Beyond Gloom and Doom in Pakistan

March 27, 2009

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

On March 23, 2009, the day Pakistanis were commemorating sixty-nine years of the resolution that gave birth to the idea of an Islamic state on the subcontinent, a jihadist suicide bomber struck in the heart of Islamabad near Sitara Market. At that moment, I was sitting in a hotel in Muscat, flipping through the news channels from Sky News to BBC to CNN to Al Jazeera, and was alarmed to find immediate live coverage of the incident and commentary that suggested that the country was about to fall to the Taliban

All the channels also featured long documentary pieces on the rule of Maulana Fazlullah and his minions in Swat, with a note of foreboding that the valley was only a hundred miles from Islamabad. Video images were then shown of how drug dealers were being flogged in public. Polished English reporters winced at the sight of the criminals in pain.

No doubt corporal punishment is disturbing but most Pakistanis are not cheerleading for the Taliban either. However, what is most surprising is that the same kind of punishments which the Taliban are carrying out in Swat have been practiced for years in some of the West’s closest allies like Saudi Arabia and not a tear is shed on that since they are well-shielded by greater geostrategic interests.

Clearly the dominance of the Taliban in Swat is disconcerting at many levels but the portrayal of their draconian sharia as somehow totally new to Western eyes is highly duplicitous. If shock and horror is to be shown about the Taliban’s stateless vigilantism, then the same measure of repulsion should also be shown towards states that carry out such punishments with impunity and are happily tolerated.

Furthermore, to use the dominance of a few thousand militants in a narrow valley as somehow suggestive of a larger movement towards Talibanisation of the whole of Pakistan is preposterous. I am not saying this out of crass patriotism or starry-eyed optimism but rather after a deliberate analysis of historical precedent.

First, the military dominance of the Taliban is largely a result of their complete command of the rough terrain in that region and to replicate such dominance across the country is not possible without widespread street-level support. Some may argue that such street-level support can be galvanised through fear or ideological indoctrination. Parallels are drawn between Pakistan’s current situation and the rise of wider scale fundamentalism in Afghanistan and Iran during the late 1970s.

However, these parallels are inappropriate for two reasons: we do not have a Cold War dynamic of manipulation at play nor is there widespread antipathy towards the existing political apparatus. With all its failings, the Pakistani governmental system is a far cry from a tyrannical monarchy that existed in Iran prior to the revolution or a hapless tin-pot dictatorship that existed in Afghanistan prior to the rise of the Taliban. The democratic fervour on the streets following the reinstatement of the Chief Justice is a momentous sign of slow but steady political maturity in the country.

This is not to say that peace will prevail in the short-term. Indeed, Pakistan will unfortunately need to endure some protracted spates of bombings and other terrorist attacks for years to come. This sporadic violence will undoubtedly have an economic toll but with appropriate security strategies we can learn to live and prosper in spite of such threats.

Ironically, the country from which we can learn this lesson most acutely is Sri Lanka where a constant threat of bombings (including the suicidal variety) has continued for three decades. But the resilience of the Sri Lankan people has not been broken by the horror of terrorism and the country has still maintained a measured development path.

As far as ideological struggles are concerned, Israel, Lebanon, Peru and Colombia are just some of the examples of countries that have managed to live through violent times without being written off as “failed states”. Lest I be accused of observing the situation from afar, let me state that I still spend considerable parts of the year in Pakistan and for that matter have also done fieldwork in some even more violent and anarchic terrains such as the Congo.

So what should we do with the Taliban in Swat?

Since sharia is their call to arms, there needs to be a clear and concerted effort to get mainstream ulema to get together and show the Taliban on Islamic terms that the kinds of measures they are following are nothing more than medieval tribal traditions. For example, even the Red Mosque clerics completely disavowed the Taliban’s treatment of women when it came to education and Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi publicly condemned the Taliban on this point in a BBC interview in 2007. Indeed, most Muslim ulema can come together and lay out a theological case against many of the Taliban’s interpretations of sharia.

At the same time, a disarmament campaign has to be seriously considered by the government in all parts of the country. As I have argued before in these pages, there are numerous lessons to be learned in such efforts from places such as Bosnia and Indonesia where weapons buy-back programmes coupled with law enforcement have succeeded. There still may be a several-decades-long struggle of reform that is needed through basic educational institutions to reinforce such peace building. But conditions can change in global affairs faster than many pundits may predict.

Consider a country like Rwanda where ethnic clashes left half a million people dead in a matter of weeks only a decade ago. This same country is now heralded as a model of African development by donors and the tourists are back in droves.

Even with all the measures for countering terrorism through hard and soft tactics, there will still be cases of violence across Pakistan from time to time. However, let us not “blow things” out of proportion. The chance of random homicide per capita in Pakistan’s cities is still far below many of the most favoured tourist destinations in the world such as Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg or Los Angeles. So far, we have also been spared random school shootings by video-game addicted teenagers that have affected ostensibly peaceful places like Germany, Finland or the United States.

We have much to worry about in the country but the resilience of our people should not be affected by a caricatured portrayal of Pakistani society in comparison to the restless world at large.