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Threat to the state
By Ayesha Siddiqa
MANY in Pakistan are shocked at the bomb blast outside the Marriott hotel in Islamabad which killed more than 50 people and wounded scores. It has made people nervous about further acts of violence, making life unsafe in the capital.
The question for many is that if law and order agencies are unable to protect important people in high-security areas, then what can be the fate of ordinary people?
This, indeed, is an imperfect question considering that both society and state remain silent for the most part on other occasions when innocent people are murdered. The reference here is to the brutal murder of two Ahmadis in Sindh by those presumably incited by the views of a self-professed religious scholar who instructed his television viewers twice this month to kill Ahmadis for being non-Muslims and flouting the fundamentals of Islam. This is what one would call incitement to murder.
Pakistan’s Ahmadi community was declared non-Muslim by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which, technically speaking, settled the matter of dealing with this group of people by the state itself. Without getting into whether the decision was right or wrong, the fact is that the existing laws can challenge any member of the Ahmadi community who claims to be a Muslim. So, the alim did not have to take the law into his own hands. The two people who died were not challenging the state’s decision, but were threatened because of their faith. In any case, the two individuals were Pakistani citizens, who, like other minorities, have a right to be protected by the state. The problem didn’t end here but spread to other parts of the country. For instance, when the principal of the Quaid-i-Azam Medical College issued a notice to students to refrain from engaging in sectarian or religious conflicts, there was a protest in Bahawalpur asking for the lynching of the gent.
Unfortunately, civil society on the whole including our media has been silent on these murders. The Ahmadis have been declared non-Muslim by the state but they are still citizens of Pakistan and the murder of innocent people cannot be allowed. Luckily, the MQM had the sense to throw out the alim in question from the party but where are the voices that had cried in the past for defence of media freedom? Does freedom not include the security of ordinary people? It is sad to see that the television channel in question did not have the moral gumption to sack the ‘scholar’ or the producer of the programme. It is most unfortunate that the media, which considers itself the harbinger of freedom and democracy, has remained silent on this heinous crime.
While the MQM, which is considered problematic due to its policies and attitude, had the sense to sack the former minister, media gurus have remained silent. What is worse is that the US government, which otherwise raises all kinds of issues, has remained silent and kept its partnership with the channel in question.
This is not just about the murder of two people following a different set of religious beliefs, it also depicts the level of intolerance in society, its attitude towards whoever is considered as the ‘other’, and the perception of national security. Anyone who is not considered as part of the larger group or majority is considered a threat to the state. The same attitude is reflected in the perception of the larger issue of terrorism as well.
It is rather sad that the newly elected government is unable to convince the population that the war on terror is Pakistan’s issue rather than America’s agenda. Unfortunately, the government’s inability to convince the general public is because of the growing credibility gap.
The fact that the president did not think about cancelling his foreign visit and making himself available for his people after the blast has created the impression that he is more concerned about his American patron than ordinary Pakistanis. People understand that the main source of power of the new government is not the prime minister but the president who should have spent some extra time at home before flying away. Just imagine if George Bush had left the country within hours of 9/11.
Moreover, the lack of credibility increases due to statements issued by interior advisor, Rehman Malik who tried to convince the world that the attack was aimed at the leadership when it is now known that the Marriott was not the intended venue for the VIP dinner party. The guests were invited to the Prime Minister’s House where the party was eventually held at the time of the blast.
The credibility factor is important otherwise people will continue to think that the Taliban will save the country from an external threat posed by the US. Opinion right now is divided on how to interpret the internal terrorist attacks. Most of the people who died in the Marriott attack, those who were killed earlier and those that will fall prey to the Taliban onslaught in the future constitute ordinary Pakistanis. The regime should be able to convince the people that the Taliban or other militants are as bad for the country as is US intervention. Since two wrongs don’t make a right; Pakistan must select its own options to overcome the crisis rather than aligning itself with either party. The option is to engage other states like Russia, Iran, China, India and numerous European Union states, who do not sympathise with the American intervention, in a dialogue. At the same time, a consensus must be built within the country to examine our past linkages with the militants and to review our policy. We need to eliminate terrorism for our own advantage rather than anyone else’s.
The recent terror attack has challenged the writ of the newly elected government more than any other force. Today, the Pakistani government is divided into two: the political government and an invisible one. The latter is bound to build its credibility on the ashes of the political government, especially if it appears incapable to defend the nation.
In addition, the PPP must change its individual-dominated decision-making practices. While this has been the party’s tradition, it could work in the past because of the greater credibility of leaders such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto. The same formula might not work now. Under the circumstances, people will feel greater unease in accepting the party’s policies.
The world is intently watching and judging the new government’s ability to fight the threat. The president must not appear as someone who cannot deliver on his promises. We need a strong leadership at this time to direct the state and society. It is only a capable leadership that can talk society out of the intolerance that eventually breeds greater violence.
The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.
ayesha.ibd [at] gmail.com