What most of us feared has happened. A political rally, manifesting the democratic spirit of Pakistanis was turned, in seconds, into carnage. The lurid scenes we witnessed on Thursday night are a grim reminder, if one were still needed, of just how deeply the scourge of terrorism has crept into Pakistani society.
As I sat down to write this, bodies were still being carried to Karachi’s hospitals and the death toll had reached over 137 with more than 400 injured. Pakistanis, now oddly used to late-night vigils before their television screens, were watching yet another grisly episode of terrorism.
Statistics do not depict the extent of a tragedy but they do indicate the severity or otherwise of a problem or a condition. This, then, was the fifth suicide bombing in Pakistan in the past six weeks.
On September 4, 2007, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a bus carrying Ministry of Defence personnel killing 22 people. On September 13, 2007, a suicide bomber attacked the mess of Karrar Company of the Special Services Group at Tarbela Ghazi, headquarters of SOTF (Special Operations Task Force), killing 17 personnel and injuring 25. On October 1, 2007, a suicide bomber in Bannu killed fifteen people including four policemen. And just over a week ago on October 10, 2007, there were six blasts in NWFP and a police officer was injured in the ensuing gun-battle.
Now this. One instinctive reaction, given the flurry of threats that preceded the arrival of Benazir Bhutto is to question whether such a grand display of people power should even have been attempted in this age of suicide bombings? After all, even the barest common sense is able to discern the virtual impossibility of preventing a suicide attack in a crowd not of hundreds or thousands but of hundreds of thousands of people (some television channels estimating it at 450,000). Given this gruesome reality, should Bhutto have chosen to provoke such immense security risk in calling her supporters to the streets of Karachi for a massive show of force?
Tempting as this logic is, its seeming promise of providing short-term security is a dubious one and its ultimate delivery would be the very objective sought by the suicide bombers that perpetuate such criminal acts. If followed to its ultimate conclusion, it would suggest the tragic end of any sort of mass association of collective democratic action that could pose a potent threat to extremism and its terrorist manifestation.
Most damningly, as has been pointed out by Robert Pape in his book The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, by eliminating acts of democratic political action, terrorism would grant suicide bombers the precise concessions they hope to gain through their logic of death and destruction. As Pape says, in his study that analysed suicide bombings in the period from 1980 to 2001, those planning suicide attacks aim to get states to make concessions induced by the cost of civilian lives imposed on the populace In the Pakistani case it could well mean the cessation of any acts that promote democratisation and challenge the growing extremism in the northern areas of the country.
While definitive reports identifying the culprits of the suicide attacks in Karachi have yet to emerge, the recent military actions in Mir Ali in North Waziristan and the overt claims of Taliban Commander Baitullah Mehsud and others suggest that the extremists do not want the pact between Bhutto and General Pervez Musharraf to materialise and take Pakistan towards the next phase of democratic governance.
Indeed, while motives can be granted to various actors, few could have been as upset at the arrival of Bhutto as those espousing the extremist Taliban-Al Qaeda creed, given both Bhutto’s own statements on the need to eliminate extremism and the fact that the United States may have played a central role in getting Musharraf to shake hands with Bhutto.
Add to that the fact that hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis came to greet a liberal political leader, one who is also a woman. That would be anathema to the tribal-literalist extremism of terrorist groups and their cadres.
Violence and death are no strangers to Karachi. Yet, this act, come as it did at a time when national reconciliation is on the table, suggests the re-aligning of Pakistani politics along a paradigm different from the authoritarian vs. democratic, civilian vs. military binaries that have characterised Pakistani politics for decades. This latest bombing suggests that the most urgent political imperatives facing whoever seizes the reins of power would be to curb the incipient Islamic extremism that has now become the most pervasive threat facing the country.
While the throngs that emerged to greet Bhutto amply illustrate the marginal political appeal of extremist Islamism, the increasing utilisation of suicide bombing by this small cadre has made them the most lethal threat facing Pakistan today.
It is perhaps not surprising then, that this new political alignment, regardless of the challenges facing it, will be a coalition of liberals and moderates united against extremist Islam.
If Bhutto is to be effective in leading such an alignment, she must realise, as she seems to in her own words, that she faces a “changed Pakistan”. The innocent civilians that came out to greet her, that waited for hours in the streets of Karachi, waved flags and sang songs need a leader who will not cave in to the fear-mongering politics of suicide bombers.
In this respect, it would have been truly courageous to see her speak to the aggrieved and panic-stricken crowd that awaited her at the Quaid’s mazar. As Bhutto is undoubtedly learning, winning the hearts and minds of the “changed Pakistan” she has returned to requires acts of courage that go beyond simply facing down authoritarian rulers.
It remains to be seen whether she will emerge unscathed by terror and speak to the people she is so anxious to lead or allow herself to be intimidated by the fear that now casts an ominous shadow over the nation.
Rafia Zakaria is associate editor of altmuslim.com and an attorney and member of the Asian American Network Against Abuse of Women. She teaches courses on constitutional law and political philosophy. This article previously appeared in Daily Times (Pakistan).