"an elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about"

Legal eye
Relying on miracles
The News, November 03, 2007
Babar Sattar

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad. He is a Rhodes Scholar and has an LL.M from Harvard Law School

Mehdi Khan was a poor old man -- a retired employee of Ayub Park -- who lived near the Murree Brewery Estate in Rawalpindi. On the morning of October 30 he left home to visit his daughter. He was walking along with his bicycle on the Golf Club road as the slight ascent in the middle always proved too exhausting for him to manoeuvre on his bike. As he reached the end of the road he must have witnessed the momentary scuffle between the security personnel posted right outside the erstwhile residence of General Ziaul Haq and the youth who blew himself up and claimed the lives of seven others including Mehdi Khan. He was the 'unidentified' old man heaped over his bike whose pictures were widely splashed across the media.

The government neither condoled with the family nor offered any financial compensation to even take care of the last rites of this ill-fated senior citizen. According to the family the only mark of government sympathy was the offer someone made at the hospital that the body, with broken limbs and all, could be packed-up in a nice box as the old man was a 'shaheed'. They opted not to wait for the window dressing. The son-in-law was slightly bemused by the notion that the government would provide any support or compensation for a life lost for no reason. He was unaware that the Constitution guaranteed security to citizens and that it was for the government to ensure that no person was "deprived of life or liberty save in accordance with law." In a matter-of-fact tone marked by resignation rather than regret he asked the rhetorical question: "Why should the government care for the life of a wretched old man?"

Probably never before in the history of this country was human life so expendable. Every morning the newspapers bring along the death toll for the previous day. This is not just a grim numeral that deserves a silent demur before moving on to the next thing. It reflects the growing list of wasted lives each day, the number of families traumatized by unnatural death, the number of dependents thrown into financial exigency due to the loss of a bread-earner and the number of next-of-kin who either lose faith in the ability of the state to protect the life and liberty of their dear ones or worse still opt to avenge death and injustice by taking up arms themselves. For this nation, as damning as the affliction of mindless violence is the fact that we are growing indifferent to avoidable loss of human life.

The Musharaf regime has failed to develop a national consensus on how to deal with this ghastly cycle of violence and its perpetrators. Unless we can develop a shared understanding of causes, the search for solutions will continue to elude us. Theories about causes of terror are aplenty. Let us start with the black and white ones are easy.

On one extreme is the argument that suicide bombers are weapons contrived by forces of retrogression and obscurantism that wish to slap the country back to stone ages in the name of Islam. Their programme is a combination of misinformed religious fervour, a chauvinist value structure, a culture of violence, illiteracy and general ignorance. They seek an obliteration of progressive education, healthcare and a balanced society that promises gender equality, all under the garb of enforcing 'Sharia'. This brand of obscurantism was strengthened due to state patronage during the Afghan war and now derives support from the general resentment against the US war on terror. There is no hope of winning them back to sensibility or saving those already indoctrinated and thus the state should use force to weed them out and save the rest of the country from creeping 'Talibanization'.

On the other extreme is the argument that the Musharaf regime, Pakistan Army, Benazir Bhutto and other liberals are all American agents. In supporting the US war on terror and the killing of their own people -- who merely wish that their indigenous cultural values be preserved and their embrace of an Islamic way of life be supported -- the Pakistani power elite is fighting a proxy war in the tribal areas and promoting a foreign agenda the be-all-and-end-all of which is to eradicate Islam from the face of this earth. That enforcing Shariah is the panacea to the predicament of Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic world and the realization of such divine cause justifies all means including attacking infidels, apostates and patrons of vice with suicide bombs.

Then there are arguments that try to find sense amidst the madness. The vacuum theory is that the defunct state of Pakistan has failed to discharge its vital functions and in the process not only lost all credibility but also created a huge vacuum that is being filled by non-state actors such as Mullah Fazlullah (now Maulana), Baitullah Mehsud and Abdul Rashid Ghazi. The state's attempt to share authority with the traditional social institutions in the tribal belt afforded no gains to the tribal community while reducing the efficacy and legitimacy of their traditional institutions of authority and governance. Thus the absence of shared reverence for either governmental or traditional authority has culminated in the present state of anarchy.

The lack-of-justice theory is a subset of the crumbling state theory. People in the tribal belt (settled and otherwise) are disillusioned by the country's justice system that is plagued by inordinate delays and charges of dishonesty. The jirga system that it has replaced functioned as a community court where elders resolved disputes during open hearings, and the justice meted out might not have afforded procedural safeguards but was transparent, inexpensive and immediate. The frustrating pursuit of justice encourages some to forcefully replace state institutions with their own model of rough and ready justice. The poverty theory then explains how miscreants and extremists find willing recruits that can be brainwashed and abused as physical and psychological weapons of destruction. That absence of basic needs and amenities leaves the indigent no option but to lose their young ones to madrassahs some of which only specialize in hate mongering.

Leaving the conspiracy theories aside, there is no grand explanation of why fires of hate and violence are ravaging this country. Pakistan's unequivocal support for the US war on terror is adding fuel to the fire, is largely unpopular in the country and needs reconsideration. But let us not delude ourselves into believing that simplistic solutions such as ending support to the war or fading away of the Musharraf regime or introduction of democracy will dry up the fountains of violence.

Even if the US were to vanish from Afghanistan, we will still need to confront two fundamental sources of conflict. One, the urge of some in the tribal communities to preserve their pristine lifestyles in the face of modernizing influences, which have been reigned in by the contemporary age of technology and not necessarily America. And to the extent that the Pakistani state strives harder to integrate the tribal belt with mainstream Pakistan, the discord between the urge to conserve and modernize will only grow in the immediate-term. Two, what role should religion play in the society and how will divergent views on the matter be accommodated? Setting the liberals aside, Maulana Taqi Usmani, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Maulana Fazlullah all have different views on Sharia. Whose interpretation will prevail even if a majority of the country decides to enforce Shariah and how will the dissenters behave?

In understanding the roots of violence and how failure of the state or poverty or injustice contributes to it, let us not justify terrorism. Pakistan is not the only place in the world that resents imperialism or suffers from poverty and injustices. Yet there are few others where ordinary people are indiscriminately slaughtered or blown up in the name of ideology or in pursuit of the heavens. It is possible that foreign elements have come to fish in our troubled waters, but we must acknowledge that there is an elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.

Email: sattar@post.harvard.edu


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