12:24 p.m. February 25, 2013

The War Nerd: Grim News from Quetta, Silence From The American Left

You know that old “tree falls in a forest” riddle from Philosophy 101? It should be updated to something like, “What if a sectarian bomb goes off in Pakistan…” The difference is that people can hear a falling tree, but they go totally deaf, purposely deaf, when some new nightmare happens in Pakistan.

Just last week, a hundred people were blasted and burned to death in Quetta, in Western Pakistan, most of them schoolkids. But for some reason it didn’t make much of an impression on any pundits, rightwing or left. It’s easy enough to understand why the rightwingers didn’t react: they’re already convinced Muslims are all evil crazies, and a lot of them cheer in private when Muslims blow up other Muslims.

The silence from the Left is harder for me to figure out. In fact, that’s something I want to talk about, American leftists’ queasy silence about Islam. A funny thing happened when I went to Saudi Arabia last year: when I left, it was still all but illegal to criticize Israel, and totally OK to smear Muslims, even for “progressives.” Back then, I was a pro-Muslim radical. But when I came back, in the summer of 2012, the whole leftist Twittersphere had done a 180. Suddenly all the cool people were anti-Israel. Which is fair enough; Israel’s been getting away with murder, and pretty much every other felony, for half a century now.

But the American Left can only handle way simple, dumbed-down storylines. So you could just about hear the slow mental machinery grinding along, then coughing up a simple new rule: “If Israel bad, then Islam good.” Well, uh, no. In the first place, why does there have to be a good guy in this story? The enemy of your enemy is also a jerk, most of the time.

It was especially weird for me to run into this new-model stupidity because I’d just been through a yearlong sentence in the medium-security Islamic prison known as Saudi Arabia. And not in an expat compound like most Westerners. I lived in a small town, a Shia town, in a standard apartment building. Which, believe me, doesn’t put you in the mood to learn a whole new set of lies about how wonderful Islam is, especially Wahhabi Islam. You know why the founder, Wahhab himself, was expelled from an Arabian town? Because he was too fond of stoning women to death.

Of course, the standard line is that “Saudi is a special case.” Yeah, true. But then every part of the Muslim world is a special case. It’s stupid to demonize Islam in general for what happens there or in Pakistan, but it’s just as stupid to angel-ize Islam by pretending that the handful of Levantine intellectuals you tweet with are typical Muslims. In fact, I’d say small-town Saudi is closer to the norm than your cosmopolitan Twitter pals.

There’s a sulky, grudging silent majority in most of the world—imagine Bakersfield with subtitles and exotic soundtracks. Most of the time, the hicks who make up those silent majorities are harmless, too busy messing up their own lives to do much damage. But in a few places, that hick anger and resentment of the cool, fast world links up with some bigger agendas, with money and ambition. And in those places, some pretty seriously godawful shit happens, and it’s just cowardice to pretend that everything was nice there until the eeeevul drones started blasting.

Which brings us to Quetta. Quetta has the bad luck to be in Pakistan, the other country created in the late 1940s on the basis of religious identity. That’s right: Israel and Pakistan, created at the same time for the same reason, to create a one-religion homeland. Since then, both of those countries have done their best to show the world that combining religion and nationalism is a very bad idea, which anybody who ever dated a Southern Baptist already knew.

Quetta’s next piece of bad luck is that it has a Pashtun majority. Pashtun have always been scary people, useful when they’re on your side but stubborn, dumb and violent in opposition. Kind of like Scots-Irish Southern Baptists, actually. And somebody who truly believes in the God of the Old Testament, no matter whether he calls himself a Baptist or Shas or Taliban, is a killer. The difference—and I didn’t know this until I went to Saudi—is that a lot of Muslims truly believe in God, and even the craziest American Baptist doesn’t—not really. Not to the death. It’s one thing to be churchy, but “to the death” is a whole nuther level. Nobody here has it any more, not the way they do over there. Again, that’s not something I always thought; I didn’t know it until I saw the real thing. Then I realized that our Baptists are faking it, even if they don’t know it.

I read a quote from somewhere that sums it up perfectly: “It is not their love for us but their lack of faith that prevents the Christians from burning us.” That’s exactly right; if they had the faith they claim, they would burn us. But they don’t. In a lot of places in the Muslim world, they still have faith. Faith can move mountains, but most of the time faith just kills people. It’s the one miracle humans can actually do: turning a talking, walking, breathing enemy into a piece of meat with one bullet. And the Pakistani jihadis love performing that miracle.

Here again, we run into a squeamish leftist avoidance tactic: Instead of admitting that Pashtun are God-crazed Jihadis, leftist commentators say, “Much of what passes for Islam in Pashtun circles is actually only Pashtunwallah, the set of customs…” Yeah, true. But then much of what passes for Christianity in Bakersfield is only Okie-wallah, Scots-Irish-wallah. So what? A set of customs that has the Smiter-God from the Old Testament backing it up is a terrifying thing, and it isn’t fazed by some nasal-voiced anthropologist pointing out that local customs have crept into the doctrine. Doctrine and custom are one and the same after a few generations, like God and guns in Bakersfield. You can blather all day about how “Jesus never shot anyone,” snicker-snicker, twitter-twitter, but in Bakersfield, “God and guns” is a complete sentence--a complete platform, in fact. Local cultures merge with the religion, make themselves the defenders of the religion, and both parties gain, the way both the Wahhabi and the Sauds gained from their alliance. It’s too late to do Siamese-twins surgery on them now.

So there’s this “fact on the ground,” like wonks love to say: Quetta has a Pashtun majority which hates anybody who’s not Pashtun and Sunni. That’s why the Hazara make such handy villains. The Hazara come from Bamiyan, in Central Afghanistan. They claim to descend from the Mongols, but they adopted the wrong version of Islam—Twelver Shia. Afghanistan has almost always been ruled by Pashtun, and their attitude toward the Hazara heretics has veered unpredictably from threats and contempt to outright massacre. Hazara history for the last few centuries is a list of massacres by one or another Pashtun bully yelling “Allahu Akbar.” The tradition is still going strong. One reason the Taliban dynamited those giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan was that they couldn’t stand the thought of leaving the local Hazara with anything of value. They’d already killed most of the local Hazara men and raped the women and boys, so there was nothing left to wreck but the statues.

Some of the Hazara left Bamiyan and fled south to Quetta, in Pakistan, thinking they’d be safe there. There are almost a million Hazara in Pakistan now, at least 600,000 of them in Quetta, where they stick together in ghetto neighborhoods for protection. The Hazara had always been a hard-working, quiet people, and in Pakistan they had the chance to send their children to school for the first time in history. They grabbed the chance of an education with both hands, as desperate immigrants do all over the world—as East European Jews did in the US a hundred years ago. Even the Hazara left behind in post-Taliban Afghanistan have gone all-out to get an education. In Hazara areas of Afghanistan, about 70% of male students pass the national exams; nationwide, the rate is only 22%.

The Pashtun don’t believe in education, they believe in war. (Another similarity to Southern Baptists.) So their kids are skipping school or failing. And when the Hazara start to do well, the first thing the Pashtun think is “It’s a Persian plot.” Nobody, not even Fox News, sees Iranian plots as often as the Pashtun do—and the Hazara, those dirty Shi’ites, are prime suspects in every one of those plots.

The most outrageous, infuriating part of the plot, as the Pashtun see it, is that almost half of the Hazara in the new, post-Taliban schools are girls. Hazara women are the new white-collar class in Kabul. They don’t even veil themselves. Headscarves, sure, but not the face veil (niqab), let alone the full-strength lattice-eyed Pashtun veil.

Hazara men are taking advantage of opportunities in the Afghan Army, earning a salary for shooting Pashtun Taliban. The Army has quotas for officers, with a 12% maximum for Hazara, but they don’t keep ethnic stats for enlisted men—which is just as well, PR wise, because those stats would show that no self-respecting Pashtun joins. The Taliban is the Pashtun Army; the Afghan Army is their enemy.

So the Hazara are moving up across the board. Uppity unveiled Hazara women in gummint offices, uppity Hazara men shootin’ at our brave Talibs. What happens, anywhere in the world, when a dominant tribe figures out that its traditional victims are moving up, passing it by? If you said, “The dominant tribe, realizing that education is the road to success, does its best to excel in school,” please put on this tall cone-shaped hat and sit on that stool in the corner. No. What happens is that the dominant tribe begins killing its rivals in the most horrible ways it can figure out, focusing on killing the kids from that tribe who are getting an education.

That’s the real goal of these non-stop bombings: forcing Hazara kids, especially Hazara girls, to stop going to school. And it’s working. According to The Friday Times, the part of Quetta where the university is located is now a no-go area for Hazara, making sure that they’re excluded from any higher education:

The Hazara people are not allowed in certain parts of Quetta, including the Sariyab Road where Balochistan University is situated. According to Asmat Yari, the president of Hazara Students Federation (HSF), "Almost 75% of Hazara students have quit the university and those who remain cannot attend classes because of fear." School attendance has also decreased by 10 percent this year, and college attendance by 25 percent. Parents do not let their children take exams in centers outside of the areas deemed safe for the Hazaras.

And so, on February 16, 2013, something like the perfect bombing—“perfect” in a horrible way—happened in Quetta. A water tanker full of explosives went off in “Hazara Town,” the Hazara ghetto.

The bomb was perfectly placed to show the resentment Sunni Pakistanis feel at a once-submissive heretical group moving up in the world: the square where the tanker went off had at least four English-language and computer schools. The bomb exploded at the precise moment hundreds of Hazara kids were leaving their classes at those schools. After the bombing, the square was full of kids’ backpacks, books, and shoes.

That’s what it is to be subject to pogroms all the time: You cluster together in tight ghettoes. That keeps you safe from smalltime harassment, but it also makes you a perfect target for big bombs like this one.

This was no whodunit. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (“Army of Jhangvi,” Jhangvi being the Deobandi nutcase who started the movement a few name changes ago) took credit in a few hours. There’s a Lashkar for any target on the menu in Pakistan; Lashkar-e-Jhangvi specializes in killing Hazara civilians, whereas Lashkar-e-Taiba tries to corner the market in killing Indians. You can’t top these Pakistani organizations for ironic names; “Taiba” means “good,” or just “fine,” so LeT is “Army of the Fine.”

All these Lashkars operate with total immunity from the law, partly because the ISI, the way-scary Pakistani intel service, likes to keep them around. They serve all kinds of purposes, from freelance hit squads against anybody who criticizes the ISI to cheap cannon fodder in the low-level Kashmir war. But let’s be honest for a second: The other reason they can kill hundreds of people with total impunity is that the average Pakistani is completely in favor of killing kaffirs. Massacring Hazara, who are seen as unwanted heretical immigrants, is a nice safety valve for the authorities, a popular way of distracting people from their miserable lives. If you want to see a timeline of the non-stop mass murder of Hazara, there’s a pitiful Wikipedia page called “Persecution of Hazara People in Quetta,” with so many entries they have to break it down by year.

I remember talking to this Indian Muslim in Saudi. He was the real deal—wore the flat embroidered cap, had a Salafist Lincoln-beard and did “salat” (the ritual prayer of Muslims) the required five times a day. But one day he walked to class with me and whispered, “Some of these Pakistanis, you know…I was talking with [name of colleague deleted] about the killings in Karachi, the Shia, you know…and he said to me, ‘What does it matter, they’re only kaffirs’.”

That attitude is pretty standard, not just in the ISI but in the Pakistani police and provincial administrations. Just a month before the February 16 bombing, there was an almost identical one in Quetta. On January 10, 2013, a suicide bomber wandered into the Hazara ghetto, walked into a “Snooker Hall” and blew himself up. He took about a dozen people with him. But if you know your suicide-bombing technique, you know that the most dangerous thing you can do is go try to help the victims of a bombing like that, because there’s probably a second bomb somewhere on the scene. Sure enough, as people milled around trying to carry out the wounded, an ambulance pulled up and exploded in the middle of the crowd. Officially, 96 people were killed, but casualty figures from Pakistan are always low-balled. With a three-figure KIA, even the Pakistani government had to do something. So they replaced the provincial governor. Of course, that did nothing to stop LeJ. It wasn’t meant to. It was meant to convince the urban Pakistani elite and foreign media that the government was doing something.

The Hazara fight back, in the weird ways available to helpless tribes. Open warfare, even guerrilla warfare, is impossible; the Pashtun crazies and the Punjabi elite are united against them and could wipe out the whole community if they wanted. So they have to fight passive-aggressive style. One of the most effective ways to fight back is with your dead. The dead are very, very important in irregular warfare. After the February 16 massacre, the Quetta Hazara refused to bury their dead.

That caused a lot of stress for the authorities, not only on public-health grounds (not a priority in most Pakistani cities) but because Islam orders you to bury the dead quickly, without waiting for far-off kin to arrive. There’s a hadith on the subject: “Hasten the funeral rites.”

In other cultures, guerrillas keep dead comrades’ bodies around for a long, smelly time because they martyrs' bodies have magical power. If you’ve ever seen footage of a guerrilla funeral, with the flag on the coffin and the young men carrying it around yelling, you know how it works. In an Islamic city, you have to do that quickly, which is why it’s especially intense. When you refuse to bury the dead, like the Hazara did this time, you’re rubbing the authorities’ noses in the fact that no justice has been done, so no proper rites are going to take place. And in a culture that still believes--actually believes--that’s a terrible pressure.

And it worked. After a few days, the Pakistani government actually arrested a few LeJh guys. They picked up 170 men in all, and killed a couple in shootouts. Way more importantly, they went through the motions of taking the real boss of LeJ, Malik Ishaq, into custody.

This guy…what a creep. Jeez, I’ll walk down the war road with just about anybody, but this guy…ugh. His whole mission in life is killing Shi’ites, and he’s a happy man, a success, with hundreds of dead civvies on his account. He did 14 years in prison, but by all accounts he had an easy time of it, with cellphone access and friendly jailers (from that same silent majority).

Every other time he's been up on murder charges, Ishaq has walked out of court a free man. In one case, the judge actually offered him tea and cookies. Another tried to hide his face in front of the accused, but Ishaq made it clear he knew His Honor’s identity by reciting the names of the Judge’s kids.

This time, Ishaq turned himself in, possibly because he's safe in prison. He'll relax in a nice cell for a few weeks, until the media forget. Then he’ll be out again. It’s easy to blame the ISI for this nightmare, or the CIA--a lot of leftists aren't comfortable until they can bring it home to the CIA--but at some point you have to face the nasty fact that Pakistan, which started out producing smart, urbane people, has gone violently insane -- and that insanity runs right through the silent majority. Whether you like admitting it or not, Deobandi Islam has a hell of a lot to do with that, just like Ulster Protestantism has a whole lot to with what’s wrong with the South.