Malala, Education, Drones & a Deluded Civilian Leadership

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“Read – for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught man the use of the pen – taught man what he did not know.”  These were the first verses of the Quran revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in a remote mountain cave near Mecca more than 1400 years ago.

The significance of the revelation is that of all the living beings it is only the human race that is gifted with the ability to read and write.  This has enabled man to preserve his experiences, observations, thoughts and insights as written records that are transmitted from individual to individual, from civilization to civilization and from generation to generation.  It is knowledge thus acquired that is the driving force in the story of the ascent of man.

But Muslims have not heeded the injunctions of their own religion and have been left far behind.  A recent survey shows that in the entire Islamic world there are only 57 universities of international standing while India alone has as many as 8,460.

The report “The State of Pakistan’s Children 2012,” released by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, confirmed some gruesome statistics, for instance: in Pakistan the startling reality is that 25 million children are out of school, 12 million have been compelled by circumstances to join the labour force and no less than 618 infants die every single day.

An overwhelming majority of Pakistanis live in the voiceless world of pain.  Their sunless existence is spent in fetid hovels as they struggle to put bread on the table for their families.  Many take their own lives.  Others become vulnerable to the poisonous extremist ideology and join violent outfits such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

It was this ideology – based as it is on distortions of Islamic tenets – thatMalalaYousafzai was targeting when she told her transfixed audience at the UN, “The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them.  They are afraid of women.  The power of the voice of women frightens them.  One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.  Education is the only solution.  Education first!”  These were the words with which the sixteen year child concluded her speech and was given a standing ovation – an honour no other person from her country has received.  The implication of these words was that the extremist mindset can only be overcome through the acquisition of knowledge.  Millions worldwide listened with rapt attention to the youngest nominee ever for the Nobel Peace Prize and enthusiastically endorsed all that she had to say.  Her only critics were in her own country.

On social media she was referred to as “MalalaDramazai” and the assassination attempt on her was brushed aside as contrived and orchestrated by the west.  On Facebook and Twitter she was pilloried for not condemning drone strikes.  Posters of Malala and Mukhtaran Mai with crosses on their faces were circulated and both were accused of publicizing their hideous ordeals for no higher motive than to acquire vast fortunes, fame and asylum abroad.

Malala’s critics may only be an insignificant segment of society consisting of those in the habit of uttering inane moral platitudes, but the damage they have done to the image of the country is huge.  Such people are the unwitting ideologues of violent extremist outfits.  The problem, however, is much deeper because several mainstream political parties either want to placate the TTP and its affiliates or, even worse, are sympathetic to their cause.

In the context of Malala’s UN address the best that the chief minister of Punjab MianShahbaz Sharif could do was to grudgingly concede on twitter, “Good speech by Malala! Could have been better – seemed to be written for global consumption.” But the Chief Minister’s own statement a few months back was neither fit for domestic nor for “global consumption” when he publicly appealed to the TTP to spare Punjab from suicide bombings and other forms of terrorist violence because the basic objective of the PML-N and the outlawed group were one and the same.

Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), which has now formed government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is even more marred by false ideals.  On June 21 when a suicide bomber killed 14 people at a Shia imambargah in Peshawar, the PTI provincial information minister callously described the carnage as “just a bomb blast and not the end of the world.”  His colleague, the finance minister, chimed in that everyone between the ages of 18 and 35 should undergo military training for jihad.  The entire party seems to have been infected by the virus of extremist ideology and this was again on display last month when a PTI member of the National Assembly, called for the “immediate” release of MumtazQadri, the assassin of Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer.

After Malala was shot, Imran Khan repeated his usual refrain that all such acts of violence were prompted by drone attacks.  This is not corroborated by verifiable evidence.  Drone operations started with the consent of the Pakistan Government on 18 June 2004.  There were only ten strikes till 31 December 2007.  After this there was a steady increase till it peaked at 97 in 2010 which became known as “the year of the drones.”  From there on there was a downward trend with 53 hits in 2011 which fell further to 32 in 2012 and, dropped to merely 14 in the first six months of this year.

The inescapable truth that emerges from these statistics is that drone strikes are directly proportional to the level of perceived or actual threat from the terrorist groups ensconced in the tribal areas of Pakistan and, contrary to Imran Khan’s analysis, all terrorist outrages are not prompted by drone attacks. Terrorist violence commenced more than two decades earlier.  Some of the major incidents include the devastating bomb explosion in Karachi’s Bohri Bazaar in 1987 which killed more than 200 people;  the FIA centre in the same city was blasted in 1991; the US consulate was bombed in February 2002 followed by the Karachi Sheraton a month later.

In the north, Maulana Sufi Mohammad started his attacks in Swat way back in 1994 and by 2003 the district was occupied by his son –in-law Mullah Fazlullah, which triggered military action the following year.  But “the Taliban came right back in Swat, after one of the many misconceived ‘peace’ deals,” said an analyst who writes a weekly column for a Lahore-based newspaper.  The situation was no different in the tribal areas where MangalBagh overran the Khyber Agency and then launched a spate of vicious attacks on Peshawar in early 2004 – months before the first drone attack.

More recently, June of this year, the month that Nawaz Sharif was sworn in as the prime minister, has been a particularly blood-drenched month.  It ended with the ruthless slaughter of 28 Shia men, women and children in Quetta accompanied by the slaughter of 18 people near Peshawar.  The dreadful tempo of violence has continued unabated.

Despite this, Nawaz Sharif is determined to initiate talks with the TTP and will soon convene an all parties conference which is expected to establish a working group for this purpose.  Such APCs have been held before and the recommendations of these high profile events have invariably been built around initiatives aimed at reconciliation with those who refuse to be reconciled.

The army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is more of a realist.  He is convinced that the war against terrorism is Pakistan’s war and has stated on three different occasions in the last thirteen months that the gravest threat to the country’s security is internal.  But the civilian leadership continues to delude itself into believing that the Al-Qaeda mentored TTP can be persuaded to agree to a peace deal through negotiations.