December 16 is now etched in our national consciousness, for a reason other than the fall of Dhaka in 1971. On that fateful day last year, the Taliban massacred 144 school children and teachers in Peshawar, compelling a fierce national consensus to eliminate all extremists and terrorists regardless of caste, creed or ethnicity.
Before December 16, 2015, the national security establishment and political leaders like Imran Khan (PTI), Munawar Hasan (JI), Maulana Fazal ur Rahman (JUI), etc, liked to make a distinction between “good” Taliban and “bad” Taliban. Others said the Taliban were “misguided Muslims” who should be talked back onto the true path. Some, like Munawar Hasan, went so far as to say that they were “soldiers of Islam” fighting a “jihad” against infidels at home and abroad and were therefore entitled to become “shaheeds” (martyrs) when they fell in battle, even against the Pakistan army defending the motherland. All the while, the good and bad Taliban went on killing soldiers and civilians alike until the death toll from their assassinations and bombs and suicide missions exceeded 40,000 in five years. December 16, 2014, changed this narrative. For now, the only good Taliban are dead Taliban.
Pakistan’s destiny is finally changing in perceptible ways. A 20-point National Action Plan was cobbled last year by the civil-military leadership of the country that posits terrorism as an “existential” threat to state and society. The anti-terrorist operation Zarb-e-Azb has been beefed up. The TTP has been degraded and scattered. Once-friendly TTP leaders like Khan Sajna and Hafiz Gul Bahadur have been killed or expelled across the border. Breakaway TTP factions like the Jamaat ul Ahrar and Sheharyar Masud Group are on the run. The death penalty is back as a deterrent. Nearly 200 have been executed to date. Eleven military courts for speedy justice have been sanctioned constitutionally. They have ordered executions in 27 out of the 150 terrorism cases on trail. Sectarianism is being targeted through “police encounters”. The top leaders of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jammat like Malik Ishaq, his two sons-lieutenants, plus Usman Saifullah and Haroon Bhatti have been eliminated. Sectarian incidents across the country have fallen by 50% and in Balochistan by 75%. The ASWJ has not been allowed to hold any hate-mongering “conferences” in the last six months. Preachers and publishers of subversive material are being arrested, especially in their strongholds in southern Punjab. Notorious seminaries and mosques are being monitored. PEMRA has advised the media not to publicize men and materials of 60 banned “terrorist” outfits and their affiliates. The Supreme Court has upheld the death penalty of Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed killer of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, and the President of Pakistan has rejected his mercy petition.
Significantly, too, there is a shift in the stance of the civil-military leadership in critical areas of foreign policy. Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Muslim bloc are no longer sacred cows to be followed blindly. It isn’t lost on anyone that they are the most relentless and ruthless exporters of extremist versions of Islam into Pakistan. The government has refused to join forces with them in the war in Yemen. Now it is raising eyebrows following the Saudi announcement of a 34 Sunni Muslim country coalition, in which Pakistan’s name is listed, to prosecute war against IS in the Middle East. The government is also acting against the recruitment of Islamists in southern Punjab for IS in the Middle East.
Particularly noteworthy is a recent statement by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in which he exhorts the nation to develop a “liberal” and democratic outlook and order. “Liberal” in Urdu translation has come to mean “azad khayali” or “free thought” which in turn implies some sort of Western-Modernist secular immorality. This is akin to the Urdu translation of “secular” as “ladeen” or “without religion and faith”. Both terms have been deliberately fashioned by Islamists and right wing ideologues to deny the growth of a vibrant pluralistic (liberal) secular nationhood in which a citizen’s caste, creed or faith is not the business of the state, as enjoined by Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
Mr Sharif’s recent formulation of Pakistan as a “liberal’ state is very welcome. It a far cry from the Islamist-Jihadist state propagated by politco-religious ideologues since the time of General Zia ul Haq, and seeks to build on the “enlightened moderation” philosophy of General Pervez Musharraf.
To be sure, much more lasting institutional change is required to protect Pakistan against the ravages of extremism that have taken root in the last three decades. Critically, the singular ideological-religious state narrative has to be revoked in the country’s schools. Mosques have to be regulated and restrained from propagating sectarian strife. Foreign funding for extremism has to be plugged. And so on.
But a concrete beginning has been made. The tragedy of December 16, 2015, must not be allowed to go in vain. The dismal fate of Pakistan must be transformed into a bright destiny for the country and all its generations to come.