Civil Society under Threat
By Shireen M Mazari

The threat to civil society from violent extremists is not something we in the urban areas of the country can view as an occurrence in the remote tribal areas of the country. We in civil society have watched with trepidation and sorrow the extremists using violence in the NWFP to prevent barbers from shaving, to destroy video stores and enforce closure of schools, with the state being ineffectual to enforce its writ in the face of these violent challenges. But we have remained mere silent spectators as we went about our own lives.
And so the threat has come to haunt us in the capital Islamabad itself -- thanks to the conciliatory approach of the state in dealing with lawbreakers who happen to be armed zealots. When the Jamia Hafsa students first challenged the law and law enforcement agencies as they occupied the Children's Library, some of us had suggested a strong response to send a message to civil society that breaking of the law will not be tolerated. Instead, there was an air of appeasement with dialogues going on with the lawbreakers and even accommodation in terms of some of their demands. Sensing the state's self-created vulnerability, the Jamia Hafsa brigade stood their ground and continued the occupation of the library.
Seeing no effort by the state to challenge them and dislodge them from their occupation -- in fact seeing some politicians actually supporting them -- over the period of weeks and months since the occupation began in January 2007, they moved a step further in their violence and went on a rampage threatening video store owners and even women in private homes -- with accusations of immorality. The sanctity of home and hearth fell by the wayside in this extremist agenda. Even more audacious, they managed to kidnap members of the law enforcement agencies also! And when the police fought back and arrested some of their co-conspirators, political pressure was put on them to immediately release these captives! So once again the Jamia Hafsa ladies (or so we assume since no one can tell who is beneath the covering) and their male supporters from the Lal Masjid madressah seemed to have won the challenge to the law of the land and the law enforcement agencies.
It is no wonder the average citizen, especially women, are feeling a direct threat to their existence. After all, it would appear that the state has tacitly given these perpetrators of violence a free run of the capital instead of dealing with them according to the law. But then, already we were seeing the police turn into a threat rather than a source of protection when we saw them launch their assault on the non-functional Chief Justice and Geo Television. So far no high up heads have rolled on this count either. So it seems if you have the force, you can implement your extremist agendas with no fear. As for those politicians, who have insisted on the state tolerating this violent extremism, they are deliberately undermining not only the government's standing amongst the electorate at large -- because the extremists are a minority in terms of electoral power -- but also the state and nation as a whole. After all, it hardly does Pakistan's image any good to be seen as a state which cannot enforce its writ right in its heartland -- and it does no good to have the nation as a whole living in a state of fear from extremist violence with a perception that the enforcers of the law will do nothing to protect the average citizen.
So what are our options? First and foremost the state must move in an uncompromising manner to deal with the lawbreakers. No citizen can be seen to have the right to challenge the law and get away with it through the use of violence. No citizen should be able to hold a citizenry to ransom through the threat of violence. There can be no room for private vigilantes and self-appointed assertors of a bizarre and extremist "morality". All agendas must find their expression through the law of the land and electoral politics.
Equally important, how long will the silent majority, professionals such as doctors, teachers, lawyers, bankers as well as housewives and the many others, who want to simply be allowed to lead their lives safely, will go on living under this threat? It is time for all these sane voices to be heard -- especially within the capital where these voices are now directly under threat from the stick-wielding minority. If the Jamia Hafsa group can use violence to flaunt their limited support within civil society, the rest of us must show our larger electoral support through a public but peaceful display of the same. And let the law and the state protect us in a proactive fashion, before we come to regard ourselves as living in a state of anarchy with no rule of law. So far, this is the growing perception and no society can develop in such a fear-filled environment. As for all claims of enlightenment and moderation, for those of us who are actually committed to these principles even when they had not acquired official patronage there is a growing sense that they are gradually being confined to declaratory claims but little is being done to enforce these principles in the face of retrogressive challenges.
In the context of political realism, it is false to assume that in an election year the forces of violent extremism need to be accommodated. While dialogue with all political factions is to be welcomed and religious parties must be part of the political mainstream, no one should be given the sense that somehow they are above the law -- and certainly those who are determined to enforce their writ through violence should not be given an iota of accommodation. Otherwise the message being sent to the rest of civil society is be armed or be harmed.
That is indeed what seems to be happening today as a recent incident in PIMS shows. While the story has come out in the papers, what has not come out is what reflects the malaise prevailing within the domestic polity today. An SHO abuses a nurse and doctor, then calls his thana people while the doctor calls Rescue 15 and fisticuffs follow with the cop bringing out his gun. When the Director Emergency tries to sort things out, he gets slapped by the police and a brawl follows between all the doctors present and the cops. This is what the police now do regularly with unarmed civilians even as they kowtow before danda-wielding lawbreakers.
Equally important the incident also reflects the inner rage and frustration amongst civil society against a police force that is seen more as a threat rather than a source of protection. There is something inherently absurd with this state of affairs, where the rage of frustration within the silent majority is surfacing fast as it gets caught between threats from the police on the one hand and armed vigilantes on the other. In this shameful state of affairs, how long will it be before all of civil society descends into a state of armed anarchy a la Jamia Hafsa style?
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)


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