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Becoming ‘that’ country

May 07, 2014

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PAKISTANIS are used to mourning their schoolgirls. For this reason, perhaps they may understand the situation Nigerians find themselves in right now.

Last month, Boko Haram, Nigeria’s own version of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, attacked a state school in a town called Chibok. Nearly 300 girls were taken hostage, loaded onto trucks, and taken into a dense forest. The Nigerian army first said that it had rescued 45 of them, but those reports have yet to be verified.

Mr Kwambula, a principal at the school, reported that 53 of the girls had escaped while more than 200 remained in captivity. The cause of the abducted schoolgirls has since become a rallying cry for activists in Nigeria, who have been marching on parliament and demanding their release. The protests have spread to outside the country.

All the dimensions of the controversy are familiar ones. Like Pakistan, Nigeria has faced increasing violence from militants. Like the painful pun that allows the Taliban to call themselves ‘students’, the term ‘Boko Haram’ in the local Hausa language means those ‘against Western education’. Like our own Taliban, who have destroyed thousands of schools, and continue to bomb the ones that are left, the Boko Haram has been orchestrating a campaign based on the precept that “makes it haram or forbidden for Muslims to participate in any political or social activity associated with Western society”.

Begun in the early 2000s by a charismatic cleric who founded a mosque and madressah that took in poor children and provided them with religious education, Boko Haram and its campaign of violence has been able to carry out more and more attacks in the past several years. In the current campaign, the abducted girls, several of them Muslim, are believed to have been forcibly married to members of Boko Haram. This latest act seems to have galvanised Nigerian outrage.

There was a time in Pakistan when the doings of the Taliban were also just beginning. It was a time when Pakistanis never believed that the Taliban, a ragtag group of itinerant fighters, with their bonfires of CDs and their floggings of women, would be able to expand their sphere of operations to other parts of the country.

The story of how they did manage to do so is a sad and complex one, with chapters detailing a superpower invading Afghanistan and bombing a portion of Pakistan and littering the country with its intelligence agents and security contractors. Those chapters are omitted from the world’s imagination, in which the difference between a Taliban fighter and an ordinary Pakistan is next to none. The conflation is enshrined even in the American definition of drone targets: every man over the age of 16 in a strike zone is automatically and always a ‘combatant’. The truth of imperium is the truth the world accepts.

In the process of fighting both the local insurgency and American intervention, Pakistan became ‘that’ country, occupying a place in the world’s imagination alongside problems so complex that it does not belong to the normal moral order of things. Pakistan is the country where a schoolgirl can be shot by the Taliban for wanting to go to school, an act so ghastly that it functions to create the moral extreme that defines other nations as ‘good’, in relation to Pakistan’s ‘bad’.

Becoming ‘that’ country, Pakistan’s citizens can tell you, involves having the human rights violations of your present being dislodged from context, extricated from narratives of global inequity, so that others less unfortunate can count their blessings. They, after all, are not ‘that’ country, the one that stands at the darkest edge of misfortune, the most hapless case, at the fringe of the fellowship of nations.

Nigerians should take note and beware. Within the global imagination, the issue of abducted schoolgirls seems to be marching in just the same direction.

In the beginning, most global media outlets did not cover the issue at all, discarding it with the disdain that accompanies misfortunes in parts of the world used to misfortune. When the story was taken up by the CNN and other gods of the global media, its details and context were happily snipped away and moulded into the familiar form: an Islamist group, a ghastly act and an ineffective government.

The boring specifics of income inequality, Western complicity, ongoing insurgency, and military repression are all subtracted to leave the skeleton of a story: a group of abducted schoolgirls in a faraway place where people are callous enough to allow such things to happen.

The quagmire is well known in Pakistan. It is not that being ‘that’ country is a status entirely unwarranted by local actors. The moral monsters who oppose girls’ education, who propose the marriages of children, and who persecute rape victims all exist in Pakistan, just as supporters of the Boko Haram undoubtedly exist in Nigeria.

When singular acts are used to construct the dynamics of complex problems, however, those agitating against groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Taliban in Pakistan are erased from the stories.

The consequence is a global context in which a grotesque act becomes the source of moral castigation of an entire nation, a step in the process of making it ‘that’ country, a place that exists in the global imagination only to mark the furthest boundary of badness, where anything can happen. As Pakistanis can tell Nigerians, it is a costly sentence; often, an undeserved one.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com