By Nadeem F. Paracha
After enjoying a little more than two years of relative peace, Karachi was rudely dragged back on the mutilated map of terror today [yesterday]. A single suicide bomber managed to slip his dynamite strapped body inside a large procession of Shia mourners on Karachi’s M A Jinnah Road and blow himself up, killing and injuring dozens of innocent people, including some security men who were patrolling the fringes of the procession.
The attack has come as a rude shock to the citizens of Karachi and the Sindh province who had been witnessing horrific scenes of similar carnage perpetrated by extremists in the mosques and markets of Punjab and NWFP, and had, for the last couple of years, been somewhat spared from the madness that the terrorists have been displaying in the country, especially ever since 2003. Although the Taliban have yet to claim responsibility for the attack – and given Karachi’s history, the attacker may well hail from one of the banned sectarian outfits that have long been established in the city – many believe that there is no longer any point in making distinctions between different extremist groups. Citizens, meanwhile, are concerned that this attack marks the beginning of a wave of violence as witnessed in other parts of the country.
Karachi’s and Sindh’s case in this respect is a tad different where the government is being run by three of Pakistan’s leading ‘secular’ and openly anti-Taliban parties, the PPP, the MQM and the ANP.
Even though these three parties are also allies in the centre, the dynamics of this alliance in Sindh have been a lot more effective in building a consensus against the Taliban, something the federal government and the parliamentarian opposition parties have taken a lot more time and effort to do.
Karachi’s vastly diverse ethnic and sectarian make-up, and the Sufi shrine culture that dominates the rest of Sindh’s social polity have largely managed to repulse forces which, ever since General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship in the 1980s, have been trying to violently impose their brand of Islam in the country. There is however, still some disagreement between the allied parties as to what exactly constitutes ‘Talibanisation,’ especially in Karachi’s case.
So far, only the MQM has directly accused the Taliban for every major terrorist attack that has taken place in the country in the last five years, whereas their allied secular contemporaries, the PPP and the ANP, have largely been vague in their denunciations, usually coupling their condemnation of the Taliban with the now worn-out mantra of a ‘foreign hand.’
But with the unprecedented rise in terrorist attacks in the Frontier province, and with most of these attacks claimed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP), the ANP too has started to come down hard on directly blaming the Taliban.
And in spite of the fact that only a year ago both the PPP and the ANP in Sindh were downplaying MQM’s warnings of ‘Talibanisation’ taking place in Karachi, today right after the suicide attack in the city, senior ANP leader, Senator Haji Adeel, echoed MQM chief Altaf Hussain’s direct condemnation of the Taliban, also agreeing with Mr Hussain’s plea to boycott those political parties and personalities who are believed to be supporting the Taliban and their intransigent mentality.
To an outsider, and in fact, to many Karachittes as well, the whole idea of certain mainstream political parties and personnel actually mouthing both direct and indirect support for the Taliban is an intriguing phenomenon – especially in these hours of utter carnage and inhumanity being exhibited by the militant sections of extremist thought in the country.
Even though Gallup and other opinion polls on the issue of terrorism and the Taliban in Pakistan have shown a steady decline in support among Pakistanis for terrorist outfits such as the Taliban and the Al Qaeda, the bulk of this disapproval for terrorist organisations has come from Karachiites.
Meanwhile, it seems the people of the Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and influential province, have somewhat struggled a bit to come out directly against the Taliban, despite, recently, the province being a constant target of Taliban suicide and bomb attacks. What’s more, this curious ambiguity regarding the Taliban found in the province is also reflected by the province’s government being led by Pakistan’s second largest political party, the PML-N.
The PML-N has been rather indistinct and dispassionate about directly confronting or condemning the Taliban who have proudly taken the ownership of a number of suicide attacks in the mosques and markets of the province.
Some analysts believe that the PML-N being (an albeit moderate) right-wing party many of whose supporters come from the religiously conservative petty-bourgeois sections of the Punjab, is still not quite sure exactly where the sympathies of this constituency lie regarding the Taliban.
It is true that ever since the Ziaul Haq dictatorship, Punjab’s urban petty-bourgeoisie played an important economic and supportive role in helping the reactionary general keep much of the Punjab on the side of his so-called ‘Islamisation’ policies. But with the way the Taliban have struck at the economic and social heart of the province, it can be deducted that much of the indirect support a number of extremist organisations were getting from Punjab’s petty-bourgeoisie, has started to erode.
Condemning the Karachi attack, MQM chief Altaf Hussain, whose party has been triumphing in the electoral politics of the city ever since 1988, called the perpetrators of the devastating attack as ‘Yazids’ and once again advised Karachiites to boycott those parties whom he believes are sympathising with the Taliban cause. As mentioned above, ANP too has now criticised these parties, accusing them of encouraging the Talibans’ barbaric ways and agenda.
But who are these parties?
MQM has been highly critical of mainstream right-wing parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami whose leadership has been in the forefront of popularising the notion that the Taliban are actually ‘freedom fighters’ (against ‘US imperialism’ in the region), and those who are attacking the civilians of Pakistan through bomb and suicide attacks are not Taliban but the ‘paid agents of anti-Islam forces.’
The Jamaat was highly instrumental in helping shape Ziaul Haq’s ‘jihad’ against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan (in the 1980s). It was a jihad built from the billions of dollars worth of aid that the Zia dictatorship received from the US (and Saudi Arabia). There were also reported cases of Jamaat members attacking pro-Soviet student rallies in certain colleges during that war in which to protest against American intervention in Afghanistan, pro-left students were pounced upon by the Jamat’s student-wing, the IJT, for burning the American flag.
However, in the last ten years or so, the Jamat has become one of the loudest exponents of anti-Americanism in Pakistan, even though it has rapidly been losing its electoral influence across Pakistan ever since the mid-1980s, especially in Karachi and Sindh.
ANP too has been castigating the Jamaat for showing ‘double standards,’ with one senior ANP leader, Mian Iftikhar, explaining the Jamaat’s anti-Americanism as something that emerged after the Jamaat lost its central role in Afghanistan (after Zia’s death in 1988), and when American dollars were diverted from jihadi organisations that the Jamaat was patronising, towards the post-Cold War security agencies that are now fighting against Frankenstein monsters such as the Taliban.
Parties such as the PPP, MQM and the ANP who have been exhibiting concern over the issue of certain Pakistani political parties indulging in populist anti-US rhetoric, have found it hard to build a more cohesive consensus, especially in the Punjab, for the Pakistan Army’s war against the Taliban.
It is interesting to note, that though parties such as the Jamat-i-Islami and Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaaf have largely been ineffectual players in the bigger game of electoral politics, they have however managed to take their stance of the war and the Taliban on the mainstream platform through the electronic media.
Thus, the mainstream electronic media too has come under fire from the allied ruling parties for constantly giving vent to the ‘pro-Taliban’ and populist sentiments of unelected politicians and certain conservative journalists and columnists who – even after dozens of suicide attacks owned up by the Taliban recently – have continued to point the finger towards the US and India.
Even the large amount of proof now available to point towards the direct involvement of the local Taliban in the terrorist attacks in Pakistan it seems has not been able to make these politicians, and electronic and print journalists, change their populist and largely demagogic stand on the issue.
The Pakistan Army is locked in a deadly battle with the Taliban in the north-west of the country. But what makes the return of extremist terrorism significant in Karachi is the fact that it is in this bustling, dynamic and diverse metropolis that the social and cultural battle against fanatic thought in the country is likely to be fought.
It can be said that it is the vast ethnic and sectarian diversity of Karachi associated with the economics, sociology and politics of the city that has kept Karachi significantly more moderate and secular in outlook than the rest of the country, despite of the many puritanical madressas here that were constructed here by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship with Saudi help to recruit and indoctrinate young Pakistanis for the so-called anti-Soviet Afghan jihad.
Though it can also be suggested Karachi’s social polity has so far won the social and cultural battle against extremist thought, there is however every likelihood that if the Taliban and their clandestine sectarian partners now decide to make Karachi their next main target, the city’s response will be somewhat different than what it has been elsewhere in the country.
Karachi has had a volatile history of street battles and of living through near-civil-war conditions (between 1986 and 1999). All the major political parties in the city are heavily armed. But the difference this time is that the PPP, ANP and MQM who have all been involved in street battles fought with sophisticated arms in the past, have in the last two years exhibited a commendable show of co-ordination and mutual empathy in the face of the Taliban threat in the city.
If the going gets worse in Karachi as far as extremist attacks are concerned, this may as well see all three parties willing to pick up arms to fight a common enemy that is now seen hell-bent on destroying the economic and political interests of these parties’ respective constituencies in the city. These constituencies are the most vital pieces of economic and political real state for political parties operating in an economic hub like Karachi.
This article was published in Dawn