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Talibanisation and identity crisis
By Huma Yusuf
Monday, 11 May, 2009 | 08:44 AM PST |

SINCE the Nizam-i-Adl Regulation, the status of which has now been rendered uncertain, Pakistani citizens have been trying to organise against the Talibanisation of the tribal and northern areas.

There has been a flurry of meetings, lectures, candlelit vigils, protest marches and letter-writing campaigns in all major cities. And yet, read through the discussions on local blogs or peruse letters to the editor in various newspapers, and the sense that Pakistanis are doing nothing about the crisis prevails.

 When comparisons are drawn between civil society’s emphatic response to the deposition of Pakistan’s chief justice in 2007, its reaction to the virtual colonisation of part of the country by militants seems apathetic. In many quarters, the silence of Pakistanis is being perceived as complicity. As an open conflict between the military and militants rages in the Frontier province, it is worth deconstructing why civil society has not been able to articulate a united stance towards the Taliban.

 What becomes apparent is that the Pakistani public is faced with a hydra-headed monster, and it is unable to agree on which is the greatest of all evils. Do we, the people, react to the lack of governance at the centre and the occupation of our territories by an ideological group? Do we, as a Muslim majority, protest the perversion of Islam at the hands of violent, suicide-bombing militants? Do we, as feminists, decry the violation of women’s rights? Or do we, as humanists, focus on the plight of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who for too long have been written off as collateral damage? Indeed, understanding the paralysis of civil society in the face of the Taliban onslaught lies at the heart of the identity crisis that Pakistan has faced since its inception.

 Many Pakistanis direct their outrage at the government. Brought to power in a memorable election, the government was tasked by the electorate with strengthening Pakistan’s democratic credentials. Instead, we have seen shabby power plays as the PPP and PML-N have wrestled like incorrigible schoolboys over the past year. These political intrigues have distracted the government from what should be its major concerns at the present: reviving the Pakistan economy and dealing a decisive blow to what was a militant threat in February 2008, but is now a full-scale invasion. For this reason, some citizens are arguing that the first step in addressing Pakistan’s problems is calling for mid-term elections and asking President Asif Zardari to step down.

 But this is not the rallying cry of the people at large. For many, the government and the army’s lack of vision in dealing with the Taliban has been the top complaint. They criticise erratic policies that have the government and militants negotiating one day, and warring the next. This crowd is calling for a consistent strategy against the militants, with no clear consensus on whether that should be martial or diplomatic. As such, it remains unclear if public protest is directed against the government or the army (or do Pakistanis still treat those entities as if they are the same thing?). Meanwhile, there is a subset that is opposed to the Nizam-i-Adl for it threatens the integrity of the state. ‘One constitution for one country’ is their rallying cry.

 On the other hand, in some civic circles, the major concern is that the government and army have failed to protect basic human rights. There is outrage at the blowing up of girls’ schools and CD shops in Swat, the flogging of women, and the displacement of thousands of people from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Malakand. Skipping over the essential existential crisis posed by Taliban dominance in the northern and tribal areas, many citizens are simply demanding that the government and/or army provide adequate protection and compensation to IDPs, ensure development in the form of schools, roads and hospitals, and bring peace (at whatever cost) to conflict-ridden areas.

 In some quarters, the human rights argument has been spun as a women’s issue. Many public protests were launched in response to the infamous flogging video. Posters and graffiti in urban centres decry the victimisation of women and their abuse in the name of Islam. In this construction, women parliamentarians who did not oppose the controversial Nizam-i-Adl are the ultimate nemesis and the call is for safeguarding women’s rights, not suppressing the Taliban.

 That said, there are many Pakistanis who openly describe themselves as anti-Taliban. But what exactly does that mean? Opposition to Talibanisation has been interpreted in myriad ways: anti-violence, pro-education, pro-nationalism, anti-sectarianism, pro-democracy and more.

 Reframe the question in a religious context and the debate is endless. Some Pakistanis are outraged at extremist interpretations of Islam. Others are advocating that democracy be upheld and a separation of church, rather, mosque and state be enshrined in the constitution once and for all.

 Still others are protesting the revival of sectarianism, arguing that Pakistan should define itself as a country where Sunni and Shia, Sufi and Salafi, Deobandi and Barelvi can all live together in peace.

 Then there’s the camp that is championing that most nebulous notion, ‘moderate’ Islam. Worryingly, there are also those civil groups who are reluctant to have religious overtones cloud their anti-Taliban protests. But can you speak out against the Taliban without, at some level, speaking about religion?

 If complaints against the government, military and Taliban weren’t enough, many Pakistanis are also organising around the America factor. Cooperation with the US in the war against terror has long been framed as a test of Pakistani sovereignty. As a result, Pakistanis are torn about what level of intervention they’re willing to live with. Some want to protest the drone attacks, others want to ensure greater transparency in the distribution of American aid. At a recent meeting of concerned citizens, I heard one hapless woman ask her friend, ‘is it alright if I’m both anti-Taliban and against the drone attacks?’

 To this mix, add the voices that are less heard: Swatis who demand efficient justice systems, but do not want to live at the edge of the Taliban sword; Bajauris who want to keep their women in purdah, but send their sons to secular schools; religious minorities, including Sikhs and Christians, who want the government to protect their right to worship.

 It is this lack of consensus as to what’s at stake that makes a unified civic response impossible. Pakistanis are able to mobilise when they knew what they are asking for, e.g. the restoration of the chief justice. But they’re in disarray when it comes to pinpointing why they object to Talibanisation.

 In any other circumstance, I would celebrate Pakistan’s political and ideological diversity, pointing out that it is what distinguishes Pakistan from Iran or Saudi Arabia. But in the face of the Taliban, our plurality is proving to be our Achilles’ heel. The fact is, in organising against the Taliban, Pakistan is going to be forced to tackle its longstanding identity crisis. The first step to overcoming militancy is knowing ourselves. So before we can take to the streets with a single, articulate demand, we’re going to have to answer the question that we’ve been avoiding for over 60 years: who are we?

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