Charsadda and our history of doublespeak

Updated 23 Jan 2016

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Relatives and friends surround the coffin of a student who was killed in the Bacha Khan University attack. —Reuters
Relatives and friends surround the coffin of a student who was killed in the Bacha Khan University attack. —Reuters

In the year following the barbaric Peshawar army-run school massacre that left 132 children dead, Pakistan endeavored to make some important strides.

The government began to enforce hate speech regulations and monitoring the misuse of public fora that could cause incite people to violence. Efforts were made to expose and disable domestic financing of terrorism. And unregistered seminaries spreading suspect education were forced to close.

The state also took steps to come down harder on sectarian conflict. Incendiary clerics were successfully prosecuted for preaching hate. Most notably, Pakistan took an unprecedented foreign policy step by refusing to support longtime ally Saudi Arabia in its Yemen offensive.

As a standalone, none of these efforts were groundbreaking. But, together they were milestones for a country which is known to have long pursued a duplicitous policy towards extremist organisations in its territory.

For Pakistan to finally reach its inflection point following the 2014 Peshawar massacre was confirmation to observers on the global stage that this was, in fact, the nation’s ‘watershed’ moment.

Rebuilding on shaky ground

But the past year’s efforts came to a shockingly abrupt halt as history repeated itself on January 20, 2016 within kilometres of the original massacre site.

Despite claims in the past year that the Pakistani Taliban’s organisational capabilities had been destroyed, Charsadda’s Bacha Khan University massacre has once again exposed the shaky foundation that the state rests on.

Also read: Our children should fear exams, not being gunned down at school

As parents bury their hopes and dreams alongside their children, the only thing undeniably clear is that even after its ‘watershed’ moment in December 2014, Pakistan’s response was, at best, lukewarm, and at worst, an indication that Islamabad may well be still mired in policy confusion.

A massacre mere kilometres from the site of the APS tragedy, both events which could’ve been mitigated, if not prevented, with better intelligence and security reinforcements is an abject failure in Pakistan’s storied history of military and bureaucratic doublespeak. Yet, the blame is not entirely institutional.

A lethargic mourning

We, as Pakistanis, have been here before. The first time we buried our children we were massively and publicly outraged. So great was our repulsion of this unknown, unacceptable warped brand of religion that we engaged in unprecedented criticism of our government’s ambiguous policy.

After our period of fury and mourning set in a period of lethargy. After all, the problem of ‘jihadists’ was only near our homes not in our homes.

Lives moved on and social media outrage was replaced with other consequences of the non-stop 24/7 news cycle. The occasional Black Day profile photo, impassioned Facebook statuses or tweets, and local media coverage with anchors wearing APS school uniforms to commemorate the one-year anniversary was apparently sufficient to invoke the memory of our dead children.

Also read: 6 predictable responses after a terrorist attack in Pakistan

But once again, we’ve been forcefully pulled out of our collective listlessness, back into our collective nightmare.

And this time, transient public outrage and what sometimes appears to be random action against alleged militant factions is not going to be enough.

To prevent the non-stop resurgence of these armed, mentally warped and heavily disillusioned psychopaths and to clamp down on the creation of new ones, Pakistan needs to focus on a long-term plan of action.

We are an Islamic state with no concrete consensus on what is our Islam. And, it is improbable that we will ever be able to engage in a consensual discussion about it.

It is also unlikely that we will be able to channel our transient public anger in a useful manner. Perhaps, it is because after years under siege we have become apathetically war-weary. Or, perhaps, we are just as confused as our government.

Either way, we have to dismantle religious extremism bottom up. Really, our only hope remains in the fortification and promotion of the one thing that seems to scare these extremists the most: our school-going girls and boys.

The benefit of a familiar enemy

In Charsadda we did not meet a new enemy. We met the same brand of psychopath armed with the same weaponry and warped ideology. And herein lies the benefit of the old, familiar enemy — its pattern becomes predictable.

We have shed too much blood and lost too many lives to get to this place — enough that by now we know their game.

Twice, in just over a year, we have seen their strategy. And only the state can prevent the enemy from replicating the same violent strategy and brutality that the children of APS and the students of Bacha Khan University have suffered.

Since the 2007 emergence of the Pakistani Taliban, our country has seen every type of terrorist attack from hospitals to hotels to malls. But nothing makes a terrorist more jittery than a progressive people and an educated nation.

A 2013 report in the Journal of Police and Criminal psychology observed that “one reason that terrorist organisations might choose to target educational institutions is that schools and school children act as powerful symbolic targets [and] attacks on these targets evoke a strong emotional response.”

The data also shows that since 2004 Pakistan has had the highest number of attacks on educational targets. By making education one of their key targets, the extremists have shown us the solution to start moving past this place.

2011-15: Attacks on educational institutions in Pakistan

A future-focused solution is needed in which the damage to the upcoming generation is reversed or, at the very least, prevented.

It is time to reward the parents and children who continue to seek education in the face of terror by better fortifying our centres of learning.

It is time to impose more regulatory oversight of our curricula, which should gravitate towards the liberal and free.

It is time to instill in our youth an authoritative connection with their communities that can only come from having a solid educational and vocational standing as opposed to living a life in warped ideological isolation.

Most importantly, it is time we stop letting the state of Pakistan bumble along incoherently at the expense of our children’s security.