Moment of truth

October 11, 2012

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FOR once, and at long last, Pakistanis appear to have woken up to the consequences of the extremism that has been allowed to take root in our country. The reaction to the attack on Malala Yousufzai is significant not just because of its scale and outrage, but because it is marked by something that is depressingly rare — across-the-board condemnation of the Taliban. A handful of voices, even in parliament, have tried to link the incident to America’s role in Pakistan or implied that it was Malala’s own fault. Refreshingly, though, these have been drowned out by an outpouring of anger reflected in the strongly worded condemnation of the attackers in the National Assembly and Senate, the army chief’s resolve against the “twisted ideology” of the perpetrators, extensive media coverage, and civil society efforts from protest rallies to prayers for Malala in schools. For once, the focus is on the threat to Pakistan from the intolerance in its own society, not on devising conspiracy theories, blaming foreign powers or coming up with justifications for terrorist acts.

But where is this near-universal outcry when Shias are killed in Quetta or Gilgit, when mentally challenged or juvenile targets of blasphemy accusations are burned alive or imprisoned, and passers-by die in attacks against security installations? The victims of those acts may not necessarily be children or rights activists, but they are every bit as innocent as Malala. And yet it took the particularly jarring targeting of a particularly brave child to jolt Pakistanis and their leaders out of their doubts about, and desensitisation to, the threat that violent extremism poses to our security and way of life.

Which makes it all the more important to make the most of this moment of national consensus. Parliament has demanded accountability and the army has said it will “fight, regardless of the cost”. But what actions will these words lead to? When anger erupted in 2009 over the video of a girl being flogged in Swat, the next step was clear: a defined set of people had set up a state within a state in a specific area, and it had to be dismantled. This time the next steps are less clear-cut and the enemy harder to pin down, but that shouldn’t become a reason not to take action. The military needs to analyse why its efforts against the Taliban have failed and what is needed next in terms of military action, and where. Politicians and civil society need to prop up the current national consensus against extremism so that it doesn’t die down. This is not a moment Pakistan can afford to waste.