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December 16, 2015

One year of evading the hard questions


December 16, 2015

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

I had wanted to write an earnest piece of mourning for the victims of the APS attack today. As atrocities go, the memory of December 16, 2014 will not fade away easily. Certainly not this soon. The way that day felt, is present, and latent, like it could burst any moment. That sick feeling, still ambient. Still stuck, like a fresh coat of thick, crimson-red paint, onto the consciousness of anyone that was alive that day.

The worst days? On the worst days, it feels like December 16 will never end. Days like the one this weekend when almost two dozen Pakistanis were murdered by terrorists in Parachinar.

The best days? There are no best days. Not while we can still taste the salt from the tears of grieving mothers, while we can still smell the rose water that fathers spray upon the earth in which they have laid their babies to rest for all eternity. There are no best days in the homes that lost a child that day. If we really are one big family – humans, all of us – the Peshawar APS attack struck us all, in the home we call Pakistan.

How do you contemplate APS Peshawar? The enormity and horror of a systematic slaughter of children? How do you frame a set of parameters to allow you to process such horror, such sickness, such terror?

You don’t. Yet it happened. And it may upset some Pakistanis to read this, but it should not have shocked or surprised us.

Once hospitals, supermarkets, universities, banks, mosques and churches and ‘places of worship’ were fair game, why wouldn’t schools be? Before Peshawar APS, there were dozens of precursors. Dozens. Once humans have been dehumanised to dehumanise other humans, man, woman, child... a church, a mosque, a school... what grand distinction is left to make?

The über shock of terrorism is only legitimate in a mental space where there are established rules of the game that define the engagement between humans. The terror of terrorism in this takfiri age is that once you strip the human of human, slaughtering a six-year-old child, as the terrorists did at APS exactly one year ago is a mechanical process no different from cracking open a peanut shell, or unscrewing a bottle, or turning the key to ignition. Boom. It isn’t a bomb. It’s the sound of a process. Click. Ditto. Bang. Ditto. That bullet pierces through the cold December air. Crack. Through the skin. Swoosh. Through the sinews that connect various things inside. Crack. Out the other side. Dead. One more. Just a number for the TTP. Just a number.

This takfiri age is something else. One minute, it’s those pesky Wahhabis we don’t like. Blame the Wahhabi. The Wahhabi is foreign. Desert Bedouin, exclusively. Saudi this, Saudi that. (Can you spare a dollar, ya akhi?) No matter the roughly one hundred years of osmosis that makes the Wahabbi an ambient desi phenomenon. Foreign. Wallah.

Another minute, it’s the milad-rejecting Deobandis. Ooh, it just burns you up, doesn’t it? This cynical rejection of our ascetic, syncretic past. Why do they hate our culture so much? No matter that Deoband is as South Asian as Fareed Zakaria: chocolatey, opportunistic and very good at growing in influence. Deobandi. Tobah. Tobah.

But what have we here? Is this our saving grace? The Barelvi light cometh! Ah, yes! It doth come. With a life-size poster of Mumtaz Qadri, and lessons on Ilm Din’s heroism. Oops. Someone dropped the ball. Wherever shall we run to now?

Of course, no one likes this kind of talk. For good reason. Once you paint different criminals with the same brush, you don’t so much equalise any one or the others’ guilt as you do whitewash everyone. Of course there are varying degrees of culpability – but the core germ we should be revisiting on this horrible, sick, disgusting day is the one that we didn’t, or wouldn’t, or couldn’t, one year ago.

The core germ is takfir. Takfir is the act of declaring someone to be non-Muslim. But takfir isn’t always what it seems to be. Here’s an example: when we use the word Daesh, instead of Isis, we’re doing so because, hell, why should we cede any Muslimness to these people?

And that’s where it begins. That’s where the thread of distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ begins to come undone. Oh, you’ve heard this line of argument before. It is the human rights activist argument about capital punishment. It is the constitutionalists’ argument about military courts. It is the legalists’ argument about police encounter killings.

“Don’t do it!”, they keep saying.

“We have to be better than them”, they keep saying.

“We have to have values that outshine theirs’”, they keep saying.

But this is a country in which we feel schadenfreude when a Muslim in India gets lynched over a boti. What’s the operative problem there? The lynching? We have a few on our resume too. The boti? Come on. It’s that schadenfreude. Over a dead Muslim body. Some ummah solidarity that is.

At Hafeez Center in Lahore, a shopkeeper exercised ‘free speech’ to inform prospective shoppers that he won’t service Ahmadi clients. The language used was decidedly more incendiary. What happened? What happened is that government reacted as government should. The police, without any legal reform, with no capacity-building seminars, nay with not a hint of hesitation, removed the incendiary posters and booked the perpetrator of hatred for perpetrating hatred. It seemed miraculously easy. Like some sort of Jinnahist fantasy.

Twenty-four hours later, the flight of this heart-warming parade toward pluralism, this flight of fantasy, really, landed. With a thud.

It wasn’t pretty. Hafeez Center became the sight of a protest against the police action to stem the hatred. It was, in short order, a pro-hatred protest. Forty-eight hours before the APS Peshawar anniversary, a democratic expression of hatred in Lahore. The protestors were arguing for the right of shopkeepers to perpetrate hatred. Ordinary Pakistanis sharing their feelings. Expressing themselves, freely. Boy, have we cooked up a complicated little barbecue in this here, Islamic republic. The worst part? We can’t even blame government for this one. All things being equal, the government acted relatively heroically.

In the cloud of sorrow and anger on December 16 last year, we signed up to the return of capital punishment, signed up to military courts, signed up to police encounters and extrajudicial killings. Takfir man! They aren’t real Pakistanis. Aren’t real Muslims. They aren’t really representative of our values. Takfir.

So now we have this Hafeez Center thing. What did we expect? Born and raised on a diet of tumours, tumours of stupidity beyond redemption, and tumours of self-righteousness to the point of being suicidal (literally). Were we expecting little brown baby Justin Trudeaus to come out of the bag of tricks we’ve turned in the name of our republic, our freedom, and our faith?

In Zarb-e-Azb, we have blown up the caves, flattened the settlements, bulldozed the camps. We have killed ‘em all, at least in some parts of Fata.

In our jails, we have rounded up the ones deserving of the chair, or the chamber, or the guillotine (Who cares? As long as we don’t have to watch). Killed ‘em all.

The ones we can’t convict – the really nasty ones? Killed ‘em in police encounters. Killed ‘em all.

Yet still they killed Shuja Khanzada. They blew up Parachinar. They tore up a bus in Safoora Goth. Tore it right up. They aren’t as good at killing as they were allowed to be until APS Peshawar. But they keep killing. And we keep killing back.

When we see the large crowds celebrating Mumtaz Qadri and defending the Hafeez Center bigotry, maybe one question worth asking is whether we can ever really kill em all? Maybe more importantly, we should be asking, who is ‘them’? And, scarier still, who are ‘we’?

Do we know? Do we want to know?

One year after the APS Peshawar attack, we still haven’t asked these hard questions, and we insist on doing the easy things – the killing, the songs, the warming-of-the-cockles of the heart. We owe those children and their grieving families better.

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