I wish I could say, “We didn’t see it coming.” But that would be a lie. We saw it coming, but chose to ignore all the warnings until it was too late to prevent our children from being murdered before our very eyes.
Peshawar, my ancestral city, is dying a slow death at the hands of religious fundamentalists. Slowly, but surely, the City fell to mullahs, madrassahs, and militants.
It all started rather inconspicuously in December 1974, when a bomb explosion injured two at the American Centre in Peshawar. Many did not think much of it. However, dozens of bomb blasts and thousands of civilian deaths later, it became obvious who the enemy was.
Still, not much was done against those who murdered civilians in cold blood. The perpetrators were ‘strategic depth’ and hence were assets for wars to be fought in the future.
Peshawar unknowingly became the nerve centre in a war between two superpowers. The Americans, supported by the West and bankrolled by the Saudis, turned Peshawar into a dormitory for Arab and Pakhtun militants who were brainwashed and trained in warfare in camps scattered in and around the city. Peshawar’s affluent suburbs became home for western spies and affluent Arab militants.
The Peshawaris became refugees in their own city.
The City was changing right before our eyes.
Overnight, the entire urban transportation fleet transformed in Peshawar. Mercedes buses from Afghanistan replaced wagons and other paratransit. Local restaurants were pushed out of business by the new Afghan eateries. Pants and shirts were replaced by beards and skullcaps. A city known for its sense of humour was giving way to fear and hate.
I used to ride a bus from the walled City to the Peshawar University. The bus passed through the fabled Qissa Khawani Bazaar en route to Saddar. After a brief stop near the stadium, it would continue towards the University Town. The bus driver would play Pushto songs. No one seemed bothered by the driver’s taste in music. But that all changed when Arabs and spies took over the City.
It was one fine morning in 1988 when the bus reached Speen Jamaat (the white mosque) near Peshawar University. A group of tall Arabs in their flowing robes boarded the bus and immediately started shouting at the bus driver, asking him to shut down the music. He promptly complied. The Arabs starting lecturing the rest in Arabic about music being banned in Islam.
No one dared to challenge them.
They were the camel in the tent, and we were the Arab being pushed out.
Becoming refugees in our City
Sitting next to me in the bus was a professor who taught at the Agriculture University. He was fuming at the collective insult meted out by the Arabs dictating their norms on their hosts. No one dared to oppose the Arabs in Peshawar. They had money and the backing. Those who tried, disappeared for good.
By 1989, Abdullah al-Ezzam, a Palestinian who earlier taught at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, had effectively taken over the war effort in Peshawar. Over three million Afghan refugees had already arrived from Afghanistan. In addition, thousands of Arabs had also landed in Peshawar to wage a ‘holy war’ against the Soviets.
Mr. al-Ezzam died in a bomb blast along with his two sons. Soon, his mentee, Osama Bin Laden, took over Mr. al-Ezzam’s operations. As Osama and his ilk gained strength, Peshawar’s ‘descent into chaos’ accelerated.
It is, however, too convenient to blame the Arabs, the CIA, and others for unleashing Frankenstein’s monster on Peshawar. Truth be told, there was ample support among the locals eager to welcome the murderous thugs from abroad.
The University campus in Peshawar experienced it firsthand when a bomb blast in February 1975 killed on campus the governor of the province, Hayat Muhammad Khan Sherpao. Many believe he was the first high-ranking victim of the covert war for the control over Kabul.
The Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba (IJT), the student wing of Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami, was too keen to align with the newfound Arab interest. They forced the campus to comply with the Arab dictates, they were instrumental in shutting down the University auditorium where movies were played every weekend.
A gaping hole near the auditorium reminded us of the un-built swimming pool. Again, it was the IJT and other religious outfits who considered it un-Islamic for the University to have a swimming pool.
The Peshawar University transformed from a liberal institution of higher learning to a madrassah.
The Arab money flowed in. By 1985, the UAE had established a Shaykh Zayed Islamic Centre at the University of Peshawar. However, Arab influence had seeped deep into the University. Even the engineering university and the medical college had transformed. Just compare the photographs of the graduating classes from the 70s to those from later years and you will find the signs of radicalisation growing on the very faces of the graduates and professors.
By the mid-80s, the Mujahedeen (the parent generation of the present-day Taliban) could be found zooming across the City in Pajeros and dual-cabin Toyotas, with heavily armed men flouting weapons in the open. There was no police or army to stop them.
At the same time, madrassahs had sprung up in and around Peshawar to train the Afghan and Arab volunteers to fight against the Soviets. The most famous of these is the Darul Uloom Haqqania in Akora Khatatk, which is also known as the University of Jihad. Ahmed Rashid in Taliban lists the high-ranking Taliban who graduated from or studied at Haqqania.
The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989 paved the way for infighting amongst the Afghan groups who had nothing in common except the desire to oust the Soviets. Pakistan’s establishment picked sides in the Afghans' internal feud and backed the Taliban, a colossal error in judgment for which thousands of Pakistanis and many more Afghans have paid for with their lives.
After the massacre on Warsak Road, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told Pakistanis that there will no longer be a distinction between ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban.’ He wants us to believe that the mass murder of 132 children is the last straw on the camel’s back. He promises not to rest until the menace is wiped off the face of Pakistan.
Forgive me for not being convinced by empty threats that have not been followed with action in the past.
But first, let me ask why it took Pakistan such a long time to realise that the militants offer no strategic depth?
Why was there no action after the October 2009 bombing in Meena Bazaar in Peshawar that killed 137 women and children?
Why was no action taken against the militants when they killed 127 Christians at a Peshawar Church in September 2013?
There is plenty of blame to go around.
When the Taliban attacked 14-year-old Malala, the religious forces in Pakistan registered only a muted protest. In fact, many wondered out loud if this was a ploy to justify action against the ‘righteous’ Taliban in Swat.
When Malala received the Nobel Prize for peace, numerous newspapers questioned her and the motives of those who recognised Malala for her efforts. In fact, the speaker of the KP provincial assembly refused to admit a resolution because he deemed the resolution was not a matter of national or provincial interest.
Less than a week before the Peshawar massacre, the Jamat-i-Islami’s lawmakers in the KP provincial assembly blocked a resolution to recognise Malala’s achievements. The Taliban must have taken the Jamaat’s move as a vote of confidence for their attempt on Malala’s life.
If attacking 14-year-old schoolgirls helps them gain the support of religious groups in Pakistan, the Taliban would not be wrong to assume even more support for mass murdering 14-year-olds at the Army Public School.
I earnestly believe that had the nation been united in its support for Malala, it would have dissuaded the Taliban from attacking other schoolchildren.
The Taliban exist because of the tacit and explicit support religious groups afford them. The Taliban thrive because no one challenges the mullahs in the mosques when they sing praise of the murderous thugs.
“Talib ta waya teeng sha”
Mian Ishaq who now lives in Toronto, also grew up in Peshawar. He is appalled at how Peshawar has gone to dogs. Ishaq is deeply saddened by the unimaginable loss of innocent lives in Peshawar. He is not scared though.
In his poems, he challenges the Taliban and their supporters who have murdered children, blown up schools and mausoleums of the Pakhtun Sufis.
It is He who crowns, at times Bush and sometimes Obama
But He also confronts pharaohs with Moses and the Taliban with Malala
Though his (Rahman Baba) grave is desecrated and his heart consumed
Let the Taliban be warned that I have embraced the soul of Rahman Baba to confront them
In Ishaq’s words I take courage. Now is the time to reclaim our City from the jaws of evil.
What do we have left to fear? We have already buried our sons.