein, George W. Bush had argued before assuming his country’s presidency that America should not enter a conflict without being able to define victory. Now, four weeks into the conflict in Afghanistan, his administration was still searching for an answer to the question: what constitutes victory in the war against international terrorism?

One tentative answer to this important question came from Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence: “I think you can go after a problem to a point that you are satisfied that the American people are going to be able to live their lives in relative freedom.” This answer is not very helpful; it only raises some further questions: For instance, when will the citizens of the United States feel they can live their lives without fear? Who will determine that such a state of comfort has been attained for the citizens of America? Should the aim of this conflict be to achieve safety also for the citizens of the countries that have gathered under the American umbrella to fight international terrorism? For obvious reasons, the last question has considerable importance for the people of Pakistan and one the Pakistanis will ask if terrorism picks up in their country. That it may happen was demonstrated vividly by the incident in Bahawalpur.

It is easy to appreciate why many people in the United States — if not most of the country’s citizens — would have wanted to see the first outcome. Such a result would be neat, achieved over a short period of time and allow the Americans to return to their old rhythm of life. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that the struggle against international terrorism will not reach an early conclusion. Which of the two results would suit Pakistan? This is not an easy question to answer. Although I will get to it in a later article, at this point I would like to only suggest that a brief and sharp war against terrorism would have left Pakistan facing its consequences for a long time. The US and its western allies would have once again withdrawn into their safe havens as they did following the war in Afghanistan in 1979-1989. I will discuss later what kind of engagement is most desirable for Pakistan. In the meantime, let me deal with the enormous change in expectation, the souring of the national mood and the clouding of the atmosphere we have witnessed in the past few days in the United States.

A couple of weeks after the start of bombings of Afghanistan, newspaper headlines began to signal a change in the mood and expectation of the American people. “Ground raids seen as long and risky” said a headline in The New York Times of October 25. “Pentagon says Taliban is ready for long fight” was the headline for its front-page story on Afghanistan on the same day. A day later, on October 26, The Wall Street Journal put out its main story under the heading: “If Afghan war stalls, religion and winter may loom large.” This change in the assessment of the situation was not confined to the United States. It was also shared by America’s allies in Europe. “Allies preparing for a long fight as Taliban dig in: Optimism of early October fading, eventual victory is seen,” proclaimed The New York Times in its extensive coverage of October 28. “A military quagmire remembered: Afghanistan as Vietnam” was the title of an analysis in The New York Times in its issue of October 31.

In fact, this was not the first time the American mood was changing so dramatically. The first change occurred on September 11 when the terrorist attacks on New York felled the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. That attack suddenly brought to an end the optimism and the exuberance of what journalist Haynes Johnson in his new book, “The Best of Times” calls the millennial generation. This is the generation entering adulthood in the year 2000 with the expectation of peace and prosperity and a boundless belief in the private marketplace. One student of Stanford University had this to say to Johnson, the book’s author: “A lot of our generation feels we’re doing so well now, and America is succeeding in so many ways that there is not anything you feel charged to change at this point.” That sense of confidence was shattered by the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

To have fallen from such euphoric heights to the depths of despondency and fear has proved to be understandably traumatic for the American people. Now another change in the nation’s mood is occurring. It has become obvious that there will be no easy conclusion to this episode in American history. On October 30, the US Justice Department issued another warning of a credible terrorist threat to the US. The entire nation went on high alert as a consequence and police patrols appeared in all major cities.

To illustrate this change in mood, let me refer to an analysis in The New York Times that appeared recently under the title of “What power lies in the last ditch?” The “ditch” in the article’s title referred to the battle of al-Badr “in which ... Prophet Muhammad’s forces staved off a superior, mounted force of non-believers by digging a trench.” Was something similar in the offing as America and its allies got deeply involved in the war in Afghanistan? The American commentators used with great reluctance and with a sense of foreboding the word “quagmire” since it reminded them of their unfortunate experience in Vietnam. But to several analysts, including the author of the article about al-Badr cited above, America seems to have plunged into the Afghan war not fully aware of the resistance it will run into.

According to one intelligence analyst: “The Taliban is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Is it a nation or is it a movement? Now, if you destroy the military capability of the Taliban, and if you take away 90 per cent of its following, and the rest go to the hills, you still have a movement. You don’t have a national government. You don’t have an army that can control the country. But if you try to completely destroy them, that’s a lot more difficult, particularly when they believe themselves to be based on an idea.”

(To be concluded)

What next in Afghanistan?

By Shameem Akhtar


THE round-the-clock bombing of Afghan cities by the Anglo-US warplanes and the admission by the US defence secretary and the British prime minister that it was almost impossible to capture Osama bin Laden alive or occupy Kandahar should bring home to Washington the bitter truth that there is no instant military solution to complex political problems in Afghanistan.

It was perhaps owing to this realization that diplomatic initiatives have been made in Islamabad with a view to forging a broad-based coalition of forces of all persuasions in that embattled country. The envoy of the 87-year-old exiled ex-ruler, Zahir Shah, Hedayat Arsala, conferred with Pakistan’s rulers about the formation of a government in Afghanistan and they together hammered out a peace formula that envisages the setting up of a transitional administration preparatory to the establishment of a multi-ethnic government that might also include certain moderate elements among the Taliban. The royal emissary is overly optimistic about winning over a section of those now aligned with the Taliban.

He also revealed that Zahir Shah and the Northern Alliance had agreed to form a supreme council which would convene a Loya Jirga meeting in Kabul to decide about the formation of a government of national reconciliation.

On the other hand, the Russian president lost no time in seizing the opportunity presented by the Taliban’s predicament. He rushed from Shanghai, where he had gone to attend the APEC summit, to Dushanbe to meet the Tajik President, Imamoli Rakhmanov, and Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the ousted Mujahideen government.

On October 22, in a joint statement made at the tripartite conference, Rabbani was appointed president and General Fahim defence minister. The Russian president demanded that the Taliban should surrender and promised technical, military and economic assistance to the Northern Alliance on an emergency basis. Needless to say, Iran also backs the move.

It seems that Russia, Iran and Tajikistan want to restore the ousted Rabbani government to power in Kabul after the defeat of the Taliban at the hands of the US. For the present Moscow has been using the US as the cat’s paw in Afghanistan. Certainly, this arrangement conflicts with Islamabad’s plan to have a friendly government in Kabul, possibly under Zahir Shah. This seems acceptable to the US.

By proclaiming the legitimacy of the Rabbani government, Russia wants its hard-core supporters in the Northern Alliance to occupy a dominant position in the country’s future coalition government. Until its operation, Washington had kept a distance from the Alliance in the hope that Taliban may come round to its side but they didn’t.

Now, the US has been supplying weapons to the Northern Alliance and its commando force has been fighting shoulder to shoulder with them against the Taliban.

The bombing raids have been providing cover to the Alliance forces so that they may capture Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul. In short, America has cultivated ties with the Northern Alliance but it is difficult for Washington to wean them away from Russia.

To the extent the Taliban irritant should be removed, the US, Russia and China have a common cause but it is difficult to say if this narrow consensus based on expediency could be lasting. Russia has not sent its forces to Afghanistan but has allowed its protectorates, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to grant bases to American forces for ground assault on the Taliban.

For its part, Pakistan is providing logistic and intelligence support for the American operations in Afghanistan. This could have provided sufficient leverage to Islamabad on Washington in influencing the government-making process for Afghanistan. But this is not so. The US has been publicly cold-shouldering Pakistan from the moment George Bush rejected General Musharaf’s expectation that the American action would be brief to Colin Powell’s latest announcement that Islamabad would not be allowed a veto in the formation of the future government in Afghanistan.

The attitude of Russia and America shows that the big powers are not going to allow a regional power such as Pakistan to establish its sphere of influence in a strategic region. If the American and Russian interests in the region do not clash, there is a likelihood of their agreeing to a neutral status for Afghanistan which had existed following the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907. This strategic equation was disturbed by Daud’s Moscow-backed coup in 1973, which ousted King Zahir Shah and culminated in Afghanistan’s eventual fall into the Soviet orbit.

As it is, the US has extended its tentacles to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the soft underbelly of Russia, and if the reported deal between King Zahir Shah and America about the grant of bases to the US in Badakhshan is correct, the post-Taliban Afghanistan would cease to be a neutral state. Entrenched in Badakhshan, the US will be able to monitor China’s nuclear plant in the nearby Xinjiang province. Never before had the West penetrated so deep into Central Asia.

With a compliant government in Kabul, America would get the concession agreement between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan for the laying of a gas pipeline amended to include the US company, UNOCOL, in the project.

China for the moment is excluded from the government-making process for Afghanistan. Enough for Beijing that the Taliban irritant is to be removed, enabling it to put down the separatist militancy in its volatile western province but it would soon discover that the US presence in the region could be a greater irritant than the Taliban.

In all this strategic calculus what is omitted is the reality on the ground in Afghanistan. The Taliban resistance has hardened and the morale of its forces remains undiminished while the West is now being apologetic about the extent of civilian casualties and the destruction of the county’s fragile infrastructure caused by its indiscriminate use of lethal weapons such as missiles and cluster bombs.

There has erupted a groundswell of opinion throughout the world against targeting civilian population, causing an exodus of Afghan refugees. The horrific consequences of the US offensive in Afghanistan have almost eclipsed the September 11 New York World Trade Centre carnage.

In the midst of the on-going war there can be no negotiations about the formation of the future government of Afghanistan. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have realized the inadvisability of foreign interference in the formation of a “broad-based” government in Afghanistan.

They would much rather have the Afghans themselves evolve such a government by an intra-Afghan dialogue. This calls for sustained negotiations among all the parties. The recent conference convened by Syed Ahmad Gilani, a Zahir Shah loyalist, in Peshawar was not representative of all segments of Afghan opinion. It was seen as stage-managed.

It may be recalled that the UN-sponsored peace process known as the Six-plus Two had been already under way involving the Taliban and the Northern Alliance but it was derailed by the US which chose to intervene in the civil war on behalf of one of the adversaries. It is high time the stalled talks were resumed, but first the US must stop its savage operations and withdraw its forces from the region.

A special kind of shame: ALL OVER THE PLACE

By Omar Kureishi


AN obituary notice in newspapers is an announcement of a bereavement in a family, a private grief that is made public, a way of communicating to friends and well-wishers that someone they knew has passed away.

One did not have to turn to an obituary notice to learn of the cold-blooded murder of 17 people in a church in Bahawalpur,it was the first lead in all the news bulletins of television channels and in a flash, the world knew. My own reaction was one of anger but once the enormity of this barbaric act had sunk in, anger gave way to sorrow, not for the dead but for ourselves. And had I been a stronger man, I would have wept and washed away the sorrow.

Instead, it has gnawed away at my insides as I have tried to make sense of it. Why? To what purpose? Who benefits? The murderers (I won’t dignify them and call them ‘assassins’) were no friends of Pakistan. They were, instead, its enemies. The swiftness with which they struck, killed and made good their escape, establishes that they were trained terrorists.

It was not a job of fanatical amateurs. Prima facie, it was an attempt to link it with the war in Afghanistan and thus malign Islam. The act has been emphatically condemned by all religious parties as well as others. I have not met a single person who has not been horrified by it.

The Christian community in Pakistan, small in numbers, has been peace-loving and has never been a source of any kind of trouble. Indeed, they have been exemplary citizens, as loyal to the country as anyone else. One member of the community has been the chief justice of the Supreme Court, others have held high ranks in the armed forces. They have lived without fear of persecution. All the more reason to suspect that they were not the real targets but a means to an end.

But having said this, there is no getting away from the fact that we have become a violent society, that the country is awash with arms and with mafias who are in the business of killing for profit. This is not a new development. Political parties and vested-interest groups have used activists for street-power and armed hoodlums for muscle-power.

Often, it has been difficult to distinguish between the two. Law-enforcers have seemed powerless, as well as clueless. It must say something that in the many high profile murders that have taken place, already too numerous to count, not a single murderer has been caught, what to say, brought to justice. Thus the perception is that the killers enjoy some kind of protection, official or unofficial. Whatever, the murderers are able to murder with impunity.

Is this entirely a failure of law-enforcers or is it some greater failure? Of the community or society? We have in our cities strikes for every conceivable cause but we have not been able to articulate our anxiety and concerns for our own safety, not been able to make a collective call for peace in our cities. I do not suggest strikes for they are counter-productive and succeed only in hurting the economy and adding to the hardships of the ‘silent majority’. But some way in making known in public what we say and feel in private.

I am not optimistic that the killers who opened fire on defenceless men, women and children in the church in Bahawalpur will be caught and punished. If the killers knew that there was even a fraction of a chance of getting caught, they would not have been as brazen as they were.

Admittedly a place of worship is a soft target. If it were to become a fortress, it would cease to be a place of worship. But the killers came on motor-cycles, in broad daylight, made no attempt to mask their faces or in any way, conceal their identities, were convinced that after their foul deed, they would be able to leave without let or hindrance.

I have always been fascinated by the psychological make-up of a professional hitman. Clearly his sensitivities have been numbed and to that extent he is a person acting with diminished responsibility. But at what stage in his life does he decide that he will take up killing people as a means of livelihood, as a profession? Is he a family man? Does the family know what the bread-winner does to feed and clothe them?

Many turn to crime when all doors to make a living are shut on them. But they don’t become hit-men. There has to be some special kind of rejection or some extra motivation. Human life is cheap. It seems to be the only thing that is cheap these days and so the financial motivation is not compelling. Still, it seems to be a no-risk career and it’s probably better than working in a factory or hacking a taxi.

Last week I had written that the cricket in Sharjah would help to take our minds of the war in Afghanistan. But then came this massacre in Bahawalpur. But it will soon be forgotten. The capacity to forget is a built-in mechanism for absorbing sorrow. This does not mean that we are unfeeling. Only blind in heart. But then we can console ourselves that ours is not the only violent society.

The whole world has become a killing field and seems to be spinning out of control and we are hastening our collective destruction with the bang of bombs raining down on Afghanistan and the whimper of anthrax. Will we ever be able to put the pieces together again? It will need a special kind of optimist to believe that we will be able to do so. As one looks up at the sky, there is no trace of a silver lining in the dark clouds hanging over us. And there appears to be no end to the madness with which we are being punished. September 11, 2001 changed the world. It also imperilled the future of it.

Bush strategy

PRESIDENT Bush’s planned speeches and meetings next week are a part of the battle against terrorism. It’s not enough to take action; the action must be explained and justified.

There are reasonable questions about strategy and tactics. Is the bombing of Afghanistan hurting the United States in the arena of public opinion more than it is helping in destroying bases of the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan who shelter Bin Laden?

When bombs hit a Red Cross warehouse or fall on villages and kill innocent Afghans, what is done to prevent similar occurrences? Will continuing the bombing of Muslims during the month of Ramadan turn Islamic moderates against the United States?

The US leaders have stressed the need for patience and reminded people that the war on terrorism has many components. —Los Angeles Times

Time to tame the fanatics

By Prof. Khalid Mahmud


WHOEVER was behind the wanton killings in the Bahawalpur church the government cannot escape responsibility for the security lapse. It was a terrorist attack in broad daylight which followed a familiar pattern. Yet the criminals got away without the government having any clue about the killers — their motive and identity. That the law enforcement agencies always arrive on the scene only after the damage has been done and never to prevent organized violence has unfortunately been the hallmark of the mode of governance in the country, no matter who happens to be at the helm.

We were told by Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider a long time ago that the government was determined to stamp out violence and lawlessness. President Pervez Musharraf has now said that he has worked out a long-term strategy to cope with the law and order situation and will soon share his thoughts with the people.

Notwithstanding vows of setting things right which evoke more scepticism than hope, pronouncements like sparing no efforts to catch the culprits and giving them exemplary punishment make no sense to the people. Scores of horrific terrorist attacks, like the one in Bahawalpur, have happened in the past. Bullets were sprayed into mosques and people offering prayers were killed in cold blood, but most perpetrators, are still at large, although we are told that some of the known terrorists fled to Afghanistan and the Taliban regime refused to extradite them. Whether it is sheer incompetence, a low level of operational capability, or lack of the requisite will and persistence that has prevented the law enforcement agencies, their intelligence wings in particular, from proving equal to the task of combating the menace, the government’s track record in preserving public peace has been dismal.

To see “foreign” or “hidden” hand behind such occurrence is a convenient cover for lack of performance. While one cannot rule out the possibility of infiltrators from across the border, or mercenaries on the payroll of the Indian intelligence carrying out “missions” on its behalf like the Bahawalpur massacre, the tendency to over-extend. This possibility to cover many acts of terror and subversion in the country is senseless. We have been lampooning the Indians for their ‘ISI phobia’. Good sense lies in not falling into the same trap by overplaying the ‘enemy hand’ thing while overlooking our own failings. No doubt, the Indians are up to all kinds of mischief to malign Pakistan. And it suits their vilification campaign when 16 Christians, mostly women and children, fall victim to a terrorist attack in Pakistan, and the government is seen doing nothing better than merely making loud protestations of its “firm resolve” to track down the killers whoever and wherever they are, and bring them to justice.

Bahawalpur has for quite sometime been the venue of religious extremism. Islamic warriors of various hues have been quite active in spreading their militants creed and raising cadres. There have also been reports of open display of arms and extortion of funds by the so-called jihadi groups. Little wonder the local bishop saw the church incident as a retaliation for the US bombing on Afghanistan, as he recalled rabble-rousers vowing to avenge the killings of the Muslims in a rally held in Bahawalpur a few days earlier.

That there are religious fanatics in the country callous enough to kill in cold blood innocent women and children as part of what they regard as a ‘holy war’ is a bitter reality. Whether they are ignorant people, misguided elements, or criminals in the garb of religious warriors, they are a factor to reckon with in the context of any plan or strategy to combat terrorism and religious extremism.

It was easier to deal with Islamic warriors blocking the Karakorum Highway to protest against Islamabad’s support for the US military action in Afghanistan, even though they disrupted traffic on a strategic highway linking Pakistan with China and were not agreeable to negotiate with the local authorities. But to track down and neutralize gangs involved in acts of terror calls for a more professional approach and concerted efforts than dealing with a localized law and order problem. The interior ministry and its auxiliary agencies are sufficiently in the know of who is who in the business of religious extremism.

Long before the Christians were targeted in Bahawalpur, sectarian killings had been going on, with one group of religious fanatics targeting the activists of a rival group or the members of the other sect and justifying the use of violence on religious or sectarian grounds. The key question, is whether the government has the political will to go after these elements and those behind them and bring them to justice and destroy the networks that sustain them. So long as the government is indecisive and content with being reactive rather than seizing the initiative for a cleansing process, the functionaries in charge of law enforcement cannot be blamed for refusing to go all out against religious and other brands of terrorists.

Bahawalpur, along with some adjoining areas in the Saraiki belt, has a high concentration of madrassahs run by radical elements. Incidentally, the Taliban supremo Mulla Omar is also said to have studied at one of the seminaries here. Not surprisingly, the area has registered one of the highest number of incidents of sectarian violence. The Sipah-e-Sahaba, a leading exponent of sectarian militancy in the country, was on the government’s ‘watch list’, but that did not prevent it from staging a big rally of the jihadi groups in Bahawalpur where it occupied the centre-stage and openly incited religious frenzy and violence.

It was a war between the Muslims and the Christians, the gathering was told, as firebreathing speakers promised to pay the Americans back in their own coin by avenging the death of each Muslim killed in Afghanistan. Whether or not the rabble-rousers or their camp-followers had a hand in the Bahawalpur killings, they were surely responsible for creating a climate of religious hatred and intolerance in the area.

Times have changed. Pakistan is no longer an outcast left out in the cold by the international community. The Americans and their allies in the West are at the moment quite prepared to turn a blind eye to an incident which would have drawn a very strong reaction from them only a couple of months ago. On the contrary, they have rather belatedly taken note of the rise of Hindu extremist forces in India, their linkages with the ruling BJP, and the atrocities being committed by them on the Christian minorities.

It may be hard to believe the turn of events but a recent State department report acknowledges that some communal outfits, the RSS in particular, affiliated with the BJP, are involved in organized violence against Christians. Fortuitous reprieve apart, persecuting a religious minority, particularly a small, peaceful and low-profile group of people who neither pose a security threat, nor are apolitical or social liability, is simply horrifying — a tendency which is contrary to all civilized norms and values.

We can hardly take comfort from India’s record in the treatment of religious minorities. Religious fanaticism knows no limits. Perhaps the only saving grace in Pakistan is that the vast majority of its people do not approve of the aberrant notions and ways of the bigoted extremists out to destroy peace, harmony and stability in civil society. Needless to say, the question repeatedly being asked at home and abroad is what the message of the Bahawalpur killings is? Is it an isolated happening or marks the beginning of a new cycle of religiously-motivated violence?

One only hopes that the government’s response to the looming threat of violence and to killings in the name of religion will be resolute and not half-hearted. Now is the time to take the bull by the horns. It will not be enough to catch the culprits involved in one particular act of terrorism unless it forms part of a wider and relentless move to root out all forms of violence, terror and extremism.

In spite of the demands and distractions of Pakistan’s involvement in the war against international terrorism, every effort must be made to rein in the forces threatening to plunge Pakistan into a civil strife. The historic opportunity to rectify the aberrations of the Ziaul Haq era should not be wasted. The principal task today is to promote the culture of tolerance and harmony protect the country’s silent majority against bullying and intimidation by one or the other school of bigots. A return to democracy would only be a cosmetic change if we fail to foster a democratic ethos and promote tolerance, harmony and respect for each religious, ethnic and sectarian community’s rights, interests and sensitivities.

President Musharraf says there is only a small minority of religious extremists in Pakistan who cannot impose their will on the vast majority of the people. He is basically right. But the fact remains that a hard core of fanatics, determined, defiant and belligerent in their ways, have been holding the silent majority virtually to ransom. To cut them down to size is an imperative in the given circumstances.