Thursday October 21, 2021

What are we up to?

September 26, 2021

For over 40 years we have been concerned about Afghanistan in one way or the other. In the 1980s, the Pakistani state supported the mujahideen who were fighting a war against the Kabul government and its backers from the Soviet Union. From 2001 on, we sided with the US in its fight against the Taliban; and then now we have suddenly realised that the Afghan Taliban are not as bad as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.

Now we want the world to believe that the new Taliban are different from the ones who imposed an authoritarian and harsh regime in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, though Pakistan enjoyed good relations with them too. While at home, Maulana Abdul Aziz (Lal Masjid) keeps provoking the state and we have a lenient view about it. But journalists – who are no terrorists but just performing their professional duties – do not deserve any leniency. They don’t challenge the writ of the state and just raise some questions, but are still liable to get their undue comeuppance.

We see that the so-called National Action Plan to counter violent extremism is withering away, and too many promoters of hate speech are just getting away with it. While our prime minister, president, and cabinet members talk softly about the Afghan Taliban and some in government even give signals about giving amnesty to the TTP, flags of the Afghan Taliban flutter over the Jamia Hafsa seminary in Islamabad, not once but at least three times within a month since the Taliban takeover in Kabul. Though the police have registered a case against the cleric, his wife, and some madrassah students under the Anti-Terrorism Act, the outcome of this is concrete.

The police have also invoked sections of the Pakistan Penal Code that deal with rioting and sedition, but the question remains regarding how the culprits could display and possess deadly weapons and exercise criminal intimidation. Numerous videos circulated on social media showed Maulana Abdul Aziz blatantly hurling threats at the police and warning security personnel of dire consequences. He was recorded saying that the police would not get away with it and the Afghan Taliban would avenge this grave insult. It seems authorities were careful not to disturb or enrage the good Maulana and the police held ‘negotiations’ to take down the Taliban flags.

It creates more apprehensions in the minds of the citizens of Pakistan – what to talk of the world community – that the authorities sealed the FIR and the government decided not to pursue the case. Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid addressed a presser and felt proud that he had resolved the issue through ‘dialogue’. Don’t we realise that the world has been wary of the Taliban for a quarter of a century now? We claim that we have lost nearly 80,000 people in the ‘war on terror’ and have been successful in it.

One would like to know why this submissive attitude is deemed appropriate when it comes to Maulana Aziz who has been regularly challenging the writ of the state? The government is not ready to brook any minor criticism if it comes from peaceful journalists and writers, and wants to impose even harsher penalties on media outlets; whereas a serious matter which may have international implications is just brushed aside. How long will it take for us to understand that the world community is not positive towards the Taliban – be they Afghan or Pakistani?

Such episodes of our cool handling of grave matters put us in embarrassing situations multiple times in the past, but somehow we are still unable to register the enormity of the problem. Just as it is impossible to forget the APS carnage, the hundreds of attacks across the country, countless blasts claiming thousands of lives, it is not easy to erase the memory of what happened at Lal Masjid. The Maulana never received any of the harsh punishments that he deserved and successive governments have allowed him to laugh it all off.

The people of Pakistan have a right to ask why his actions never elicited due reprisals while ordinary civil society activists and political opponents have been targeted repeatedly and received disproportionate punishments for acts which deserve praise rather than punitive actions. If a case of harassment comes to light against an officer, it is the victim who ends up at the receiving end; and here we have a hardline cleric who always manages to evade the law. Now again he gets a safe passage with a sealed FIR. Why seal a document that is so vital for public attention and interest?

Eight years ago, Maulana Aziz received a surprise acquittal in over two dozen cases that had been registered against him till 2007. That acquittal seems to have emboldened him and he has been trying to fly high ever since. His defiance is bold but not beautiful as it may land the country into another turmoil. Since the capture of Osama bin Laden ten years ago from Abbottabad, Pakistan has found it challenging to prove its commitments to the world in the war against terrorism.

First, there was the matter of Bin Laden hiding in a city in Pakistan. Then in the heart of Islamabad, Maulana Aziz allowed his colleagues to name the Jamia Hafsa library after Osama bin Laden – arguably the world’s most feared and notorious terrorist. It is not a question of Maulana Aziz alone, it is a matter of thousands – or maybe millions – who are likely to be his followers and inspired by the Taliban. The government must strive to defang all those elements that the world considers as dangerous for harmony and peace.

If the government keeps condoning such acts of open defiance by extremist clerics, and at the same time keeps targeting those who are on the other side of the spectrum with their mellow voices and meagre criticism, the world is bound to take notice; and that notice is unlikely to be favourable to Pakistan. The government must not aim at unfair targets who are advocates of human rights and freedoms of expression and assembly. Taliban of all hues and others of the same ilk including Maulana Aziz, have at least one common aim: to establish a stifling theocracy.

The world is no more the same as it was decades and centuries ago. If we advocate for and side with those who cherish a blinkered worldview, the world will not stand with us. The clocks around the world are moving fast and forward. If we have been failing to convince the world to be on our side, we must ask ourselves, what are we up to?

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

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