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Published in the Express Tribune

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Global terrorism — myth and reality

A new report by the Institute for Economics and Peace, an international think tank based in Australia, brings to light some hard data on global terrorism. During November 2015, a series of terror attacks in Beirut, Paris, Nigeria and Mali reignited the debate on the global ‘challenge’ of terrorism. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, another coalition is being gathered to bomb Syria to eradicate the Daesh or Islamic State (IS). It is unclear if a militaristic response would yield results in Syria, given the complexity and competing interests of Middle Eastern actors, Russia and the West. In fact, the lack of a multilateral approach has only served to benefit the IS in the recent past.

The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) report confirms that terrorism, globally, is on the rise. Since 2001, there has been a five-fold rise in terrorism. The year 2014 was deadliest with 14,000 terrorist attacks in 93 countries, leaving 32,000 dead. The number of terror victims was 80 per cent more than in 2013. At the same time, countries that battled 500 or more terrorist attacks have seen a staggering increase by 120 per cent since 2013.

The other startling fact, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, is that Boko Haram, the Nigerian militant group, was the biggest killer in 2014, and not the IS. During the last year, 6,644 deaths attributed to Boko Haram signified an increase of over 300 per cent compared to the deaths occurring in 2013. The IS was the second-most lethal group as it killed 6,073 people. Tactics used by Boko Haram are deadlier as it indiscriminately targets private citizens in its attacks. […]

Nawaz Sharif’s shift to the centre

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s chequered political career may have entered a new phase. His third term is beset by the same old challenges usually presented by Pakistan’s political landscape. A resurgent military ostensibly calling the shots, enduring turbulence in the neighbourhood and decreased negotiating space for policymaking to improve the economy. Unlike his past two terms, Nawaz Sharif has not taken on the military power. Instead, adopting a sobered version of his past self, he has chosen to ‘work’ with the permanent establishment to ensure that a systemic breakdown is avoided. That moment came last year during the street protests, but he survived, in part due to the military’s resolve not to intervene directly.

Despite these protests and lack of tangible results on many fronts, the political base of the PML-N seems to be intact. The recent two phases of local government election and barring the Lahore by-election where the opposition PTI almost won, the PML-N seems to be firmly saddled in Punjab. This is one of the flashpoints as the military’s support base is also located largely in Punjab. Nawaz Sharif’s brand of politics — of asserting civilian power, trading with India, etc. — therefore comes into conflict with the ideological framework of a security state.

Earlier this month, the prime minister said that the nation’s future lies in a “democratic and liberal” Pakistan. He also emphasised the importance of a thriving private sector. Perhaps, the use of ‘liberal’ was a reference to economic liberalism. However, for the country’s chief executive to make such a statement is noteworthy. Nawaz Sharif also spoke about making Pakistan an “educated, progressive, forward looking and an enterprising nation”. He was immediately berated by religious leaders for negating the ‘ideology of Pakistan’.

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Faiz Ahmed Faiz: A window to what could have been

Most of us recognize Faiz Ahmed Faiz for his immortal poetry. Few are aware that Faiz Ahmed Faiz was also a prolific prose writer and that too in English. In 1947, he was asked by the great progressive of his times, Mian Iftikharuddin, to edit The Pakistan Times. In addition, Faiz was made the head of the editorial board of the Urdu daily Imroze and was also associated with the literary weekly Lail-o-Nahar.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz Faiz Ahmed Faiz

This foray into journalism came after a five-year stint with the welfare department of the British Army that hired Faiz in 1942 for its publicity wing. This decision to join the army was made due to his clear stance against fascism.

After Independence, Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote for The Pakistan Times for four years until 1951, when he was arrested for supporting the Rawalpindi Conspiracy. Faiz wrote extensively on a variety of issues in the voice of a conscientious commentator. The writer was less of a revolutionary and more of a journalist trying to pursue a balance.

In an editorial dated September 13, 1948, Faiz Ahmed Faiz paid rich tributes to Jinnah, the founder of the nation. He also added how India and Pakistan in quick succession lost two great leaders — Jinnah and Gandhi. Faiz had termed Gandhi’s assassination in an earlier editorial as “one of the darkest crimes in history” and “comparable only to the crucifixion of Jesus.”

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Abdullah Hussein: alive in his vision

The great Pakistani writer Abdullah Hussein is no more. Perhaps, he has been relieved of the agony that he underwent as a cancer patient, suffering in his last years all by himself. To say that he was a towering literary figure would be an understatement. Hussein was a trendsetter and a chronicler of our weary generations. Written in 1963, his tour de force, Udaas Naslain, remains the most memorable, grand novel, second only in its expanse to Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya. Both Hyder and Hussein were torchbearers of the modern, non-conformist sensibilities in contemporary Urdu literature. Hyder weaved the 5,000-year story of the Indian subcontinent and for her depiction of 1947 as just another moment in the grand continuum of history, was rebuked in Pakistan and soon left the country.

Hussein’s characters in Udaas Naslain recount the upheavals that Indians had to engage with since 1857. The novel’s formidable brush depicts the early 20th century milieu of Punjab as its protagonist experiences the rapidly changing political events. Hussein presents a panoramic, existentialist view of the First World War and how that impacted the ‘natives’ in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. The most moving parts of the novel concern the Partition of 1947. Towards the end, the book’s main character, Naim Baig, grapples with a new reality along with immense emotional and historical baggage.

Not unlike Hussein, his almost anti-hero, Naim Beg, is an idealist, but is swept away by larger historical forces. It is Naim’s persona that struck a chord with the post-independence generation, for it was as unfulfilled as him. As Pakistan’s chequered history evolved, the incoming generations have also found a voice for themselves. The novel has an innate absurdist streak, which fits in well with the society that we have created in the preceding decades. Fifty years later, Udaas Naslain remains in print with dozens of editions keeping it accessible. Its everyday language enriched the scope of Urdu fiction. Some found its language obscene and before the morality brigade could strike, the state awarded it the Adamjee Award.

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Ideology, impunity & chaos

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

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

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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