It’s been over a month since the attack on the APS in Peshawar. In its aftermath, while the emotions were at a high pitch, I had feared that we could stop short of a thoughtful national response to this tragedy. What we had on display was a transient rush of anger and emotion on our TV screens and not a thoughtful response.
Instead of developing opinion to wage a collective campaign against intolerance, we saw another wave of senseless accusations in the media. We needed unity of purpose, a solid national consensus, and a laser focus to address it. Far from helping resolve ambiguities in the mind of the public, our media, in some instances, enhanced them further. When the schools opened last week, the TV anchors and political leadership were shamelessly quibbling over the optics of presence on the school campuses.
There were no deeper and informed debates on the nature of the challenge we face, the role of a flawed and dysfunctional system of education, the actual and potential role of religious seminaries in nurturing an exclusivist and intolerant mindset. By keeping the public deprived of a potent debate on the real problems and various alternatives ways of addressing it, Pakistani media utterly failed in its task to educate people after the tragedy of December 16. On the contrary, in some instances, it even exacerbated the situation by fuelling intolerance against religious minorities.
As if this was not enough, the poverty of the response of state to the APS attack has also been palpable. All the state seemed to be able to do was close all educational institutions on pretext of security and keep them closed until some necessary ‘security enhancements’ had been put in place. The schools are open now. Whether they are secure enough is anyone’s guess.
Of course, some schools will be able to buy more and better security than others. The quality of security that would be provided to the rest will be as low as the quality of their education and other provisions. A friend’s son told me, with some excitement in his voice, that their school had snipers and barbed wires which could be electrified in the event of an attack. I suspect that some private school systems will add ‘flawless security’ to their marketing pitch in addition to ‘English medium’. Which way we will head as a society when a siege mentality becomes normalised in the minds of our children. This is education!
Some may say that my fears about becoming victims of siege mentality are irrelevant and that schools do not need to be visibly secured. Which parents, after all, would like to send their children to insecure schools? But, will schools ever be able to put in place enough measures to secure themselves against highly trained and determined terrorists. We should know better. Unless extremism and associated terrorism is dealt with a laser focus, it would only be a matter of time before another tragedy strikes.
Let me be clear that I am not arguing against being vigilant and enhancing the security of schools. We must do all that is possible to provide safety and security to our children. But the actual measure of security achieved by such means as are available at the disposal of schools is anyone’s guess, especially if everything else remains the same. The security and stability that our children need cannot be reached by merely raising the walls of our schools. It won’t arrive unless we rid the society of the sources that are preaching bigotry and intolerance.
Intolerance is also a disease, similar to other diseases. Consider dengue. It just kills and does so indiscriminately. That is to say, it does not discriminate between the rich and poor, Christian or Shia or Sunni, man or woman, etc., etc.
When you protect yourself against dengue mosquitos in Lahore, what do you do as an individual and a citizen? And what does the government do? As someone who cares about staying healthy, you will probably do whatever it takes to avoid being bitten by Aedes mosquitos. You can ‘secure’ yourself and others around you to a large extent by following the instructions of public health organisations.
Governments protect citizens against this indiscriminate killer, or so they must, by taking multidimensional measures. They educate children and adults about the ways in which they can stay safe, provide for better diagnosis and treatment, facilitate availability of necessary drugs in the market and public hospitals, and so on. But most importantly, they take on the disease in its breeding grounds.
Like dengue, intolerance also spreads if it remains unchecked. However, it is much more insidious than dengue. It acts by dividing people and colliding them with each other. Take a look at the history, and you will find that it has never failed to destroy civilisations. Conversely, tolerance results in progress, peace, and prosperity. Islamic civilisation at the zenith of its power was one of the most tolerant of all cultures. It began to collapse soon as it started to give up this virtue.
Tolerance has been characteristic of all thriving societies and intolerance a symptom of decline and weakness. As Amy Chu argues in her book “Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall”, the great powers, throughout the human history were characteristically tolerant and multicultural. There have been no exceptions to this rule, not even Mongols.
These powers rose to prominence due to their tolerance of minorities, other religions and cultures. This made them flexibly accept and make use of foreign ideas and people. They could absorb talented individuals and thus improve their human capital. They declined soon as they became prey to intolerance. Bigotry disempowers, discredits, and destroys. It should have no place in a healthy and progressive society.
You cannot let intolerance grow through media and inside schools and seminaries and expect to secure them from outside. The state and society must identify the breeding grounds for hatred and intolerance and do whatever is needed to cleanse them. This disease is transmitted over the airwaves, through the social media, and through textbooks.
The only way to turn our society around is to turn the intolerance upon itself. If there is anything that we should be intolerant of, it is intolerance itself.
If the government of Punjab can run a campaign against dengue, why can’t it run one against religious intolerance? Why can’t the federal government take a robust stance against all kinds of religious and sectarian hatred and bigotry at the same time as it is asking schools to raise their walls? What is the use of quibbling over optics? Why are the media anchors not advocating for a total war against intolerance in our society? ‘War on intolerance’ is what we need. Just military operations and turning our schools into fortresses while continuing to breed intolerance from inside is not going to make Pakistanis secure.
In the last column, I wrote that the only real homage to the martyrs of Peshawar was transformation of the conditions that led to their martyrdom. I cannot see any positive steps taken so far in that direction by the state. What is wrong with us?
A commentator on my last column made an extremely thoughtful comment. He wondered if the members of Pakistani elite thought of themselves as belonging to a cohesive group capable of undertaking collective action towards commonly agreed goals. Is our political and military elite a cohesive group? Do they have a shared perception of the disease that afflicts us and its possible cures? Do we have any commonly agreed goals based on such shared understanding? Do we have a plan for a multidimensional collective action?
Unfortunately, none of these questions can be answered in the affirmative based on the non-response of our political elite in the month following the events of December 16.
If the answers to above questions are in the negative, we will not be able to secure our schools by enhancing their security.