Fight The Real Enemy

Can someone please take ownership of Pakistan?

By Mehreen Zahra-Malik

Mandel Ngan / AFP

Far more dangerous than the actual acts of terrorism and violence perpetrated on Pakistanis is the fear, obvious most among those who govern us. We are all united in our conviction that suicide attacks will not cease, and that we are all in this alone. President Asif Ali Zardari and his government’s woe-is-us, rote expressions of anguish after every bombing and assassination no longer cut it-for anyone.

Yes, the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party is in a pickle. Its officers are under threat. Its coalition is tottering. Zardari is missing from the scene, hiding away in his house on the hill. But is it too much to expect seemingly well-protected officials to take the right, morally courageous position against extremism, one that moves beyond halfhearted rhetoric, desultory condemnations, and outright denial?

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was at Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer’s funeral in Lahore in January. He also spoke at the church service for slain minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti in Islamabad earlier this month. This was a good thing. But Gilani made no mention of the cause Bhatti died for. There was no fist-pounding denunciation of those who had killed Bhatti. Taseer and Bhatti were vilified and killed for speaking up for minorities, for daring to suggest that all Pakistanis had equal rights. In swearing, repeatedly, that the men’s fight was their own personal one, and that the government has no intention of reviewing the blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse, Islamabad has shown a capitulation of the most craven kind.

And it’s not just the ruling party that’s at fault here. Look at the lions of the Punjab, the Sharifs. If only some of their vitriol and made-for-camera indignation could be redirected toward extremists. Sharif the Elder will take on the government over the National Reconciliation Ordinance, separation of powers with respect to the judiciary, the Charter of Democracy (R.I.P.), and his own 10 commandments directing the government how to do its business, but when it comes to extremism, it is an evil of which he shall not speak.

Sharif the Younger doesn’t like the term “Punjabi Taliban,” because it clashes with the narrative of “good governance” in the province he rules. It’s just too bad that the militants who are operating with impunity in the Punjab call themselves that, the Punjabi Taliban. The few times that interior minister Rehman Malik actually does his real job and informs the public about the Punjabi Taliban, Sharif gets huffy. Malik then retreats abjectly, promising to provide an explanation of what he had actually meant.

It’s a royal mess. The coalition partners are looking to extract petty gains for themselves by exploiting the tough economic measures the government has to take. The opposition is being opportunistic and playing it safe. Given the threat within, the Army is still oddly India-obsessed. The judiciary is trying to live up to the expectations built up during the lawyers’ movement. The sky-is-falling media is being its typically unhelpful self. The denial, defeatism, and dithering on sorry show in Pakistan is encouraging the extremists, who will strike anywhere. Market places, shrines, schools, funerals-nothing is off limits.

Because it is in power and because it has lost three brave leaders to terrorism, one expects better from the PPP. Except that the party has no consistent policy on anything. It doesn’t want the game to be over until the next scheduled elections in 2013. But Zardari is a chess grandmaster who has proven his detractors wrong again and again. So some suggest he may yet have something up his sleeve. If his government is ousted prematurely, will party voters vent their anger at the next polls? This is not the 1990s. The food-clothing-shelter mantra coupled with an antiestablishment line will not work in an environment where one doesn’t even know if there will be a tomorrow.

Everyone-the political parties, military, judiciary, media-is pursuing popularity at each other’s expense in an often vicious and always shortsighted manner. All these players seem to have their heads in the game. It’s just too bad that they’re all playing the wrong game.

ZAHRA-MALIK is a journalist and political scientist.


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