Questions worth asking

June 23, 2014


The writer is a freelance columnist.
The writer is a freelance columnist.

POLITICAL parties, mainstream media sources and several civil society groups have designated the army operation in North Waziristan as a strategically sound course of action, and support for it as patriotic obligation. The prime minister and ISPR, the military’s media wing, have made several appeals to the public to ‘fully support the troops’ as they undertake what is the sixth operation in the tribal areas over the last decade. An appeal has also been made to the people of Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to — if one were to paraphrase — ‘take one for the team’.

These appeals, though earnest as they are made to sound, are largely redundant for two reasons.

The first is that the army has, historically, never taken on the burden of seeking out public opinion on military or administrative action in Pakistan’s border areas, least of all from the local populace. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the views of those most affected by the violence of the Taliban, and the retaliatory bombardment of the military, have been deemed largely irrelevant once again.

Militant groups and everyday reactionaries found in workplaces, neighbourhoods and mosques are all part of the same problem.

The second reason is that segments of society, which matter most to the state (the urban electorate in Punjab and, to a lesser extent, in Karachi), are already on board. This can be gauged from not only the societal outlets listed in the first sentence of this piece, but also through vociferous expressions of support on various internet platforms.

This current consensus can be seen oscillating between firm approval (with an appeal for probity and transparency) on one hand, and active cheerleading complete with patriotic Facebook cover photos, ‘go get ‘em’ Tweets, and chest thumping monologues on the other.

It must be pointed out, however, that any situation where nearly everyone is ready to cheerlead a military assault — especially one resulting in civilian casualties and mass displacement — is exceptionally unreasonable. What those amongst us actively celebrating this operation need to contemplate is that baying for blood and shrugging off the loss of innocent lives as collateral damage is a primal, borderline fascistic response. All it does is floor the already low level of moral and intellectual debate in the country, and endorse the already dehumanised view of Pakhtuns and other communities living in Fata and its adjoining areas.

A second theme worth pondering over is the representation of such operations as the whole solution, as opposed to operations and other forms of state-led violence being a small instrument in a much larger political project of eradicating religious militancy and extremism.

As an outcome of the ‘peace talks versus Fata operation’ binary developed during these past few years, the country is at the mercy of a superficial train of thinking that reduces militancy to the activity of specific deviant groups concentrated in a specific part of the country. Consequently, what we now see under way in North Waziristan is a fully backed, simplistic response to a purposefully, and quite wrongly, simplified question.

As patterns of both the spectacular and everyday varieties of violence repeatedly show, religious extremism and militancy is a geographically pervasive, an administratively complex, and a socially embedded phenomenon. It takes various forms, which include not only attacks on airports by foreign fighters, but also the systematic societal discrimination against/killing of progressive voices, Shias, Ahmadis, Christians, and other minority groups.

Thus it can be reasonably assessed that the wide variety of participants populating this exclusionary and often violent landscape — comprising not only distinct militant groups like the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Lashkar-e-Taiba but also the everyday reactionaries found in workplaces, neighbourhoods, and mosques — all form part of the same problem.

In light of this assessment, two things surely beg deeper inquiry. Firstly, has there been any accompanying acknowledgement of the infrastructure of funding, recruiting, and administration that exists beyond Fata and well into ‘mainland’ Pakistan? And secondly, whether the complexity and ideological milieu underpinning extremism in all its ugly forms — from the suicide bomber to the middle-class bigot — has been taken into account not just by a state that has presented the North Waziristan operation as the ultimate solution, but also by enthusiastic supporters, which are so willingly throwing their weight behind it.

Finally, perhaps the most pressing question arising from the current impasse concerns the state’s historical aspirations beyond its own borders, and the corresponding relationship cultivated with various ‘acceptable’ militant groups.

While many now speak of changing circumstances and strategic rethinks, there has been enough to suggest in the past few weeks (such as Hafiz Saeed’s ringing endorsement of the army on a number of issues), that Islamist groups continue to be viewed as useful allies in certain situations.

Any well-intentioned actor therefore — be it an individual citizen, civil society group, or a political party — interested in the eradication of religious extremism should not only reflect and acknowledge this history of domestic complicity, but also independently assess whether this long-standing umbilical cord linking the military and the militants stands truly severed.

Over the next few months, it is expected that support for the operation in North Waziristan will continue to be used as the litmus test for both patriotism, and sensible/‘solution-driven’ thinking. Any such slant, however, which passively encourages a damagingly simplistic binary and promotes a face-value acceptance of the state’s opaque violence and shallow thinking process, must be freely scrutinised and criticised without fear of reprisal.

This is nothing less than necessary for instituting a democratic political culture, and moving towards a more effective conversation on how to tackle the pervasive menace of religious extremism.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd , 2014