Pakistan has a unique relationship with terrorism: It is safe ground for terrorist training and offensives, it is a regular victim of terrorism, and, at the same time, it is a state that is perceived as an apologist and a justifier of terrorism. Pakistan’s complicated struggle with jihadists is no clearer than now in the aftermath of the Taliban school massacre in Peshawar that killed more than 130 children.
It is not the right time, some may argue, to point fingers at the Pakistani army and intelligence agencies, which for years have had connections with and even supported the same jihadist elements that carried out the attack. After all, most of the children who were killed in the Peshawar attack by the Taliban were presumably from military families. Some would insist that tragedies like this one should convince the world that the Pakistani army is paying a heavy price for its engagement in an operation against the Taliban – a Taliban spokesman confirmed that the attack was meant to avenge an ongoing operation against them in the country’s tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
The core problem with the army’s commitment to the fight against the Taliban is that not everyone in the ranks of the armed forces is fully convinced that this is Pakistan’s war. The soldiers are not fully motivated to fight this war because they believe that their bosses are killing “fellow Muslim brothers” on the instructions of the Americans, while the real decision-makers in the army and the intelligence agencies believe that absolute abandonment of the jihadist ideology may lead to catastrophic consequences for Pakistan’s long-term interests in Afghanistan and the disputed territory of Kashmir.
In other words, the Pakistani military strategists refuse to concede that they have lost control over the jihadists. Meanwhile, the architects of the pro-jihad policy suffer from an overconfidence syndrome and mistakenly believe that they are still fully capable of shutting down the jihadist franchise whenever they wish to do so. If that is true, then, according to the army’s standards, the Peshawar attack is not the worst that could happen.
Tragedies like the Peshawar school massacre need explanation but they do not get clear answers because their aftermath is heavily dominated by emotions. But a grand tragedy as big as the Peshawar carnage does provide the Pakistani government with a unique opportunity for self-reflection. Seen from past experience, such as the high profile shooting of the pro-education teenage campaigner Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban, the Pakistanis have missed opportunity after opportunity.
Not only are there too many distractions that always deflect attention from an earnest national debate about sincerely fighting the Taliban, there are powerful pressure groups, such as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, a right-wing party led by former cricketer Imran Khan. People like Khan, an ardent supporter of Pakistan’s negotiations with the Taliban, are highly influential in confusing the Pakistani masses, especially young people, about whether the Taliban deserve political accommodation or whether they should be eliminated. Khan and his supporters might be correct that military operations cannot solely resolve the Taliban challenge. However, Khan’s rise has taken Pakistan’s Taliban challenge to a more advanced or possibly even irreversible level where, for the first time, the Taliban have strong political supporters and defendants in mainstream politics.
The war on terror and the continued Taliban slaughter of Pakistani citizens have given birth to an educated yet highly nationalistic and confrontational youth. While they do not endorse the senseless Taliban killings of innocent citizens, they are also weary of the Western media’s reporting of these incidents. These young Pakistanis are highly agitated about their country’s depiction in foreign media outlets. I often attend events where Pakistani exchange students and visitors speak to American audiences. There is a unanimous plea in their presentations: We are not terrorists. I empathize with them but I also strongly believe Pakistanis should have brutally honest conversations about the role of Islam and Islamic religious schools in promoting these violent ideologies. Pakistan truly has a problem with Islam and it needs to be addressed.
Islamic scholars like Reza Aslan consistently argue that Islam is too diverse a religion and it is unfair to blame all Muslims for the actions of some terrorists who happen to be Muslim. If one is to agree with Aslan’s point that Islam is too diverse then we should also agree that there is something wrong with the Islam of Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. The Muslims in these countries will only inflict more pain and loss on their people if they do not start a debate about the role of Islam in their societies and how it serves as an umbrella to protect all kinds of criminal activities.
After all, in countries like Pakistan, there is a widespread support base for jihadists in the name of Islam. They are allowed to publicly collect charity for their operations and have a sophisticated infrastructure to train new recruits.
Last month, Syed Munawar Hassan, the former head of Pakistan’s largest Islamic party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, publicly called for “armed fighting for the sake of Allah.” Strangely, Pakistan has taken no action against such brazen promoters of violence among the general public. Some of the worst jihadist and sectarian demagogues, including Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the deadly terrorist attack on a Mumbai hotel, easily find airtime on the country’s top news channels.
With so much tolerance and immunity offered to hate-speech makers and inciters of violence within Pakistan’s political, social, and media circles, there is barely anything the international community can do while Pakistan fights the worst battle it has faced since its inception in 1947. There are no external solutions to end religious extremism. It is a battle the Pakistani government and the people have to own, fight, and win.
The Peshawar school attack makes clear that Islamabad not neither defeated the Taliban, nor are they going anywhere in the foreseeable future. The world, particularly Pakistan’s neighbors, should watch to see how Pakistan responds to the attack. Pakistan’s inaction or failure to fight radical Islam should genuinely worry Afghanistan, India, China and Iran – all neighbors of Pakistan who are dealing with Islamist movements of varying degrees.
Malik Siraj Akbar is an Edward Mason Fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Twitter: @MalikSirajAkbar