By Aijaz Zaka Syed
October 20, 2012
In the lives of individuals as well as nations sometimes seemingly small, inconsequential incidents can set off profound, watershed changes. Has that turning point arrived for Pakistan? As a well wisher of the country and someone who has, with the rest of the Muslim world, watched with grave concern the imploding of the land of the pure over the past few years, one really hopes so.
The outpouring of public support and outrage over the cowardly assault on Malala Yousafzai is unprecedented. There have been endless protests and rallies in cities and towns across Pakistan in solidarity with the schoolgirl still fighting for her life. October 12 was observed as a day of prayers and vigil for Malala across the country. More than 50 ulema have issued a fatwa condemning the attack in strongest terms as ‘un-Islamic.’ There have been similar, unqualified condemnations from various religious organisations and parties, not to mention visits by Prime Minister Raja Parvez Ashraf, Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and other bigwigs.
From President Asif Zardari to MQM’s Altaf Hussain, everyone wants a bit of Malala’s reflected glory. During the past week or so, there has been a deluge of newspaper columns and 24/7 television coverage in Pakistan and around the world with every pundit worth their salt taking it upon themselves to offer a unique take on the issue. Urdu poets, never needing an invitation, haven’t stopped singing and cheering for the young heroine. She has emerged as the conscience of a long-suffering, sensible, silent majority. And now the government has feted Malala with the nation’s highest bravery award – rightly of course.
No tragedy in recent times, not even the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, provoked such surfeit of overwhelming emotions and saturation media coverage. What clearly makes Malala’s tragedy truly poignant is her courage belying her young age and vulnerability. Anyone blessed with children, especially with daughters, cannot help but feel the pain of Malala’s family.
The loudest support for her has, of course, originated in the west with media, politicians and celebrities lustily cheering for the Pakistani teenager. Material girl Madonna has dedicated her new single to the young crusader. Angelina Jolie has pitched in with an impassioned tribute titled, We All Are Malala, in The Daily Beast. The actress has joined hands with the publication to launch ‘Women of Impact Award for Girls’ Education’ in Malala’s honour – which is all awfully touching.
US authorities, including President Barack Obama, have offered all possible help to treat the young activist who has captured the world’s imagination with her solitary courage. But this is rather rich coming from the folks who are responsible for exterminating thousands of innocent civilians, including women and children like Malala, in air raids and drone attacks. The world woke up to Malala’s existence because of her BBC blog defying the Taliban diktats. Who knows how many Malalas out there quietly fell to the drones – unwept and unlamented by the White House and Hollywood? Can we ever forget what happened in Iraq as part of America’s mission to ‘free’ the Middle East? In March 2006, Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi had just turned 14 – Malala’s age – when she was gang-raped before being murdered and burnt with the rest of her family near Baghdad by five US soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division. Abeer’s family, except her father, consisted entirely of women and children. Little wonder then that this torrent of sympathies and glowing tributes for Malala from the west has failed to impress Pakistanis and others around the world.
Meanwhile this shameful act has also turned out to be a Godsend for Pakistan’s legion of friends and admirers in our part of the world and elsewhere to do what they love to do – write its obits and trash Muslims and their faith in the bargain for the zillionth time. But can you really blame them? With friends and defenders of faith like Taliban, who needs enemies?
Supposed to be inspired by their more famous brethren across the border, Pakistani Taliban have done nothing but repeatedly targeted their own. In the name of Islam and resisting the west, a reign of terror was unleashed on the picturesque paradise that Swat once was. Virtually running a state within state, they repeatedly targeted the security forces and administration, eventually inviting the army’s wrath. The 2009 army offensive, interestingly named Operation Rah-e-Rast (right path), was supposed to have flushed out the militants from Swat, while displacing thousands of its inhabitants.
Clearly, it was a band-aid solution to the malignant overgrowth and Pakistan is back to square one as far as the Taliban are concerned. America’s Afghan war and Pakistan’s involvement in it, not to mention the relentless drone strikes along the tribal frontier, may have given birth to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the state of siege within. But whatever their cause, nothing can justify or condone their criminal and shameful actions targeting innocent people and peace and stability of the country. They have brought nothing but misery to the people of Swat and Pakistan and shame to Islam and Muslims.
What kind of self-respecting man turns his gun on unarmed women and children? Banning girls’ education in the name of Islam – how absurd could you get? The Prophet of Islam (pbuh) urged both men and women to pursue knowledge. But this isn’t just about the madness of a lone murderous outfit.
Pakistan is facing an existential crisis and clear and present danger in the potent combination of extremism, lawlessness and ubiquitous, unbridled gun culture. And it’s not just the tribal areas that are defying the writ of the state; even Karachi, the once cosmopolitan melting pot, increasingly looks like a battle-scarred Beirut with all sorts of gangs and groups settling scores on a daily basis.
While years of involvement with the chaos next door in Afghanistan, constant western interventions and bankruptcy of the political class may have contributed to the unravelling of what was once a modern, fast growing country, Pakistanis do not have the luxury of pausing and pondering over how they landed in this mindboggling mess. There’s simply no time. This is the time for a fresh start and bold, corrective steps. What Pakistan needs is loads of courage and commitment from its civil society to take on the daunting challenges facing the nation on all fronts. It needs honest and visionary leadership, which the current lot of politicians has so miserably failed to deliver.
In an interesting piece, Vir Sanghvi recalls how a prosperous and confident Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s gave a complex to us Indians. “What devoured glamorous Pakistan?” asks the former Hindustan Times editor before offering an explanation. “A nation created on the basis of Islam was destroyed by too much Islam. And a nation dedicated to democracy flourished because of too much democracy.”
I am not so sure though. It isn’t Islam but its blatant abuse and exploitation by both those in power and at the pulpit that is responsible for the current mess. Whatever the explanation, it’s still not too late for the world’s only Muslim nuclear power to make a new beginning.
The popular rage that we see on the streets of Pakistan today needs to be channelled to reinvent Pakistan as a modern, progressive nation at peace with itself and in harmony with the ideals and goals of its founding fathers. It’s now time for ordinary Pakistanis who have suffered in silence all these years at the hands of their elites and foreign masters to take charge of their destiny. Their awakening would mean Malala did not shed her blood in vain.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf based writer.