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Discriminating Among the Dead

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In an ideal world all lives should be valued equally, but when the reaction to the loss of a life varies with the ethnicity, nationality, color or religion of the deceased, then for sure we have reached a less than ideal state of affairs. We Pakistanis are very quick to protest such behavior, especially when it comes to the Western media’s response to issues involving the death of Muslims.

But it so happens that for us Pakistanis, showing indignation is limited to issues where it doesn’t mean much. Many among us were heartbroken by the plight of the stranded in Gaza and fully supported the forced breaching of their economic blockade, but at the same time we are completely oblivious to the plight of our fellow Pakistanis in Kurram agency, who have also been cut off from essential supplies.

An area that is in desperate need of Pakistani indignation, is our media’s discriminatory coverage of the Taliban onslaught; a bomb blast in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or FATA somehow does not result in the same level of urgency and priority as a bomb blast in other parts of the country.

An example of this is the difference in coverage between two recent suicide attacks, one of which was in Darra Adam Khel on the 5th of November while the other was in Karachi on the 12th of November. If the loss of human lives is the measure of the importance of these incidents, then in that respect our media associated a much lower weight to the dead in Darra Adam Khel.

The 16 dead in Karachi resulted in dedicated talk shows, awareness loops and the suspension of regular programming. On the contrary, the 61 dead in Darra Adam Khel, were met with a considerably colder response; the suspension of regular programming was for a much shorter time and none of our major media pundits chose to dedicate their shows to the issue.

Back in 2009, I had the opportunity to put this question to the owner of one of our leading news channels. He simply replied that since he was running a business, he had to cater to his demand, implying that the indifference that comes on the screen is a reflection of the indifference that is felt by a majority of Pakistanis.

The probable reason for this could be the smoke screen that is created by Taliban apologists in politics as well as media. At its core are misperceptions about the supposedly stubborn nature of Pakhtuns. These perceptions have gone beyond the realm of racially motivated jokes, and are fast becoming an explanation for the persistence of the Taliban phenomenon. The Taliban conquered FATA is still seen by many as being the land of the free, where people are so angry with drone attacks that they have decided to head to Karachi and Lahore to exact revenge. While these points could result in short term political gains, in the long term the persistence of these beliefs has major consequences for the future of the Pakistani identity.

This selective indifference i.e. shoulder-shrugging on bombings in the North and revulsion on those in the South, is creating a divide between the Pakhtuns and Non-Pakhtuns of Pakistan. It is no secret that the Taliban are predominantly a Pakhtun movement. Naturally, in case of bombings in non Pakhtun areas the first response is to blame Pakhtuns for the attack. However this realization could be countered by equally highlighting the death and destruction brought about by the Taliban in Pakhtun areas. A lesser emphasis on these attacks robs the ordinary Pakhtuns of a legitimate defense that rather than being the perpetrators, they are in fact the biggest victims of Taliban atrocities, accounting for almost 70% of the dead in 2009. Furthermore, on the other side, this selective indifference causes resentment among Pakhtuns, who feel abandoned by the rest of Pakistan.

The fight against Talibanization is being fought on two fronts, i.e. the physical and the ideological. On the physical side we are dealing with an enemy that is becoming increasingly sophisticated; the number of killed per attack has risen from 1.3 in 2006 to 3.31 in 2009. This increased devastation, which is predominantly caused by the Taliban, should have resulted in a major victory on the ideological front, i.e. in terms of a loss in Taliban popularity. But according to the latest PEW research survey, Taliban approval has actually increased from 10% in 2009 to 15% in 2010.

The provincial breakup of the survey shows that at 22%, Punjab has the highest approval rate for the Taliban, a feat that could not have been achieved without the Taliban-neutral stance of its main political parties. The emphasis on drone strikes and indifference towards terrorist attacks within Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, wrongly paints the Taliban as Pakhtun resistance to United States and thus creates support for their antics, but then the extra emphasis on attacks in non Pakhtun areas turns that misguided sympathy for the Pakhtuns into resentment against them.

Some might argue that comparing Karachi to Darra Adam Khel would be to ignore the importance of the former to Pakistan. While this argument would make sense if we were talking about natural disaster, in the case of the Taliban, the destruction between the two is interlinked. A peaceful Darra Adam Khel is a pre-requisite for a peaceful Karachi.

Appeared in Pakistan Today on December 7th, under the title “Disparity in coverage”


Written by Imran Khan

December 7, 2010 at 7:26 am

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