I saw a news report recently on ABC News, about a little known place called Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan. It used to be a tourist haven not long ago, a ski resort, but has been transformed of late into something quite different. The news video showed a father carrying his son’s limp body in his arms, after a mortar attack. The boy would not survive, nor would his sister. Masked men could be seen dumping mutilated bodies in the town square. One of these men was beating a man with a wooden rod for reportedly being a drug addict.
What had previously been considered a more developed district has been overtaken by the Taliban over the last 18 months. Approximately 184 schools were destroyed by the Taliban, 120 of which had been girls’ schools. Women who had come to know progressive reform were now threatened with death for shopping alone.
Swat used to be called the “Switzerland of the East” but is now referred to by the people as “the land of the terrorists.” The economy has collapsed, and parents don’t feel safe sending their children to school. The Taliban have targeted politicians, police, and reporters with a hit list, and 47 local politicians, leaders and activists have been ordered to appear before the Taliban court, or else. Dozens have already been killed. The local police have been systematically wiped out, their numbers shrinking from 1700 police officers down to 300.
There is widespread belief in Swat that the Pakistani military has struck a deal with the militants, and is therefore not going out of its way to defeat them. However, military officers point to the difficulty of fighting militants who position themselves among civilians. Some question the military’s commitment in the face of the ferocity of the Taliban’s fight. Yusufzai, the Peshawar editor of The News International says that “…these militants are willing to die while the soldiers are trying to save their lives.” Political activists accuse the military of supporting camps in tribal areas where militants receive training. The Awami National Party’s Gohar says that in her opinion, “If we want peace and prosperity in Pakistan, we cannot go around killing people in other countries, or sending in extremists and militants from our soil.”
Why is any of this important to the rest of us? We don’t live in Swat Valley, do we?
In the wake of 9/11, U.S. foreign policy has focused on regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq. All sorts of justifications have been offered for these policies, some of which have been proven to be false. But in the meantime, these two brutal wars continue to rage on, with no clear outcome in sight. And the conflict between Israel and Palestinians continues unabated as well. The recent military campaign in Gaza is just another case in a long string of military volleys back and forth.
America and Israel have faced an onslaught of international criticism as a result of their military activities, and the suffering such activity brings upon innocent civilians. And it is fitting that a world which calls itself civilized, should be repulsed by violence, and should be able to speak out against the brutality of military action, and in favor of justice for the innocent. After all, what does it mean to be civilized if it is not justice we seek? All this is true. And it is true as well that both America and Israel, who do share a strong connection based on common values, similar circumstances, and mutual interest, have gone overboard at times, with regard to excessive violence, and have wavered with regard to strategy, and with regard to their ultimate goals. In a very real sense, I doubt whether either Israel or the U.S. has a clear picture of what their ultimate goals really are.
But in the midst of all this uncertainty, one thing is pretty certain; the ideological extremists do indeed know what they want, and are emboldened by ideological conviction to get it. It is easy to get so wrapped up in criticizing the U.S. and Israel, that we lose sight of that. And yet, much as we hesitate to admit it, confronting the extremists is absolutely necessary, if we don’t want our countries to delve into the hell that is Swat Valley.
Context is important. For example, stealing is wrong. That’s true. But a mother stealing bread to feed her starving children is less wrong. Isn’t it? Killing civilians is wrong. That’s true. But killing civilians unintentionally in defense of one’s freedom is less wrong. Isn’t it? There are certain questions which have to be answered, and certain decisions which have to be made, even if they bring into question the very moral fiber of our being. Is there a threat to Western civilization posed by ideological extremists? Is this a threat we choose to confront? Do we use the means to confront this threat, even if it means that innocent people will be killed in the process?
These are hard questions, and the answers will be even harder for many of us to stomach. It goes against the grain of who we are. Many of us are idealistic, caring people, and it is exceedingly difficult for us to accept the profound nature of the evil we face, and the injustice that will be necessary to defeat it. And yet, the evil still stands lurking in the shadows. It will not go away quietly into that good night. It will remain and grow until we find the courage and the wisdom to confront it head on, with the same tenacity that emboldens the extremism we face.
I, for one, happen to believe that there is a great deal we could do, short of violence, to weaken the hold of extremist thinking. I believe in speaking to the man on the street with common sense and with a sense of personal dignity. I believe in investing in him; in giving him a place at the table, a stake in his future, by creating good paying jobs: jobs which grow the economy, jobs which protect the environment, and jobs which help to neutralize an ideology of hate. I believe in inspiring him with a Vision of Hope. I believe in sustaining the hope with public diplomacy.
All that is fine and good, but it will not be enough in and of itself. We will have no choice but to fight. Unfortunately, this is the sad state of affairs in which we find ourselves. We will have to fight because the enemy will not be moved otherwise. And therefore, since we have to fight, and fight hard, we owe it to ourselves to position the fight within a Vision of Hope; to raise the fight on the ground to a higher moral plain by giving the fight a moral clarity of purpose. People will fight harder once they know what they’re fighting for. We are not fighting a “war against terror.” We are fighting a war to realize a Vision of Hope. There’s a big difference.
It is precisely because we have to fight, that we also have to invest. Our willingness to invest in the man on the street will give us, and people who choose to partner with us, including moderate Muslims, a good measure of credibility, and will embolden us to sustain the fight until the fight is won. The alternative is Swat Valley, an alternative that most of us cannot even afford to consider.
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