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 End of the beginning?

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PostSubject: End of the beginning?   Thu Jun 04, 2009 1:00 am

End of the beginning?




Thursday, June 04, 2009
Kamila Hyat


The battle for Swat seems to be reaching its final stages, at least in terms of the immediate fighting. Mingora is out of militant hands; people in the town hope this will mean a resumption in supplies of food and medicines reaching the city, where there have been acute shortages for weeks.

There is a sense that the battle for Swat may be reaching some kind of conclusion. But is this really the end of the battle? Is it even the beginning of the end – or will the Taliban monster we have created rise up once more in the times ahead to confront us, like a kind of indestructible Frankenstein.

There is every reason to believe this will happen. The factors that gave rise to militancy remain in place. The sense of social deprivation, of injustice of resentment against the state could rise once more. There is also continued suspicion in areas of conflict of a nexus between powerful forces and the militants. Even now there is a lack of trust on this count.

People believe that the military, at least as long as India continues to be seen as the enemy, may not be willing to loosen its handshake with militants or may at least aim to keep up some level of association with them.

It is the government that needs now to move in behind the determined military effort, and ensure this does not happen. To do so it must move sensibly and work to a plan.

There are several areas that need immediate attention. One is that of creating jobs in Swat. The collapse of the tourist industry in that region has affected many. People everywhere complain of being barely able to survive. The events of the past month, during which homes, land, livestock – and many lives have been lost further affect their capacity to do so.

An immediate development and employment plan is needed. People, shattered by conflict, must be assisted in the task of picking up the pieces of their lives. It is no coincidence that in the Valley, people still look back with nostalgia to the time when Swat as a princely state was ruled by its 'Walis'. In the 30 years since its status as such was abolished in 1969, the state of Pakistan has not made a similar impression on lives.

Indeed the 'Islamic' aspect of law under the Walis has been one factor in the support for 'Shariah' – associated by people with easier, swifter access to justice. Many have of course since realized that under the Taliban it took a quite different and much uglier manifestation.

The conflict has brought immense hardship to Swat; power has remained suspended for weeks; families have stared starvation in the face. Some have watched bombs kill relatives. There must now be a swift effort to rescue people and enable them to resurrect lives that they have, for too long, had very little control over.

The government must also look beyond Swat though. Tens of thousands of madressahs currently operate across the country. In Lahore alone one can be found along virtually every street in some localities. Giant set-ups flourish at mosques in many places. Even where they are not involved in militancy, the madressahs create closed minds and churn out 'graduates' with a distinct way of thinking.

Instances of the abuse of children within them remain commonplace. They act too to rob children of an ordinary life and the right to a mainstream education. But then, on the other hand, they provide something that is much more important to those who have nothing at all: food, clothing, shelter – and a better life than that they enjoyed at home. Many of the women at Jamia Hafsa at Lal Masjid testified to this; former maid servants spoke of a life of relative comfort and the guarantee of regular food.

The government should consider what can be done. At a time when dollars are being directed this way, a nationalization of madressahs may be possible. This would be a means to ensure that the 'welfare' services the institutions offer are kept intact while regulating education within them.

In times of crisis, radical moves are required. The past policy of supporting madressahs – backed by the US – has been a disaster. We need to bring the pupils of these seminaries into the mainstream, so the vast chasm between their way of thinking and that of those who attend regular schools can be narrowed and then closed. The few studies conducted suggest this is a very wide gap indeed.

Scholars from Egypt, studying the phenomena of extremism in Pakistan and elsewhere, have repeatedly commented on the role of the Al-Azhar University in promoting relaxed, progressive notions of Islam in their society. This too is something that requires thought. We have failed even to take up proposals, some of them based on extremely positive open thinking, put forward by the Islamic Ideology Council.

We need far more pro-active effort to push back obscurantism. There is no reason why papers produced at Al-Azhar and indeed at other institutions in the Middle East cannot be disseminated more widely. The official media can be used to hold discussions on them. And perhaps, in response to the harsh, orthodox institutions that cropped up over the 1980s, promoted by a specific line of official thinking, there can be some thought to setting up others based along more open lines of thinking.

Our own Sufi heritage can in some way be used. We, as a society, are in many ways obsessed with religion. This is the outcome of very deliberate polices pursued with terrifying effectiveness in the past. We need now to find ways of challenging them so we can move into a better future.

But, at the same time, we must remember that using religion as a political gambit can be dangerous. Eventually it places us in the hands of clerics. The longer-term strategy must be to create a state free of dogma and able to rise above it. Respect for everyone's freedom of belief is central to this. So too is the need to give people the means for a decent life. It is the denial of this, the acute socio-economic deprivation of millions, the indifference of governments to their plight and the lack of access to justice that created militancy.

We must now make certain these weaknesses are corrected – or we may find one day that the struggle that is now being waged, the deaths, the destruction and the suffering, were after all futile. This is not something to look forward to.
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