Thursday, July 15, 2010

Data Darbar Part I: Understanding the Narratives on Terrorism

 Data Darbar Shrine in Punjab 
(Image Credit: Pakistan Photos)

The way in which events are understood and perceived greatly affects their outcomes. In the case of the ongoing spate of violence against civilians in Punjab, including the recent triple suicide attack in Data Darbar; the shrine of the sufi saint Data Ganj Bakhsh, the narratives which have dominated the national scene have been extremely important in determining our political, social and cultural response. In my estimation, there are three prevalent national narratives which have developed in response to heightened militant violence across the country. All of these narratives are defined by a sense of disorientation with the transformation that Pakistan has undergone in the last five years; the progressive increase in violence against civilians, and are actively based on understanding and assigning the blame for this "terrorism".

 CIA, RAW, Mossad and other acronyms

Considering the prevalence of conspiracy theories among Pakistan's political, historical and cultural narratives, most involving an evil nexus of CIA, Mossad and RAW (Indian) bent on Pakistan's destruction, it is not surprising that the most dominant narrative continues to follow this form. The frequent militant attacks have been continuously ascribed to foreign "anti-Islam" and "anti-Pakistan" forces by Pakistan's political elite specifically the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Branch) which holds power in Punjab, the most populous province and the hardest hit by violence. Following the July 1st attack on the Data Darbar shrine, senior members of Pakistan's most influential religious party Jamat-e-Ulama-Islam (Congregation of Islamic Clerics), denounced the act stating that "no Muslim could even think of targeting a holy place", assigning responsibility on  foreign agents aimed at destroying the Ummah; the "global Islamic collective". The power of this narrative lies in its effective use of the doctrine of victimhood to define Pakistan's national identity. We have been attacked, abandoned, targeted, discriminated against....and so on. There is no space for honest self circumspection of the less than illustrious chapters of our history, namely the military genocide of three million in East Pakistan in 1971, now Bangladesh or the constitutional discrimination against Ahmadi Muslims, the active and tacit support for religious militancy against India in Kashmir and the open recognition and support for the Taliban government in 1990s (see Ahmad Rashid's book "Taliban"). Crippling and debilitating, this narratives encourages a society devoid of self criticism and a sense of responsibility for its own deeds. Unfortunately, this is the reality of Pakistan today.

Muslim? I don't think so!

The second narrative takes its basis from the first, with few exceptions. Firstly, it accepts the possibility of Pakistanis as perpetrators of violence against other Pakistanis. Secondly, it shifts the tone of the dominant narrative from a nationalist to religious. While Pakistanis can engage in violence against other Pakistanis, especially in the case of suicide bombings and market place bomb blasts, these people cannot be Muslim, or belong within the context of an Islamic belief. The strength of this narrative is based on its fluidity which leads to its self fulfillment. Those who commit these acts are not acting in accordance to Islamic values and thus cannot be considered as Muslims. While this narrative is based on distancing this violence from the religion itself, the problem is that it again perpetuates a denial of of the fact that the Pakistani religious establishment monetarily funded and supported the very groups currently engaged in this violence. Once again, events are perceived from the emotionally deceptive stance of identity affiliation/group camaraderie rather than in the light of historical fact.

Punjab is different...and so are Punjabis

In the fall of 2008, the Pakistani government in coordination with its armed forces launched a targeted offensive in South Waziristan  with the aim of quelling Taliban and Al-Qaeda presence in the region. While the offensive was succesfull in  dispersing militants, it also destroyed  important local  infrastructure and resulted in the creation of at least 100,000 refugees. Another offensive was carried out in North Waziristan earlier this year following Faisal Shahzad's failed bombing attempt at New York's Time Square with similar results. The human costs of both offensives were justified. After all both Taliban and Al-Qaeda were utilizing these regions to carry out attacks on vulnerable civilian populations. For the last nine months, there has been increasing violence directed at Punjabi civilians from sectarian groups collaborating with other militant groups such as Al-Qaeda,  Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Party of Taliban in Pakistan) and the Haqqani network. However, despite the ongoing violence from Punjabi groups, a similar offensive has yet to be launched. This lack of inaction in part is due to the logistics of carrying out a detailed military operation in a high civilian density region. In this context, a different narrative is employed. Similar to the dominant nationalist narrative, this one employs majority-minority dynamics through the lens of ethnic identity.

The narrative is simple. "Terrorism" is considered as a ethnic problem associated with Pashtun culture rather, than a social or political one. Violence by militant groups operating within the province of Punjab is ignored or placed within the context of Pashtun culture, which is perceived as inherently violent. The long standing history of Sunni militancy in Punjab especially in the district of Jhang; home to Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (equivalent to the KKK, but with vastly superior armament and tacit support of Punjab's political leadership) is disregarded, perpetuating a notion of Punjabi exceptionalism. Simply put, Punjabis are different from Pashtuns. They are inherently incapable of violence. Foreign agents must be involved. Versions of this narrative have been heard again and again, specifically from the PML-N. By analysing ongoing violence in Punjab through the singular lens of ethnic identity, this narrative creates a hierarchy positively favouring Punjabis over other groups, inflaming long standing ethnic tensions. Its prevalence within political, social and cultural circles within the province ensure tacit support to militancy in the province, which has led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians and will continue to do so in the coming weeks, months and years.

Seeing the forest for the trees

Our perceptions of "terrorism" and militant violence in Pakistan is shaping our social, political and cultural response to it. The dominance of narratives based on nationalist, religious and ethnic allegiances in our national dialogue devoid of an understanding of history and present day reality is dangerous. Dealing a violent insurgency on this scale requires an understanding of past political decisions which have led us here in the first place.  A paradigm shift in narratives from assigning blame to accepting responsibility is essential if the ongoing violence against civilians is to be dealt with effectively.

Coming Soon
Data Darbar Part II: Forget Religion, This is a Cultural War