Levels of outrage

I was asked the other day why the people of Pakistan were not more outraged by the beheading of the 23 Frontier Constabulary men in Mohmand. Good question.

The person asking had her own explanation. The people of Pakistan, she argued, despair of American imperialism and the violent conduct Pakistan’s own army. Through bitter experience they have come to see that the methods used by the US and the Pakistani military will never produce long-term solutions. The deaths of the 23 men were in fact an inevitable consequence of the misguided policy of the US and the Pakistan armies and people know it.

In other words, if people are outraged it’s more likely to be by western inspired militarism rather than by its inevitable consequence, the Taliban. But it’s a lot more complicated than that.

We should say at the outset that some people were outraged by the FC deaths. We can be fairly sure the wives and children of the slain men were. So too, presumably, were colleagues in other security institutions that have been targeted, such as the police. And we should not forget Pakistan’s tiny tribe of liberals who think that the Taliban pose a real threat to their way of life. They were outraged – and some of them said so in their newspaper columns.

But you don’t have to move far beyond those rather numerically insignificant groups to start finding more ambiguous feelings. I have been at the scene of Taliban bombings where, even as the bodies are being scraped off the tarmac, there has been a reluctance to condemn the bombers.

The image of the Taliban as selfless fighters who have given up worldly goods so as to live a life of simplicity, purity, sacrifice and eventually martyrdom has great resonance. Videos of them washing their long locks in mountain streams burnish the image. ‘Of course,’ the argument goes, ‘they might overdo it but they don’t know any better. And anyway their hearts are in the right place.’

This is an attitude that has its origins in the very DNA of Pakistan. A state created in the name of religion poses questions for all its citizens. A few come up with the answer of taking to the hills and waging jihad. Others aspire to do so. And faced with the moral depravity and incompetence of the kleptocrats who have held power over the last 60 years, it is perhaps not surprising that many wonder if religious leaders might do a better job or governing Pakistan. At the very least it’s easy to sympathise with those that take that view.

For years Pakistanis told foreigners that they were exaggerating the jihadi threat. ‘You don’t understand our culture’, the argument went. ‘You see everything through western eyes. So what if there are some tribal youths misled by the occasional maulvi? We know how to deal with them.’ It was a speech I heard many times. With every new murder those arguments look ever less credible.

I remember making a documentary about the tribal areas more than a decade ago. It was long before the violence reached its current levels but, although very few Pakistanis would admit it at the time, the process of Talibanisation had clearly already begun. I argued in the programme that force would not be able to deal with the problem. But I also suggested that democratic reform in Fata would fail in the face of opposition from both the jihadis and the maliks. So I suggested you needed to develop a third way: education.

It was an easy argument to make: progressive, peaceful and positive. But it was a cop out. Because while there will be no long-term solution to the problems in Fata without education, it is not a sufficient policy response to mass murder. The arbitrary killing of thousands of people each year demands that – one way or another – rule of law be established.

Unless, of course, you don’t feel threatened by the Taliban. Then you can afford to wait for longer-term solutions to take effect. And while it’s true that some children of the elite have been kidnapped, the vast majority of those who are suffering at the Taliban’s hands are for reasons of class, ethnicity or religious affiliation, from relatively powerless and marginalised communities.

If you are lucky enough to live in Punjab or maybe even London or Washington the Taliban threat may not look all that outrageous. But try going to Peshawar where families now live in fear of murder, kidnap and chaos. They can’t wait for a 20-year education reform programme to deliver results. The need something done right now. You can’t, after all, educate your way out of a civil war. 

In any event the obstacles to education reform are formidable. The state has never shown a willingness to allocate the necessary resources. Even when, after 9/11, the Americans secretly funded schools in Fata the project failed in part because too few teachers were willing to go to remote areas. Families in Fata may yearn for education but the state is too weak to provide it.

And there is another more important and deep-seated factor at play. Pakistanis have never been given a clear, unambiguous and widely accepted reason for why the country exists. Was the idea only to avoid Hindu domination and discrimination? Or was it to set up an Islamic state? Was Pakistan meant to be the theocracy the Taliban demand or just a safe place for Muslims to live? Most of Pakistan’s leaders have never dared confront such fundamental questions.

So why isn’t there more outrage? Lots of reasons. And they don’t all lie in Washington and Rawalpindi. In fact some go to the heart of what it means to be a Pakistani.

The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain. 

Twitter: @OwenBennettJone 

Email: bennettjones@hotmail.com


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