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A world without joy

A world without joy

Author: Irfan Husain
Publication: Dawn
Date: July 19, 2008
URL: http://www.dawn.com/weekly/mazdak/mazdak.htm

Imagine a world without joy: a world in which music, dancing and art are prohibited; where women have been declared non-persons and banished from public view; and where games and sports of all kinds have been banned.

In this dreary, monochromatic world, poetry, prose and drama have no place, and dissent is punishable by death. This is a world with endless lists about what citizens are not allowed to do, and most human activity is focused on imposing yet more restrictions. In short, a world devoid of everything that makes life worth living.

Actually, it is not very difficult to imagine such a barren place as this is the bleak vision the Taliban imposed on Afghanistan when they were in power. And now, their Pakistani counterparts are trying to transform Pakistan into this hell on earth in the name of Islam. The surprise is not that these medieval holy warriors should be trying to take us back to the stone age: what amazes me is that so many normally sensible Pakistanis do not see who their true enemy is. Instead of perceiving the obvious threat, educated people are jumping up and down, fulminating about the infringement of our sovereignty by western forces.

Over the centuries, the rough terrain that today constitutes the Durand Line has been crossed by an unending succession of conquerors, smugglers, traders, mercenaries and shepherds of diverse nationalities. When the British imposed this border on Kabul to separate their Indian colony from an unruly neighbour in 1893, they never imagined they were creating yet another fault line that would trouble the peace of the world a century later.

Today, Pakistan's side of this inhospitable region plays host to Arab and Central Asian fighters from several countries. The Afghan Taliban, heroin smugglers and gunrunners come and go at will. For years, nobody in authority in Pakistan took any notice of these repeated breaches of our sovereignty; no TV talk shows focused on this growing menace; and no angry editorials were written about it. Suddenly, all hell breaks loose because the Americans are saying they might exercise their right of hot pursuit and attack the Taliban in their sanctuaries on our side of the border.

The truth is that we have never really asserted our sovereignty in this region, largely as a result of a fuzzy constitutional arrangement whereby the tribal areas continued to enjoy the same degree of autonomy they had under the British. But having given up control over the area by default, we are now making a big fuss about western forces threatening to do what our government has been unable to do. The fact that their troops are suffering significant casualties as a result of our inability to crack down on the Taliban and their local allies in Pakistan seems to be unimportant to our authorities, as well as much of our public and our media.

This double standard is visible when it comes to casualties in Pakistan: when vicious thugs slaughter hundreds of people through suicide bombings in the name of Islam, there are no public protests, and few denunciations in our media. But when western forces accidentally kill civilians and soldiers in Pakistan, there are angry calls for jihad and threats of retribution.

For poor, illiterate tribesmen to behave in this fashion is understandable, but for educated Pakistanis in major cities to have such unthinking knee-jerk reactions just shows the depth of anti-western sentiment that has come to dominate our mindset. And yet, if those foaming at the mouth over the recent American words and actions over the Taliban threat would pause to draw a deep breath, they would realise that both the West and Pakistan face a common enemy.

Even deeply conservative Pakistanis were shocked at the excesses the Taliban committed in the name of Islam when they were in power. In their heart of hearts, few Pakistanis would welcome Taliban rule here. But because Americans are fighting them, many normally sensible people think the Taliban must be right. In this distorted view, the maxim 'My enemy's enemy is my friend' takes on a new dimension.

However, no matter how much we might oppose and resent American actions in other parts of the world, the fact is that in Afghanistan their cause is just. Their country was attacked by Al Qaeda operating from Afghanistan, and when they demanded that Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants be handed over after 9/11, Mullah Omar and his Taliban government refused. Under similar circumstances, I doubt any other country would have shown restraint and forbearance, especially if they commanded the kind of power the United States does. But in this case, American interests coincide with ours: both face a major threat from terrorist groups operating along the Pak-Afghan border. Therefore, logic and self-interest dictates that we should make common cause with western forces.

What would happen if Nato and American forces were to withdraw from Afghanistan tomorrow? The Taliban would be back in Kabul, and very soon they and their Pakistani friends would be knocking on our gates in Islamabad. Already, Peshawar is under threat. How long before the darkness falls over the rest of the country?

A recent article in The New York Times shows how the authority of the Pakistani state has ebbed in recent years. Near Ziarat in Balochistan, a marble mine had been inactive for years due to a tribal feud. Despite the government's best efforts, no stone was being quarried. However, the Taliban stepped in, enforced a truce, and got the operation going again. They received $45,000 for their trouble, and now get a fee for each loaded truck leaving the mine. The article went on to say how many of the state's functions the Taliban had taken over, including running courts as well as a tax system. And yet I hear nobody complaining about a loss of sovereignty to the Taliban.

Let me be absolutely clear: the Taliban's vision of how we should lead our lives is diametrically opposite mine. And since they do not believe in civilised discourse, they must be opposed by force. Just as I would not like to impose my views and beliefs on anybody, I will not have the Taliban (or anybody else) impose theirs on me. To think that we can make deals with them, as many in Pakistan do, is to live in a fool's paradise.

- irfan.husain@gmail.com

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