The new al Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri in his new video statement has urged the people of Pakistan to overthrow the “corrupt” government in Islamabad. Interestingly, he has also asked the people to rise against the Pakistan Army, which has been fighting a battle against some extremist groups in the north west of the country. Al Qaeda has been making such desperate calls for a decade now. But the worrying part is that the message — or its operative part — has gained currency in many middle class Pakistanis. Despite the crackdown, Hizbut Tahreer (HuT) continues to operate like several other militant groups. The extent of its advocacy for overthrowing the generals and the politicians is such that a HuT affiliated senior army official is on trial these days.
But these trials and military interventions are pointless when Islamabad, virtually a security zone, displays HuT posters and stickers almost everywhere. Why are the activists not tracked down and why do the government and the all-powerful intelligence agencies allow proliferation of such propaganda? A partial explanation is that elements of the state are also steeped in this a similar mindset. It is an established fact that the composition of the officers’ corps in the army and civilian bureaucracy is overwhelmingly middle class.
In his latest statement, again al-Zawahiri has mentioned the 70-year-old American aid worker Dr Warren Weinstein, who was kidnapped in August 2011 from Lahore. The message from al Qaeda is that Weinstein will not be released until their demands are met. Among others, a key demand is the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist sentenced by the US courts and currently languishing in an American prison. Ms Aafia’s story is still incomplete and there are competing claims over her role in perpetrating ‘terrorism’ as well as her innocence.
But in the popular imagination, Ms Aafia is a victim of US aggression. Pakistani Urdu media and sections of its political class have declared her the ‘daughter of the nation’. Even a secular party such as the MQM had to appease public sentiment and held a huge rally in Karachi against the US. It’s a separate matter that the ‘nation’ (looking at what the Baloch are rejecting as their Pakistani identity) here is as contested as the idea of its ‘daughter’ being imprisoned and violated by the US. Even the missing persons case is instructive. On balance, there is more noise about the missing persons allegedly linked to the militants than those belonging to the Balochistan province. This is not to suggest that the state has any right to incarcerate a citizen without due process but the ‘ideological’ tilt is quite clear.
Dr Weinstein was never charged of spying and no evidence has been brought in public light. Equating his case with Afia Siddiqui or others, as some Pakistanis do, makes no sense. If anything, the silence in our media about the plight of an old, frail man who lived in Pakistan as a development worker betrays how the aversion to US harms our collective humanity. Should Pakistan become a state where no Westerner is safe, considering that millions of Pakistanis are living in the West, especially the US?
Al-Zawahiri’s confidence is not all that misplaced. The dominant sections of media comprise the middle class, which views the Taliban and other militants as forces pitted against Western imperialism. Sadly, there is also a growing trend where scholarship is legitimising jihadis. The postponed agenda of counter-radicalisation by mainstream politics is giving way to a new political force which popularises simplistic solutions to extremism and blames ‘liberal scum’ instead. Such lies are being fed to younger Pakistanis who want positive change, better prospects and a safer Pakistan. For economic progress, security is important and sustainable peace cannot be achieved when millions readily justify the violent version of ‘jihad’. This misleading political narrative must be challenged and reclaimed from such apologists. Rejecting and fighting US hegemony is not enough. The domestic battle against the many-faced protégés of Mr Zawahiri is equally important.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 20th, 2012.