MARYAM Nawaz termed it a clash of titans. But the mudslinging among political talk-show hosts that has dominated our TV screens in recent days is far paltrier than that.
Despite the farcical nature of it all, attempts by anchors to clear their names and undermine competitors overshadowed news that Abdul Sattar Edhi is at risk of being abducted by the Taliban in exchange for either a hefty ransom or the release of imprisoned militants, and has thus been provided a 24-hour security detail. (The Taliban have denied any such designs.)
The reality of Pakistan’s most venerable humanitarian needing protection from its most brutal militant group is more sobering than the endlessly televised reiteration of the fact that corruption is rife in every institution and sector, even among those meant to serve as arbiters and watchdogs.
Incidentally, news about the threat against Edhi was not the only overlooked reminder of the other profound challenges facing Pakistan: on Saturday, six people were killed in a bomb attack in Khyber Agency; earlier last week in the same region, three members of the Zakakhel tribe were killed in a car bomb attack.
In South Waziristan, the Pakistani Taliban warned NGO workers that they would be treated as criminals if they kept up their activities and pressurised local residents to leave their homes. In Tirah Valley, the Taliban took control of all Kukikhel areas, consigning members of the tribe to refugee camps. In Kohat, a Pakistan Army soldier was shot dead.
Why bring up these incidents in connection with last week’s on-air dramatics? Corruption and militancy both threaten Pakistan’s stability and progress but in markedly different ways. There is, however, an overlap between these trends that needs to be highlighted.
Until now, the youngsters recruited by the Taliban have primarily been roped in on the basis of anti-West rhetoric, specifically diatribes against the ‘occupation’ of Afghanistan by the US. The intrinsic appeal of this rhetoric, and its continued potential to radicalise Pakistan’s youth, is evident in the numbers: according to the latest Pew Global Attitudes survey, 88 per cent of Pakistanis have an unfavourable view of the US.
Meanwhile, sectarian and other organisations recruit youngsters on a more ideological basis, portraying members of rival Islamic sects and other faiths as infidels and enemies.
As widespread violence and proliferating dogma make Pakistanis more aware of and arrogant about their sectarian identity, this will increasingly prove a ripe basis on which to radicalise young Pakistanis and turn them on the path of intolerance and violence.
But these are not the only bases for radicalisation. In Swat, we saw the Tehrik Nifaz Shariat-i-Muhammadi’s (TNSM) popularity swell — both in the early 1990s and again in the late 2000s — in response to the local population’s basic desires for justice, equity and dignity. The TNSM wisely exploited the valley’s class rifts, targeted greedy landlords and redistributed their lands and wealth amongst peasants.
As such, the TNSM’s activities were a continuation of a long history of peasant mobilisation in the region; in the 1970s, too, peasant agitations against landlords were brutally suppressed. That history of stifling inequity, delayed justice and social exclusion — rather than ideology or prejudice — made the residents of Swat amenable to a TNSM takeover.
Similar demands for equity and justice are simmering in the population at large, particularly among the burgeoning youth demographic. In recent years, those demands found an outlet in the unprecedented lawyers’ movement and in the growth and success of the media industry.
Those inspired to hold military dictators and corrupt politicians accountable for their misdeeds participated in the long march for the restoration of the chief justice or became members of the fourth estate, which witnessed a significant drop in average age from 47 to 23 between 2002-10.
These outlets helped cultivate an appetite for democracy and inclusion —according to the Pew poll cited above, the number of Pakistanis who like the idea of democracy has increased from six per cent in 2007 to 11 per cent in 2012.
Here’s where last week’s media shenanigans and the persistence of militancy connect. As the pillars of a democratic Pakistani state — the media, judiciary, civilian government and army — appear increasingly compromised, whether as a result of outright corruption or complicity, the public demand for equity and justice will gather momentum.
A narrative that highlights the venality of the political, judicial and journalistic classes and corroborates demands for justice could compellingly be used to recruit young Pakistanis for all manner of anti-democratic causes, whether Taliban-style militancy or other radical and violent means.
In other parts of the world, disillusionment with the powers that be often translates into political action for change and betterment. Given Pakistan’s sordid history, the chances of that happening are weak.
Pakistanis still expect change to be enacted by saviour-like individuals; owing to decades of military rule, we do not believe in processes or institutions (as an aside, it is the very weakness of our institutions that has allowed personal accusations against individuals to unleash the kind of mayhem witnessed during ‘memogate’, ‘familygate’ and ‘anchorgate’).
In other words, as journalists, judges and politicians try to justify their dealings, they should realise that there is more at stake than their professional reputations. Pakistani society is fractured, fragile and in flux. The poor judgment of its empowered — and once trusted and respected — elite should not forever consign it to the wrong trajectory.
The writer is a freelance contributor.