A number of statements over the past week by our civilian and military leaders give rise to hope. Hope, which till recently appeared banished forever from the Islamic Republic.
The last time Nawaz Sharif was prime minister, you would recall, he had a two-thirds majority in parliament, and, relying on what he used to call ‘heavy mandate’, he tried to enforce Sharia in the country and wanted to anoint himself amirul momineen.
Perhaps the only positive outcome of Gen Pervez Musharraf’s coup in 1999 was that that particular Sharif dream remained unrealised. But following the coup, Sharif spent a considerable period of time in the holy lands.
Surely to turn around a Titanic headed for certain disaster it takes time.
This obviously triggered fears he’d be more conservative in outlook, having had to live in Saudi Arabia for a number of years and having soaked up the Saudi orthodoxy. Therefore, one was right in having trepidations when he came to power in 2013 that he may revert to a dogmatic outlook and adopt a divisive, narrow view of religious dictates rather than a contemporary, dynamic interpretation.
Well, if this week’s Sharif statement is anything to go by, he seems to have come a long way from the time he harboured ambitions of becoming amirul momineen. Addressing a conference aimed at making a case for foreign investment in Pakistan, he said he saw his country cementing its status as a democratic, liberal country.
Some observers were dismissive of the statement saying such things are said before foreign investors but, in actual fact, amount to nothing. But there was a sizable number in the opposite camp arguing that this was a significant departure from the past and a welcome one in a society where many people make no bones about considering ‘liberal’ a dirty word.
These days you mention one Sharif and you know you may need to mention his namesake in almost the same breath. Here the chief of army staff gets a mention due to his visit to Saudi Arabia. The trip’s significant features were so well reported by this newspaper’s Baqir Sajjad, relying on the tweets of the army spokesman.
At a time when there was talk of friction between Pakistan and the Saudi-led coalition on account of Islamabad’s inability to participate in the assault force to subdue the Houthi-led rebel challenge in Yemen, the two countries seemed to reach significant agreement.
As per his spokesman, Lt-Gen Asim Bajwa, the “COAS appreciated the growing CT [counterterrorism] cooperation, int[elligence] sharing, limiting the space for terrorists and extremists in all domains including choking the flow of funding”.
This was one of eight tweets in the series by Bajwa but appeared the most significant as it implied the issue of terror funding was discussed. The Saudi government has categorically denied funding any terror outfit in Pakistan in the past.
But concerns have existed regarding the flow of funds from wealthy Saudi individuals, even if they were well-meaning and thought their ‘donations’ were towards building and maintenance of mosques, welfare projects.
While we debate what’s appropriate for whom to say and when in terms of the civil-military balance, there are enough indications that our leaders appear to be on the same page finally and the decision-making all headed in the same direction.
If this was not comforting enough, the newly appointed commander of the Southern Command, the Quetta-based Lt-Gen Aamer Riaz, was quoted in the press as saying that “contacts have been established with disgruntled people in Balochistan” and “good results are expected within two months”.
This was of course the first public comment from a ranking military officer ever since the Switzerland-based Baloch rebel leader Brahmdagh Bugti expressed readiness for talks with Pakistan in a BBC Urdu interview in August this year. He also said he had reason to believe both the prime minister and the army chief favoured negotiations to restore peace to the province.
Last week in these very columns when one picked up on an optimistic theme, my young friend Taha Siddiqui, an intrepid Islamabad-based journalist with many excellent stories to his credit, was sceptical and argued my optimism was misplaced.
He argued that the civil-military balance was still skewed overwhelmingly in the military’s favour and also that any action against terrorism to be worthwhile would have to be across the board which it has not been thus far.
My optimism isn’t rash or merely an exercise in wishful thinking. Yes, many of the main players will have to walk the talk to give any optimism a chance of being meaningful, of having resilience and permanence.
The prime minister will have to rethink repressive, discriminatory laws which are part of the statute book as we speak if the country and society as a whole were to pull itself out of the morass of intolerance and extremism it finds itself today. Even then modest steps at changing the narrative have to be welcomed.
The military will need to publicly denounce any Pakistan-based extremist group that uses violence as a tool on our soil or abroad and distance itself in no uncertain terms from such groups. What is unacceptable on our soil should equally be unacceptable on anyone else’s territory. This will be the basic litmus test of any well-founded optimism.
But surely to turn around a Titanic headed for certain disaster it takes time. Often the leaders’ statements hint at their thinking and priorities. And finally our leaders are beginning to say the right things.
This fuels hope as does the fact that this changed thinking has economic underpinnings. An extremism-ridden and intolerant country can hardly play host to ambitious projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the investment these bring. Yes, like many across our land, I earnestly hope I am getting this one right.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2015