Last Thursday the 33-year-old Pakistani activist Irfan Ali told his Twitter followers he had narrowly escaped a bomb blast in the provincial capital, Quetta, which killed 12 people and injured 25. In the next hour he tweeted three more times about the terrorism wreaking havoc on Pakistan and the “genocidal pressure” faced by the Hazaras – an ethnic group which is primarily Shia.
A few hours later there was another bomb blast, this time in a snooker hall frequented by Hazaras. While helping the injured, Irfan Ali was killed by a suicide bomber who waited until the hall was filled with rescue workers before detonating his explosives. In all, 81 people died in the snooker hall and 110 were wounded. The extremist Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) was quick to claim responsibility.
There are certain actions which even the most wretched nation should be able to rely on following an act of such monstrosity: a televised address by the head of state, condolence visits to the families of the dead by national and provincial leaders, substantial media coverage, and swift reprisals against the LeJ, who may be “underground” but are hardly invisible.
None of this happened. Instead, the day after the carnage mourners and activists gathered outdoors in Quetta, in the mid-winter chill, to stage a sit-in beside dozens of coffins bearing shrouded bodies, and insisted they would not move their dead until the provincial government (under whose watch attacks on Hazaras have accelerated) had been removed from office and the army had launched an operation against the LeJ.
Human Rights Watch released a statement making it plain where culpability lies: “By their inaction in the face of massacre after massacre and killing after killing, Pakistan’s political leaders, law enforcement agencies, judiciary and military are presiding over a collective failure to address the growing perception that they are either in sympathy with Sunni extremists or utterly incompetent, and unable to provide basic security.” It doesn’t take a deep knowledge of Pakistan to know that the “utterly incompetent” part of the equation attaches itself to the civilian branch of government and the “sympathy with Sunni extremists” part to sections of the security services, who are widely believed to have allied themselves with extremist groups including the LeJ for their own strategic ends.
Will the recent carnage change any of this? In an unprecedented show of solidarity with the mourners in Quetta, protests sprang up in a great many parts of the country, finally forcing the government to respond – which it did by imposing the executive authority of the governor over the province and directing the police and paramilitary to act against the groups involved. On Monday, in the wake of the government’s response, the mourners said they would bury their dead, after nearly 70 hours of sitting with them.
While there is no discounting the significance of the nationwide protests, it’s important to acknowledge that most of the protesters were Shia: we are still far from a full-throated chorus of “No more” from a nation of 180 million.
Instead it remains true that “common cause” is a rare beast in Pakistan (though Irfan Ali understood it well – his Twitter profile says “I was born to fight for human rights and peace.”). In a country where extremists target everyone who doesn’t fit into their narrow definition of a “good Muslim”, be they Shia, Ahmadiyya, Hindu, Christian, accused-blasphemer, those asking for changes to the blasphemy laws, or girls who want to go to school, it too often feels as though people can’t bring themselves to do more than guard their own turf, or try to stay under the radar. And, most worryingly of all, there are those who simply don’t disagree sufficiently with the extremists to do very much about it.
Many commentators talk about the 80s as the decade in Pakistan when the rot set in, but in fact it was there at the very birth of the nation. I’m not talking about 1947, which is the year in which a country called East and West Pakistan came into existence. That nation ceased to exist in 1971, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh and Pakistan’s population shrank by more than 50%.
So it is in 1971 that present day Pakistan was really formed – on the back of massacres and mass rapes of Bengalis, for which no one in Pakistan has ever been held accountable. Among the reasons cited to justify the Pakistan state’s brutality against its Bengali citizens was that they weren’t good Muslims. All this is erased from Pakistan’s history books. So in the end, perhaps it isn’t so very surprising that the nation which never said “Never again” should be condemned to “again, and again, and again”.
Kamila Shamsie is the author of five novels, including Burnt Shadows which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and has been translated into over 20 languages.