The South Asia Channel
Violence, Pakistan’s New Normal
Pakistan is adapting to its high level of violence. Security is tighter and free thinkers and diversity are dwindling but life is still going on.
Pakistanis are euphoric that they recently hosted the Zimbabwe cricket team, after the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore sounded the death knell for foreign cricket team visits to Pakistan. Cricket matches in Lahore’s Gaddafi stadium were sold out, filled with cheering fans. For Pakistanis, this offered a glimpse of the way things were before years of being treated as pariahs because of security problems.
However, as made clear by the foiled attack which killed two people near Gaddafi stadium on May 29, redemption is a long way away. In the past five weeks alone, more than 43 Ismaili Muslims were killed in a gun attack on a bus on May 14; Karachi University assistant professor Wahidur Rahman was killed on April 29; and activist Sabeen Mahmud was shot dead on April 25, all in Karachi. These are only some of the attacks that occurred during this period. All three incidents of violence targeted individuals or groups for their words, actions, or beliefs.
Outside Pakistan, it is perceived as moving from one attack to the next, with little sense of life in the country beyond violence. But Pakistan — particularly urban Pakistan — does not fit the standard image of a war-torn country. Lahore, despite a spate of attacks since November (including the devastating November 2nd Wagah border bombing) is rumbling forward into the 21st century with constant construction, clogged rush-hour traffic, and a startling amount of business activity conducted on cell phones. Car sales are booming and the stock market is thriving. Citizens strive to acquire the trappings of a modern life, and news of attacks and violence blurs into this landscape, ebbing and flowing each day.
Of course, security measures have increased in the wake of the Peshawar attack last December. Visiting a school or university involves greater questioning and screening at the gates than last year. Parents can no longer enter their children’s schools at pickup time; they submit their national identity cards to a guard and wait while the card is verified and their child is then escorted through the school gate.
Pakistanis are constantly adapting to terror. Take average happiness, measured by asking people to evaluate their current lives on a scale of 0 to 10. According to the 2015 World Happiness Report, Pakistan ranks 81 out of 158 countries in terms of happiness between 2012 and 2014 — happier than Bangladesh (ranked 109) and India (ranked 117). And while this report shows that happiness levels have declined in Pakistan between the 2005 to 2007 and 2012 to 2014 surveys, despite terrorism increasing significantly after the mid-2000s, Pakistan still ranks ahead of almost half of the countries surveyed.
One might see this as the definition of resilience, but such adaptation is also dangerous. In adapting to insecurity, Pakistanis are living ever more circumscribed lives. Terror has come to define what they can do and say, how they can act, and how they can worship.
Police investigators recently reported that Sabeen Mahmud was targeted because of her campaign against infamous Red Mosque cleric Abdul Aziz. Given the timing of her killing — after she had hosted a panel discussion on the insurgency in Balochistan — the initial suspect was Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency. Regardless of who killed her, the signal her death sends is unmistakable. The warning to those who raise their voices in opposition to abuses of power by the state, religious dogma, and terrorism is clear: they could be next.
In one way, Pakistan has been here before. It was liberal until the late 1970s, when General Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship Islamized the country and clamped down on personal and political freedoms. His rule lasted eleven years. But there was a difference from today: ordinary citizens did not pay for dissent with their lives. At the end of Zia’s rule and with a return to democracy in 1988, restrictions began to be rolled back.
With terror, the cycle has begun anew. For example, in urban Pakistan, music bands now rarely hold outdoor concerts (a mainstay of entertainment in the 1990s and early 2000s) given security problems. Pakistanis have come to terms with this. Perhaps there is a belief that they have been here before, and this too shall pass. Except now it is no longer a single dictator controlling speech, action, and belief, but dozens of terrorist groups and thousands of terrorists. And their weapon is not prison, but lethal violence. With shrinking space for free speech and diversity, Pakistan’s population of free thinkers and diverse groups is dwindling. And that is alarming because even if this phase passes, Pakistan may not be able to go back to the way things were.
For now, even amidst growing conservatism and intolerance, intellectual life and liberal thought continues in Pakistan. During a recent visit to Pakistan, I saw students at various universities in Lahore, hailing from rural and urban areas all over Pakistan, quote Rousseau and Chomsky, engage in thoughtful discussions about what kind of state Pakistan ought to be and why. But to ensure that such discussion can thrive, the state needs to guarantee security to its citizens, and safeguard their right to worship, speak, and act as they please. Without that, no grand investment schemes, planned economic corridors, or any amount of prosperity is worth a dime.
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images