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Betwa Sharma

Betwa Sharma

Posted: August 12, 2009 01:13 PM

Asking Pakistanis, When?


"So when does a revolution happen," a fellow journalist asked, as we talked about situation in Iran and Pakistan. 'Revolution' is a big word. Its watered down version could be, when do people say enough is enough?

Why have Pakistanis endured decades of bad politics and their violent consequences? Why do they watch their leaders play a foolhardy game with the Taliban? Can they not do more to take back their country?

"Sharam nahin aati! Why do you want to be on TV?" strangers asked Havovi Cooper while she was reporting a story two years ago. Having grown up as a Parsee in Karachi where women can walk unrebuked with a duppatta over their heads, she thought for the very first time, "Bloody hell -- this country is being Talibanized'"

The journalist now works in New York, and may not return for a long time. "Parents want their children to be safe and home is not safe right now," she says. A deluge of suicide attacks have killed scores of civilians and the extremists are moving from the feral borders to the cities.

But how 'Talibanized' is Pakistan really? It is well-known that their twisted ideology has trapped the poorer, more vulnerable, factions of society. The large swathes of the middle and upper class, however, have warded off their religious fanaticism.

"It is sick, violent and has absolutely nothing to do with Islam," says Azar, a Shiite businessman whose sect the Taliban have declared as infidels. "They cut our throats, blow our mosques, blow our processions, and curse our beliefs."

Many Pakistanis describe themselves as devout but their religiosity differs from radicalism. "People from various classes are moving towards their own definition of religion," says Uzair, who runs a uniform shop in Karachi.

Faith has also become succor for the growing numbers suffering in the harsh economy and unrelenting violence. But, this does not catapult into banning women from education and hating the radio. A writer from Islamabad, Changez Ali, underlines the difference between deeply religious citizens and fanatics. "Pakistanis don't want their religion to be defined by extremists."

Then, there are the social classes that are not burqa savvy, drink alcohol, root for Susan Boyle, and tend to be very liberal. The militants, bereft of mainstream support, may never gain control of the realm. "The Taliban in power is really beyond people's imagination," says Sehrish Shaban, a Karachi-based reporter.

But until they are defeated, however, the country will continue its free fall. So why does the populace stand by while these rogues take an inch and then a mile? Talk shows, editorials, street processions and Facebook groups mark the frail pillars of public outrage.

After the take-over of Swat Valley, uncomfortably close to the capital, one might imagine that the situation demands a bolder gesture. A citizen's movement of sorts?

Building momentum against a common enemy, it turns out, is not easy. "Pakistanis can be apathetic because we've gone through so much," says Shaban, referring to decades of political turmoil. Sixteen-hour electricity cuts are choking the average Pakistani who struggles to feed a family. The rich and powerful groups fear retaliation.

Occasionally, it is the community whose homes are invaded, and schools burnt by the insurgents that join the fight against them. For the majority, the discomfort level is still a nervous sensation in the cricket stadium, waiting in long security lines, and grimacing at the rising death toll. Those who can, leave the country.

Despair is confined to countless 'drawing-room discussions.' Years of a dictatorship-like polity has crushed public spirit and stifled community leadership. "Civil society in Pakistan didn't exist," says Ali. "It is now beginning to rediscover itself."

Anger and frustration has surfaced, in some cases, like the lawyers strike and recent protests following the flogging of a young girl in Swat Valley, when it was ruled by the Taliban.

Part of the problem is that Pakistanis (and the rest of the world) don't get all the facts. The public distrust their own government and army and remain deeply skeptical of the American agenda. "It's all very shady," says Cooper. "People don't know what's going on behind the scenes." Conspiracy theories trump reliable information needed for a collective response.

The unrelenting cycle of bloodshed has busted the denial but not the lethargy of the Pakistanis. The question now -- what is the "enough is enough" point for a suffering citizenry and how does it practically manifest itself?

Again, 'a revolution' sounds a bit fantastic -- even silly -- but something? What about ordinary citizens? Especially teachers and religious leaders cleaning up the madrassas that produce students willing to blow themselves up?

If this is about 'hearts and minds,' then how many more will the Taliban be allowed to hijack? A few Taliban players may shoot each other in gun fights but more are bound to creep out of the caves.

Follow Betwa Sharma on Twitter: www.twitter.com/betwasharma