Time to come out of the closet

Majid Abdulla

If a person detonates a bomb tied to his chest in a public space, killing scores of innocent people, it is a terrible act. You can of course argue whether such an act of terror is justifiable in the circumstances in which it is committed. Let us be absolutely clear, in principle there is nothing stopping anyone from taking a defensive position on such matters. It is not uncommon to hear people argue that a disenfranchised group’s terror is a sovereign army’s war. Moreover people do after all argue that IRA, Palestinian, Sri Lankan, or Red Brigade bombings which have claimed innocent lives in the last century could be understood because of their national liberation cause. One could even claim that an historical assessment of at least some such situations shows that violence has not always been associated with adverse long-term outcomes. It all depends on the cause

For example the defenders of some acts of terror by the ANC perhaps stand vindicated in South Africa today. Other acts, say of the Baader Minehof in the 1970s in Germany, stand a lesser chance of passing the test of time. The invocation of distinctions between military and non- military targets, intentional or unintentional killing of innocents; collateral versus principal damage is conceptual sophistry that does not determine but succeeds the ideological or political cause which is being supported in a conflict that has turned to war.

It is customary to justify an act of violence by labelling it as inevitable and then predicating it with the phrase “regrettable as such acts are”. However when such utterances are made it should leave no ambiguity in the listeners head if the speaker is emphasising the inevitability of such acts over their property of being tragic. And it is left to the audience to decide whether it gives primacy to the tragedy or to the inevitability. In times of war a politician must first offer reasons to justify his chosen side in a conflict. Pakistan’s right wing politicians have evolved a crude technique of deception. This entails a contradictory wish of having it both ways. They think that in order to popularise their closet view on jihad, they need to trick listeners by doing two things. First, to separate the jihadi from his violence; and second, by exploiting a well grounded and infinitely more justifiable anti-imperialist sentiment that exists in large parts of the globe today.

Imran Khan seems more of an apologist of the Taliban; just as Nawaz Sharif does. Of course they can and should change their mind on this matter. Even holy positions are not sacrosanct. For Sharif he seems to be doing so, perhaps because he is coming closer to office in Islamabad. His condemnation has recently become louder, and his apology for the killers somewhat softer. But strangely – now that we have a war situation in the Frontier – Sharif wants to focus on the disenfranchisement of the Baloch. Yes, as Ayaz Amir says- it is all connected; but the priority in a war situation ought to be the war, not regional inequality. The anti-imperialism of Imran Khan stems more directly from his orientalist soft corner for an imagined Taliban and perhaps because he is a Pashtun migrant settler in Punjab. He often asks, with a profoundly naïve expression, reminiscent of a child’s discovery of arithmetic, the ahistorical question: Why were there no Taliban in Pakistan before 9/11? He should perhaps try to answer why was he not a brazen anti-imperialist before 9/11? I mean he was nearly 50 years old then, so he was definitely grown up. And presumably his vast scholarship on the Pashtuns with its astounding sweep from the times of Alexander, also existed then?

It is wholly invalid to suggest that since these men are politically popular, perhaps a large section of the population of Pakistan may shares their disguised views on jihadi violence. I think significant parts of the population that supports them would cease supporting them if they came out of the closet and actively stated a pro-jihad position. Sharif and Khan may well have a popular vote bank but their position on jihadi- terrorism seems to be deliberately ambiguous. There are deeper and more substantive historical reasons for this romance.

It would be curious, if after a bomb blast with civilian deaths, you either kept quiet or began to invoke the political conditions which led to the psychological state in which the killer acted. Such behaviour could be diagnosed as a deeply apologetic neurosis. In other words, you cannot bring yourself to condemn the murderers without qualification, precisely because you believe in the grand cause of the criminal. The mainstream right in Pakistan does not have the courage to embrace what the Taliban are doing in the Frontier and call it armed struggle for fear of losing public sympathy. They know that many amongst Pakistan’s Muslim population may not vote for a person or party that consistently smokescreens jihadi killing by only talking about the reasons why Abdul became a suicide bomber.

It is like saying immediately after a US drone-attack that kills innocents in Pakistan’s tribal areas: “reprehensible as it is, we must appreciate the pain that 9/11 has caused the US”. The problem in public discussion in Pakistan is that as soon as one starts suggesting that there is a deep-seated problem of jihadist apologia embedded in the neuroses of sections of Pakistani political classes, you encounter hysteria and get labelled an agent of imperialism.

Let me illustrate. In a recent television talk show Pervez Hoodbhoy suggested to Imran Khan that he should perhaps be more forthright in his condemnations of jihadi violence. He also suggested that this was a distinct issue from condemning US wars and violence, on which many people would be in agreement with him. He raised a critical issue that goes right to the heart of the dithering that we observe in political parties in this time of war. And war time it is. Mr Khan, on being cornered tried to distract attention revealing precisely the logic that goes in to this apologetic makeup. He basically tried to accuse Mr Hoodbhoy of being in the pay of the Americans! The larger question put to Imran Khan is still a valid one and it is applicable to others too. And I repeat there is no shame in changing one’s mind. Pride amongst the Pashtuns may well be proverbial but it is written nowhere that they are incapable of swallowing it in moments of truth.

 The writer is a freelance contributor based in London. Email: drmohd. abdulla@googlemail.com

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