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Daily Times
Tuesday, June 08, 2004

EDITORIAL: Shutting up shop before the Budget?

Foreign aid agencies and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have suspended their work in Balochistan after receiving warnings from Afghanistan that Taliban/Al Qaeda agents might target them in the coming days. The foreigners were particularly asked to mount additional security to avoid being killed in a suicide-bombing incident. The UNHCR was in the process of repatriating a hundred families of Afghan refugees across the Chaman border but it will now await clearance from above before going ahead. A health-rescue organisation called ‘Medecin Sans Frontieres’, that had already given up its mission in Afghanistan after being attacked by the Taliban, is said to be rethinking its next strategy in Balochistan. The Balochistan government says it has tightened security for the foreigners but quite obviously there are limits to what the government can do. Taken together with disorder in the rest of the country, the signals from Balochistan are ominous.

When someone gives you a warning in Balochistan you had better pay heed to it. Last year the extremists killed members of the Hazara Shia community twice in the midst of a lot of preparation by the local administration to combat terrorism. In fact the second time around when the Shias were attacked with rockets and automatic weapons during an ashura procession they found the police firing at them rather than at the terrorists! The international press reported that in and around Quetta a whole population of Afghan refugees contained Taliban elements that could spell trouble for peace in the province. But no one has paid much heed because since 2002 the government in Quetta features the MMA in the ruling alliance, which not only opposes the arrival of the ISAF forces in Afghanistan but is vowed ideologically to bring about an order in Pakistan inspired by the spirit of Islamic revolution first demonstrated by the Taliban.

As we write, all the foreigners working with the various humanitarian NGOs are cooped up in the Quetta Serena Hotel. Ironically this may not be the safest of places because it is owned by an Ismaili enterprise. This takes us to the process of shutting up to the outside world and squaring off among ourselves in a sectarian war. The MMA has also expressed its opposition to the Aga Khan Foundation because of its educational uplift programmes in the northern areas. Unfortunately, too, the top MMA leader Qazi Hussain Ahmad has gone ahead and delivered threats to the Ismaili community by unfairly condemning the Aga Khan Foundation. On May 25, he told a gathering in Karachi that the government had given rights to the Aga Khan Foundation for the preparation of a new educational system in the country. He warned the Ismaili community and the Aga Khan Foundation that if they tried to impose a secular system of education in Pakistan the people of Pakistan would move against them. Qazi Sahib has been going around Pakistan — including the Northern Areas — issuing violent statements which could be twisted around to mean all sorts of things by local leaders.

The Aga Khan Foundation has greatly benefited Pakistani society with its ‘technical’ know-how in the field of education; it does not fashion guidelines for the formulation of syllabi, which is the domain of the federal government, and it does not remove topics from textbooks to secularise them. What Qazi Sahib said in Karachi put the Ismaili community at risk and one is grateful to Providence that it has remained safe so far. Such statements could be interpreted as criminal under Sections 295 and 298 of the Penal Code. But, as usual, there is no response or warning from the government, which suggests a tacit acceptance of the outrageous allegations made by Qazi Hussain Ahmad. What he said on May 25 had effect because on May 30 while the seminarians were protesting the assassination of Mufti Shamzai in Karachi they burned down a number of Aga Khan computer technology centres in Gulshan-e-Iqbal. Calling the Ismailis “secular” is hurtful and wrong. The Ismailis constitute a most important segment in our business class. They are good law abiding citizens. We should protect them rather than hurl unfounded sectarian allegations which may hurt them.

This might actually happen as the Quetta disease spreads to the rest of the country through our religious leaders. Before the Imambargah Ali Raza massacre, a family was cruelly murdered in Lahore, which the police wrote off as a family feud to avoid getting a sectarian label. People who knew the inside story could say that the ‘orders’ were to avoid giving the impression that the sectarian disease had come to Punjab. However, the latest news is that a lady doctor, owner of Al Zehra Hospital in the city, has been shot dead in DG Khan. Before the police could come and cover it up the brother of the gynaecologist has announced that the murder is sectarian. Up in the Northern Areas a simmering dispute over textbooks has led to sectarian riots in Gilgit, after which a curfew has been imposed in the area and three people were killed on Sunday for breaking the curfew. It develops that the Shia community in the region objects to the way some Islamic themes are tackled in the textbooks prescribed for their children. Sectarian disputes arise when, because of excessive zeal among the textbook designers, controversial religious detail is increased for children at the lower levels of the education system.

The trouble in Pakistan is religious-passion-based and it is happening on the eve of the budget. Does this confirm that the state is too entangled in covering up its ideological troubles to care for the economy? The budget approaches. General Pervez Musharraf should review his entire approach to such issues carefully. *