So many myths came crashing down in Lahore. That Pakistan is an ordinary country with extraordinary problems. That Pakistan’s security forces are hand-in-glove with terrorists. That extremists would never attack cricketers.
In the end, the horror near the Gaddafi Stadium showed how the bizarre becomes the ordinary: Witness the number of people who said: “I told you so,” as cricket boards congratulated themselves for having avoided touring Pakistan. Recall, too, that all the dead are Pakistanis —all but one of them brave security guards who laid down their lives to protect the cricketers, nailing the myth that all Pakistanis are complicit with terrorism. And then the third myth—when Imran Khan said, the week before the Mumbai attacks, that cricket is safe from terror. How could one be so sure in a country where so many rules of war have been broken?
But Khan believed it just as Pakistan wanted to believe in another idea, which had better not be a myth—that it is a normal country—for the alternative—a nuclear-armed failed state—is too horrible to contemplate. Many, if not most, Pakistanis want to live normal lives. Their families want to go to Clifton in Karachi and admire the sunset. Their teenagers want to go hiking in the Karakoram, and their rich like to ski on the slopes of the Swat valley. They want their kids to go to schools that teach math and computers, and not only scriptures and hate-filled history. They take delight in the peccadilloes of Bollywood stars and hum along with the songs of the rock group, Junoon. They post videos critical of generals on YouTube and write blogs challenging their politicians who succumb to the mullahs and the military. Their lawyers protest the removal of the Supreme Court’s chief justice, and their novelists ridicule the pious nonsense of their imams and generals with an aplomb that’s lacking in the more didactic “socially relevant” fiction of new Indian authors. And they want to go to a stadium, to admire some nice stroke-play, inspired bowling and exceptional fielding.
And it is that normalcy which the terrorists attack, because the terrorists want what’s regular to be the unexpected, and the unexpected to make you afraid, and not wonder. That means audaciously razing Islamabad’s premier hotel; ruthlessly assassinating a politician who thought this time, the third time, she’d get it right; brazenly attacking presidential convoys; boldly humiliating the government by demanding, and getting, a large chunk of territory where only their peculiar tribal interpretation of religious laws would apply, not national laws or international norms. In this topsy-turvy universe, a conniving, petty trader of nuclear secrets, who saw a new world order in a mushroom cloud, is released from house arrest, and a foreign correspondent meeting a contact outside the hotel gets beheaded.
Finally, it is that peculiar country where its President has in the past claimed to be suffering from mental illness to avoid a corruption trial while in exile, and upon assuming presidency used all methods to get a rival politician outlawed, even though working with him to ward off the twin threats the cantonment and the mosque represent is in the interest of the nation’s fragile democracy.
That’s the universe many Pakistanis inhabit—caught between intransigent generals, incompetent politicians and intolerant mullahs. They don’t need reminding what terrorism is; they live with it. They have lost thousands of civilians and soldiers in the past decade. They live with the consequences of cynical, cold, political choices and compromises their leaders have made on their behalf.
And yet, many in India don’t see that reality, and see all Pakistanis as extremists, as if all of them accept at face value the rants of Zahid Hamid on Pakistani television—who believes everything that’s evil is because of “Hindu Zionist” conspiracy.
We must then learn to separate that sinister fringe from the Pakistani men and women who don’t believe in juvenile jihadis. We must not succumb to the idea—as Simi Garewal momentarily did (though she was hardly alone) —that if only we bomb Pakistan, all problems will be solved. Starting a war is a not a choice as easy as sending a “Yes” SMS to a television channel desperate to improve ratings, and which wants politicians to announce foreign policy manoeuvres on live television. It also means we must prevent our own saffron Taliban, which wants to empty our bookshops of Pakistani writers, and prevent Pakistani artists from performing in our theatres.
At its simplest, it means not gloating at what Ahmed Rashid calls Pakistan’s descent into chaos, but to appreciate Pakistanis’ struggle to reclaim their country from the triumvirate Tariq Ali describes as “greedy generals, corrupt politicians and bearded lunatics”.
That’s not easy. Building a civil society never is. It needs nerves of steel. We must wish strength to the millions in Pakistan who have that resolve.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org