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Goebbels lives on in Pakistan

14 October 2012

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The News on Sunday

Eleven years on, this nation still refuses to identify the enemy, let alone unite against it

by Safiya Aftab

Malala Yusufzai was shot in the early afternoon on Tuesday, October 9. The immediate reaction across the board in Pakistan was shock, horror and denunciation of the unspeakable act. Barely a few hours later, i.e. in the afternoon of 9 October, a number of news agencies and reporters received telephone calls from members of the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claiming responsibility for the attack, and saying that if the child lives, she will be targeted again.

The ANP was the first to issue a strongly worded statement, naming the TTP and denouncing not only the terrorists but also the military for allowing the situation to come to this. This was followed by less forceful, but still unequivocal statements by the PPP government, and the MQM.

Later that evening, the TTP issued a formal declaration, signed by its spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, asserting the same thing. Once again, shock, horror, revulsion, and, miracle of miracles, widespread denunciation of the Taliban began to do the rounds on the electronic and print media, the social media and in water cooler conversations across the country. The “liberal fascists,” of this country began to celebrate. It seemed that the tide had turned. At last, widespread recognition of the TTP’s true nature and universal condemnation of the act. Could this be a game changer? Could the tide of public opinion unequivocally change in Pakistan and focus on a denunciation of these terrorists?

Not so fast.

At about 7:30 the same evening, the PML (N) issued its statement, forcefully condemning the attack, but interestingly, not naming the attackers. This was followed by PTI’s statement at 10:00 p.m, almost 10 hours after the attack. Once again, a strong statement against “terrorists” but no mention of the Taliban or the TTP, a good 7 hours or so after TTP had owned up. Imran Khan offered to pay for the treatment of the victim abroad, conveniently bringing this up about five hours after the government had announced that all medical expenses would be borne by the state. Meanwhile, each of the religious parties had also issued a spate of statements, but, predictably, not one mentioned the perpetrators.

And from then on the game began to change.

Throughout the day on October 10, the condemnation continued to pour in from all quarters, but at the same time, the first references to drone attacks began to appear in the news stories, and in the statements of the second tier leadership of the PTI, and the first tier leadership of the religious parties. The PML(N) meanwhile, began to concentrate on lambasting the government for its incompetence in not being able to provide security to Malala.

On the evening of 10 October, Imran Khan gave an interview to a well-known anchor on TV, in which he effectively conflated the issue of drone strikes, making a number of attempts to link the issues he was highlighting in his march with the attack on Malala. In the last five minutes of the programme, the anchor made a valiant attempt to get Mr. Khan to name the perpetrators of the attack on Malala. The PTI Chairman, at his evasive best, said that they “may be the Taliban” (or in Urdu, “Taliban hoon gay”) but then followed that up by saying that naming anyone wouldn’t help and may in fact put his party workers in danger. This from a man, who, earlier in the programme, had stated that he would shoot down US drones if he came to power. Presumably, that would involve no retaliation.

By October 11, the floodgates had opened. The pictures of Malala that were flooding the social media were now followed up, almost snap for snap, by pictures of alleged drone victims, including a particularly poignant picture of the dead bodies of three small children. The conflation of drones and the attack on Malala was in full swing – it had all happened because of the drone attacks. Earnest advocates of peace talks began to post comments saying that the Taliban were not a cohesive group, and the attack on Malala “may” have been conducted by a violent sub-group, the majority of Talibs being poor, impressionable young men who just been led astray due to lack of opportunities.

The evening of October 11 saw a number of talk shows being aired on the incident, including a prime time show on Pakistan’s most popular news channel. The latter featured four guests, two from religious parties, both of whom, while condemning the attack on Malala, began to question the basic facts. Who had urged Malala to take up the role of spokesperson for education anyway, they asked? Who had built her up in the media and introduced her to international audiences? Why did the attack take place two days after a “successful” rally against drone strikes, which had focused international attention on collateral damage?

Malala was an innocent victim, these earnest ladies and gentleman asserted, but had she not been “used” by liberals, NGOs, the West, the Westoxified, the government, etc, etc? In vain, the talk show participants on the “other” side asserted that the attack had probably been planned well in advance, that there was no doubt about who the perpetrators were, and why they had targeted Malala, that they may very well have been emboldened further by statements from certain political leaders that they may have taken as being supportive. But the seeds of doubt had been planted.

As of October 12, three days after the shooting, the debate is in full swing, and a plethora of conspiracy theories are now doing the rounds. Malala’s parents were “recruited” by NGOs (after all, in the dark days of 2009, why would anyone in Swat let their young child write a blog. Never mind that this was a heroic attempt at resistance in a community that had been all but abandoned). Malala has been shot by CIA agents to deflect attention from drone strikes (one of which took place two days after her shooting). Even if the shooting is genuine, and the TTP is behind it, isn’t it understandable that they would do such things, given that they are targeted by drones (never mind that nobody in Swat has been so targeted), or are subject to military action (never mind that the action was largely welcomed and considered overdue by the local population). Aren’t the children who are killed in drone strikes just as important? Why don’t “fake liberals” hold rallies in support of them (never mind that drone strikes have been widely criticized for collateral damage, and that this attack was a completely different matter – an attempted target killing of a girl fighting for a fundamental right).

In short, the waters have been thoroughly muddied. One has suspected for some time that Goebbelsian minds are at work in Pakistan and are active in pushing public discourse onto set paths. In particular, a national consensus against religious extremism will just not be allowed to take hold to any significant degree. Is that because the extremists remain strategic assets? Or because ultra-nationalist ascendancy simply stops people from asking too many questions about their fundamental rights and the role of the state? Whatever the reason, the Malala case is proving that not much will change in Pakistan. Eleven years on, this nation still refuses to identify the enemy, let alone unite against it.


The above article from The News on Sunday is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use