Published in the Express Tribune

Ideology, impunity & chaos

15 May 2015

The sheer barbarity of the attack on the Ismaili community in Pakistan’s largest and one of the more misgoverned cities shocked the country. It is not the first time that such a sectarian attack has happened. During the past two years, more than a thousand people have been killed in targeted sectarian attacks. However, this was the largest attack on Ismailis. The head of the Ismaili community, Prince Karim Aga Khan, rightly termed the massacre of 43 men and women “a senseless act of violence against a peaceful community”. It is ironic that the Pakistan movement owes its genesis to the contributions of Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah, Aga Khan III who was the founder, patron and the first president of the All-India Muslim League. In fact, the Quaid-e-Azam was born into an Ismaili household. Today’s Pakistan is clearly an unsafe place for this community.

The National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism has been under implementation since December. Evidently, it is going nowhere. In January, dozens of worshippers were killed in an imambargah located inShikarpur, Sindh. There have been several other incidents of sectarian killings and now the Karachi carnage comes as a rude reminder that perhaps, the strategy to fight terrorism is flawed or is just another un-implementable document.

While military action to eliminate hideouts of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may be a good short-term measure, Pakistan cannot curb the menace of extremism and terrorism without working towards an ideological reorientation. In March, the government reneged on two vital commitments: regulation of religious seminaries and dismantling of proscribed terrorist groups. In fact, such is the power of these militias that they have been openly holding rallies despite the announcement by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif while launching the NAP that “no armed organisation will be allowed to operate”.

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Counterterrorism: rhetoric vs reality

18 April 2015

Amid the controversy of Pakistan joining the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the media focus has shifted from the implementation of theNational Action Plan (NAP), the guiding counterterrorism policy framework. After months of heralding the NAP as the panacea for all that afflicts Pakistan, there are signs that some of the policy commitments may be waning.

This is not to say that progress has not been made.  The most recent monthly report stated that between December 2014 and March 2015,32,000 ‘suspects’ were taken into custody on various charges and over 28,500 operations were conducted across the country. In Punjab, the security agencies undertook 14,791 operations. In addition, law enforcement agencies arrested thousands of individuals and killed 37 terrorists. Of those arrested, the government claims, 727 were “hardcore terrorists”. The details of who these are, and the charges made, remain unknown.

Nearly 4,000 people were also arrested for violating the rules on using loudspeakers and 887 cases were also registered for hate speech. Apparently, the Federal Investigative Agency, the FIA also registered 64 cases for illegal financial transactions and arrested 83 people. The State Bank of Pakistan froze 120 accounts containing Rs10.1 billion under the NAP drive.

These otherwise encouraging claims have been challenged. First, as of early April, only 22 of 61 convicts executed were terrorists. A report by a leading national daily revealed that among the thousands who had been detained, only 140, or less than one per cent, had links with terrorist organisations. The most important link in bringing alleged culprits to justice is prosecution; and it remains unclear how many would actually be prosecuted and tried in a court.

Another positive development has been the drive to verify mobile SIMs. Nearly 25 million (out of 103 million registered earlier) unverified SIMs have been blocked by early April. This has happened after inexcusable delay. Mobile phone is now a key instrument used by techno-jihadis globally. Similarly, the government claims that due to operations by paramilitary agencies, target killings have gone down by 57 per cent and extortion by 37 per cent in violence-ridden Karachi.

All these coercive actions constitute tinkering on the margins of the problem. The core actions under the NAP have been, not unsurprisingly, brushed under the carpet. In March, Nacta stated that the drive against proscribed militant groups, reform of madrassas and the repatriation of Afghan refugees were “no more under consideration” for these were time-consuming and needed long-range planning. Isn’t that precisely what a state under siege ought to be doing?

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A year ago, I was almost killed

28 March 2015

A year ago, I suffered the fate of thousands of Pakistanis who have been attacked, maimed and terrorised by violent extremism. I was lucky to have physically survived but my driver Mustafa was not. An innocent human life lost but at the end of the day, he made for a mere digit. This is the brutal reality of a country where a mighty state appears unable to protect its citizens.

I was once a civil servant and a mandarin in Pakistan’s powerful administrative service. I ventured into international development and worked for the Asian Development Bank. I had secure careers lined up with attractive promotions and stable retirement plans. I gave up these comfortable options and opted for journalism and public engagement, in the naive hope that public narratives could be changed. I chose a path that would allow me freedom of expression to wade in the murky waters of what is known as ‘public opinion’ in Pakistan.

I cannot complain much as within a few years I had carved my space and engaged with old and new media, happily discovering that there were thousands of other likeminded men and women of my country who agreed that religious extremism and xenophobia masked as patriotism needed to be challenged. Above all, human rights — especially the right to live and worship freely — mattered. But I sensed the limits and the dangers. And on March 28 last year, I did pay a price. Unknown men, later identified by the police as operatives of a Taliban affiliate, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), tried to kill me. A rather drastic punishment for my views and what I stood for.

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Pakistan fails its Christians — again

22 March 2015

The dual suicide attacks on Lahore’s Christian churches last Sunday were a continuation of evidently unstoppable violence against the country’s minorities. A gruesome lynching and burning of two Muslim men by a charged mob followed the attack. Christian protestors, sidelined and neglected by the state, attacked Metro Bus stations, blocked major roads and also impeded VIP movements. They were baton-charged and after two days of rioting, the funerals of the blast victims took place. Ghastly as it was, the mob lynching of the two Muslim victims dominated the news space and social media debates rather than the original act of terrorism. Once again, there was something to obfuscate. Sadly, the angry mob did not help its cause either.

Nearly two per cent of Pakistan’s population comprises Christians, mostly poor and marginalised. Pakistan’s hypocritical society makes a class of people clean their homes and streets and then has the audacity to call them ‘churaas’ (a derogatory term for a sweeper). Such is the level of prejudice that many jobs of municipal cleaners specify that only Christians are needed, as many Muslims are averse to performing ‘menial’ tasks. Ironically, there are street signs everywhere citing a saying by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that “Cleanliness is half the faith”.

Ingrained prejudices combined with the Islamic nationalist identity have meant that Christians are lesser citizens in the Islamic Republic. A non-Muslim cannot be head of the state. Children from minority communities are made to read textbooks that denigrate ‘non-believers’ and ‘infidels’. Certain laws on our statute books expose the broadly poverty-stricken Christian community to abuses of the law. Institutionalised discrimination has accompanied the propagation of the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ that engenders silence and acceptance of the defacto second-class status of a non-Muslim.

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The need to review our India policy

13 March 2015

The Indian foreign secretary’s visit to Islamabad last week generated much interest but the outcome was the usual bureaucratic statements amounting to nothing. The stalemate, however, was broken and the US — a keen supporter of the ‘dialogue’ — welcomed the meeting between the top diplomats of India and Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also met with the foreign secretary from New Delhi. The talks, as we know, were about further talks. It is a pity that since August 2014, diplomatic channels of communication were stalled. The Indian prime minister’s decision to call off the earlier round in 2014 was unwise and even some Indian commentators had criticised it. Perhaps, domestic dictates, especially of the elections in Indian-occupied Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), necessitated a hardline by Narendra Modi. Now that the elections are over and the BJP has forged a coalition government with a soft-separatist party, the domestic calculus may have changed. Despite the Hindu nationalist credentials of Mr Modi, striving for normalisation is a course that he is likely to adopt. Even more so, as India’s economic transformation appears to be his priority, and without a stable region, that goal is hard to realise.

The recent talks, according to the respective statements, reiterated a familiar mantra: Mumbai, Samjhauta Express, trading of allegations of involvement of domestic militancy faced by both countries. The worrying increase in violence along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary were also discussed. Once again, the soft confidence-building measures, such as people-to-people contact, religious tourism and sports were brought up as the panacea to a bitter, twisted legacy of this bilateral relationship.

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Pakistan’s future — fraught with perilous possibilities

12 February 2015

Nearly two months after the Peshawar attack, it is unclear if Pakistan’s direction has changed. The unprecedented grief and anger over the tragedy has now given way to business as usual. Bureaucrats undertaking the routine round-up exercises, platitudes by the politicians and the ‘firm’ image by the military leadership. Sections of civil society that defied the taboos of entering Islamabad’s no-go area i.e., Lal Masjid, ignited some hope that there was going to be a mass-scale mobilisation of Pakistanis against extremism and its violent manifestations. But the last rounds of activism attracted lesser numbers and apathy – a cornerstone of Pakistan’s mainstream culture.

What could be the greatest example of this syndrome than the muted response of the state and society over the massacre of 61 worshippers in Shikarpur. The National Action Plan is under implementation and apparently, thousands have been rounded up without a plan in place as to how they will be prosecuted in a court of law. The end result will not be different from the past record. Courts will bail them out sooner than later. Military courts are being operationalised and many Pakistanis view them as a panacea for the long-term failures of the judicial system. But there are many stages before they will become effective and deliver the kind of results that are needed to combat terrorism.

The prime minister had announced that all violent militias would be banned and proceeded against. But there are many which are free to mobilise. One day, the Jamatud Dawa is banned, the other day it is not. The ASWJ rallied in Karachi and the seminaries that are the backbone of these organisations remain fully functional. Admittedly, it is not possible to tackle them immediately but is there a strategy to handle three decades of mess that is growing messier? The answer to this question is in the negative.

When the Senate questioned the Punjab Police about foreign funding to seminaries, the initial response was denial-as-usual. Senator Tahir Mashhadi reportedly said that substantive evidence confirmed the “involvement of foreign-funded seminaries which were involved in promoting militancy in Pakistan”. The Saudi Embassy clearly said that whatever support was extended to welfare seminaries, mosques and charity organisations materialised with the express consent of the government. This has exposed the hollowness of the government’s commitments to address this key issue. Pakistan simply cannot be a playground for imported ideologies and allow sectarian battles to further bleed society. (more…)

The vicious cycle of hate and violence

1 February 2015

The recent issue to have riled up a good number of Pakistanis — including jihadi networks — is the alleged blasphemy against Islam committed by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The imagined gatekeepers of the Ummah and the country in possession of an ‘Islamic bomb’ must protest against the ‘degradation’ and ‘defamation’ of the ‘faith’. Nowhere in that discourse is mentioned how brutal murders by gunmen could be justified, let alone explained.

European societies must not be bailed out for their growing Islamophobia and the uneven integration of the ‘Muslim’ into secular societies. Nor can the double standards on free speech be condoned. Western Europe needs to introspect where it has gone wrong in breeding such alienation and discontent. But that is their problem.

For Pakistanis, and many Muslim societies to get outraged at the offensive material about their faith, is at best duplicitous.

In Pakistan, we grew up with Friday sermons and prayers that ended with calling for the defeat of Christians, Jews and Hindus. In some cases, there is an explicit invocation of divine help for their ‘destruction’. The grievances that such sermons manifest are political, often real, but largely imagined. Mahsaal, a Lahore-based NGO, has compiled a few sermons and one of them dated 2010 advocates thus: “O Muslims, get up and take in hand your arrows, pick up your Kalashnikovs, train yourselves in explosives and bombs, organise yourselves into armies, prepare nuclear attacks and destroy every part of the body of the enemy. The Holy Quran instructs us but since we have not followed it the Europeans have published the cartoons …”. This was perhaps said in the wake of the Danish cartoons saga where we only harmed ourselves by burning public buildings and getting innocent Pakistanis killed. (more…)

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