A na­tion un­der siege

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Zahid Hus­sain

YET an­other blood­bath, yet an­other day of mourn­ing. It is the Pak­istan story so reg­u­larly re­peated that we have for­got­ten the count. From the Pe­shawar school mas­sacre, to the La­hore park ex­plo­sion, it is chil­dren who are bear­ing the brunt of the un­end­ing cy­cle of mil­i­tant vi­o­lence. One thought the Pe­shawar tragedy would be the fi­nal turn­ing point unit­ing the na­tion, but that pub­lic out­rage proved to be fleet­ing.

Now the lat­est car­nage has taken place in the heart of Pun­jab and has shaken the na­tion yet again. But have we re­ally been shaken out of our slum­ber? One is not sure. The situation is now much more com­plex and grave with the cancer of re­li­gious ex­trem­ism spread­ing all over. The state is now con­fronted with a fresh chal­lenge fol­low­ing the emer­gence on the scene of a new coali­tion of ex­trem­ists of all hues blended with the main­stream Is­lamic po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

As La­hore bled, a horde of zealots protest­ing the ex­e­cu­tion of Mum­taz Qadri stormed Islamabad break­ing se­cu­rity bar­ri­ers and leav­ing be­hind a trail of de­struc­tion. They vir­tu­ally put the high-se­cu­rity Red Zone un­der siege de­mand­ing that the for­mer police guard and mur­derer of for­mer Pun­jab gover­nor Sal­maan Taseer be de­clared a na­tional hero and mar­tyr. The army was called in af­ter police and para­mil­i­tary troops were un­able to con­trol the ram­pag­ing fa­nat­ics. The hap­less­ness of the civil­ian ad­min­is­tra­tion was pitiable.

It is quite in­trigu­ing how the gov­ern­ment al­lowed Qadri's sup­port­ers to gather at Li­aquat Bagh de­spite warn­ings of an­tic­i­pated vi­o­lence. It was so ob­vi­ous that the crowd had been mo­bilised from across the prov­ince and had come pre­pared for a con­fronta­tion. The cap­i­tal was at the mercy of the mob for sev­eral hours be­fore the mil­i­tary took charge. Even then, the ri­ot­ers con­tinue to oc­cupy Con­sti­tu­tion Av­enue de­fy­ing the gov­ern­ment's au­thor­ity.

Those two in­ci­dents on Sun­day evening laid bare the gov­ern­ment's patchy and lack­lus­tre re­sponse to vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism that con­tin­ues its un­abated rise. Surely there has been a sig­nif­i­cant de­cline in ter­ror­ist at­tacks over the past year, but the prob­lem is far from over. The at­tacks on the air force base in Bad­aber out­side Pe­shawar and on Bacha Khan Univer­sity in Charsadda dis­trict are cases in point. One of the main rea­sons for this im­punity is the lack of a co­her­ent counter-ter­ror­ism and coun­terex­trem­ism strat­egy.

Seem­ingly there was no con­nec­tion be­tween the La­hore ter­ror at­tack and the Islamabad siege, but one is not sure that the two were com­pletely iso­lated in­ci­dents. The com­mon ob­jec­tive was to cre­ate fear and bring the gov­ern­ment un­der pres­sure to pull back from some of its re­cent pol­icy mea­sures that these rad­i­cal groups be­lieve could limit their space.

It is not with­out rea­son that squab­bling re­li­gious groups have come to­gether to de­fend what they de­scribe as the 'Is­lamic iden­tity of Pak­istan'. 'Is­lam is in danger' is the mantra be­ing evoked once again to whip up re­li­gious sen­ti­ments. The ex­e­cu­tion of Mum­taz Qadri has sim­ply worked as a cat­a­lyst unit­ing var­i­ous re­li­gious fac­tions. It is not just the al­liance of dif­fer­ent sec­tar­ian and mil­i­tant out­fits, they are also joined by main­stream Is­lamic par­ties like Ja­maat-i-Is­lami (JI) and fac­tions of Jamiat Ulema-i-Is­lam.

What hap­pened on Sun­day must not come as a sur­prise. Al­though the civil­ian ad­min­is­tra­tion has as usual been in a state of de­nial, one could see it com­ing. There has been a con­certed cam­paign to mo­bilise sup­port not only on the Qadri is­sue, but also other mat­ters such as the Pun­jab gov­ern­ment's law on vi­o­lence against women.

Cu­ri­ously, the law pro­hibit­ing hate speech and in­cite­ment to vi­o­lence was not in­voked by the ad­min­is­tra­tion. Ef­forts to re­vive the Mut­tahida Ma­jlisi-Amal, putting aside the par­ties' ide­o­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences, are mainly dic­tated by a com­mon cause to stop full im­ple­men­ta­tion of NAP. It is a back­lash by the rad­i­cal Is­lamic groups crit­i­cal of the mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion against the Pak­istani Tal­iban and other mil­i­tant groups. The gov­ern­ment's de­ci­sion to ex­e­cute Qadri and Nawaz Sharif's lib­eral stance on women and other is­sues has also an­gered the con­ser­va­tive lobby.

Most in­ter­est­ing, how­ever, is the role of JI in the cur­rent anti-gov­ern­ment cam­paign. While it had tra­di­tion­ally kept it­self out of sec­tar­ian re­li­gious pol­i­tics, the party has been very ac­tive in pro-Qadri protests. It has also been vo­cal in the move­ment against the Pun­jab women's pro­tec­tion law. The Ja­maat has staged protests in favour of Qadri and sup­ported the agenda that called for declar­ing the con­victed killer a mar­tyr.

The re­li­gious groups protest­ing Mum­taz Qadri's ex­e­cu­tion have also called for the hang­ing of Aa­sia Bibi, the Chris­tian woman charged for blas­phemy. She is the same woman whose sup­port cost Sal­maan Taseer his life.

It is a des­per­ate at­tempt by JI - which once was ar­guably the most pow­er­ful and well-or­gan­ised Is­lamic party in the coun­try - to re­gain its shrink­ing po­lit­i­cal base. While many of its more rad­i­cal youth ac­tivists joined Al Qaeda and other ji­hadi groups, the party has lost its elec­toral base sig­nif­i­cantly af­ter the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the MMA. The Qadri is­sue has ap­par­ently pro­vided it with an op­por­tu­nity to come back on the na­tional po­lit­i­cal scene. But that may also be its un­do­ing. Surely, the La­hore car­nage and the storm­ing of the cap­i­tal by the zealots have fi­nally forced the Sharif gov­ern­ment to shed its am­bi­gu­ity in deal­ing with re­li­gious ex­trem­ism in Pun­jab. Yet the gov­ern­ment is still not will­ing to take full own­er­ship of the counter-ter­ror­ism op­er­a­tion in the prov­ince. It is the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship that has taken the ini­tia­tive yet again.

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