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The new normal in Pakistan

The new normal in Pakistan

Author: Rafia Zakaria
Publication: The Hindu
Date: February 10, 2009
URL: http://www.hindu.com/2009/02/10/stories/2009021054801100.htm

Lulled into catatonia by pervasive helplessness, Pakistanis can do little except deny that violence exists or stubbornly insist that even if it does, it means little.

A small bomb blast does not make the headlines in Karachi anymore. The ensuing dialogue is always followed by the same question: how many killed? One, two or even 10 does not merit a pause in the conversation, let alone a prayer for the departed. These stoic rejoinders are not limited to Karachi. Similar reactions punctuate news of bombings all over Pakistan, perhaps with even more pronounced restraint when the incidents take place in the tribal areas. Just as the news of a bomb blast is met with little incredulity, Pakistanis, confronted with an Islamist insurgency spanning into its third year, continue to insist that their daily lives remain unaffected by the upsurge in Islamist violence around the country. The twin symptoms, resignation and denial, are denominators of Pakistan's new 'normal' - defined as it is by violence so commonplace and insecurity so routine that it no longer registers shock or protest.

This redefinition of ordinary has not been gradual. Even a mere five years ago, the Taliban was an idea relegated to beyond the western border in Afghanistan, and tourists continued to swarm areas like Swat for summer vacations. Ski lifts were crowded and guesthouses remained full all season. The death of that Swat is now old news, no longer reported by journalists, either in Pakistan or abroad.

Yet the magnitude of violence and fear unleashed tells a story of how, in a short span of time, a population can be so vastly terrorised that it is rendered effectively mute. Officials estimate that the Taliban has either burnt down or blown up more than 140 educational institutions in the past two years, leaving nearly a million of the children without access to education. With nearly 30 per cent of the girls having withdrawn from schools and colleges anyway, the news of the announcement by Mullah Shah Doran, the Taliban's second in command, that all girls would be forbidden from attending school from January 15, 2008 was relegated to the inside pages of most newspapers.

If the girls in Swat are bearing the brunt of the Taliban campaign against education, the girls daring to go to school in the urban centre of Lahore are not spared either. The bomb squad in the city reported nearly 50 threats to various schools and colleges in the past few months. The threats were part of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan's effort to expand its activities into the cultural capital. As part of this campaign, nearly five "cultural blasts" took place on January 9, 2009 outside theatres which were accused of spreading immorality. The incidents were connected to blasts that took place in the city last year near the Al-Hamra Arts Centre and Garhi Shahu ice cream parlours. The last time the area was threatened, in the form of an anonymous letter written to Shabbir Labha, head of a local trader's organisation, the writer said the area would be bombed if the sale of pornographic CDs was not halted immediately. One day later, traders voluntarily burned 60,000 CDs in a pragmatic move to avert an attack on their market. This most recent "cultural blast," however, came without warning, costing millions of rupees in damage to the theatres.

Singular incidents such as these come and go, but their cumulative effect on the maimed psychology of people is far from being of "low intensity," the term used to describe the explosive used in the most recent Lahore attack. In the past year, Pakistan has overtaken both Iraq and Afghanistan in the number of suicide attacks, with casualties numbering over 600.

No category of targets - from schools to juice shops and from fancy hotels to barber shops - has been spared. The victims have been security officials, businessmen, poor trader women, shopkeepers and, of course, even former Prime Ministers. Television audiences have become used to watching clips of decapitated heads of suicide bombers, which are regularly made available to TV crews after attacks. Everyone knows that when a suicide bomber detonates his explosives, his head pops off and is usually found intact.

The visibility and constant onslaught of violence has a peculiar effect on those witnessing it. As the grasp of the insurgency widens, from the remote tribal areas always, relegated to the recesses of the Pakistani geographical imagination, to the streets of Karachi and even the cultural centre of Lahore, the world of the individual Pakistani constricts further and further. The web of concern and empathy, once expansive enough to encompass fellow countrymen, gets ever narrower, stretching only to include those in ever smaller circles. In contracting their radius of concern, Pakistanis look only to their near and dear, finding solace in the small group that may still remain untouched, and insulating themselves from the assassinated, the kidnapped, the looted and the threatened.

As a result, it is not just bomb blasts that merit little attention, empathy or protest from Pakistanis. Ever worsening crimes - from the live burial of five Balochi women by the relative of a Minister to the unleashing of dogs on a 17-year-old pregnant girl - prompt little mass protest other than by token women's groups and journalists. In a mental exercise engaged in only by the most traumatised, Pakistanis routinely slice their much taxed sympathy into those few that matter and the millions that don't. In the words of one Karachi-ite, "I look down, do my work, pick my children up from school and don't worry too much about what is happening. It's the only way I can survive here."

And then there are the moral conundrums permeated by violence that strategically attacks a set of confused ideological premises which have long plagued the moral conscience of Pakistanis. One area where this confusion is glaring is the regulation of cultural practices considered un-Islamic under the draconian Taliban rubric. It is thus not just the Taliban threats that have an impact on local populations but their reverberations. One example is the Lahore High Court's recent decision to ban 'mujra,' the age-old dance form practised in Lahore for nearly 400 years.

Following the ruling, the theatres where the dancers performed went on strike, prompting the court to reverse the ban and order the dancers to "wear shawls covering their necks and wear shoes." Necks and bare feet were considered too erotic, and hence impermissible. The moral of the story is clear: in a society unsure of the religious merit of its culture and unable to articulate the place of religion, all ills can be blamed on the guilty pleasures that can produce moral shame, and hence justify terror. In this case, the misogyny heaped on female entertainers and the guilt of those selling and consuming their product are effectively used to valorise even the terror produced by the Taliban. When those enjoyments relegated to the guilty recesses of consumption are attacked, their elimination, however crude, is painted as purification rather than denigration of society.

In the years and months since the Taliban insurgency has taken hold, its measure has been taken in lives lost and property damaged. Little effort has been made, however, to evaluate how the incursion of religious extremism has altered civil and social life in Pakistan. The indirect effects of the constriction of empathy, the tacit acceptance of insecurity and the self-imposed moral monism that is intolerant of all differences are effects that have a longer and much more drastic effect. This can already be seen in the muffled non-existence of civil society that can no longer organise or conceptualise a position on any political or legislative issue.

If Pakistan does not have a national, organised movement of civil society groups against terror, it is not because Pakistanis are not suffering. The conglomeration of a survivalist indifference, in which caring is reserved not for the larger world but for the chosen few of one's immediate circle, and the confusion of faith and its role as a moral regulator are ultimately giving birth to a new, more menacing definition of normalcy.

In a country where the population is inured to violence and has resigned itself to persecution, there can be little expectation of political organisation or representation beyond the most illusory. Lulled into catatonia by such pervasive helplessness,

Pakistanis can do little except deny that the violence exists, persecutes and targets them every single day, or stubbornly insist that even if it does, it means little and that life - simply if uncertainly - goes on just as before, with a new definition of normal.

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