Pakistan’s self-reflection, a year after its deadliest terror attack

On Dec. 16, Pakistan marked the first anniversary of a Taliban attack that killed more than 100 children. The nation has since stiffened against militants, while some question the quick labeling of terrorists as ‘not Muslim.’

AP Photo
A Pakistani girl prays attending a ceremony in connection with the first anniversary of a Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar, Dec. 16, 2015 in Lahore, Pakistan. Pakistan has closed schools for a day on the anniversary of the attack that killed over 150 people, 144 of them schoolchildren.

Most Muslim countries have suffered terrorist attacks but nothing like the one in Pakistan a year ago on Dec. 16. More than 150 people – almost all of them children – were killed by Taliban militants at a public Army school in what was the country’s deadliest terror attack. The massacre united Pakistanis, first in shock and mourning, then in taking action.

“Pakistan has been changed,” said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the time, a comment he repeated Wednesday as the nation marked the first anniversary of the attack. Schools were closed for the day and many ceremonies were held to honor the victims.

Exactly how much Pakistan has changed is still not clear. In the days after the attack, all political parties rallied behind a 20-point “national action plan.” Much of the plan has been ignored, although the most concrete results have been bolder offensives by the Army, the use of military courts to try terrorist suspects, and the revival of the death penalty. These efforts have helped put Taliban groups on the run. Militancy-related violence is down.

Yet the attack also stirred a kind of self-reflection among many Pakistanis that might be a useful example for other countries dealing with terrorists. They began to question a common reaction after such attacks: a labeling of terrorists as “not Muslim.”

By declaring someone else as a nonbeliever, an act known in Islam as takfir, Pakistanis and others have used the same tactic employed by groups like the Taliban and Islamic State to justify violence in the name of purifying the faith. In resorting to accusations of heresy as a weapon, they are the kettle calling the pot black.

In almost any religion, naming apostates may be common but it's usually done in peaceful, even kind ways. By its very nature, an understanding of God must be of the heart, not coerced. Yet in recent decades, as more Muslims have resorted to terrorism for a host of reasons, takfir has often been a call to arms. But even for militants, it can go too far. In 2014, as Islamic State faced infighting among jihadist groups in Syria, it released a statement warning its fighters not to issue takfir rulings against other Muslim groups.

Many more Pakistanis now realize their country needs greater religious tolerance and less theology bashing. Pakistan has changed from the days when its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, foresaw a secular state and said these words to a newly formed nation: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

Perhaps the best way to honor the Pakistani children killed a year ago could be a further restraint in public attitudes in the habit of citing religious infidelity. Terrorists often act violently toward Muslims out of theological disdain. Those Muslims are right to go after the terrorists to curb violence. But they need not reciprocate the disdain.

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