We grieved as a nation when Benazir Bhutto was murdered. We grieved again when Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was assassinated by his own guard. We wept when Shahbaz Bhatti, the first Christian federal minister in Pakistan, was brutally gunned down.
On July 6, Farida Afridi, a women’s-rights activist and cofounder of Sawera, was brutally murdered, shot by militants while on her way to work.
And, now we are a nation rent with the pain of a 14-year-old girl, attacked for daring to seek an education against the edict of terrorists.
Malala Yousafzai was and is an extraordinary child. Brilliant, brave, and single-minded. During the worst days that Swat had seen, under occupation by the Taliban, Malala found the strength to write a diary for BBC Urdu, which showed Pakistanis and the world what life under the ruthless religious zealots was like.
She lived every day as it were her last. Fired with passion and commitment and love of her homeland. Her family was offered security several times, but her father, an eminent and respected figure in Swat, refused. Brave.
But did the nation as a whole really grieve? Have Pakistanis grasped the significance of the attack on Malala beyond sympathy for a brave child? Did political leaders, religious clerics, civil society, and media stars march in the streets against the Taliban as they fashionably do against the government or the world’s superpower? No. Did millions or even thousands join them? No.
If the reason for not condemning the Taliban is fear, as a cricketer-turned-politician hinted in a TV interview, one must wonder why the fear of the Taliban is greater than that of the international community, the state, or the government. Is it fear or a lack of will that stops the influential from naming the Taliban as the greatest threat to humanity?
The reality of Pakistan today is that we are a nation and a people slowly consumed by the forces of hate, unwilling to recognize the enemy and to take a unified stand. From those who deem the medieval mind of the Taliban a strategic asset for influence in Afghanistan to those who hope to rise to power on a wave of extreme religious passions, no one wants to confront the hateful ideology of bigots head-on.
The majority of Pakistanis are shocked and depressed over young Malala’s battle for life just as they were with the murder of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and with Salmaan Taseer’s death. But sorrow must be converted into promise and hope.
The false narrative of conspiracy theorists on Pakistani cable news channels must be rebutted. Malala’s attackers and their ideological kin across the border in Afghanistan who attack girls’ schools are violent and hateful misogynists. Those who cast their ideology as jihad or even as a response to international politics are just acting as apologists.
The liberals and the intelligentsia in Pakistan have been impressive through these difficult days. On electronic media and in print, on social media—primarily Twitter and Facebook—they have named and shamed the Taliban. But the battle needs more than online warriors.
The PPP chairman, 24-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, had the courage to condemn the Taliban by name, as did Altaf Hussain, the leader of the urban-secular MQM. At least 50 Islamic scholars from the Sunni Barelvi school belonging to Sunni Ittehad Council on Thursday declared the attack as “un-Islamic.” There is need to build on these proclamations and mobilize public opinion against the Taliban’s barbarism.
The space for pluralism in Pakistan has been shrinking for some time. One by one, the extremist groups and their apologists have eliminated the leaders who stood up either through violent means or by utilizing the machinations of the establishment.
The message has been clear for some time. Do not criticize the military or the militants. Minorities in our societies have become the “other”—less human and almost untouchable. There has been systematic elimination of the Ahmaddiya, of Shia Muslims, of Christians and Hindus, and of many moderate and liberal voices.
The groups loosely allied with the Pakistani Taliban are carrying out this genocide. Yet, these murderers and religious cleansers are often released on bail by the courts. Time and time again we watch them freely addressing public rallies, spewing hate and venom without any action being taken.
The time for appeasement is long gone. This is an internal struggle for Pakistan and its soul. A multidimensional ideological battle needs to be waged and it needs national leadership. The evil of bigotry and religious hate needs to be confronted. There is no longer time or space for leading from behind.