Published in The Express Tribune
Economists call it the perverse incentive. Others call it the cobra effect.
Back when the Raj was around, our ex-masters saw danger ahead: Delhi’s cobras were getting out of hand. Excusing themselves from their elephant polo, the colonizers went in for population control – the natives were offered a reward for each dead cobra, and the snakeskin began piling up.
But it wasn’t long before the locals caught on. Rather than kill said snakes, the natives began breeding them for the bounty money instead. The Raj’s mission to civilize fell flat, and it scrapped the whole idea. Worse was to come – cheated of their reward, the snake-catchers released the cobras in revenge, and all Delhi was flooded with venom. Or so the story goes.
Welcome to the perverse incentive: unintended, unwelcome consequences that flow from man’s best-laid plans. And while our National Action Plan is hardly well-laid, it’s swell incentive for our madmen to go about their business as usual.
Because if this is the be-all and end-all of counterterror – chasing tailors and chairing committees – the state looks spent. There’s ‘zero progress’ in madrassah reform, according to Punjab’s Home Minister, and about as much in terms of disarming militias, fighting sectarianism, countering hate speech, and cutting off funding. Senator Farhatullah Babar called the state’s efforts either unserious or clueless.
But we didn’t need ministers and senators to tell us that; the Shikarpur blast was loud enough. And yet no act of evil can shock this administration awake.
Which is shocking in itself, so soon after December. The Taliban butchered our children in Peshawar, and the country stood changed forever. This time it was different, they said. This time, we had to go after all of them.
God knows we’d waited long enough. Consider the laundry list: Uighur militants menacing Xinjiang. I.M.U. thugs running rampage in Waziristan. Jundullah tunneling into Iran. Mumbai’s unconvicted, unpunished attackers coming in and out of our courts. Two-way terror in Afghanistan.
For brevity’s sake, that’s an awful lot of snakes.
And those are just the multinationals. For local concerns, we have sectarian charities in Southern Punjab. We have I.S.I.S. fanclubs in Islamabad. We have both sectarian and ethnic cleansers in Quetta. We have a bonanza of armed wings in Karachi. Yes, the state is up to its neck in felons.
Which is why it saw fit to arrest Jibran Nasir instead.
And that’s where we find the Pakistan that’s different from the Pakistan pre-A.P.S., that’s been changing slowly but surely: in the hypocrisy of the state, and in the bravery of its citizens.
For context: when bombs ripped through Quetta’s Hazara community in 2013, Chief Minister Aslam Raisani said he’d send a truckload of tissues ‘to wipe away their tears’. A year later, when a bus carrying Shia pilgrims in Mastung was attacked, President Mamnoon directed the authorities ‘to ensure quality medical assistance.’
The state wasn’t much for fighting ethnic cleansing, either with trucks of tissues or better bandages. But when Mastung’s injured were shifted to Aga Khan Hospital, Karachi’s citizens showed up in droves. And between Balochistan’s survivors and the Karachiites that embraced them, we were finally shown the Pakistan at stake.
12-year-old Ibtihaj was hugging fellow patients and caring for them. Zakir, who lost his leg in the blast, said, ‘We became friends on the bus, and now we are here together.’ And Jibran Nasir, among the visitors, told us what our priorities should have been, ‘When these kids find out about the deaths in their family, they would need to find comfort in knowing that they have gained thousands of family members all over Pakistan.’
Because Ibtihaj, whose name means happiness in Arabic, and Zakir, who wishes to walk again, represent the very best of this country, the parts of the country worth fighting for. Mr. Nasir and his fellow activists understand that.
What we are seeing – in a movement that’s run from the dozens to the hundreds – is civil society’s loudest response since this long war began. It laid a human fence around churches in the wake of the All Saints church bombing. It was sickened by Abdul Aziz condoning the mass-murder of children, and did something about it. It came out in college campuses and public squares across the world, marking a month since Pakistan’s darkest day.
It refused to forget All Saints. It refused to forget A.P.S.. And it refused to forget Shikarpur.
Faced with a sit-in outside the C.M. House – a museum with all manner of fossils inside – the Sindh government was presented a choice: they could either bring the A.S.W.J. to task, in a country reeling from sectarian attack to sectarian attack. Or they could arrest the protestors for ‘breaching C.M. House security’.
For Qaim Ali Shah, an easy choice – that the C.M. grant the same sanctity to Shia lives that he does to his mansion would be unreasonable. And yet the people’s expectations are nothing less than reasonable: they don’t demand courage from the leadership – but they do demand leadership itself. Just not the kind informed by senate elections and civil servants.
Yet while even the Queen of Jordan marched against I.S.I.S., the Prime Minister was visiting a vegetable market. Which is what makes the disconnect so obvious: in a span of three months, Mr. Nasir and his fellow activists have stood up to more banned outfits than Islamabad has in three years.
They bring up names the state wills itself to forget: Fizzah Malik, Irfan Ali, Perween Rehman, Ibtihaj’s sister Rida. But they also bring up names the state fears saying: Aurangzeb Farooqi, Abdul Aziz, the Tehreek-e-Taliban. They stand against them peacefully and lawfully.
And they give the rest of us hope.
Because in the end, this war is for the country’s young; the 139 students at A.P.S. showed us that. Aitzaz showed us that. Ibtihaj continues to show us that. And the movement – that began via human chain around our churches, that told us to reclaim our mosques – is fighting for it.
We are told, long after the cobras overran Delhi, that wild hogs have overrun Islamabad – literally. In a land that deeply values symbolism, the seat of the state has been taken over by pigs. But we’ve seen the signs. It’s time to take the country back.