In the modern era, a state is defined as ‘a differentiated set of rule-bound institutions, as a system of organising power and administering societal affairs, like collection of taxes and providing security and education’. In common parlance, whenever someone refers to the ‘state’ in Pakistan, they usually refer to the military and its affiliates. The ‘state’ is considered omnipotent and omnipresent by virtue of its coercive authority. There has been a minority of people who resisted this coercion and formed the bulk of what is usually called ‘Civil Society’.

Our ‘state’ claims to defend the physical and ‘ideological’ boundaries of Pakistan. Even the fundamental right to free speech in our constitution is “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan”. Voices of dissent against the state are routinely silenced through murder or through forced disappearance. Ever since the country’s inception, dissenters such as the Baloch, Bengalis, Communists and Sindhis have been branded ‘Traitors’ by the state and shunned out of the national narrative. This hegemony over ideological space remained unchallenged throughout the first five decades of our existence.

Near the end of twentieth century, the power of nationalism was beginning to fade globally and a new formula had to be devised to control the ideological narrative in Pakistan. The State chose religion as the alternative mantra and went on to empower groups that espoused the use of religion in politics. Eminent social scientist Haris Gazdar refers to these groups as the ‘Islamist Civil Society’. The use of such groups by the state started in the 1970s, either to curb leftist elements (in Universities and Labour Unions) or to achieve strategic goals in neighbouring countries (such as Afghanistan). The invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet Russia was a godsend for the Islamist groups and they gladly accepted the role of proxies to wage war in God’s name. The Soviet Army did not intend to ‘conquer’ Afghanistan or to ‘advance towards warm waters’ as is frequently alleged. The number of Soviet soldiers at any given time during the ‘invasion’ did not exceed beyond a certain limit and their only purpose was to defend the Pro-Russian government in Kabul.

The rot truly set in after the Russians had left, paving way for the ‘Jihadis’ to claim victory over a ‘Godless’ empire. On the global scale, organisations like Al-Qaeda emerged out of the ashes of Afghan war. In Pakistan, battle-hardened militants started a sectarian war that resulted in more than a thousand deaths over a decade (1988-99). During this period, the state tried to divert the attention of Jihadis to Kashmir or Afghanistan (where Taliban had taken control of the Pashtun Belt). Following 9/11, the state acquiesced to American demands and joined the war on terror but the Islamists were in no mood to play second fiddle to the state in this matter. The matters came to a head when Islamists targeted the head of State twice in 2003 and other state officials came in the ‘Line of Fire’. The state strived to control its former Protégés but faced failure (as in the South Waziristan) or kept wraps on some—such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad—in anticipation of their ‘strategic value’.

The holy chickens have come home to roost. The Laal Masjid operation in 2007 was the beginning of an open confrontation between the state and the Jihadi. Laal Masjid folks wanted ‘imposition of Shariah’ in Islamabad and the rest of country by closing down massage parlours and illegally taking over Children’s libraries. Very few people (including politicians, state officials, members of intelligentsia or even members of the clergy) have survived after challenging this new hegemony. The case of Geo Network is a case in point. They showed the picture of the head of an intelligence agency for eight hours, in connection to an attack on one of their primetime anchors. Recently, they couldn’t continue their ‘resistance’ for more than an hour when one of the Mullah brigade spewed irrational and illogical views. Senator Pervaiz Rasheed said some brave things after the Hamid Mir Attack and his patriotism was questioned by the state for more than a year. He still kept his job and his life was not threatened. When the same Pervaiz Rasheed criticised the ‘Universities of Ignorance’, he was pilloried nonstop and threats of violence were issued against him. It took him less than a week to publicly apologise for his comments.

It seems that one can survive in this land with criticising the military (unless it involves Balochistan) but not with questioning the clergy. All major political parties have made compromises with militant organisations in their respective constituencies. The current ruling party tried to curb sectarian warfare in its last incarnation (1997-99) but stopped midway when a notorious sectarian militant showed up at one of the Public events organised by the Prime Minister. The ‘State’ needs to clean up this self-created mess and ensure the safety of citizens and the civil society.