The News on Sunday: Do you have any hope that we would learn something from the tragic incident in Peshawar?
Pervez Hoodbhoy: There’s much talk about this gut-wrenching tragedy miraculously uniting all Pakistanis. Every public figure is saying this, as did the All Parties Conference resolution. Frankly, it’s delusional thinking. Peshawar was no 911-type of watershed moment, even though targeting school children is especially gruesome. Just wait another few days and this one, too, will fade into the background.
Just look at the past. Nothing changed after Lakki Marwat, when 105 people watching a volleyball match were blown up by a suicide bomber in a pickup truck. Or when 96 Hazaras in a snooker club were targeted by a double suicide attack. We’ve practically forgotten the 127 dead in the All Saints Church bombing in Peshawar or the 90 Ahmadis killed while in prayer. There have been multiple massacres where people have been ordered off buses, their national identity cards checked, and those with Shia sounding names promptly executed. Mosques, imambargahs, shrines, temples, and churches across the country have been repeatedly attacked with heavy loss of life.
Consider also the fact that nearly 60 polio workers — women and men who work to save children from a crippling disease — have been killed by the Taliban and associated religious fanatics. Assuming that we have a collective conscience, wasn’t this enough to wake it up? In brief, what’s new?
TNS: People are talking of how the narrative “started to fracture” within hours of the incident with fingers pointed at Indian hand, America, CIA, Jews. What do you have to say?
PH: Many Pakistanis have acquired the Taliban mindset. So, they blame India, America, Israel, Iran, Afghanistan — you name it. Television anchors and political personalities concoct wild conspiracy theories. General Hameed Gul and his son Abdullah Gul adamantly insisted multiple times on TV that suicide attackers were not circumcised and, hence, not Muslim. Well, body parts have been quite plentifully available for inspection over the last few years but I have yet to hear them repudiate earlier claims.
Or take Imran Khan. For him, terrorism is only that perpetrated by the United States. He has consistently refused to name the Taliban as perpetrators even when they accepted responsibility. Even now, his admission that the TTP may be involved in the Peshawar massacre is contained only in a tweeted message, not over TV. While he weakly sympathised with Malala Yusufzai, he adamantly refused to condemn the Taliban for the shooting, even though shortly thereafter a 9-page pamphlet was widely circulated signed by the TTP and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. It was entitled Aqeedon ka Tasadum and explained the Islamic reasons for why Malala had to be killed.
Earlier, it was even worse. In 2009, around the time of the Taliban takeover of Swat, on Hamid Mir’s Capital Talk he claimed that the Swat Taliban were fighting a war of liberation against the Americans. When I asked why were they fighting in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan and killing Pakistanis, he accused me of being an American agent and then attempted to physically attack me. Viewers can google this video.
TNS: Religious leaders have condemned the Peshawar massacre. Does this satisfy you?
PH: Many have refused. Among them is Maulana Abdul Aziz of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid. While they say it was regrettable, they also say the Army was fighting America’s war and so is responsible. Let’s recall that until relatively recently, there were imams who refused to perform burial prayers for army soldiers killed in action against terrorists.
Doubtless, the murderers of the young children were men seized with extreme religious passions. The Taliban have released pictures of the bearded “martyrs”. Shot in both legs, Shahrukh Khan, 16, says he survived by playing dead as the gunmen roamed the school, shouting Allah-o-Akbar before opening fire. Another surviving student, Aamir Ali, says that two clean-shaven gunmen told students to recite the kalima before shooting them multiple times.
Yet, in spite of having committed countless atrocities, no religious leader has called for the Taliban, or like-minded groups, to be expelled from Islam. When pressed, the answer is usually that Allah alone can decide who is Muslim and who is not. But these same people rush to declare Ahmadi’s as deviants and kafirs.
TNS: Linked to this is the question of centrality of military in foreign policy and, thereby, politics and its consequent disempowerment. Do you see a connection between this and the incidence of terrorism in the country?
PH: You reap what you sow. For nearly three decades, militant groups have freely operated in Pakistan. They morphed into massive militant establishments that now run their own training centres, hospitals, and disaster relief programmes. When Sartaj Aziz, adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs, recently said that Pakistan was not going to target militant groups that “did not pose a threat to the state”, he accidentally spilled the beans. In fact, he was merely stating Pakistan’s zero-sum paradigm — we exist to hurt others, not to better ourselves.
Look at what we are doing to Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban leadership is securely entrenched in Quetta and Karachi. Do we not know that the Afghan Taliban are responsible for atrocities no less revolting than the TTP? While bewailing the murder of our children, let us be aware that Pakistan’s soil has been used time and again for inflicting sorrow and hurt among innocents across the world. Today, it is not just India and Afghanistan who accuse us, but also China and Iran.
TNS: So, what would you have the army leadership do in the light of the Peshawar school tragedy? Do you feel that Zarb-e-Azb is on the right track?
PH: Some reports seem fake and hyped-up. And who knows how many innocents were killed together with terrorists? At the same time, it is a very serious operation that has dealt the TTP a massive blow, hence the blowback. It must continue. On this front, General Raheel Sharif has definitely broken with his timid predecessor, General Kayani. Though deeply saddened by the impact it has had on the tribal population, I think Zarb-e-Azb was necessary and should have taken place years ago. North Waziristan must not remain the epicenter of terrorism.
Gen. Sharif has done well in meeting President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul and has rightly demanded joint action in combating Mullah Fazlullah’s TTP, now apparently ensconced on the Afghan side. But what of Mullah Omar? I wonder if Ghani asked Sharif whether Pakistan will be willing to hand Omar over to face justice at the hands of the Afghan people, or a joint operation to get him?