The equations of terrorism - Kamila Hyat - Thursday, March 10, 2011

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The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

Why do we see so furious a reaction from the Punjab chief minister each time the term ‘Punjabi Taliban’ is used? The use of this term to describe militants responsible for some of the latest attacks has led to an angry exchange between Mr Shahbaz Sharif and Mr Rehman Malik. Mr Malik – not known for displays of either wisdom or competence – has hardly acted with sagacity in suggesting that because a number of terrorist attacks have occurred in Punjab, the administration of that province is responsible for their occurrence.

The fact is that bomb blasts and other acts of violence take place at regular intervals everywhere in the country. They have decimated the peace in Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta and other parts of the country. Engaging in blame games at this point in time serves no purpose at all. It can only strengthen the militants who will gain courage from the divide we see in civil society.

The issue of terrorist groups in Punjab is one that should not be ignored either. It is curious that the Punjab government has not been more proactive on this. While a joint, nationwide strategy against terrorism is badly needed – it is futile to look past the apparent links of militants in Punjab with the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti or other acts of violence including the blasts that killed over 90 Ahmadi worshippers in Lahore last May. There have been many reports of groups that operate from the south of Punjab and their links with larger outfits based in the tribal areas. Action is needed against all of them – rather than lobbing allegations back and forth or attempting to attach an ethnic element to militancy.

The crisis is so acute we need all the major political parties to sit together and devise a strategy. If the internal squabbling continues, we can consider ourselves doomed. The PML-N and the PPP have both made vague suggestions that this happen at various times. So have other parties. It is time we saw action, rather than just words. The scale of the problem we face is so immense it cannot be dealt with by military action alone. While dismantling the physical infrastructure of the militant outfits is essential, the mindsets that leave so many suggesting the murders of Taseer or Bhatti are not wrong at all must also be tackled. This is a task that may take decades – but a start needs to be made.

At a national conference to discuss the situation, we should also be trying to ascertain what has happened in the tribal belt and areas in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The spate of blasts in the province – in Mardan, Nowshera and elsewhere – indicate the Taliban remain as powerful as ever. Even in Swat, there is concern that the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariah Mohammadi – the group founded by Sufi Muhammad Khan which first brought fanaticism to Swat in the 1990s – may be beginning to stage a comeback. The military action, it seems, has scattered the militants, who in many areas are said to have vanished into the hills as troops pass through, but not left them incapable of staging a revival or reconvening in other locations.

Wider strategy is also under scrutiny. In some areas, the ‘lashkars’ set up to combat the Taliban have expressed a reluctance to continue to do so, given the deaths they have suffered. The attacks on the ‘lashkars’, their use of child-soldiers to take on armed, trained and highly committed militants and atrocities committed by these groups also raise moral questions, many of which stem from using civilians against a private army of zealots.

While political forces need to unite and demonstrate that they possess the will to take on the militants, other sections need also to take up the battle. The voice against the Taliban has so far been too weak to make any real difference. A number of political parties chose not to say anything at all following Bhatti’s murder.

Other elements in society, which play an increasingly influential role in shaping the way people think must also consider what they are doing and where it is leading us. The media stand on top of this pyramid. The number of TV channels which now dance and flutter across our screens represent a welcome change from the era of PTV monopoly. But they have also added an element of mayhem.

Most of the channels have failed to play any role in countering extremism. In fact, they have often done just the opposite. It can be argued it is not strictly the role of the media to put forward a particular line. But given the circumstances we live in, there needs also to be some demonstration of responsibility and good citizenship. The deviation from this role has been damaging given that television is a medium that reaches in to tens of thousands of living rooms across the country. Perhaps, like political leaders, the heads of media organisations need to sit together and consider what there are doing. After all, under the Taliban, there may be no television at all.

We also need to bring at least some religious elements on board. Some have indeed condemned terrorist violence and the killings motivated by opposition to the blasphemy laws. The Minhaj-ul-Quran organisation of Tahir-ul-Qadri is one example. There are other clerical leaders of standing who have spoken out against all that is happening. But they are far too few in number while the absurd comments citing CIA or RAW conspiracies that have come from the larger religious parties only add to the sense of confusion prevalent among ordinary people.

Essentially, we need as a nation to accept that we are in an extremely significant amount of trouble. The question now is if we can find a way out at all and face up to the full truth about ourselves. Sadly, even now, the realisation that this is essential is too limited – with the top political leadership trapped in a state of paralysis from which it seems quite unable to escape.


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