As the Malala Yousafzai effect fades away, Pakistan’s response to terror is in danger of slipping into even greater levels of intolerance
World over, efforts are afoot to ensure that 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai’s blood counts for something. Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie suggested her name for the next Nobel Peace Prize and an online campaign to advocate her case is being signed up by government representatives in various countries.
Former British Premier and United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, has declared that November 10 — a month after the attempted assassination of Malala — will be observed as ‘Malala and the 32 million girls day’ to help realise her dream of educating the 32 million out-of-school girls across the world.
And, of course, there is pop diva Madonna dedicating a song to Malala and inscribing her name on her lower back; revealed during a striptease routine at a concert. These are just a few examples but, ironically, all help build the narrative in Malala’s home country that she was nothing but a western agent, out to give Pakistan a bad name.
Consigned to news bulletins
A fortnight after the shooting, it is back to business as usual in Pakistan. Malala is now just a mention in news bulletins, a face on posters being brought out by civil society organisations in an effort to keep the issue alive, a hashtag on Twitter … Meanwhile, the might of the state has spoken through inaction. No doubt, all concerned gave right-sounding statements but, together, they fell way short of the resolve shown by the young teen in standing up to terrorists.
Malala and her father Ziauddin — who encouraged her to hold her ground in a milieu hostile to speaking out, especially for women — can be dismissed as being foolhardy, but the question many are asking is: can Pakistan’s decision-makers ignore the writing on the wall even now, when children are being marked for just wanting access to education? Another girl from Swat, 17-year-old Hina Khan, is also apparently marked — this time on the outskirts of Islamabad — for the same reason.
At the risk of parroting the U.S. “do more” line, many had hoped that the revulsion triggered by Malala’s shooting would force the powers that be to abandon their use of terrorism as a tool of statecraft and “do more” not for Washington’s sake but for Pakistan’s own survival.
But even as the platitudes were being served out by Pakistan’s political and military leadership, the counter-narrative had begun. No one is quite sure how an operation in North Waziristan got injected into the mainstream narrative. But this became the expected response to Malala’s shooting and that was enough to generate all kinds of conspiracy theories — the sum and substance of which was that the young girl was an American agent and the whole episode was orchestrated to mount pressure on Pakistan to pursue Washington’s agenda.
Now that the International Marxist Tendency has posted a report following the attack that Malala had attended a National Marxist Youth School in Swat in July, another line of conspiracy theories is sure to emerge regarding how she was a communist and la-deen (irreligious). Sometimes, these conspiracy theories are actually inspired by Hollywood flicks for which there is a huge market in Pakistan despite the widespread anti-Americanism.
Sample this. After Queen Elizabeth Hospital at Birmingham, where Malala is currently undergoing treatment, put out a detailed bulletin on the nature of her injuries, including the trajectory of the bullet, people immediately “saw a pattern” straight out of the movies featuring CIA agents. This is how the theory goes as told by an owner of a restaurant frequented by upwardly mobile children of Islamabad: “The hospital said Malala was shot at point blank range, still the bullet travelled underneath the skin along the side of head and neck without penetrating the skull. Only the CIA could have done such a neat job without actually causing too much damage. The Taliban couldn’t have done this.” This, after the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) issued not one, not two, but at least half-a-dozen statements detailing the reasons for trying to kill Malala, and asserting that she would be targeted again should she survive.
Even as die-hard optimists cried themselves hoarse in the hope that this would be the turning point, Malala’s shooting just ended up raising Pakistan’s ability to absorb brutality by a notch or two. No doubt the ranks of those anguished by the state of affairs in Pakistan swelled at the sight of the teen being wheeled in and out of hospitals, but it also brought up close the warped thinking that has come to dominate the nation’s mindscape.
Pakistan’s chattering classes often insist that the silent majority is not radical and this may well be true. But in their silence, the other side is gaining in strength and getting emboldened. Emboldened enough for a policewoman at an airport security post to tell a Pakistani woman that her marriage is not in order because she had married outside the religion to a westerner. Emboldened enough for a doctor in an Army hospital to insist on prayer as medication when a senior officer’s wife went to him with a medical condition. These can be dismissed as stray incidents but their frequency is growing by all accounts. Together, they reflect a mindset that is no longer peripheral.
Blind to reason
In fact, the entire discourse generated by Malala’s shooting showed how blind to reason the apologists are becoming; rather, have become. One of the earliest off the mark was Samia Raheel Qazi of Jamaat-e-Islami (J.I.). Daughter of former J.I. chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed, she is being held responsible for a photograph circulating on the Internet showing Malala and her father with former U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke. She tweeted the photograph with the comment “Malala Amreeki fauji hukaam ke saath” (Malala with American military), insinuating that she was a CIA agent. This photograph was actually from a meeting the American diplomat had with NGOs after the military had taken control of Swat from terrorists. At the meeting, Malala was quoted as saying “if you can help us with education, then please do.”
Then there was the usual line of thinking which claimed that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan was a creation of a mix of foreign intelligence agencies, predictably the CIA, Mossad and RAW. Of course, no answers to the counter question why, then, should the TTP be treated with kid gloves.
Not to be left behind, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his supporters brought in their choice arguments — that all this would end once the U.S. left the region and holding out an olive branch was a better option than a military offensive. They completely ignore the historical fact that the Swat Taliban, an offshoot of the TTP which is being held responsible by Pakistan for the attack on Malala, pre-dates 9/11 and the U.S. Army’s overt presence in the region. And that successive peace deals have only allowed terrorists to consolidate at the expense of the state’s writ.
In fact, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) — riding as it does on its steadfast opposition to the U.S. presence in the region amid rising anti-Americanism — truly queered the pitch for the political class as it is wary of upsetting the apple cart ahead of the elections.
As a result, a bid by the government to table a resolution in Parliament calling for action against terrorism got scuttled by the main opposition party that feels most threatened by the PTI since both are eyeing the Punjab electorate.
Barring the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and some leaders in the Pakistan People’s Party and the Awami National Party, all remained ambivalent in their response — condemning the attack without naming the TTP which has links to jihadi organisations working within the country. Reports from Punjab suggest that many mainstream political parties are exploring pre-election tie-ups with some of these outfits to bag their captive votes.
The military leadership, for its part, lobbed the decision on a North Waziristan operation on to the political class, literally setting the cat among the pigeons. Although the Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani sought to take ownership of the war on terror earlier this year, nothing in subsequent months has shown any change in Pakistan’s Janus-faced policy on terrorism which, today, is harming the country more than any other.