Mahir Ali


THERE are times when it is possible to be shocked and horrified without entirely being surprised. Sunday’s atrocity in Lahore falls into that category. The mass murder in a public park, evidently aimed primarily at Christians celebrating Easter, in the full knowledge that a large proportion of the victims would be children, epitomises the mindless brutality of forces unleashed almost four decades ago.


A comment in The Guardian on Monday lamenting the Gulshan-i-Iqbal suicide bombing was titled ‘Religious extremists will never succeed in taking over Pakistan’. It’s a well-intentioned piece, but it ignores the fact that Islamic fanatics did in fact take over Pakistan in 1977. Their triumph was never complete, but what was wrought under the aegis of Gen Ziaul Haq has never completely been rolled back either.


The Taliban are a post-Zia phenomenon, but most factions, whether Afghan or Pakistani, would probably be willing to acknowledge him as a pater familias. Their infiltration into Afghanistan, reportedly alongside Pakistani security personnel, was intended in part to establish an Islamabad-friendly regime in Kabul. Another motivation, apparently, was to banish from Pakistan the dangerous ideology in which they had been indoctrinated.


What was wrought under the aegis of Zia has never been rolled back.


That turned out to be wishful thinking. It wasn’t just that it was far too late to prevent a Taliban mentality from taking hold in Pakistan’s northwest, or that the initial success of the Afghan Taliban lent succour to like-minded elements in the neighbouring state. The Pakistani security establishment, notably the ISI, remained determined beyond its role in Afghanistan to destabilise Indian governance in Kashmir through outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba.


More or less throughout the ascendancy of Pervez Musharraf, the United States was well aware that Pakistan was playing a double game, attacking some Taliban while coddling others. The acknowledgment earlier this month by Sartaj Aziz, the prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser, that the Afghan Taliban have a sanctuary in Pakistan, was intriguing in respect of its confessional novelty, but hardly shifted the international perception of the nation’s dubious role in Afghanistan.


It is not particularly reassuring, then, when the army gives notice of its intent to scour Pakistan’s dominant prince, Punjab, in order to root out extremism. Will it go after the Jamaatul Ahrar, a Pakistani Taliban splinter group that has unequivocally claimed responsibility for the Gulshan-i-Iqbal massacre, while ignoring other groups of the same ilk?


Surely, only an army that divests itself of all extremist links, domestically and internationally, could possibly play a decisive role in combating the terrorist threat. It is far from clear whether Gen Raheel Sharif’s force measures up to that criterion.


There has been conjecture, apparently with good cause, that Sunday’s mayhem was in part a response to the execution of Salmaan Taseer’s assassin. It is certainly interesting that the despicable ex-policeman’s chehlum was brought forward by almost a fortnight to March 27, which also happened to be the deadline given by religious groups to the Punjab provincial government for rescinding its attempt to legislate protection for women in the face of domestic violence.


Opposition to this mild and quite conceivably ineffective legislation has been articulated not just by outlawed outfits but by legitimate political parties, including the Jamaat-i-Islami. Such organisations have consistently bolstered the terrorists, even when they ostensibly do not advocate violence.


It was 60 years ago last week that Pakistan was formally designated an Islamic republic. The subsequent trajectory of the nation that Mohammad Ali Jinnah founded would in all likelihood have reinforced his fear that he had made a mistake.


The terrorist outrage in Lahore followed hot on the heels of the one in Brussels, where half as many people were murdered in suicide bombings at the airport and in the metro. The reaction to that appalling crime prompted some soul-searching about why it attracted so much more attention and outrage than bigger death tolls, in similar circumstances and by equally repulsive culprits, in cities in Iraq, Turkey and Yemen.


The whole problem stems, arguably, from a reluctance to see all victims as fellow human beings. Deaths by remote control, via drones, are not supposed to count as terrorism, and since no one can conclusively verify what is going on in the dark corners of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia, the civilian deaths can easily be underestimated.


In Pakistan, the Sharif brothers, as businessmen, have been accused of pursuing relative liberalism as an economic end. Even if that is so, their project is worthy of support, provided its goals are unambiguous. Everyone knows that Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif were nurtured by Zia, but if they have changed their minds about what they once stood for, it is a welcome development. The fruits of this switch, though, are yet to be harvested.

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