Lost in translation?
If Shahbaz Sharif’s statement at Jamia Naeemia was indeed taken out of context, can one construct a frame of reference in which such a statement would be justifiable? Maybe he did not mean to say that the Taliban should spare Punjab while they continue to brutalise innocent citizens across the rest of Pakistan. Maybe he was only attempting to reach out to the non-committed sympathisers of the Taliban, expose the hypocrisy of militants and the fact that they are not true to their self-proclaimed ideology and mission. Or maybe he was appealing to the logical among the Taliban, saying that they did not need to kill innocent Pakistani civilians to protest the hegemonic acts of the US, given that the PML-N-led Punjab government was already focused on the job.
Does any such spin or contextualisation make his statement and the ingrained message endurable? Let us assume for a moment that the PML-N was not in power in Punjab or that it was as amenable to complying with US diktat as Gen Musharraf. Would killing and terrorising civilians in Punjab be justifiable in such a case? If the Taliban were only motivated by anti-US zeal and were fighting for Pakistan’s sovereignty, and nothing else, would their ideology and mission then be acceptable?
Is Shahbaz Sharif propagating the view that the ends of the Taliban might be justifiable but their means are objectionable? When militancy and private armed organisations are expressly forbidden under Article 256 of our Constitution, should the chief executive of the country’s largest province attempt to create a distinction between the means and ends of such an organisation?
Can there be a suggestion more reprehensible than one insinuating that the target of suicide missions should be informed by policy positions of the respective provincial governments? Even though the actions and policies of successive US administrations towards Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestine might have been a source of inspiration and means of justification for the prophets of obscurantism and religion-inspired violence in our country, is terrorism the sole product of anti-Americanism? Must the PML-N refuse to learn lessons from our recent history? While we need a multi-pronged approach to confront terrorism, can appeasing militants be a part of such strategy?
In the 1980s and 1990s, a nexus between hate and intolerance-spewing madrasas and militant organisations was forged, nurtured and protected by the state, and religion-inspired mercenaries were used as an extension of Pakistan’s national security policy to serve our strategic interests. Gen Zia must have been partly inspired to establish such infrastructure of violence on being cajoled and coerced by the US. But such plans fit right into his bigoted personal ethic, his need to further “Islamise” a predominantly Muslim country to legitimise his dictatorship, and the need perceived by our security planners to find strategic depth in Afghanistan. The US certainly wished Pakistan to lead the “good Jihad” in Afghanistan. But our elites were equally eager to serve as the chosen henchmen.
We continued nurturing our jihadi project notwithstanding changes in international strategic thinking after the end of the Cold War and growing concern over terror threats emanating from non-state actors. 9/11 transformed our non-state assets into a liability overnight, as Pakistan’s U-turn over its policy towards Afghanistan and the Taliban government rendered our jihadi outfits engaged in Afghanistan hostile to the state of Pakistan. To compound our follies, the Musharraf regime chose to fudge our in-house jihadi problem with a combination of hypocrisy and denial. He widely publicised a comprehensive madrasa reform policy that was never followed through. While faking armed action against militant outfits in Fata, the state continued to distinguish between the “good” and the “bad” Taliban. Musharraf’s histrionics bought him more time in power, but fuelled terrorism and bled the country further.
Over the last three years this country witnessed an extensive debate over the causes of terrorism in Pakistan and the preferred solutions. We considered entering into peace agreements with tribal groups and militants. We did. They all backfired and resulted in strengthening the militants and their ability to inflict more terror on civilians. We considered initiating talks with the “reasonable” Taliban.
Sufi Mohammad was brought out of state custody. In the name of peace, the PPP-ANP alliance capitulated before the Swat Taliban, promulgated the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation, and conceded the writ of the state to Mulla Fazlullah and Sufi Mohammed. In turn, Sufi Mohammad declared everyone an infidel, clarified his desire to slap us back to the Stone Age, and the country witnessed women lashed in public and men slaughtered at will.
It was not the vision and leadership of our military or political leaders, but the barbarism of “reasonable” Taliban that finally shook the country out of slumber and generated broad support for firm action against these killing machines. Backed and buoyed by such unflinching public opinion, the army carried out an effective military operation to cleanse Swat and then moved into Waziristan.
If the PML-N is so eager to find non-military solutions to our militancy problem, what political and development efforts has it proposed or supported to establish sustainable peace in Swat? In this backdrop, notwithstanding the true intent of Shahbaz Sharif and the unpersuasive defence his party has been instructed to mount on his behalf, the Jamia Naeemia statement of the Punjab chief minister is injurious and alarming for at least three reasons.
One, it exposes the PML-N’s facile approach to the scourge of terror and the strategy required to confront this challenge. Will withdrawing the army from the tribal areas automatically return peace and serenity to Pakistan? Will a hostile relationship with the US transform the Taliban and members of other militant outfits into tolerant law-abiding citizens? We need to find the roots of terror, but our inquiry must extend beyond hate for the US.
The infrastructure of terror in Pakistan is built upon a violent brand of religion nurtured by the state, non-performing structure of governance, an illogical and unaccountable national security doctrine, subservient foreign policy and an intolerant cultural ethic. If we are serious about addressing terror, we must start by confronting the religion inspired ideology of hate and violence shared by the Taliban and other militant organisations across Punjab.
Two, by pointing the finger at the US and holding a foreign country responsible for all our ills, Shahbaz Sharif has chosen to accentuate our psychological disempowerment and our sense of paranoia as a nation. Throughout our history, our elites (civil and military) have elected to eagerly forge a close relationship with serving US administrations when in power, while continuing to lay the blame for unpopular and harmful national policies on the Americans. This mastery over running with the hare and hunting with the hounds has cultivated a sense that we are mere agents acting on foreign commands and are therefore neither autonomous beings nor responsible for our actions. Borrowing a leaf from the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiatul Ulama-e-Islam and attempting to derive political mileage by riding the current wave of rabid anti-Americanism is neither constructive nor becoming of a popular political party.
Three, Shahbaz Sharif’s outburst threatens to confuse public opinion and shake the national resolve to fight militancy that was forged after it claimed over 30,000 precious Pakistani lives. This is especially troubling, given that the PML-N is the main centre-right party in the country, which has the ability to come together with centre-left parties and form a centrist consensus to fight terror.
The PML-N’s dithering and reluctance to attack the thought process and the ideology that breeds violence and terror could very well polarise the country across ideological lines. This is the moment of truth for Pakistan. We need leaders who understand the complexity of our militancy problem, have the ability to rise above the prejudices and ill-informed opinions of their traditional constituents, and the wisdom and courage to shape public opinion, rather than follow it.
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.
Source: The News