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Express Tribune Editorials – 23rd March 2016

Misplaced patriotism

Many Pakistanis, it seems, suffer from a misplaced sense of patriotism, ever too ready take umbrage at perceived slights to national honour. The furore recently witnessed following Shahid Afridi’s comments about Pakistani players receiving more love from Indian crowds than from Pakistani ones as well as the anger directed towards singer Shafqat Amanat Ali for ostensibly forgetting parts of the national anthem during his rendition before the World Twenty20 match against India, are testament to the Pakistani public’s tendency to take offence where none is meant.

The Pakistan cricket team had travelled to India for the World Twenty20 after much brouhaha had been created over security issues. There had been several incidents in recent times of hostility against Pakistani celebrities in India. Afridi’s diplomatic statement was nothing more than an expression of goodwill in a tense environment, which media pundits on our side of the border conveniently misinterpreted. The context in which Afridi responded to a question posed by a journalist was completely ignored. The reaction of the Pakistani media and public was highly disappointing, with some going as far as to question the captain’s patriotism. Admittedly, Afridi has the unfortunate tendency to often give inappropriate statements, but this was not one of those times. In the case of Shafqat Amanat Ali, while an argument can be made that the talented singer could have given a more convincing performance, the reaction, on social media especially, was again over-the-top. Again, the singer’s patriotism and motives were questioned. The response to Afridi’s statement and Shafqat Amanat Ali’s singing has been unduly harsh, so much so that a legal notice has been served to the former for his comments. Pakistanis who find it all too easy to criticise people in the limelight and question their patriotism, which is a disturbing phenomenon and indicates that we have a long way to go before we mature as a nation. We seem to have little problem in littering our streets and not paying our taxes, which is perhaps a better indicator of our commitment to the country.

The road less travelled

All states evolve, no country or its culture is ever static and Pakistan is as likely – or unlikely in some instances – to change as anywhere else. On this Pakistan Day, a day of celebration, let us look as much forward as back, and catch a sense of where we might be going rather than exhuming the past. It is the job of newspapers and the media generally to take governments to task, upbraid as necessary and apply the necessary censorial and admonitory words that hopefully feed into course-correction. It is equally the job of the media to — but in smaller portions — deliver credit where credit is due. And credit is due.

For all the many deficits and faults that are attendant upon the nation, there is nonetheless a sense, however faint, of renewal. Of positive progress. Of advance rather than retreat. Of winning rather than losing. Of a state that no longer owns the accolade of ‘failed’. There are some fundamental shifts in train, perhaps most noticeably in terms of foreign policy and foreign relations. Pakistan has re-swung the compass, and in respect of India is taking the road less travelled, away from confrontation and towards conciliation, rocks in the road notwithstanding. The transactional relationship with the Arab world is being redefined and today we swing as much eastwards and northerly as we do to the east. Iran and China figure large in our future vision, with trade and investment either on the near horizon or actually ‘in process’.

Domestically, the old giants of poverty, disease and ignorance remain to be vanquished. Education remains underfunded everywhere but there are signs even here of improvement. The population is living longer, a clear indicator that something is going at least better if not exactly right in terms of the physical health of the nation. Poverty is decades away from significant reduction; and some out-of-the-box thinking and a modicum of political courage are going to be needed if that particular giant is ever to fall. Yet taken all together, there is a spring in the national step that was not there three years ago – so ‘onwards and upwards’ as the saying goes.

The Brussels bombings

With at least 13 dead at the site of the airport bombing in Brussels on the morning of March 22; and an unknown number of dead and injured at what is being assumed to be a linked incident on the Metro (underground), it is clear that the terrorists have scored another major coup in Europe. There is already no shortage of analysis, with much of it pointing to deficits in Belgian intelligence-gathering and sharing since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France in January 2015. The capture in Brussels last Friday of Salah Abdesalam, a fugitive from the Paris attacks in November 2015, is being projected as the possible trigger for the latest attacks, and at least one Belgian source is saying that the network of which he is thought to have been a member is both bigger and wider than the Belgian authorities had expected. At the time of writing, there has been no claim for responsibility for the attacks, but the Islamic State or one of its affiliates/proxies is a distinct possibility.

The attack once again highlights chronic deficits in Europe in terms of how terrorism is managed. The arrest of Abdesalam in a neighbourhood where he had lived openly for several months is a case in point. He had a support network in the close-knit and radical community of Molembeek, which has in the past been the focus of intelligence-led operations by Belgian security forces. His arrest came from a tip-off, probably by a pizza delivery driver, rather than conventional intelligence work. There was no such tip-off on Tuesday morning, and the social media were quickly awash with images of the dead and wounded, most of them too graphic to publish. Whoever carried out the attack picked their target well. Zaventem airport is notably lax regarding its own security, there being little before the check-in desks are reached in the departure area, and none at all on the perimeter beyond boundary fencing. There are hundreds if not thousands of similar targets across the European Union. This latest attack is bound to create more questions regarding the effectiveness of European intelligence agencies, and rightly so.

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