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Violent incidents are not unusual in Pakistan, but the Peshawar attack put everyone into a deep shock.
How come the small number of terrorists has been keeping the country in fear for so long? Are Pakistanis too passive of a nation to free themselves from corruption and terror? Can this despicable tragedy be the last drop to change the mindset of 182 million people?
It was an ordinary Tuesday morning in Peshawar, a Pakistani city close to Afghan border, when several gunmen wearing explosives strapped to their bodies stormed into a school killing 132 children between 12 and 16 years old.
The Pakistani Taliban who claimed the responsibility for the attack stated they attacked the school run by Pakistani military to take revenge for the deaths of children allegedly killed by soldiers of Pakistani army in tribal areas during its military operations, to make them “feel the pain”.
This news stayed on the front pages of German media exactly one day to then make room for the crisis in Ukraine, internal politics, and soccer.
But the atmosphere in our house has not been the same since, as we have close connection to Pakistan and feel for the country and their people in a special way.
My husband has been staring in his computer screen, silently and in his thoughts, reading the articles and scrolling down his Facebook feed filled with messages of his Pakistani friends saying they cannot stop crying.
And I now hug our son even tighter feeling endlessly sad and angry at the same time.
Somebody killed 132 children. Not just blasted away, but gunned down one by one. Children of the same nationality and religion as themselves. Children of 132 mothers.
Can you even imagine the pain?
A lot of “emotional support” came from CNN that compassionately reported that “the children were killed for going to school” and that “the hospitals in Pakistan indulge in gender discrimination”.
Sadly (and luckily), none of this is new.
Pakistan has been always the Western media’s favorite. You can say anything you want about it, and people will believe you. Who can even point it on the map, let alone has been there himself? And bad news sells.
However, the Western media is the least of Pakistan’s problems, as the country seems to have been making one step forward and two steps back for decades now. This was not the first act of terror committed by Pakistanis against Pakistanis, and it will, unfortunately, not be the last.
With this level of social injustice, poverty and violence, the streets of a Western country would have been flooded by protesters by now. Campaigns would have been started. Videos taken with hidden camera revealing corruption leaked. Officials forced to resign.
Yet to me it looks like most of the people didn’t care much about anything except their chai, chicken curry and how to get their daughters married.
#WeArePakistaniWho condemn everything, sleep, and then wake up every morning and take a selfie, send a "JanuSMS" and life goes on…
— بیباک باقی (@WajahatBaqi) December 20, 2014
Are Pakistani too passive of a nation to free themselves from corruption and terror? When will they finally have enough? Can this despicable tragedy be the last drop to change the mindset of 182 million people?
I had to wrap my head around this situation and spoke with Nasir Jamal, a Chief Reporter at “Dawn”, the largest English-language newspaper in Pakistan.
|20 years ago we were much more tolerant and could debate most controversial issues without any fear.|
Gill: Do you remember Pakistan 20 years ago? How was it like?
Nasir: I do. It was a great deal more peaceful and far less conservative than it is today.
We were much more tolerant and could debate even most controversial political and religious issues without any fear of getting killed for our views. Our middle class was also a bit more liberal in its outlook.
I’m not saying we were living in a paradise or didn’t have any problems back then. In fact, the decay had already been set in.
Our involvement in the Afghan war in the 1980s had strengthened the conservative religious right in the country and created a large militant and sectarian infrastructure in the form of seminaries and militant outfits.
Saudi Arabian financing of Sunni groups and Iranian funding for Shia outfits for their proxy war on our soil had escalated sectarian violence with our state sponsoring the proxy war in Kashmir and supporting the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (Sunni and Shia are two major denominations of Islam – G.A.).
Still the slide wasn’t as rapid as in the last few years. We thought we still had a chance on life and could reverse the rot.
|No military operation can be successful if it selectively targets some groups while deliberately leaving the others out.|
Gill: When did the first terrorist attacks by Pakistanis on Pakistanis happen?
Nasir: The first suicide bomb attack in Pakistan took place in 2002. Then the frequency continued to increase to peak to around 75 in 2009.
Gill: What was the reason?
Obviously, the militant groups were not happy with the decision of the Pakistani military to side with the USA in its war against Al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan in the post-9/11 period.
Nor did they like its decision to scale down the proxy war in Kashmir under American pressure as well as the crackdown against some militant and sectarian outfits from Punjab. So many of these “rogue” groups joined forces with Al-Qaeda and turned their guns at the state of Pakistan and the military establishment.
Gill: It’s extremely difficult to fight an enemy who is not afraid of death. For a person like me raised in the West, this is unimaginable, as life is considered to be the most valuable thing of all. But it seems like the terrorists have endless supply of the people ready to kill themselves – suicide bombers. What do you think is the reason for that?
Nasir: There are so many inter-related contributing factors: poverty, illiteracy, political (mis)use of religion in the secular matters, class-based education system, absence of opportunities for social and economic mobility, etc.
With the vast militant infrastructure and money available to recruit, brainwash and train poor children for holy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir from a very early age through a narrow and strictly sectarian interpretation of religion at the seminaries, the militants are never short of suicide bombers.
Gill: I know Pakistani military conducted many operations against Taliban, in Pakistan and the Tribal areas. Why haven’t they been successful?
Nasir: They haven’t been successful, because all these military actions were selective. Some groups that the army thought had turned rogue were targeted and the others were considered “strategic assets” could operate with impunity. No military action against these elements can succeed unless the military establishment gives up using them for its proxy war with India in Kashmir and strategic depth in Afghanistan.
Will the Peshawar school attack teach the military establishment a lesson? So far I don’t see any sign of it. The present military operation in tribal areas of Pakhtunkhwa (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of the four provinces of Pakistan – G.A.) has also proven to be selective.
|We need to start by separating the state from religion and cleaning up our legal system from religious influence.|
Gill: I know it’s a profound question, in fact, the main question everybody is wondering about: How can this violence be stopped once and for all and who (a person/group of people) will be able to do this?
Nasir: I don’t know the exact answer to this question. There are so many things that need to be put right, and do it simultaneously. It would require a strong will on the part of our politicians and military, and years of hard work.
But I think we could start by separating the state from religion and cleaning up our constitution and legal system from every vestige of religious influence.
Our military would also have to quit its decades old policy of using private militant groups as strategic assets to create troubles for our neighbors.
Indeed, the most important thing has to be the reform of our education system and the dismantling of the madrasah infrastructure (Madrasahs: Muslim private schools with core emphasis on Islamic studies and Arabic literacy – G.A.), which is used to brainwash society through a narrow, sectarian interpretation of the religion as well as to recruit cadres for militant organisations.
As you can see, it is not going to be an easy job, and I’m not sure if our political and military leadership have what it takes to do the right thing.
Gill: In the West, people are often taking a stand conducting big protests. I don’t think it’s the case in Pakistan. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Pakistani civil population is not taking a stand often enough, be it a corruption scandal or a terrorist attack. Do you think anything would change if people went out on the streets protesting in large numbers or, let’s say, a some kind of civil campaign got started?
Nasir: It will be incorrect to say that the people haven’t spoken enough against the duplicity of military policy towards extremists or the rising influence of extremist ideology on the state and society. Yes I agree that there hasn’t been any organised mass campaign or movement against militants and their patrons.
The reality is that the space for liberal, progressive narrative in Pakistan is shrinking fast.
Governor Salman Taseer, for example, was assassinated in the federal capital by his own security detail because he questioned the misuse of blasphemy law, pushed for changing it and supported a poor Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, wrongly booked under it.
Human rights lawyer Rashed Rehman was gunned down in Multan for defending a university teacher who was facing trial under the same law.
Still, in spite of multiple dangers, some brave men and women are standing in the way of complete destruction at the risk of their life.
And yet, I’m not sure if the secular, progressive narrative can or will win in Pakistan. The rot is very deep, and if at all, it will take many long years to happen.
|We should rather clean up our stables than blame the Western media.|
Gill: Do you watch Western news?
Nasir: I do.
Gill: What do you think about the image of Pakistan they are presenting?
Nasir: Our people often complain against the “negative” image of Pakistan being portrayed in the foreign media. Indeed, some of the coverage is biased and is based on the preconceived notions prevalent in the west about the Muslim world in general and Pakistani society in particular. Frankly, that is what the media, especially TV, thrives on all over the world – bad news.
It is true that at times the Western media exaggerate, and generalize, and twist the bad news from Pakistan – sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally – to suit their foreign policy interests.
Still, I wouldn’t go as far as accusing them of concocting facts. What do you expect a journalist to tell his readers when the terrorists kill 132 schoolchildren, or when Christians and Hindus are burnt alive or forced to convert, or when women are murdered in the name of honor?
Nobody needs to sensationalize such tragedies. I think we should rather clean up our stables than blame the Western media.
|We are Pakistanis who, 66 years after independence, are still struggling to figure out which road they want to take.|
Gill: After the Peshawar attack, a new hashtag became popular on Twitter, #WeArePakistaniWho. Could you please finish the sentence: “We are Pakistanis who…”?
Nasir: We are Pakistanis who, 66 years after independence, are still struggling to figure out which road they want to take.
Gill: What is Pakistan to you?
Nasir: It’s my home.
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