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January 1, 2015

Fear and Loathing in Pakistan:
Why We Must Not Let it be Our 9/11?

By Junaid S. Ahmad and Sania Sufi

December 16th, 2014 was a day of sadness, anger, and fear in Pakistan.

Like everyone else, we shared the incredible sadness at the loss of life of so many innocent school children and staff in Peshawar. But as we listened more and more to others around us, we also realized that our anger and fear were not necessarily about the same things. Our anger was primarily directed towards a state establishment that has nurtured the networks of patronage for these groups and individuals, and although our fear was for the safety of all across the country, we emphasize that this fear was also for the safety of our brothers and sisters in the Northwest who we felt would now be held collectively culpable, dehumanized, and targeted by our state and society. Our anger was not limited to the individuals who perpetrated these attacks, but also included those segments of the state who have been responsible for being the lifeblood of violent, reactionary groups. Our anger was against those who have been engineering killings, disappearances, gross human rights abuses, and so on.

We should not have to restate the obvious here, but we say it nevertheless: the act of terrorism that killed these innocent school children and staff was reprehensible and indefensible. To attempt to defend it is to renounce one’s humanity. Regardless of the motivation of the attackers, the method is beyond discussion. But there is also a bloodthirsty environment being created that is demanding war and more violence at any cost.

Such a bloodthirsty environment is palpable amidst the government’s reinstatement of a death penalty, most recently used to convict children tortured into confessing to terrorism related crimes. If such a miscarriage of justice and humanity is indicative of what is to occur in Waziristan, then we implore our community with an urgency to interrogate hasty, pro-military “solutions”, and to collectively reclaim and transform our society.  

Those of us who have opposed the mad rush to avenge for ‘their blood’have been called un-patriotic and far worse. But we exist, and we believe that a senseless and indiscriminate war-drive will result in more death, pain, and grief, making us less secure - not more. As Pakistanis grounded in a consciousness of justice, we grieve with our nation. In addition to grieving, this sense of justice also implants in us a responsibility to be critical of power holders who have capitalized on horrific ordeals—such as last week’s tragedy —for their own interests. It is this sense of justice which reminds us that we must humanize the faces of communities in the Northwest, for they are a reflection of faces in Peshawar. And it is this sense of justice which emboldens us to ask pertinent questions such as: “How has a militarized policy in KPK, FATA, and Balochistan contributed to an escalation in civilian deaths?”, or “What is the quality of life for residents where continuous warfare does not bring peace but psychological trauma?”and “Why does state/military apparatus support of militant groups in the past not compel individuals to resist the sound of present war drums?”

These are difficult questions to ask—undoubtedly —amidst an emotionally charged environment. But we believe we have a responsibility to not only critically reflect and act, but also to ensure that the horrifying scenes witnessed last Tuesday do not continue under the guise of “security”when historical trajectories of neocolonial state patriarchy and strategic interests indicate that there is so much more at play.

In the post-9/11 world, a militarized solution to the terrorism problem is an old script. And the parameters of the debate are kept deliberately constrained to the question: should we seek vengeance or not? This completely absolves our rulers because it takes the debate into the realm of abstract moral philosophy rather than politics and political interests. The reality is that any state-military operation is not going to tackle the issue of terrorism. It will, on the other hand, strengthen the writ of a militarized state, and use the frenzy of the past week to prevent deeper questions being raised and analyses being offered.

Last Tuesday’s events serve as a painful reminder of the failure of such a script.  Destructive and indiscriminate retaliation will only create more terrorists, and swell the ranks of these groups willing to die for what they perceive as ‘revenge.’If less than a handful of individuals could carry out this attack, supported by a few hundred more, how many of such terrorists will we create by collectively punishing entire areas in the Northwest?

So, the question that now arises; is the military really fighting a war against all extremist elements in Pakistan, or just against some that have become less obedient and controllable –and demand too much from, or defer too little to, their paymasters? Indeed, it is about ‘good Taliban’and ‘bad Taliban,’as clichéd as this sounds. Does anyone have any doubts that as Afghanistan is being ‘abandoned’again –meaning, another empire defeated and foreigners getting the hell out of there –that the Pakistani establishment will not ensure its Taliban boys (now men) will try, once again, to give it ‘strategic depth?’

We are at a critical juncture in Pakistan’s history where the country’s direction can be changed. However, we require political leaders who are willing to acknowledge what a catastrophe past policies have been. No decent Pakistani at this moment can continue to support the status quo and still consider her/himself as someone who genuinely cares for the plight of the victims of state violence, patriarchy, religious exclusivism, and class exploitation. The simplest and quickest way for the Pakistani state to reduce terror is to stop supporting and engaging in it. This is not some pro-India or pro-America propaganda trope we are repeating. Those states do the same, and on a much greater scale.

Undoubtedly, militancy and terrorism have other roots than merely being a response to militarism from either the Pakistani state or the US/NATO after 2001. There are generations of Pakistanis (and others) indoctrinated by a coalition of powerful international players interested in promoting global ‘jihadist Islam’ in the 1980s. The geostrategic interests of that time were accomplished, the beast of communism was slain, and everybody could pretend all was well. Meanwhile, the proliferation of these militant fundamentalist and sectarian groups was in full swing, and while the Pakistani state continued to support and rely on many of them – a few of them just could not be completely controlled, all the time. And some of these militant elements only know how to employ violent means to resolve political – and theological – questions. Good, meticulous police and intelligence work can easily apprehend these characters, if the political will is there.

Challenging the imperial expansionist policies of the United States, Malcolm X once said “If violence is wrong in America then violence is wrong abroad.”In hopes of continuing Malcolm’s vision for an alternative future in which justice and social transformation are advanced, not the laws of the jungle, we feel strongly in reiterating that the violence inflicted upon innocent souls in Peshawar must not be replicated onto innocent communities in North Waziristan or elsewhere. We are not arguing to suspend our commitment to freedom and justice, but simply upholding that commitment by resisting the rush to war. Though such a sensible and rational approach ought to find an increasing level of public support, the question immediately posed is: “Which side are you on? The forces of ‘civilization’or those terrorists?”

In response to such political reductionism we assert that we are on the side of people, including those innocent victims brutally murdered in Peshawar, and those who face violence, displacement, starvation, and subjugation from Waziristan, to Balochistan, to all across the country.

Junaid S. Ahmad has been teaching law and politics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), in Pakistan.

Sania Sufiis a Political Science graduate of Loyola University.