In the aftermath of the most deadly terrorist attack in Pakistan’s history, it’s worth asking a difficult yet essential question.
A question about resilience.
Resilience is a trait often used to describe Pakistanis, and rightly so. No matter what’s thrown at them, Pakistanis persevere.
Convulsed by catastrophic floods with no visible government rescue efforts? They plan and execute their own assistance efforts.
Faced with record gas shortages during the cold winter months? They fashion homemade pumps from old refrigerator parts and suck gas out of distribution systems.
I’ve written previously on Dawn.com that this resilience helps prevent Pakistan from becoming a failed state.
Pakistanis are resilient. And that’s a good thing, right?
Yes. But only to a certain extent.
Resilience means having the toughness, determination, and resourcefulness to weather and survive crises.
In this sense, resilience also means settling for the status quo. It is about muddling through crises, not rejecting or seeking to eliminate the conditions that precipitate them.
In this way, resilience effectively means complacency. And it allows the government and other state institutions to avoid accountability, and to continue pursuing the same dangerous policies that trigger the same crises.
Translation: In Pakistan, being resilient will ultimately do little to solve the country’s militancy problem.
Expressing outrage on Twitter, attending a few vigils, and then defiantly getting on with your life — this is all to be admired. But it won’t prompt the security establishment to rethink its strategic assets policy.
What may make a difference
Peaceful mass mobilisations on the street — in front of government facilities and GHQ — to demand a more robust and comprehensive counterterrorism policy.
Mass mobilisation that demands that the state no longer distinguish between “good” and “bad” militants. If only Imran Khan — perhaps Pakistan’s most successful mass mobiliser — could launch a new movement that brings hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets to protest terrorism.
Recent days, however, bring great hope.
Several modest yet noisy anti-militancy mobilisations are underway. An ongoing one is being held outside Lal Masjid, triggered by Maulana Abdul Aziz’s refusal to condemn the Peshawar attack. Protest organiser Jibran Nasir — whom I’ve long admired — epitomises the Pakistani citizen who refuses to resign himself to resilience. He’s using the protest to push back against the extremist views of a prominent Pakistani religious leader.
Mass action can make a difference. If the government senses real pressure from the citizenry, it may be more inclined to think more seriously about devising a clear countermilitancy strategy. As for the military? It appears to be rather sensitive to public opinion.
Admittedly, there’s little reason — at least at this point — to believe the protest against Maulana Aziz will augment and become a nationwide phenomenon. In Pakistan — a deeply divided country with an increasingly radicalised society — widespread mass mobilisation to promote anti-militancy causes is unlikely.
And even if the protests were to gather steam and spread across the country, there’s little reason to think state policy would change.
In my opinion, we might not be able to witness a change in the strategic assets policy so long as there is no peace between Pakistan and India (witness Thursday’s breathtakingly ill-timed release-on-bail of Lashkar-i-Taiba commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged key planner of the 2008 Mumbai attacks).
And yet, these modest yet powerful mobilisations are still critically important. So long as more pressure isn’t put on the state, and so long as the ideology that drives militancy is not confronted or counteracted, the militancy problem will only intensify. And the dangers to the general population will grow.
After Peshawar: Reassessing the terror threat
One is reminded here of Martin Niemoller’s famous “Then they came for me” lecture. It describes how the German people refused to speak out when the Nazis “came for” the country’s vulnerable groups — because the German people did not belong to any of these groups.
In recent years, militants in Pakistan have come for — among other vulnerable groups — religious minorities, liberal politicians, aggressively anti-extremist police commanders, schoolgirls, polio workers, and moderate religious leaders. On all these horrifying occasions, Pakistanis have spoken out — but, many would argue, not loudly enough.
Niemoller’s concluding line is,
“Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
For the Pakistan context, it is a particularly haunting line.
The intent here is not to belittle resilience or to diminish the contributions of those who embody the trait. Far from it.
Rather, the intent is to highlight that in Pakistan, where the militancy problem has reached such alarming levels, the merits of resilience have their limits.
Fortunately, if recent protests against Maulana Aziz are any indication, a growing number of people are becoming increasingly aware of these limitations. They just may be discarding their dealing-with-disasters-with-dignity position in favour of a newer and bolder we’re-not-going-to-take-it-anymore attitude.