Paradigm shift

The Peshawar attack has sparked an unprecedented national debate on terrorism

Paradigm shift
Qalandar is a taxi driver from Islamabad, and belongs squarely to the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. He is uneducated, unskilled, and barely gets by with his taxi earnings. On Friday, January 16, he took out time from his daily routine to attend a protest held in Islamabad to commemorate the one-month anniversary of the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. “Taliban! The cruel! (Taliban! Zaliman!)”, he shouted with the crowd, a solitary tear streaming down his face.

The attack on schoolchildren in Peshawar is the most tragic, brazen and horrendous act of terrorism Pakistan has witnessed, and its aftershocks can be sensed resonating through citizens and rulers alike. On the one-month anniversary of the attack that left 141 dead, including 132 children, commemoration protests were held in Pakistan and around the world. Civil society gathered in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Dera Allahyar, Bahawapur, Faisalabad, Jhelum, Peshawar, Quetta, Hyderabad, as well as London, York, New York, Boston, Washington DC, Dallas, Los Angeles, Houston, Toronto, Nairobi, Perth, and Berlin, at 6 pm local time, to mark the anniversary.

In the federal capital Islamabad, hundreds gathered at the Aabpara Market intersection in sector G6, shouting anti-Taliban slogans, and bewailing the loss of the departed. Several speakers addressed the crowd, touching upon a variety of themes in the long, sordid history of the conflicts that besiege daily life in Pakistan today. These included members of the Hazara community, human, especially minority rights activists and leaders, and even the father of Shama, one of two Christians brutally murdered in a blasphemy-related incident in Kot Radha Kishan in the Punjab on November 4, 2014.

“I have four children,” says Qalandar. “I can’t imagine losing one of them. [In Peshawar] we lost hundreds. Every time I see their faces on the television, I think of my own. How could they do this? How could they murder little children like dogs in the street?”

Protest organizers placed over 141 coffins in the middle of the crowd to signify the loss. Of these, 131 were of the teachers and students massacred at the Army Public School in Peshawar. The coffin of slain principal Tahira Qazi was in the center, surrounded those of her students. Each coffin had the names of those killed, and a number counting up to 141. Also present were coffins for Salmaan Taseer, former governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, former federal minister for Minority Affairs. Both were assassinated for their stance on bolstering and safeguarding minority rights. The coffins of the slain couple from Kot Radha Kishan were also present, along with Aitzaz Husain, the young boy from Hangu who gave the ultimate sacrifice tackling a would-be suicide bomber to save the lives of hundreds of his schoolmates, and Lieutenant Colonel Haroon Islam, one of the soldiers killed during the Red Mosque operation in July, 2007.
"We have made many mistakes"

The crowd also chanted slogans in support of the military and Operation Zarb-e-Azb, currently being conducted to bring the North Waziristan Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas under government control. The government’s ineptitude, on the other hand, was universally condemned and denounced.

The organizers vowed to return every month until the government takes steps to systematically stamp out terrorism, its proponents and sympathizers, including bringing those responsible for the attacks in Peshawar to justice.

Asked if he is scared to attend rallies that both the Taliban and Mulana Abdul Aziz – cleric of the infamous Red Mosque – have threatened with violence, Qalandar said, “Of course I am afraid, who wouldn’t be? But it feels wrong to stay silent. We have made many mistakes, and we don’t have to leave it to our children to rectify them.”

This change in perspective is palpable both at the societal and civil-military levels. The controversial issue of the military courts (labeled by many as a soft coup) aside, it seems the incident has forced some intensive soul-searching. The result is an emerging narrative makes no preferential differentiation between militant groups. The latest development in this altered viewpoint is a ban on outfits like the Haqqani Network, operating on the western front in Afghanistan, Jamaatud Dawa, which is publically the humanitarian wing of banned outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), operating on the eastern front against India. By severing tying with organizations that received state patronage in the past, the military leadership continues to galvanize the public towards a singular, lucid, anti-terror doctrine.

Despite a strong turnout at the protests, and an emerging narrative that marks a paradigm shift for both the civil and military leadership, Pakistan remains a highly polarized and volatile society. On January 18, Hafiz Saeed, founder of LeT accused of launching attacks against India, held a rally against Charlie Hebdo, following the horrific attacks on their offices in Paris earlier this month. He called for the banning of French products, and for national leaders to work on enacting an international law against blasphemy.

Nevertheless, the shocking incident in Peshawar has forced introspection at all tiers of society, bringing about a renewed and bold public discourse, and a very vocal need for significant national reforms on the subject. The initial grief, and the lasting impact continue to drive the conversation, legislation, and counter-radicalization efforts in the country, and for the first time in a long time, the perspective in the uppermost echelons of powers seems unambiguous and unequivocal.

“My nine year old son asks me if he will be safe going to school,” says Qalandar. What answer can I give him? Tonight I will tell him I did something to [try and] make sure he was safe. It is a small thing. But drops [coalesce to] form an ocean.”

The author is a journalist, development professional, and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Research and Security Studies. He holds a Master’s degree in strategic communications from Ithaca College, NY, USA.

Email: zeeshan[dot]salahuddin[at]

Twitter: @zeesalahuddin