By Hassan Javid
March 22, 2015
The right words are being said, and the right noises are being made. We are told that the state is committed to ending terrorism and militancy once and for all, with the bombs and missiles being rained down on FATA being displayed as evidence of this resolve. We are informed that raids have been conducted and arrests have been made across the country, and that numerous violent plots have been thwarted. Solemn looking men in suits and military fatigues constantly appear on our television screens, shaking hands, talking, and staring impenetrably into the distance while deciding the fate of this nation. In the media and the public discourse, the messages being transmitted are clear; there will no longer be a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists, strategic depth and militant proxies are a thing of the past. China, Afghanistan, and the United States are all supporting Pakistan’s plans. The stars have aligned, the omens are good, and the nightmare of the past two decades will soon come to an end.
Yet, for all the spin and PR, and the ‘optics’ through which this new ‘narrative’ is being framed, it is difficult to shake the feeling that for all that is being said and done, nothing has really changed. This past week saw yet more innocent lives being lost to terrorist bombings in Lahore, Karachi, Multan, and Swat. Once again, the victims were overwhelmingly targeted for their religious beliefs, with responsibility unashamedly being claimed by different militant outfits. The much-trumpeted National Action Plan, a flawed set of proposals that has been eviscerated and hollowed out even further since its inception, has been all but forgotten as attention has shifted to events in Karachi, with the ongoing tussle between the MQM and the Rangers, and the allegations made by Saulat Mirza on the eve of his execution, dominating the airwaves. Meanwhile, the usual suspects are doing what they do best, spreading hate and intolerance while openly flouting ‘bans’ on their organizations. Even the question of what is to be done with them is no longer posed in any meaningful way.
In the months since the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, ‘decisive action’ has seemingly been restricted to bombing FATA, displacing its inhabitants, and demonizing Afghan refugees – which is exactly what ‘decisive action’, looked like in the past. This has been accompanied by the resurrection of some other, older tropes; the perpetrators of militant violence cannot possibly be Muslims (thereby implying that virulent variants of Islamic ideology cannot possibly be blamed for what is happening), foreign actors are involved in fomenting this unrest (illustrating how the state cannot possibly be complicit in the growth of terror in Pakistan), and it is only the military that can save this country, both from the terrorists and the hapless antics of the civilian government.
There is more. The state’s apparent commitment to fighting terror has, coincidentally and conveniently, dovetailed with the assertion of its power in other realms. The introduction of military courts and the reintroduction of the death penalty (an act whose moral repugnance is amply demonstrated by the case of Shafqat Hussain) have been accompanied by renewed efforts to subdue resistance and opposition across the country. In Balochistan, nationalist parties and activists have been subjected to a fresh wave of oppression. In Karachi, recent events have justified the fear that the new powers appropriated by the state could be easily turned against political parties. Last week in Okara, over 1600 members of the Anjuman-i-Muzareen Punjab were arrested for protesting against state brutality. All of this is done in the name of order and national security, with anti-terror laws being invoked to carry out these actions. That these claims are patently hypocritical is exposed every time the grinning, smug faces of people like Hafiz Saeed and Abdul Aziz are flashed across the media.
None of this should be surprising. After all, the state in Pakistan, dominated by the military establishment, has never let a good crisis go to waste. In 1971, the loss of half the country amidst unprecedented state-sponsored bloodshed should have seen the end of both authoritarian rule and parochial religious nationalism in Pakistan, especially when considering how the events of that year took place not long after Ayub Khan was booted out of power by a popular movement. Instead, less than a decade later, the military was back in control, with its rule legitimized by a narrative that demonized civilian politics and cast the Bangladeshi liberation movement as an act of Indian instigation. Post-APS, when questions finally started to be asked about the establishment’s role in cultivating terrorist groups and abetting the cultivation of a toxic religious discourse in order to achieve disastrous strategic objectives and to bolster a self-defeating vision of national identity, the critical thrust of these thoughts was lost amidst the jingoistic chest-thumping and flag-waving that accompanied the announcement of a military campaign against the Taliban. A fawning media and a structurally supine civilian political elite did nothing to challenge the reassertion of old doctrines dressed up as fresh ideas, reserving their ire for the national cricket team and disputes over electoral rigging, essentially the political equivalent of burning the fiddle while Nero tortures Christians.
The ideological hegemony of the establishment has always been based on a couple of fundamental principles; the use of Islam to counter the twin ‘threats’ of India and ethno-nationalism, the defence of a socio-economic order dominated by civilian elites aligned with the establishment, and the maintenance of military control over areas of public policy directly related to its core strategic and economic interests. These principles are propagated through the various apparatuses that the state possesses the capacity to deploy and manipulate – the national curriculum, the media, and allied groups within civil society. When these notions are challenged, often due to sustained opposition from elements within society, or at times of crisis, the state has historically responded by doubling down on its efforts to retake control of the narrative while simultaneously repressing those who refuse to conform to its dictates.
When considering the issue of terrorism, it is often tempting to view it as evidence of state failure. However, this approach assumes that the state shares this particular definition of failure. In the Pakistani context, where tens of thousands have died at the hands of religious extremism, and where hundreds of thousands more have been killed and persecuted for believing in the wrong god or belonging to the wrong ethnic group, and where it is manifestly evident that none of this has ever caused the state to rethink its objectives, why should things be different this time around? When the state measures its success by its ability to protect core interests that may not align with those of the populace, when the very actions it is expected to take are those that undermine its power and hegemony, it is hopelessly naïve to expect it to spontaneously undergo a change of heart.
We are often told that Pakistan is passing through a ‘delicate phase’, and that national solidarity needs to trump all other considerations. Unquestioningly accepting this logic obscures the way in which crises can be used to cement and extend the power of the state. At times when the poverty of the state’s ideological project stand exposed, and when the ruinous shortcomings of its politics become evident, it is imperative that there be more questioning, not less. To do otherwise is to let the powers-that-be get away with it. Again.