Dawn Editorial 9th August 2023

Critical mass

THE fires of extremism are beginning to consume even those parts of the country that were earlier relatively free of it. On Saturday, a 22-year-old teacher affiliated with a language centre was gunned down by unknown assailants in Turbat, Kech district, Balochistan, on an allegation of blasphemy. Abdul Rauf was targeted while on his way to attend a jirga to explain his position on the accusations, which he categorically denied. Some students at the language centre had complained to clerics that the young man had committed blasphemy during a lecture, and the jirga with over 100 ulema had been arranged at a madressah. His murder is only the latest in a long line of casualties at the hands of vigilantes who believe they are judge, jury and executioner. A mere allegation of blasphemy can be a death sentence — as with Mashal Khan, Priyantha Kumara and many others. When cases do come to trial, the judges and defence lawyers involved expose themselves to risk; some have been killed for finding an accused innocent, or for defending them, respectively.

But Abdul Rauf’s murder illustrates another disturbing fact — that when a critical mass is reached in the spread of a radical thought process, no place is immune. Like a corrosive acid, it begins to consume whatever it touches. Unbeknownst to many fellow Pakistanis who associate Balochistan with a regressive tribal culture and/or militant violence, Kech district in the Makran belt where Turbat is located, is one of the more progressive areas of Pakistan with an educated youth demographic and a tradition of religious harmony. It is also the principal theatre of the ongoing Baloch insurgency, to counter which the state began promoting an ultra-conservative ideology — manifested in the mushrooming of seminaries in the area. The seeds of hatred planted several years ago have started bearing fruit; the unfortunate Abdul Rauf, who was not even given a chance to defend himself, is its first victim.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2023

A different tone

RECENT statements by the army’s top brass, as well as the Afghan Taliban leadership, indicate that there is some convergence on how to handle the TTP problem. Pakistan has long stated that the banned group is using Afghan soil as a base to attack this country, though Kabul’s rulers have denied this. Speaking at an event in Peshawar on Monday, army chief Gen Asim Munir said that while talks could be held with the interim Afghan government, there was no chance of dialogue with the TTP. The COAS also referred to the banned TTP as ‘khawarij’, a term taken from early Islamic history which denotes a group that is outside the religious mainstream. The term has been applied by various Muslim governments and ulema to describe militant groups. In a related development, the Afghan Taliban’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada has also issued an important decree recently. According to the Taliban defence minister, the group’s reclusive leader has said that those leaving Afghanistan to wage “jihad” abroad despite orders from the “emir” to stop were not partaking in holy war, but “hostility”. This pronouncement has relevance because it comes not from the Taliban’s political centre of Kabul, but from the ideological fountainhead of Kandahar.

Both the security leadership and the Afghan Taliban have begun to use theological arguments against the TTP. Perhaps this is the result of Asif Durrani’s visit to Kabul last month. As per reports, Pakistan’s special representative for Afghanistan took up the issue of TTP terrorism with his Afghan hosts, and these developments can be seen in that light. While the TTP leadership structure is separate from that of the Afghan Taliban, it will be difficult for the former, morally at least, to ignore Mullah Akhundzada’s edict on not waging ‘jihad’ across borders. According to some media reports, the Afghan Taliban have already begun to shift TTP militants away from the border, and more relocations are planned. Of course, other anti-Pakistan militants can also be found in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, such as IS-K, but reining in the TTP will address one of Pakistan’s major security concerns. Security-related contacts between Islamabad and Kabul should continue, and the Taliban need to deliver on their promise of stopping the TTP’s anti-Pakistan activities, while the military must remain alert, particularly in the militancy-affected provinces of KP and Balochistan.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2023

Old politics

BILAWAL Bhutto-Zardari’s farewell address to the National Assembly after his first stint as an elected representative has given voice to the feelings of general despair being felt by the silenced masses, but also invited renewed criticism of the ‘dynastic’ style of politics espoused by certain democratic parties.

Addressing his father, PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, and the PML-N supremo, Nawaz Sharif, Mr Bhutto-Zardari expressed regret at the way Pakistani politics continues to be conducted, complaining that the two ‘senior politicians’ may have condemned the new lot to suffer for the next 30 years what they had suffered over the past three decades.

He seemed to be speaking with reference to the events of these past few weeks, which have seen parliament reduced to a rubber stamp for a seemingly endless stream of bad legislation, as well as the start of a new cycle of political victimisation that culminated with the incarceration of the PTI chief.

Though it was a smaller excerpt of his speech that ignited heated debate on social media, Mr Bhutto-Zardari’s remarks, in general, were otherwise praiseworthy for their astuteness. He spoke of the need for dialogue and a new charter of democracy; for institutions to function within their domains; for the rules of the game to be defined; and for the powerful to not continue to ignore the needs of two-thirds of the population, which comprises people below the age of 30.

The PPP chairman was also candid in admitting that although the outgoing government may have seized power last April through a constitutional manoeuvre, it failed to keep institutions within their constitutional domains over the next 16 months.

Such clarity of thought in the upcoming generation of political leaders would give one hope that all is not lost. But, and perhaps rightly so, many were left outraged when he beseeched Messrs Zardari and Sharif to “make politics easier for me and Maryam Sharif”.

He may have been addressing the two seniors as a child might their parents, possibly for some added pathos, but it seems Mr Bhutto-Zardari hasn’t fully read the nation’s mood. At a time when faith in the democratic system is rapidly evaporating, and the people have been left disenfranchised, the suggestion that political power is an inheritance to be shared between the Sharifs and Zardaris was bound to raise hackles.

There is no dearth of able, forward-looking politicians in Pakistan, and it must be unacceptable to any democratically inclined person that their chances of being chief executive should be automatically limited by an accident of birth.

It may well be that the scions of our political dynasties are capable politicians in their own right, but ‘level playing fields’ cannot just be for contests between a handful of families.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2023

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