Hege Storhaug, HRS
By Rooshanie Ejaz , for HRS
Every now and then truths about the country I live in resurface which I have cleverly learnt to ignore over the time I have spent living in Pakistan, i.e. my entire life. For example, I was recently told a story by an acquaintance. This person was standing at a corner early one morning on the way to work, waiting for a red traffic light to turn green. Only a few cars were out at this point and joined him at the light. Soon they were joined by two men on a motorbike, one of whom was dressed in the usual attire of a muezzin; beard, prayer cap, scarf and shalwar kameez. Everyone was waiting quietly for the light to turn green when suddenly the man stretched out his arms and exclaimed “Allah-Hu–Akbar”. What ensued was surreal. Most of the cars sped off through the red light; the passengers in other cars jumped out and ran for cover. The man on the motorbike wondered at this odd behavior. He had only stretched and uttered a commonly used prayer for remembering God. But such is the tension in the air these days, when everything from universities to markets crowded with women and children to concerts have been suicide bombed and people’s lives lost. The most recently calculated figure for deaths from terrorism over the last eight years in Pakistan, according to the Institute of Conflict Management, South East Asia, is 13,000.
Life is unpredictable in Pakistan, as it is in the most developed countries in the world. Yet the clear difference for me is that the fear of that unpredictability seems to be most prevalent in Pakistan. In the northern federally administered tribal areas (NWFP), suicide bombers are available to someone willing to pay as little as 200,000 Pakistani rupees (approximately 2,400 dollars), while some of the Taliban clerics reportedly boast that a young boy can be turned into a suicide bomber within six hours. Another study analyzing the remains of most suicide bombers has shown that their ages range between 16 and 20 years. The nationalities of the “jihadis” collecting in the Bajaur region of Pakistan include Uzbeks, Afghanis, Chechens, Tajiks and Sudanese, and the governor of NWFP told a human rights group in the beginning of 2009 that militants are in complete control of the area, where they have begun to run a parallel state, and where they are exercising their brand of strict Islamic law and operating Shariah courts. These are just some of the alarming figures; one can find a myriad of them with a quick Google search. Yet it’s the comments of some very high ranking officials, supposedly ensuring the protection of a democratic state, which really give one a true insight into why this is happening to Pakistan. “Shouldn’t they be allowed to think and say what they please? They believe jihad is their obligation. Isn’t that freedom of expression?” So says ISI chief Lt. Gen Shuja Pasha. The point that is apparently too complex for such people to grasp is that the moment one’s opinion translates into forceful and violent implications, it goes from being an opinion to being fascist and tyrannical aggression, and thus loses its credence as something that can be defended as “freedom of opinion.”
In my opinion one of the reasons militancy has been able to take such root in Pakistan is that the moment anyone brands something as “Islamic,” Pakistanis find it extremely difficult to allow logic to govern their opinion of it. That is a terrible form of ignorance, which I’m afraid is characteristic of most people here. They refuse to look into their hearts and minds and judge what feels right; instead they want to avoid repercussions by never responding with disrespect to clerics whom they allow to be angry and merciless in their expectations. A clear example of this is the amount of time it took for the Pakistanis in general to condemn the Taliban. It is infuriating how many well educated people initially proffered supportive opinions of them, on the grounds that they are puritans, that they will bring Muslims out into a new light, and many other such absurdities, even though every action they committed went against the foundation on which Pakistan was formed: the right of opinion and the right to be different. Yet people treaded softly where they should’ve been openly opposed to this breach and disrespect of a country’s borders and laws. Therein lies the issue of religion clashing with state. If there was no fear of being cornered and condemned due to seemingly anti-Islamic views, which are in actuality views that are in support of freedom of opinion and that don’t actually involve any criticism of Islam, people would be so much more fearless when they express their attitudes toward obvious misdeeds that are being committed against them. In stark contrast to this, there was and still is palpable outrage against the U.S military’s drone attacks on Pakistani soil. I will in no way defend these attacks – breaches of sovereign limits are unacceptable, whether they are committed by the Taliban or by the U.S military – yet the outrage against these attacks in the media and by the general public has, to say the least, been loud and explicit. Oddly enough, Pakistanis seem to take this trait with them wherever they go. In Norway, for example, it is clear as day that any time the oppression of women, cheating for social benefits, or the high crime rate amongst young Muslim men in Norway is cited as an argument for the curbing of relentless migration, social-benefit scams and asylum-seeking, the focus immediately changes to how “racist” such allegations are, that Pakistanis are being targeted only because they’re Muslims – all of which exhibits utter ignorance of the damage they are bringing upon the society they’re living in and their own descendents.
This contrast speaks to the basic problem I am referring to: namely, our inability as a nation to stand up for what is right and our tendency to allow various groups to oppress us, whether they be corrupt landlords, politicians, the Taliban, clerics, or even Karachi’s widespread mafia network.
My mother grew up in Pakistan and she studied at the university in Lahore. She speaks of those times in a very different manner; it is plain from her experience as a young woman that our country has regressed in terms of social freedom. She used to take public transport and walk to school and college; I, on the other hand, don’t even feel that driving alone is very safe anymore. It seems like a sexist thing to say, but there it is. For some reason, being accompanied by a man allows one to feel safer in Pakistan – it might be strictly psychological, but the feeling is real. Similarly, given that the current insurgency is an ongoing problem and that terrorist acts have become an everyday occurrence, fear is prevalent. One might’ve thought that educational institutions, mosques, and areas frequented by women and children are safe – they have, after all, nothing to do with the government and security institutions. Yet they have been mercilessly attacked and bombed. The message is clear – that the aim of all the terrorism is to destabilize Pakistan at whatever cost. In the minds of the jihadis, such sacrifices need to be made for “the greater good” – the greater good being areas free of liberal thinking, education, and anybody who’s different. Which also leads one to believe that Muslims in Pakistan seem to be the least tolerant group of people, given such actions as the burning of 500 Christian homes in Gujarat last year and the beating to death of a factory worker in Karachi on the grounds that he had broken the unarguably archaic “blasphemy law”
The current incidents of terrorism and the unstable political situation also causes other forms of regression. Artists, singers, models, and any other performers do fear for their lives, and very few actually criticize the Taliban. Owing to security fears, companies refrain from sponsoring the kinds of events that are the livelihoods of such professionals, and this slowdown in the growth of music, art, and culture is only keeping us from becoming part of the global village. Talent abounds, yet only a lucky few are given opportunities which allow them to take up the arts and fashion as a means of earning their livelihood, and those few are to be commended for their brave efforts in keeping the media and arts industry up and running.
To return to the incident at the traffic light: it set off these thoughts because I have now begun to fear waiting for the light to turn green at the very crowded intersections of Lahore. Because who knows when someone will decide that now is the time to punish those who need punishment, and that this someone will carry this out by practicing his own form of “freedom of expression”?