The satanic suicide bombing attack on the All Saints Church on Sunday, 22nd September that killed 83 innocent worshippers and injured over a 100 others represents another turning point in the campaign of the militant extremists to establish their writ over the state of Pakistan. After attacking key military installations in earlier years and establishing their de facto rule over large swathes of Pakistani territory in FATA, the Extremists are now demonstrating their ability to launch high casualty operations against citizens targeted on the basis of religious identity in major urban centres: first it was Qadianis in Lahore, then Shia Muslims in Karachi and Quetta, now Christians in Peshawar. The selection of a well known church is aimed not only at exposing the inability of the state to protect its citizens but to isolate Pakistan from the world community. In the narrative of those who wish to make this country a theocratic state, Pakistan’s territory is now a battleground for a global war between what they see as Islam and Christianity.
The timing is significant. The democratic structure was widely seen to have been strengthened as an unprecedented voter turn-out in the face of intimidation by the extremists, expressed a resounding rejection of their claim to power. For the first time not only had a change of government occurred through a constitutional electoral process but the military had ostensibly agreed to subordinate itself to elected civilian authority. At the same time the independence of the judiciary was established as never before. Yet the democratic structure mandated by the will of the people has to be defended by the state against non state entities that seek to overthrow it and impose the will of a small minority through terror. Instead the government chose to negotiate with a loose coalition of Taliban groups without specifying the particular interlocutors, the terms of the negotiating process, and the mechanism of enforcement of a possible agreement.
The Taliban were offered unconditional talks inspite of the fact that they had earlier killed 40,000 Pakistanis, beheaded a number of soldiers and declared in no uncertain terms their aim of overthrowing the Constitutional order to replace it with an “Islamic Emirate of Pakistan”. The Taliban who clearly saw the unconditional peace offer as a sign of weakness, responded in a public statement by laying out three conditions for talks to begin: (1) Establish Sharia in the country, (2) Withdraw Pakistani military forces from the tribal areas, (3) Release all Taliban prisoners in Pakistani custody. Amidst the silence that followed, the Taliban mounted a series of attacks against Pakistani military personnel in the tribal areas, in one of which the garrison commander (a major general) and a colonel were killed. The leaders of the ruling parties in the federal and provincial governments offered the usual condolences but continued to express their desire for peace through negotiations. It is in this context of governmental confusion and an unwillingness to use the power of the state to defend it against non state entities that are waging war against it, that the extremists have made the next move in Peshawar. The aim is to erode the writ of the state to a critical level and replace it with the writ of the Taliban. The government by refusing to recognize the gravity of the threat to the country is effectively ceding sovereignty in increasing fragments of the state. It is what Antonio Gramsci called “parcellized sovereignty”.
At the level of society there has been a spontaneous outpouring of solidarity and support across the country by Pakistanis (whatever their religious identity) for the Christian community. This response signifies the values of love, tolerance, enlightenment, of sharing and caring that underlie the diversity of cultures in this region and constitute the shared wellsprings of our humanity. The Extremists by contrast are driven by hatred, intolerance and ignorance. It is a clash between civilization and barbarism. The state if it is to retain its frayed legitimacy has to defend the people of Pakistan and the human values that resonate in their literature, their arts, their forms of love and social life.