Predatory politics and Malala

October 20, 2012

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THE attack on Malala Yousufzai’s life was shocking for people around the world, but I see no reason to be surprised.

For the past three years I had had a premonition that this young, promising girl was unnecessarily being exposed to dreadful consequences. Yet I understood that the problem did not lie with Malala.

In fact, the civilian turf in Pakistan, especially in the north, has been turned into a site of resistance against militants. While in theory this is not a negative development, in the current politics of militancy, it is the ruling elite and the media that are benefiting. The nation as a whole is losing.

In February 2009, the rule of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the Swat valley was so entrenched that an early morning knock at somebody’s door would resonate with the macabre spectacle of the Taliban ‘arresting’ their opponents to slaughter them at a public square.

That square was later aptly named Khooni Chowk, or bloody square. My predawn arrival at Malala’s house was a source of worry for her father Ziauddin, who lived a few minutes’ walk from Khooni Chowk.

Our presence put Ziauddin and his family at risk. He was visibly disturbed when he saw a movie camera in the crew’s hands, and I didn’t sense the warmth a Pakhtun usually exudes while receiving a guest at his door.

I reminded Ziauddin about his previous night’s commitment to let the crew shoot a documentary with Malala as its central character. Ziauddin said “but I thought you just wanted a short interview”. The next 48 hours I spent with Ziauddin’s family documenting the approach to the Feb 15 TTP deadline for the closure of hundreds of girls’ schools in the Swat valley.

Back then, the exercise was something of a thrill for all of us, so much so that it made me blind to journalistic ethics and to the security of my friend Ziauddin. It didn’t occur even once to me that there was a threat in this situation for the then pre-teen Malala. This was partly because the documentary was about education and making video packages was part of a daily routine.

I realised the gravity of the situation only after the New York Times released the short documentary, Class Dismissed.

Co-produced with Adam B. Ellick and visualised in Ziauddin’s house and his school with Malala as its lead character, the documentary inspired foreign audiences.

But since then, the fear of having exposed Malala to a dreaded enemy overwhelmed me. The fear turned into guilt as I kept seeing her on television.

While I then disassociated myself from such projects, the media helped turn Malala’s advocacy for education into a solid campaign against the TTP over the next three years. Politicians jumped into the fray to help the media in commodifying Malala’s youthful energies. A strong anti-TTP structure was erected on her frail shoulders.

This is one aspect of the story, and it concerns the media’s role in dragging bright young people into dirty wars with horrible consequences for the innocent.

But the story does not end here.

For the last decade, if overarching civilian dedication has provided politicians with a smokescreen behind which to hide their gross failures, such sacrifices have enabled the security forces to continue playing hide and seek with an elusive enemy.

From one issue to another, hype is created with the help of the media while people wait for the dénouement. Clarity is the victim of these predatory politics which revolve around militancy in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal belt.

Security operations are barely effective, and a working formula allows the forces to reclaim 90 per cent of a given area and to leave the rest to the militants.

This confused state of affairs can help the ruling elites prolong the conflict, but cannot defeat militancy. Mainstream political parties cannot afford to be upfront and announce a clear policy on fighting terrorism. So who is going to win this war? Is more civilian blood needed to fuel this conflict?

Since 2009 the official policy to constitute peace committees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and lashkars in the tribal belt has relieved security forces of suffering frequent militant attacks.

However, these measures have turned civilians into sandbags; recently, yet another attack on a peace committee office claimed 17 lives in Darra Adamkhel. Hundreds of people have been killed so far in attacks on civilian lashkars and peace committee members over the last three years.

During a visit to Lower Dir last year I came across a heavily armed lashkar commander who has survived many attacks but still fights the militants in the area bordering Afghanistan. I asked him how he managed such a risky existence. “Where should I go from here?” he asked in reply.

During the initial phase of the formation of lashkars, people were encouraged to come forward; later, after they had done so, they were abandoned. As not many tribal leaders and committee members are left to mount a challenge against the Taliban, youthful energies such as Malala’s are required to shoulder the burden of this conflict.

Even more alarmingly, the politics of militancy has conditioned the majority of people to stay silent in the face of the enemy.

Some, nevertheless, still remain ready to stand up to the challenge. Ziauddin and Malala qualify amongst the latter. Where the politicians, the military and the people have barely managed to make the TTP nervous, a young girl has stood tall — and suffered. And this is because will makes a difference.

The world is condemning the attack on Malala, but in Pakistan the initial wave of condemnation is giving way to a disgustingly apologetic mood in some circles. Conspiracy theories abound, where some link the incident to the situation in Waziristan and others hold Ziauddin responsible. While I admit we all are responsible for her tragedy, letting Malala down will be utter cruelty.

We celebrate our heroes only to bury them alive later.

The writer is pursuing a doctorate in mass communications at the South Illinois University at Carbondale, US

syedirfanashraf@gmail.com