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Mass hysteria over cartoons

On the call of the religious and other political parties, processions came out in Peshawar, on the 15th of Feb to protest against the insult to the dignity of the Prophet (PBUH) by the wretched cartoons. They began peacefully, but when they ended public property worth millions had been either burnt or destroyed. Looting was witnessed. The following establishments became the target of this senseless hysteria. The KFC outlet (USA), showroom of Honda and Toyota Motor Company (Japan), arson and torching of the Daewoo transport company including 18 buses (Korea), burning of two cinemas (Pak), destruction of Telenor outlets (Norway & Pak), Shops selling cosmetics (Pak), fronts of many organizations, banks, shops and restaurants (Pak), damage to cars and vehicles belonging to citizens, randomized violence against citizens.

The following other features were noted in this senseless episode. There was a complete break down of the maintenance of law and order apparatus of the government. The state abjectly failed to protect the lives and property of its citizens. The police was overwhelmed and became a passive by-stander; their tear gas guns pointing to the ground reflected their surrender and inability to re-act. The NWFP government did not take the preventive steps normally taken in such circumstances. They include preventive detentions and imposition of procession re-straining orders under section 144 of the criminal procedure code.      Most of the processions included representatives of the much touted elected officials of local government, who are considered the natural lobby of Gen. Musharraf; they proved by their conduct they are not. It is now apparent that the much publicised experiment of the government abolishing the civil service and executive magistracy managing the regulatory side of implementing laws in the districts of the country, has been a singular failure; it is another matter that the government for political reason, refuses to accept this blunder, which has jeopardized the lives and property of so many of its citizens. It is predicted that this decision will come home to roost and haunt the government in the days to come.

            No case of arson and looting has been registered and a few random arrests have been made for the massive damage caused by the crowd – let me also place on record the contradiction between the duty of government to protect its citizen and its call to the religious seminarists to send their students to take part in processions. I have seen young rural students breaking away from processions and attacking cars and property; were they asked to do so? Is it part of a larger scheme of things yet to happen?

            This madness is supposedly meant to portray our anger at the publication of cartoons against the dignity of the Prophet. The religious parties state that they will continue to organize such protests till the government condemns the act; I am at a loss to understand. Both the President and the Prime Minister have already done so on numerous occasions. Then what is at the back of this agitation? I think the following issues are the real cause;

–          One of the serious cause of social discontent in this province and the rest of Pakistan is the rising unemployment and the failure of the state to provide a security net in the field of health and education. Skill and vocational training is minimal. Youth have no work and no future. They cannot move on in life; raise families or have children; it is a biological and a social nightmare. The cartoons acted as a spray of inflammable vapour to bring the discontent to surface.

–          The opposition has proven to the President, that unless he reaches a consensus with them on how to manage the state, he will be challenged and embarrassed at every turn.

–          Look at events in other parts of Pakistan; there is insurgency in Baluchistan and in Waziristan. Recently, three Chinese engineers were murdered in Baluchistan and this happened in the back ground of the President’s visit to China starting on the 19th of this month. Prior to it Chinese working on the Gomal dam were kidnapped by the Waziristan militants; one died during rescue.

–          Army and para military are under daily attack in North and South Waziristan. The militants have assassinated many tribal elders who supported the government. The Tochi valley in North Waziristan has been vacated, because of the failure of the state to protect the normal tribesmen. The territory has been left to the lawless to manage.

–          The system of tribal administration in the volatile Waziristan has collapsed because of army take over of the normal political system of management of the tribes.

–          Large urban areas like Wana and Miramshah towns in Waziristan have been taken over by those who identify themselves as Talibans; they are not the same as the political Talibans, who ruled Afghanistan, but youthful imitation composed of disaffected and unemployed youth, who copy them. After their removal by the US, the Afghan Taliban and their tribal supporters have emerged as role models in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The unemployment in tribal areas, around the horrendous 50% mark if not more, adds markedly to this discontent.

–          Simultaneously, we have been naive in the destruction of the control mechanisms handling the tribal areas, on the grounds that it was not progressive. The administrative principle and structures in tribal areas  have been damaged by constant tinkering. If this is not a recipe for impending chaos, then what is? Soon the adjacent districts of Tank and D.I. Khan will come under the sway of the same forces. Let us not forget, that most of the militants and former Talibans received their religious training and education in Madrassahs in this region. So their supporting networks exist. This becomes even more striking in the context of a religious coalition managing the NWFP with close affinities to the same Madrassahs.

–          In March, Mr. Bush is likely to visit Pakistan. The opposition will now surely try to embarrass President Musharraf for the same reason of not reaching a political settlement with them on constitutional and other state policies.

–          All these factors jeopardize Pakistan’s efforts to attract foreign investment. It is a truism that there can be no development with out peace and harmony in society. The present Pakistan shows neither.

–          Let us factor in some other matters. 2007 is going to be the election year in Pakistan. The religious right will use the present momentum of agitation as an instrument of mobilization. I predict a greater % of votes for the religious parties in the next elections, unless the political chess board is re-configured. The reason is that the state has failed to provide employment and adequate social services. On the other hand the Islamists have done a better job in providing a rising level of social services. Look at their excellent contribution during the earthquake. Secondly, there is a decline of trust in any government structure. It is considered self serving and corrupt. Both of these factors have contributed to the revival of the right. In its short sightedness the government of Musharraf has helped to bring this about.

–           In a society where hope is dying, people take recourse to faith. Evangelist Islamic activity has picked up remarkably in the country. Islamists are now operating in a much more coordinated manner both inside Pakistan and internationally. They are creating political space rapidly. Should this be through violence or example? Our Prophet preached the power of conduct and example rather than force.  Both Osama and Bush’s war on terror have contributed for the revival of Islamic identity.

–          Whether through design or the compulsions of political survival, political space has been reserved for the religious parties and they are enjoying a 24 stroke handicap in this political game of golf; both the mainstream political parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League are personally disliked by General Musharraf and ousted from the political arena; this is why Musharraf is often charged by some for being a supporter of the religious right. The President may realize one day that his safety lies with the mainstream political forces.

By our destructive agitation we have not done anything against the cartoonists but have destroyed the livelihoods of fellow Pakistanis. We may have sent wrong signals to foreign investors. We have spoiled our face by cutting our nose. I think we have shown that collectively we are devoid of common sense and a sense of reality. These are signs of collective madness and mass hysteria. President Musharraf must think hard and fast or he will lose the initiative as a leader. We are in a nose dive if we don’t pull out we will surely crash. That may not augur well for Pakistan.

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