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Ayaz Amir
Friday, August 24, 2012
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Islamabad diary

Gen Kayani’s speech at PMA Kakul on August 14 repays a close study. The war against religious extremism was our war, he said. This was the kernel of his remarks. It would have helped if this clarity had come much earlier...but better late than never.

Extremism gone wild and threatening to become virulent is our most serious problem, dwarfing all others, including our economic woes. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that this derangement of the Pakistani mind, expressed in extremism, threatens the foundations of the state.

We survived the loss of East Pakistan. Germany has survived the loss of territory. Russia is still Russia despite the breakup of the Soviet Union. But Pakistan will not remain Pakistan if the havoc being wrought in the name of religion and by religious extremism is allowed to go unchecked. Pakistan was created in the name of religion. Is it to be undone in the name of religion?

And we are still caught up in the debate whether this is our war or not. If this is not our war there never will be a war we can call our own. Imran Khan wouldn’t be able to survive a day in Hakimullah Mehsud’s Islamic Emirate. So what is he talking about?

North Waziristan today, for all practical purposes, is an independent emirate where the Pakistan flag does not fly, where the authority of the Pakistan state, such as it is, is not recognised. And politicians of all hues, from left to right, beat their breasts and shed copious tears regarding drone strikes in this territory whose control has passed out of our hands. The comic sentimentality on which they feed, and whose flag-bearers they are ever ready to be, is equalled only by their tunnel vision.

But mediocre men mouthing meaningless clichés can be forgiven their petty sins. The larger sin rests with the mighty institution now revising its doctrine and entering the realm of second thoughts.

Extremism in Pakistan did not spread through the medium of the stars or the application of cosmic rays. The engine of this growth – and my heart sinks as I write this – was the Pakistan Army, from General Zia to General Beg, with ISI chiefs leading the charge. To our lasting ill luck, jihad was promoted as an instrument of national policy and extremist organisations, whose names we have come to know and dread, were encouraged to set up camp and recruit followers, and spread the message of hate and bigotry.

This policy, if it can be distinguished by that name, was meant as an external instrument – jihad as an extension of foreign policy. But as happens with such things the fallout it created fell back on us, the fallout or blowback proving hotter than the original flames. But this is history and let it pass. Even if late in the day, the ideological re-emphasis – I almost said ideological turnaround – mirrored in Gen Kayani’s remarks on extremism needs to be welcomed.

It should have been the task of the political leadership to voice such thoughts. Gen Kayani’s speech should have come from the president (let’s leave the prime minister alone, he is caught up in other things) or from national leaders-in-waiting. If they choose to remain silent, emphasising the intellectual vacuum that exists in Pakistan today, the army command is not to be blamed if it seeks to fill the void.

And there is no use blaming American visitors for making a bee-line for General Headquarters when they come visiting Pakistan. Taking decisions is one thing. But even if the churning of ideas – or what pass for ideas in this country – is to take place there, then it is obvious that quality time they will choose to spend in Rawalpindi rather than in the vacuous corridors of Islamabad.

Anyway, let’s hope the PMA speech is not just rhetoric but marks a turning point, a change of direction. Even so, we should be clear what extremism has come to mean in Pakistan. It is not just the waves of violence emanating from the independent emirate of North Waziristan. That would be no great matter. The cancer could be isolated and treated (lanced is the better word) when circumstances permitted. But the problem is more complicated than that.

North Waziristan extremism has ideological sympathisers, sleeper cells and a support network, a mosque support network, running from one end of Pakistan to the other. And it is thriving in an atmosphere of radicalisation marked by such incidents as the killing of Shias in Quetta, the murder of Shias in Kohistan.

When the misuse of mosque loudspeakers becomes a national pastime, and the spewing of hatred against different sects an everyday occurrence; when a poor Christian girl such as Aasia Bibi in Sheikhupura is held on a blasphemy charge, setting off a train of events leading ultimately to the murder of governor Salmaan Taseer at the hands of one of his guards, and the guard is hailed as a hero of the faith, and lawyers shower him with rose petals when he appears before a magistrate; when someone in Bahawalpur is held on a blasphemy charge and after being sprung from police lockup is set on fire by an enraged mob; when another poor Christian girl is held on a blasphemy charge near Islamabad; and the Muslim community, which should be moved to outrage at such outrages, chooses to remain silent and do nothing; and when, in a comic interlude, the highest security agencies use clerical windbags to whip up the froth of a false nationalism; then be not surprised if religious radicalisation keeps receiving shots in the arm, and extremism as an ideological force turns into a more poisonous brew.

When the next bunch of Shias is murdered we read it as a newspaper item and shrug our shoulders and carry on as usual. And the call to prayers is sounded and it makes not the slightest difference to our collective conduct.

The kingdom of dread which religious extremism has created is much wider than the geographic confines of North Waziristan. Has America done this to us? Is America the sole agent of our misfortunes? Or, painful thought, did we sow the dragon’s teeth ourselves? And if that was the past, are we not watering the spreading plant even now?

The task at hand, it should be clear at this stage, is much larger than the necessity of any single military operation. Pakistan’s face has been distorted and it is that which must be set right if we are serious about rescuing what we like to call Iqbal and Jinnah’s Pakistan. Our minds have become twisted and a part of them are numb, incapable of feeling and thought, and that is why we choose to keep silent when our hearts should be brimming with outrage.

If we want to emerge from the shadows, into the dustbin of history must be cast the shibboleths and attitudes of our eminently forgettable past. This war now upon us can be won only if the first order of business is the liberation and emancipation of the Pakistani mind.

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