by Uzair Younus
The day will be forever etched onto my memory. On Tuesday, December 17, I visited my alma mater, St. Paul’s English High School in Karachi, to give thanks to teachers that played an integral role in my life. I left for lunch as news broke that four children had been killed in an attack on a school in Peshawar. My desensitized psyche looked at the ticker on the news broadcast. Life rumbled on. After lunch, the count was thirty-something. I was well-satisfied with my meal.
And then my father called. “Turn on the news,” he said. “Yes, I saw it, thirty something dead. It’s sad,” I told him. His voice rose: “It’s over one hundred!” I was out all day and night, so it was only when I got home, turned on the news, and made sense of what had happened, that something inside of me gave in. The mind slowly made sense of what happened and then the body registered the shock. The following few hours were filled with grief, indescribable emotions, and then anger.
All of that anger has given way to introspection. Why? Why must innocent children die in such cold blood for a war that they cannot even understand?
It is easy to dismiss this act of barbarity as just that, but it is much, much more. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility and later issued religious justification for the attack, citing volume five, verse 148 of the Sahih Bukhari (a revered book of quotes by the Prophet Muhammad) and their own twisted interpretation of the hadith. They had reached puberty, the TTP statement argued. Therefore, they were adults. It was a classic case of cherry-picking religion. Most of us Muslims do this on a daily basis to get on with modern life. But the TTP used our own methods of cherry-picking to commit heinous crimes of such proportions that the devil himself would shudder.
It tears me to pieces to say openly that they used religion, a religion that has guided my morals and ethics for my entire life, to justify the slaughter of innocent boys. But this is the narrative of the enemy. What is the counter-narrative of Pakistan and its citizens? This is not Islam! They are not Muslims! This rationalization might put the majority of Muslims at ease, but it does nothing to counter the ideology of the radicals. Sadly, we do not have another narrative and this explains why this toxic ideology remains alive.
Pakistan has been at the center of the battle for Islam, a battle that has become more polarizing and deadly with every passing year. Since 1947 our society has been confused over the role of religion in society and matters of the state. Our state has used the very ideology that haunts it today for regional influence, collaborating with the global hegemon in the 1980s when interests aligned and these Frankensteins were built. Our constitution is littered with discriminatory laws. Laws written by men of questionable character. But those laws are untouchable today. If you dare raise your voice, you will find yourself dead.
In our collective Pakistani psyche confusion reigns supreme, making us unable to take decisive action. Our courts, police, security establishment, civil society, and all other institutions have been penetrated by this extremist ideology. Even when there is clarity, the state cannot act, for those that make up the state are scared for their lives. Police reports are registered against those who protest peacefully outside a radical mosque, but nothing is done when extremists march all over Lahore in the name of Islam.
The problem then, lies within us. Those Pakistanis that are privileged enough like myself settle abroad or live in their bubbles. We have been desensitized by this long war. Every death is reduced to a mere statistic. Peshawar has jolted us alive, but I am skeptical. It is wedding season in Pakistan and festivities are in full flow. The Christian community has cancelled celebrations, and that gives me hope. Social media pictures are black in mourning, but for how long? We are holding vigils, but for how long? We are protesting against radicals, but the number of people at such events is still minimal.
Meanwhile, the state has had a knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy. Pakistan has lifted the moratorium on the death penaltyand increased retaliatory airstrikes and military operations. But these steps merely tackle the symptoms. There is still no strategy to treat the disease infecting Pakistan, which would require a concerted effort on the part of the government. Pakistan urgently needs police reform, tough action against radical mosques and seminaries preaching extremism, and a well-devised counter narrative. For now the government has formed a political committee tasked with forming an “action plan.”
This could be a turning point in our history as a nation, but many such moments have come and gone. We are resilient, some say. No, we are stubborn. We may show our resilience by continuing on with life, but we still refuse to change course. When a ferry disaster occurred in South Korea some months ago, an entire society grieved for weeks. We neither introspect nor grieve. We have seen so much blood and gore that it takes the barbarism of Peshawar to jolt us from our slumber, but only for a moment. And then we go to sleep again.
About the Author
Uzair Younus is a Masters candidate at The Fletcher School and is focusing on security issues facing South Asia and the Middle East. He tweets at @uzairyounus.