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Whataboutery vs sober introspection

After the trauma of the 1971 partition of Pakistan, it would have been useful to engage in a process of brutal introspection. Realistically however, the kind of shock 1971 represented meant that, instead of introspection, Pakistan indulged in an escapist narrative.

Without a doubt, India took advantage of the natural weaknesses of the bond between East Pakistan and West Pakistan. But these weaknesses were well known to decision-makers, and yet they failed to address the unhappiness in Dhaka from independence in 1947 till those dark days of December 1971. Last week, the Economist noted rather triumphantly that with the announcement of the topline numbers for the 2017 census, Pakistan’s per capita GDP has fallen below Bangladesh’s. This represents a remarkable turnaround for the country formerly known as East Pakistan – and will doubtlessly buoy the spirits of nationalist Bangladeshis – who have always claimed that they would be better off on their own.

Pakistanis need not lament Bangladesh’s success. But it is a worthwhile indulgence to question why, and how, in less than fifty years of independence, Bangladesh, with remarkably greater disadvantages than Pakistan, has overtaken us. Or, to put it differently, what are we doing wrong?

One simple answer? We have steadfastly refused to invest in any meaningful introspection as a nation. When Asma Jahangir or Pervez Hoodhbhoy raise red flags about our behaviour, we yell “traitor!”. When lesser beings than them dare take up the mantle, we conveniently ignore them. There are odd instances of dissenters being silenced in different ways. The most insidious cases end in funerals. Having failed to bury our past demons, perhaps it is easier to bury the bodies of those that dared to shock us, wake us up, remind us of our better selves and demand that we live up to the ideals of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Reminders about the norms that should shape public life are not always easy to swallow. In the last week, I have found it very difficult to endure what I see as Rohingya whataboutery. What is Rohingya whataboutery? Simply, the tendency of some folks to point to outrages within Pakistan, asking why people protesting Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya are not expressing sympathy for victims of outrages closer to home.

Rohingya whataboutery is a big problem for two reasons. First, it is an own-goal. Condemning people’s sincere sentiments about an undisputed human tragedy is about as stupid as one can get, especially if the objective is to win those very people’s support for the tragedy that one is more concerned about. Second, Rohingya whataboutery can be employed by those that seek to defend and support the Myanmar regime – so it is possibly actively enabling the driving of these people from their homes.

Notwithstanding the tactical and strategic downsides of Rohingya whataboutery, as Pakistanis it is useful to take a quick scan of the landscape whilst we legitimately pray for, and urge action on behalf of, the helpless people being so brutally oppressed in Myanmar.

The subtext to four of the biggest stories in Pakistan today is intimately and inextricably linked with political violence enacted in the name of religion.

First, the NA-120 by-election is being watched closely as it represents the national soft-launch of the political, or rather electoral arm of the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Second, Pakistan’s relationship with the US is in a fragile and worrisome state owing to the contentious set of disagreements between the two countries about where responsibility for the potency of the Haqqani Network to carry out attacks against Afghan and international targets lies.

Third, the alleged assassins that sought to end the life of Sindh Assembly Opposition Leader, Khawaja Izharul Hassan all share the profile of highly educated, urban, new age, religiously-motivated terrorists.

And fourth, the assassination of yet another group of Hazara Pakistanis in Quetta signals yet another spike in an unending wave of murderous violence against visible minorities, based on religious differences with that community.

The year 2017 has not ended yet, meaning that we have not yet observed the third anniversary of the December 16, 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. The sense of national conviction in the days and weeks following that horrific attack seemed to represent a consensus about the need to weed out political violence shrouded in religious language. A national plan was drawn up. Our constitutional norms were disrupted. A new dawn had come.

In the first few months that followed, the renewed vigour of Pakistan’s clarity about terrorism seemed to drown out the naysayers and sceptics. Yes, the Red Mosque in Islamabad continued to issue radical and provocative statements, but the army was winning the fight in the mountains of Fata, on the streets of Karachi, and in the vastness of Balochistan. A slew of hangings and a handful of police encounters meant that some high-profile bad guys were killed. The vengeance of a nation had begun to be exacted. Things seem to really be on an upward trajectory.

Of course, you can kill and flatten your way to part of a solution, but never quite all the way. Even if we accept that all terrorism in Pakistan is funded and enacted by agents of enemy states, like India, it is hard to escape the fact that the terror has not completely stopped. And whilst there are few who doubt that Altaf Hussain was for many years used as a tool for India to exploit, there is little to suggest that the epidemic of new-age terrorists being vomited into society by the mess that is Karachi has been triggered by a mind-control device in New Delhi. No matter which way we analyse the alarming nature of recent terrorist activity in Pakistan, the roots of the problem are within Pakistani territory and within Pakistani grasp.

The LeT and Haqqani Network problem is often spliced away and treated differently from the Daesh and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, or sectarian, problem. The truth is they are linked more closely than we like to imagine.

The most intimate link between them is strategic. All four problems are a manifestation of a public sector that has run out of ideas, about national security, about foreign policy, about de-radicalisation, and about Hussainiat, as a building block of Pakistani identity. More worryingly, all four problems are linked through the experience of an attempt to kill our way to a solution. Pakistan tried this with Malik Ishaq, and has found that the virus he has left behind is larger than the body corporate known as the LeJ. Sectarian hatred is a potent informant of every new organisation that pops up on the map. The decade-long warnings from policemen, intelligence officers, and foreign partners about the operational nexus between domestic sectarian groups lead by the LeJ and local and international terror groups like the TTP have come alive in dramatic fashion. Though substantially reduced, the fact that sectarian killings continue to take place is proof that a lot more needs to be done before we can unfurl the mission accomplished banner in this long, long war.

What the lessons from the LeJ experience tell us is that beheading a group does not help in evaporating the group’s mentality or ideology from within society. Kashmir-focused militancy, US-oriented violence in Afghanistan, pure domestic terror through do-it-yourself terror starter kits, or targeted sectarian killings all exist above and beyond organisational structures, and political symbols.

The challenge then is to asphyxiate the swamp within which these problems exist. Sadly, we seem to have gotten better and better at the top end symbolism of dealing with problems, whilst ignoring the substantive base.

Perhaps no better example of this exists than Mumtaz Qadri. The symbolism of his hanging was feted by far too many without any consideration of how the fallout of his hanging would be dealt with. The end result? Allowed to marinate in the narrative of Qadri’s ‘heroic’ assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the national discourse now allows accusations of blasphemy to be thrown about willy-nilly. The societal capacity to challenge the weaponisation of this accusation has diminished irrevocably.

To challenge this status quo, we need to move far beyond the scope of symbolic declarations of a post-strategic depth era, or assassinations of the leaders of banned organisations. This status quo has been built on decades of negligent arrogance on the one hand, and careful cultivation of certain kinds of narratives on the other. To challenge it, we will need to pay a lot more attention to what we let slide, and afford a lot less leeway to what we have hitherto considered kosher.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.


Mosharraf Zaidi, "Whataboutery vs sober introspection," The News. 2017-09-12.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Haqqani network , Political symbols , National security , Violence , Terrorism , Militancy , Mumtaz Qadri , Salmaan Taseer , Pakistan , Bangladesh , GDP , TTP