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- Sunday, October 14, 2012 - From Print Edition

Looking into the mirror of the Malala Yousafzai episode, a traumatic experience that it is, you may detect the glow of hope. This should be a catalytic event, uniting the nation against the insanity of the Taliban worldview. A fresh resolve to combat terrorism and militancy is much in evidence.

Shift the angle of your vision just a little and the entire landscape may recede into darkness. After all, how could something so savage and incomprehensible happen in the first place. The people who planned and executed the attack on a 14-year-old girl have repeatedly demonstrated their ideological and political clout.

So you vacillate between hope and despair – and somehow hope seems fragile and the sense of despair is fearsome. For the time being, of course, you feel exhausted with sorrow and compassion for this uniquely gifted girl who had more courage than a horde of fanatics could muster. On Tuesday, when Malala was shot in the head in Mingora, the initial reaction was totally shattering. The file footage of her past interviews and conversations brought pangs to your heart and tears to your eyes.

Expectedly, the entire nation is in a state of shock. The world has watched it in horror and has expressed solidarity with the mission that Malala has personified. But the big question is whether this fateful event can bring about a paradigm shift in the rulers’ and the establishment’s policies towards religious radicalism and fanaticism.

To be sure, there was this expression of determination on the part of the military leadership on Thursday “to fight the menace of terrorism”. An ISPR statement, issued after a meeting chaired by General Khalid Shameem Wynne, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, said that the armed forces of Pakistan were ready “to render any sacrifice” for eliminating terrorism.

Earlier, on Wednesday, Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had expressed similar thoughts when he visited the Combined Military Hospital in Peshawar, before Malala was airlifted to Rawalpindi on Thursday. “We refuse to bow before terror. We will fight, regardless of the cost. We will prevail, Inshallah”, he was quoted to have said.

Reports recalled the speech that the army chief had made on the eve of the 65th anniversary of our independence in which he had famously said: “The fight against extremism and terrorism is our own war and we are right in fighting it. Let there be no doubt about it, otherwise we’ll be divided and taken towards civil war. Our minds should be clear on this”.

If there was little evidence to show that any concrete initiatives had been taken after that speech was made in August, the stage is now being set for a concerted military operation against our Tehreek-e-Taliban. But this war is much wider in its scope and ramifications. Ultimately, like all wars, it has to be fought in the minds of the people.

A very crucial aspect of what this war really means is the fact that the Taliban have brazenly accepted the responsibility of targeting Malala and have sought to justify the attack. In that sense, Malala and the Taliban symbolise the opposing sides in a conflict that has been raging in this country for quite some time. Unfortunately, this polarisation has become so deep and inherently so antagonistic that the attack on Malala may not in itself alter the balance of forces that exist on the ground.

Since it is not possible to justify this dastardly deed, those who are infected with the ideology of the Taliban are bound to be on the defensive at this time. But it is instructive to see how the likes of Qazi Hussain Ahmad of the Jamaat-e-Islami have responded and what they are trying to say between the lines.

One line of reasoning is that yes, this attack on Malala is to be unreservedly condemned but why isn’t there a similar outrage when women and children are killed in drone attacks? This contention, come to think of it, makes no sense and is, in fact, an assault on reason. Irrespective of how the issue of drone attacks is to be assessed and confronted, those who launch these attacks – the Americans – do not claim that they are targeting women and children. In Malala’s case, the Taliban bluntly admit that she specifically was the object of their vengeance.

From the Taliban’s point of view, Malala does signify a fundamental threat to what they represent ideologically. They know that when little girls go to school and women are emancipated and empowered, their obscurantist image of an Islamic polity will be shattered. One hopes that all those who are now vowing to support the cause that Malala has epitomised also understand what this conflict is all about.

That old debate on whether we should negotiate with the Taliban has acquired a new edge now that the Taliban have stooped so low in such a cowardly fashion. We have, for instance, Imran Khan, who is occasionally labelled as Taliban Khan by some columnists, contending in favour of negotiations. He is very right when he says that military action is not a solution. At the same time, he should be the best person to realise that you do not negotiate with cancer. Again, a proper appreciation of what the battle of ideas in Pakistan is lacking.

There is certainly a yearning for change in our society. But the transformation that is needed will not be possible by protecting tribal values that have historically subjugated women and have blocked social change that is rooted in liberal education. Perhaps the most helpful approach to encouraging a tsunami that would sweep across the country would be to shatter the equilibrium that has existed in the tribal belt and other adjoining areas where militancy and fanaticism have grown.

Malala has become the seed for change also because she comes from Swat where the Taliban were able to prevail for a short but also an excruciatingly long time. There has been a lot of praise for the army action that finally ‘liberated’ the region. The task of de-radicalising the militants is still in process. Still, one is baffled as to why the Taliban were allowed to march ahead in the first place.

We do have a very complex situation in Pakistan and the recent expansion in the terrorist and the jihadi elements raises questions about the ability of the ruling elites, including the military, to grasp the implications of this deadly drift. There is a sympathetic rise in violence and disorder and a virtual fragmentation of our society. Can Malala serve as a game-changer?

The writer is a staff member. Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail. com