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1All-weather terrorism Empty All-weather terrorism on Tue Sep 13, 2011 1:32 am


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Almost 34,000. That’s the number of Pakistanis who have been killed in terrorist attacks between 2003 and 2011. The ISPR offers more numbers; 2,821: the number of Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps personnel killed in the fight against terrorism; 8,765: the number among their ranks wounded.

In 2009, there were more civilian causalities as a result of terrorism in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. A decade after the international fight against terrorism commenced, there is no denying that this is our war. Politicians and members of the security establishment quote these horrifying figures with great frequency to remind the world that Pakistanis are at the frontline of terrorism, and to deflect charges that Pakistan’s commitment to crushing militancy is questionable. And so they should. For all the shortfalls in Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy, there has been little recognition of the fact that Pakistanis are now more vulnerable and terrorised than many others who live in countries with multicoloured or tiered terror alert systems.

But even as the spectre of terrorism has become more horrifying, our horror at it has diminished. Pakistanis have begun to appreciate the political utility of claiming victimisation by terrorism — a perverse fallout of the fact that the international ‘war on terror’ long ago became more about rhetoric than reality.

The charge of terrorism against another is used increasingly frequently thanks to its political connotations: it rouses international sympathy, it makes newspaper headlines, and it generates lots of funding in US dollars in the hope of mitigating the threat. Most importantly, anyone accused of terrorism is instantly and thoroughly demonised, and their actions are written off as immoral and unjustified. Victims of terrorism, and those who seek to fight it, gain instant approval, while those who remain silent on the issue are discredited.

Knowing this, Pakistanis are using the label more liberally. The verbose Zulfikar Mirza has referred to the MQM as a “terrorist party”. In July, Farzana Raja described the leadership of the PML-N as “political terrorists”. Last month, a KESC spokesman labelled a group of workers protesting the non-payment of their wages “armed union terrorists” when their protest turned violent. Government spokespeople refer to Baloch nationalists as “terrorists”. Two years ago, Pakistani fashion designers and models termed their work anti-terrorist.

Given that so many of our compatriots have been the victims of terror attacks by extremist organisations, is it appropriate to cry terror whenever there is trouble? Ten years after terror seized the international psyche, is there still any point trying to define what constitutes terrorism in our national context? In addition to the awful news of the twin suicide bombings against FC personnel in Quetta last week, several stories in the press caused me great alarm. Owing to their religious beliefs, one Ahmadi was killed in Faisalabad while another was shot and critically injured in Ferozewala as religious parties celebrated Tahaffuz Khatam-i-Nabuwat Day. In Charsadda, two men killed their niece and a boy she allowed to make a cellphone video of her. In Saddar Garhi, a man shot dead his sister-in-law and another man in an ‘honour killing’. To express my outrage against these heinous crimes, shall I label all the murderers terrorists?

That would, of course, seem sensationalist and counterproductive. These are instances of sectarian violence and domestic violence. Other kinds of violence that constantly plague Pakistanis can be labelled ethnic, criminal, political, state-sponsored, tribal, etc. Few would concede that these constitute terrorism.

But don’t these other types of violence also leave people with feelings of trauma and fear the way being terrorised does?

Studies have found over 100 definitions of terrorism, and there is not, as yet, an international legally binding definition of terrorism. All types of terrorism do have a few things in common, however: the violence is asymmetrical; the targets are non-combatants; the goal is to create a persistent sense of fear and victimisation. In that case, why isn’t the murder of Ahmadis and women on the basis of honour termed an act of terror?

The goal of this column is not to define terrorism. But it seems useful to acknowledge what is common to the array of violence that Pakistanis are subject to daily. Terrorism — in the sense of ideologically motivated attacks by extremist groups — seeks to target and thus weaken and undermine the state. On the other hand, a man who decides to kill someone who misbehaves with his daughter or is accused of blasphemy takes the law into his own hands, and thereby weakens the state by seeking to replace it. Acts of violence of whatever variety are ultimately and indirectly attacks against the state. And in a sordid feedback loop, the weaker the state gets, the more vulnerable we all are to victimisation and violence, whether it is ethnic, arbitrary, criminal, gendered, sectarian, or worse.

Since 9/11, Pakistanis have complained that they have become the primary victims of a war against terrorism that they did not instigate. That complaint is valid. But in the spirit of introspection, it is also fair to acknowledge that nationwide feelings of trauma are not caused by terrorism alone, no matter how brutal the attacks become (the attack against the FC DIG’s house in Quetta is just the latest example after innumerable schools, mosques, bazaars, volleyball games, press clubs and more).

Above and beyond these terror attacks, Pakistanis contend with a variety of violence and brutality that results from the cumulative experience of the state being undermined, overridden, or replaced by an increasing number of people who live in this country. Complete disregard for the value and sanctity of human life has become commonplace, and that thought is as traumatic as the mounting number of terror attacks.

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