LEMMINGS are small Nordic rodents that, according to legend, periodically gather together in their thousands, and plunge to their doom off cliffs.
Their behaviour was once attributed to overpopulation. However, it is hard to figure out why Pakistanis are prone to similar suicidal tendencies. I won’t go into the history of our lemming-like actions, but the ongoing stand-off between the government and growing numbers of fanatics blocking traffic between Islamabad and Rawalpindi provides a good example.
When the sit-in at the Faizabad Exchange began some three weeks ago, the protesters were a small handful who could have been quickly dispersed. But through the usual inaction, the number of zealots has been allowed to multiply, and nobody knows how many of them are armed. Throughout this avoidable crisis, the government has been repeating the familiar mantra of negotiations.
To this day, NAP remains a dead letter.
We heard this same chant when we tried to reason with the Pakistani Taliban as people like Chaudhry Nisar and Imran Khan dragged their feet over the tough action that was necessary. Even the village idiot could have told them that militants view the offer of talks as a sign of weakness. It took the slaughter of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar in December 2014 to force the government off the fence, and authorise military action. To this day, the National Action Plan devised to counter jihadist militancy remains a dead letter.
But these politicians aren’t the only ones with weak spines: witness the reaction of Musharraf’s government when faced with the threat from militants in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid in 2007. Initially, this was no more than a group of female students at the local madressah who occupied a children’s library.
Sure enough, instead of seeing firm administrative action, we heard the insidious suggestion to negotiate. Ministers like Ijaz-ul-Haq, the late dictator Gen Zia’s son, persuaded Musharraf to forego action while he negotiated with Maulana Aziz, the mosque’s militant cleric.
These doomed talks dragged on while the mosque acted like a magnet for armed militants. Early on in the crisis, I asked Tariq Aziz, Musharraf’s powerful civilian adviser, why the government simply didn’t cut off water, power and gas to the seminary complex while blocking the entry of outsiders. Given that the weather was warm, I thought the heat would drive out the lawbreakers soon.
But it took protests from the Chinese government, whose citizens had been kidnapped by the extremists, to finally prod Musharraf into action. The commando-led action caused dozens of unnecessary deaths, and has served as a rallying cry for jihadist militancy ever since.
Clearly, nothing has been learned from these lessons of failed talks. A leader in this newspaper has argued for peaceful negotiations to defuse the crisis. This sage advice overlooks the fact that for extremists, the ongoing stand-off is a win-win situation: as long as it drags on, they are in the media spotlight, seen to be defending their distorted vision of the faith. And if there is tough action, there will probably be bloodshed provoked by the militants. Any ‘martyrs’ will be a huge bonus.
In a high-level meeting in Islamabad to hammer out details for CPEC, the Chinese delegation is reported to have complained about the political instability in Pakistan. No prizes for guessing how they would have handled an attempt to block a major road in Beijing.
Similarly, our religious mentors in Saudi Arabia would have flogged and deported demonstrators in no time flat, no matter what the nature of the protest. Even democracies like the US and UK place strict limits on the right to assemble and demonstrate. Protesters are given precise routes and timings, and are not allowed to inconvenience the public.
As the government continues to demonstrate a singular lack of regard for the rights of the citizens of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, what of the opposition? You’d think all mainstream politicians would like a quick resolution to the crisis, but you’d be wrong. They seem to have made the same cynical calculation as the militants: the longer the stand-off continues, the weaker the PML-N government seems. And if blood is spilt, they will blame the ruling party. Win-win.
None of this should surprise us. After all, Nawaz Sharif is the politician who was once determined to have himself anointed amirul momineem through the 15th Amendment. His government has consistently dragged its feet over the implementation of the National Action Plan to check the rampant growth of the militant mindset in our classrooms, madressahs, mosques and media.
For some reason, Pakistanis believe we are better Muslims than anybody else. Thus, we enact and uphold archaic edicts and laws while most of the Muslim world has moved on. Just as lemmings have no memory of why earlier generations perished, we march to the edge of the cliff without knowing why.
Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2017