Seduced by the gun

The idea of Pakistan as a natural abode of pious martyrs — drilled into the consciousness of society — lies at the root of the tragedy

Ghastly bomb blasts and gun rampages targeting Shias are yet again shattering Pakistan’s social fabric, which is already badly torn by a deep-seated ambivalence towards violent terrorists. Relentless bloodshed on the streets is forcing a confused nation to grapple with a home-bred monster — angry armed men launched by state authorities to pursue unholy political goals.

The latest outrage against Shias in Karachi, Quetta and Lahore is part of a long continuum that began when Afridi tribal raiders backed by the newly independent Pakistani state entered Kashmir Valley in 1947 and massacred innocents. The savagery of these nominally non-state actors in the infamous “rape of Baramulla” was portrayed in Pakistan as a praiseworthy feat by fearless Pathans coming to the rescue of defenceless Kashmiri Muslims.
These invaders into Kashmir were the first lashkars (armed militias) glorified by the Pakistani state. The fanatical Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which is now brutalising Shias and moderate Sunnis in Pakistan, is a contemporary iteration of a flawed nation-building project that rests on the cult status of the ghazi or the holy warrior.
2012 was the deadliest year for Shia minorities in Pakistan, who lost more than 400 adherents to the zealots of the LeJ. We are barely in the first quarter of 2013, and already hundreds of fresh graves are being dug for Shias who are being mowed down with impunity by the LeJ.
In the last decade, the fundamentalist virus which had been calculatingly cultivated to challenge India and to
dominate Afghanistan
has imploded with vengeance inside Pakistani society. The ghazi who was expected to bring foreign dividends to Pakistan, has come back to bite the hand that fed him. Pakistan is at war with itself now and this, ironically, is not inimical to the interests of its all-powerful military-intelligence apparatus.
Despite causing the deaths of hundreds of Pakistani citizens, terrorist outfits like the LeJ and its preceptor, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), are the preferred instruments of the Pakistani security establishment. In the troubled province of Balochistan, the Pakistani Army has deliberately used Punjabi Sunni sectarian terrorists to blunt the secessionist movement for an independent homeland of the Baloch tribes. Although it is formally banned by the Government of Pakistan, the LeJ is operating freely against the Hazara Shia community, which many believe is a diversionary tactic of the Pakistani establishment so that attention shifts away from the entrenched resentments of the Baloch people against the military’s abuses and exploitation of local natural gas reserves.
The Pakistani state, particularly under military rulers, has frequently resorted to spawning or facilitating extremist organisations as counter-weights to sub-nationalist uprisings or civilian political parties which threaten the status quo. The former Pakistani Army Chief, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, is on record that another heavily armed force headquartered in Karachi, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), was established in the late 1970s “on the directions of Gen. Zia-ul Haq, then military ruler, only to counter Sindhi nationalists” enraged by the execution of the supremo of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (a Shia). His daughter, Benazir Bhutto, fell to a suicide bombing carried out by the LeJ in Rawalpindi in 2007 when another sectarian-friendly military regime was in power.
During the dictatorship of the alleged “moderate”, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the LeJ and the SSP were enabled by the security agencies to penetrate the electoral political machines of Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab. In central and southern Punjab, these Sunni jihadist organisations control large voting blocs and maintain the supply chain of holy warriors to fight India and replenish the ranks of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In recent years, the distinction between foreign-oriented militants and domestic-focused ones has blurred in Pakistan. For instance, the terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed, which has killed hundreds of civilians in India under the direct command of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is an offshoot of the SSP. The LeJ has a symbiotic relationship with the Afghan Taliban, who are again armed and financed by the ISI with the aim of maintaining Pakistani supremacy in Afghanistan.
According to the Pakistani government, the country had lost 35,000 lives and suffered damages worth $68 billion from terrorist attacks between 2001 and 2011. But whenever the Pakistani establishment cites these figures as proof of its “sacrifices” against extremism, the basic truth remains left out: most of these victims were pawns in dirty wars and games played by the Pakistani state’s military and intelligence arms.
To restate it more abstractly, the idea of Pakistan as a natural abode of pious martyrs, which has been drilled into the consciousness of society, lies at the root of the tragedy. Unless nationalistic Pakistanis discard the false consciousness that murderous young men are necessary to resist hegemonic America or India, the bloodletting cannot be stemmed.
What Pakistan needs is a broad-based peace movement to resist the culture of accommodation and sympathy for holy warriors. Decent people with activist inclinations, who are appalled at the “Punjabisation of the Taliban” and “Talibanisation” of Pakistan as a whole, have to initiate alternative mass movements to blunt the vicious propaganda of sectarian and religious zealots. Peace with India and acceptance of Afghanistan’s freedom to choose its own future will follow such a paradigm shift in Pakistani society.
Escapism and denial have obstructed a critical reflection on the self and its identity in Pakistan. It is true that the sectarian divide within Islam has been militarised by the geopolitical rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Iraq was a gory playground for this epic tussle during 2006-07, and Syria is another sad manifestation of the same contest today. Pakistan’s sectarian tensions too have, to an extent, been fuelled by the Saudi-Iran proxy war. But the main responsibility for Pakistan’s multiple civil wars and faultlines lies with its own cynical military and the absence of self-introspection in society.
Pakistan can heal and normalise only through nationwide denunciation of the iconography of the ghazi, who has been deified as a selfless implementer of Islamic virtues. As the Holy Quran says, winning the war against evil within oneself is the only path to salvation.

The writer is dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs

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