By M A Niazi
September 27, 2013
The victims of the double blast in Peshawar have led to something that was not achieved by the killing of a major general and a lieutenant colonel in Dir: the reversal of the government decision to talk to the Taliban. That too was an event that happened in a province where the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf was recently elected to office. Apart from the obvious blow to a religious minority, there also seems a debate within the Taliban about whether to talk to the government or not. In this blood-smeared situation, is the release of Mullah Abdul Ghani Biradar to be viewed as an unconnected event, or as something sandwiched by the killings in Dir and Peshawar?
It is also remarkable that the Christian community of Peshawar has been targeted. While the Taliban have long made Peshawar a focal point for terrorism, the Christian community there has not particularly been a target. At one level, this might be a surprising omission, for the militants have been known to carry out attacks on churches in other parts of Pakistan, and Peshawar has a relatively large Christian community. Another factor has been that the Punjabi Taliban have been more known for their animus against Christians, to which they have arrived through their sectarian dislike for Shias. Though it is not clear whether operatives came to Peshawar from the Punjab for the deed, or whether militants in Peshawar have come round to the view of Christians as fair targets, it seems that being part of the same organization has led to a coming together of views.
The militants were not homogenous in origin, but it seems that being thrown together has meant that they have developed the same views. At the same time, it is worth noting that, by their own standards, Christians are Zimmis, Ahle Zimma. The Zimma is a promise of protection. It is worth recalling that when Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (RA) was caliph, he came across an old Jew begging. Hazrat Umar asked him how he had come to this state, and he answered that the jizya had done so. Hazrat Umar (RA) thereupon ordered that the jizya not be levied on the old. At one level, what is remarkable is the concern shown by the head of state about the welfare of those ruled. That level of concern about welfare was not visible in Peshawar. There was not even the usual concern expressed about the image of Pakistan abroad, which has been one way of conceding publicly that those killed were co-religionists of the Western countries whose goodwill governments have sought even before the War on Terror. It must be remembered that Hazrat Umar (RA) did not enquire because of any concern of his country’s image abroad. This was a time when the Islamic state he headed was engaged in conquering non-Muslim states, whether Christians like the Byzantines or Zoroastrians like the Persians. It is worth remarking that this was the era in which Syria was conquered from the Byzantines, and it is worth noting that Syria is again in flames, with the same elements as are responsible for the Peshawar attack supposed to be fighting against the regime.
The Jizya is supposed to be returned where the Zimma is not fulfilled. But where the jizya is not levied, does the Zimma exist? One argument for not levying the Jizya is that non-Muslims pay taxes just like Muslims, and defence of the country is paid for out of these taxes. And just because the jizya is not levied is not supposed to mean the end of governmental responsibility. Of course, arguing from the Zimma is not something that the state wants done, because that would be to hold the state to an Islamic standard, a process it might prefer not to undergo? That question lay at the root of the militant campaign against the holding of the last elections.
There is a lack of comprehension in the whole of Pakistan at the event, as well as much rage in Pakistan. This is the first attack on the Christians of KPK, though it had already been a community in decline, never having been particularly strong to begin with. The Christians of Peshawar had been there ever since the British arrived there with the conversion of Peshawar into the headquarters of a Chief Commissionerate (to become a province in 1901) when the Raj took control from the Sikhs in 1849. The Peshawar Christians were not so numerous as to have any MNAs elected under the Zia-era separate electorate system, but were well respected locally because of their contribution to the health and education services of the city. At the same time, migration abroad had meant that the community was losing some of its best and brightest. That meant that it was not only the local Christian community that was less, but the province and the country as a whole was also deprived of them. This meant that a peaceful community was already shaken by the travails to which Peshawar had been subjected. Kabul Christians had initially migrated to the city in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion, but they had already migrated to Western countries, as did quite a number of Afghans at that time.
The government should not have had either the Dir or the Peshawar blasts to force it to pay attention to its primary duty, maintaining law and order. This is a basic governmental function, irrespective of whether it is Islamic or not, democratic or not, provincial or federal. It should not be considered insignificant that this was the first attack on the Christian community, after the USA decided that its withdrawal required talks with the Taliban. Its reaction, of launching a drone attack, will not have helped matters. It is perhaps not a paradox that the NWFP has a government which is not just against drone strikes, but also wants to talk with the militants. The PTI will have to deal with the fact that the peace of its province is under attack from the very people it wants to talk to.
If indeed there are dissensions within the militants about whether or not to talk, that will only add to a question that has already been recognized: who does the government talk to? That is related to the query about the agenda, and to the one about how to avoid the sort of breakdown the past has seen, but is quite a separate problem. At the same time, the people killed in Peshawar on Sunday also serve as a grisly reminder that Pakistan does not have just a sectarian problem, as shown in another provincial capital, Quetta, by the massacres there of Hazaras, but a communal one as well. It must not be ignored that the sectarian and communal flames are being fanned by the same militants in both cases. It also should not be ignored that such actions merely promote the kind of militancy that is alien to what has so far been a peaceable community, which has not made any sort of waves. There will possibly be no talks with the militants, which at least a group within them seems to wish to avoid. If that is the case, there may well be some further actions ahead. However, after the military and the Christian community, what or who will be the next target?
M A Niazi is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.