Fanatics and Pakistanis: Testing Each Other?

Pakistan was founded in the name of religion but, ironically, is now being callously destroyed and chipped away at in the name of the same religion.

Nothing could have brought this agonising moral to the Pakistanis-wherever in the world they might be-than the cowardly attempt on the life of a 14 year-old girl by the fanatical terrorists belonging to Tehrik Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP), an off-shoot of the Taliban in next-door Afghanistan.

The dastardly crime was heinous and barbaric, to say the very least. Shooting an unarmed 14 year-old girl in the head, from point-blank range-while she was on her way home from school in a school bus-could  only be the work of a predatory murderer. It was cowardly and cold-blooded in the extreme. Little surprise, therefore, that it traumatised Pakistan and its shock waves went viral across the world in no time.

The shooting of MalalaYousufzai, a frail little girl from Pakistan's picturesque Swat Valley, in the town of Mingora, last October 9, by the murderous Taliban literally drove the daylight out of the Pakistanis. It was hard for even the most stout-hearted to understand what had the innocent girl done to deserve the Taliban wrath and savagery.

However, in the eyes of the stone-aged Taliban aficionados Malala was guilty of a major crime in their book: she preached for the right of Pakistani girls to get an education.

Malala had shot to international fame and prominence three years ago, at the tender age of just 11, when she publicly challenged the Taliban practice of closing down, or destroying girls' schools and force them to stay within the four walls of their homes.

The daughter of a father who ran a private school for girls, Malala refused to be cowed down by the Taliban terror. In front of television cameras she exposed the illogicality of the Taliban edict to deny girls of Swat the right of education. She reminded them-and the world-that what the Taliban were demanding flew in the face of the tenets of Islam and the teachings of its Holy Prophet Muhammad who intoned his followers that acquisition of knowledge was incumbent upon all Muslim men and women.

2009, when Malala called the bluff of the murderous Taliban of Pakistan was a time of great turbulence and tribulation for the people of her idyllic Swat. The Taliban had been infesting the once-peaceful and tranquil valley with their archaic practices and trying to take it back to the Middle Ages. When they openly challenged the writ of the state, the Pakistan army-which had earlier signed more than one peace deal with them, only to see the intransigent Taliban abusing the truce-was left with no other alternative but undertake a bloody offensive to purge them from the valley.

In the backdrop of that chaotic time Malala's bravado in standing up to bestial bullies was seen as a very courageous act. She became a poster-girl for Pakistan's silent majority fed up with the Taliban's obscurantism. The government, although mired in corruption and unable to work out a viable strategy to deal with the Taliban scourge, was also moved to take notice of the courageous little girl; she was showered with national recognition and accolades. She became an overnight celebrity, with her fame travelling outside of Pakistan; she became an icon to a world aghast at the Taliban's archaic philosophy in which the female of the human species was to be perennially shut out as something less than human.

Malala's steely determination to fight back against the Taliban 'sport' of gutting girls schools was, in the eyes of the terrorists, an affront and blatant challenge to their belief that Muslims girls must not be educated. The Afghan Taliban, when they were in power in Afghanistan, had closed down, or razed to ground, hundreds, if not thousands of schools in their fiefdom. The TTP fanatics sought to do the same in Swat and other tribal areas where their presence had been becoming a menace to society. So they torched girls schools,  in particular, by hundreds. Their aim, obviously, was to scare girls and their parents from schools meant for them.

According to the latest data compiled by UNESCO, as many as 943 schools were shut down, or gutted, by the militants belonging to TTP, between 2009 and 2011, in the tribal region and parts of the province of PakhtoonKhwa-the new name of what used to be the North-West Frontier Province. Malala had become a marked target for the Taliban terrorists because she dared to challenge the 'right' the Taliban had arrogated to themselves at their will.

 And the Taliban, unsurprisingly, remain unrepentant, to this day, about their crime against Malala. In response to a query from Reuters-in the wake of the abortive attempt on the little girl's life-their spokesman acidly declared: "We have a clear-cut stance. Anyone who takes the side of the government (of Pakistan) against us will have to die at our hands." Chilling words, no doubt, but fully betraying the Taliban's lust for blood.

It's not only that the blood-thirsty Taliban have no remorse about aiming to kill a minor girl. Upon learning that she had survived their murder attempt, the Taliban let the world know-in a diabolical communique sent to Pakistani news agencies and television channels-that they will not give up targeting Malala in order to silence her for good.

So brazen and die-hard criminals these Pakistani Talibans are that, in a shameless pandering to the Pakistanis religious proclivities, they are citing parallels from the Holy Qur'an ( the chapter of the Holy Book on Ashab-e-Kehfor 'People of the Cave' that includes a parable on a journey undertaken, together, by Prophet Musa and Khizr, and in the course of which Khizrhad killed a boy ) to justify their crime against the innocent girl.

Ironically, Malala was not a partisan of the Pakistan government, neither could she-a girl outspokenly in favour of unrestricted access to education for her gender-be suspected to be speaking for a government which has shown little regard or enthusiasm for girls' education.

A report released by UNESCO on October 19-at a time when Malala is fighting for her life in Birmingham, UK's Queen Elizabeth Hospital-about girls' education in Pakistan makes a dismal read. According to it, Pakistan has the second largest number of out-of-school-girls in the world. Further, out of 5 million children out of school in Pakistan, two-thirds are girls.

The criminal insouciance of Pakistan's corrupt ruling elite is adding to the legions of children who aren't receiving any kind of schooling. On the other hand, the government has been putting less and less assets into education. Government spending on education in Pakistan had declined to just 2.3 % of GNP in 2010, compared to 2.6 % of GNP in 1999.

Pakistan's progress in getting poor girls into schools has been dismal, to say the least, even in comparison to its South Asian neighbours-India, Nepal and Bangladesh.  In the first decade of the 21st century, the percentage of girls-out-of-school in Pakistan dropped from 78 % to just 62 %; in India the drop was from 66 % to 30 %; in Nepal, from 52 % to 22 %; while in BD, it dropped spectacularly from 91 % to 44 %. S Malala had an axe to grind as much against the Taliban as against her own government, in whose priorities education comes way down the list.

But the Taliban ultimately getting their marked quarry, and shooting her in broad daylight in the heart of Mingora-the city supposed to have been purged of their menace-shocked the Pakistanis out of their wits, and exposed the vacuity of military establishment's claim that the Taliban had been driven out of Swat and the valley was beyond their murderous reach.

In Pakistan, however, the sense of national outrage and revulsion that the barbaric attempt to silence her forever had triggered seems to be simpering down, if not in the hearts and minds of the people then certainly with the politicians and political leaders claiming to be the torch-bearers of the people's mood.

Malala's suffering had touched the Pakistanis' raw and sensitive nerves. The people's consternation was reminiscent of the tragedy that had visited them when Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's most charismatic politician and leader, had been murdered-in almost identical circumstances-by the same blood-thirsty Taliban five years ago.

In the wake of the latest tragedy, every Pakistani felt entitled to ask the obvious question agitating their mind: are the Taliban so powerful that they can zero in on anyone in their gun-sights, or is the gargantuan state security apparatus so weak and ineffective as to give a free pass to predatory murderers to breach it at their choosing?

The unprecedented outpouring of support for Malala, and the outrage felt by the man-on-the-street and arm-chair intelligentsia, alike, was massive and spontaneous. The people of Pakistan grieved the suffering of an innocent girl as if she was their own daughter. But more than that she became an icon of resistance to those who wanted to deny the women of Pakistan the rights their religion and the country's Constitution confer on them. The Pakistanis shuddered to think that the Taliban were knocking at their gates and wanted to turn Pakistan into another Afghanistan of the pre-9/11 vintage when Afghan women were flogged in public and oppressively confined to the four walls of their homes.

The people hoped that the tragedy visiting them would galvanize the government and the all-powerful 'establishment' to get into stride against the Taliban, quickly.

The initial reaction to the outrage from the officialdom and political parties of the country appeared to be in sync with the popular mood. Political parties joined the chorus of condemnation, though not all of them did so with equal enthusiasm or gusto. The military brass chimed in, too, and military chief, General Kayani, used harsh words to condemn the Taliban daring, prompting observers to reason that the long-delayed military offensive against the Taliban strong-hold in North Waziristan was close to being unleashed.

Knowledgeable observers know how persistently the Americans and ISAF, in neighbouring Afghanistan, have long been demanding of Pakistan to crack the whip against the Taliban havens in North Waziristan, whence terrorists have been mounting murderous raids into Afghanistan. Pundits hoped that the Malala episode had, after all, lit the fire under the feet of the Pakistani military establishment and the crackdown against the murderers was just around the corner.

Not so, the latest indications from GHQ suggest. Apparently, the bells set off by the Malala episode are quickly losing resonance and the generals, never divorced fromexpediency, are having second thoughts about the need for calling the Taliban bluff. Fazed political pundits are turning back to their crystal balls to see what's holding back the military brass. The only explanation they could come up with for the generals' dithering is GHQ's calculation that, in the not-too-distant-future, the Taliban could still be more of an asset than a haunting liability.

The Pakistani politicians and political parties, too, are also, apparently, afflicted with similar cynicism and have failed to fall in step with the people's revulsion and outrage at the heinous Taliban's temerity.

The religious parties have, more or less, been partisans of the Taliban and their reluctance to demand punishment of the Taliban fits into the pattern, though exposing their hypocrisy to the full.

But the equivocation of non-religious parties-such as Muslim League (Nawaz Group) and Tehrik-e-Insaf, of Imran Khan---on the question of meting out punishment to the Taliban is deeply disturbing, if not revolting and offensive.

Imran Khan, with all his charisma and the breath of fresh air his entry into Pakistani politics has infused, has been particularly disappointing. His call to the Pakistani youth to demolish the petrifying status quo politics of 'traditional' parties has received a lot of traction with the younger generation of Pakistanis because they see in him a secularist ready to drag their country from the morass of religion-based fanaticism of Pakistani politics.

That even Imran-who has otherwise been waging a massive campaign to highlight Pakistan's suffering due to American drone 'visitations and his call has been getting a lot of traction, internationally---should also be playing politics, as against heeding the call of morality, on the issue is at the heart of inertia crippling any determined response to the Taliban's brazen provocation. Inadvertently, Imran Khan is living up to his detractors' labelling of him as Taliban Khan. The impending general elections, due over the next few months, are having the better of the Pakistani politicians' sense of morality and proportion.

Redemption for a bleeding and broken Pakistan is still distant; perhaps more distant than the hoped-for recovery of Malala. She's as much a victim of the Pakistani establishment's perversity as of the Taliban's barbarity.

However, the continued insensitivity and apathy of Pakistan's ruling elite on a development that could easily be likened to a national calamity-at least in the eyes of the people of Pakistan-is tragic and astounding. The Taliban are closing in on the state of Pakistan and mounting a challenge that is reminiscent of Islamic history's early period when similarly rabid bands of obscurantists-remembered by history as the Khwarej-had challenged the writ of the Guided Caliphate, or Khilafat-e-Rashda. However, that early challenge had been blunted out with alacrity and firmness lacking in the Pakistani response.

It's obvious that the Pakistanis neither learn from their own mistakes nor draw any lessons from history. But the moral of history is immutable and also inexorable: nature deals ruthlessly with an apathetic nation or people and consigns them to the dustbin of history.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 November 2012 on page no. 18

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