Pakistan outraged over school massacre. But will mood tip scales against Taliban?

Popular sentiment against the US and West is so strong, and hardline religious ideology so pervasive, that the Taliban attack in Peshawar may not permanently sway public opinion. 

Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
People hold placards and candles in memory of victims of the Taliban attack on the Army Public School, during a rally in Islamabad, December 17, 2014.

A day after a massacre of youth by a local Taliban suicide team, social media in Pakistan is full of condemnation and outrage, with many people setting their Facebook pages and Twitter images to a plain black background, the color of grief. 

Three days of official mourning was announced by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after at least seven suicide soldiers killed 147 people, mostly students under 16, at an Army school in Peshawar in the northwest. None of the attackers were caught alive in Monday's eight-hour killing spree. 

Yet even after one of the most horrific slaughters of the innocent in Pakistani history, it is questionable whether the public is ready to entirely abandon its support of militancy – or a deeply populist view that the basic cause of the attacks stem from US and Western interference. 

Today, flags on government buildings in the nation are at half mast, civil society groups are holding vigils, political parties have called off activities, and TV news stations are displaying black-and-white logos. All are intended to show solidarity with the victims of the attack. Most schools in Pakistan also shut down today.

The Pakistani Taliban, which quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, have long presented themselves as sympathetic and devout fighters subject to US drone attacks and unscrupulous Pakistani officials. 

Several analysts say the incident will likely soon be forgotten, noting popular influences in the media that include conservative Islamists arguing that the real issue is Pakistan’s alliance with the West in what they depict as a fight against Islam.

Pakistan has seen decades of hardline religious ideology, which could dissipate the current public outcry, these analysts say. 

“Public opinion has swung heavily against the Taliban …[yet] this can only be translated into action by the political parties and media that set the public mood,” says Raza Rumi, a much quoted political analyst who himself has been a target of Taliban interest. “If Pakistan's recent history is to be kept in view then there will be divisions soon and we may just lose another chance of reversing the tide."

Accusations against 'foreign forces' 

After the 2012 shooting of peace activist Malala Yousafzai, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week, public feeling swung quickly from anti-Taliban to pro-Taliban after Islamists claimed the episode was orchestrated by “foreign forces” aimed at maligning Pakistan and the Taliban. Already today some jihadi media outlets are calling the school shooting a consequence of Pakistan’s alliance with the West.

Extremist groups related to the militant Lakshar e Taiba today claimed the suicide squad in Peshawar acted at the behest of forces related to an alliance between the US, India and Israel.

At today's burial of Zain Shah, aged 16, who was shot yesterday at the Army School, his uncle echoed this conspiratorial view, as did others at the cemetery. “We are picking up the dead bodies of our children because of the relations between Pakistan and the United States,” he says.

Talat Masood, a former Army general quoted today by Bloomberg News, said the mass killing may represent the crossing of a line for Pakistan's public, and he called on authorities to take advantage of this.

"The government and the army can convert this opportunity into a game changer,” Masood said, adding that they need to work together to crush the militants. “You can’t sit and wait for them to attack again."

The Pakistani Taliban has claimed the attack was revenge for Army operations in North Waziristan launched in June this year.

Mr. Sharif said today that terrorism cannot end in Pakistan without regional cooperation. “We will be sending the Pakistan Army Chief to Afghanistan to discuss this incident,” he added, as it is widely believed that the current Pakistani Taliban leadership is based in Afghanistan.

“This incident has shocked the entire country especially Peshawar,” says Khadim Hussain, an education activist based here. “It’s not just the selection of the target but the way they killed the children – shooting them in the head at point blank range – no one can conceive of how humans can possibly do this. This is beyond barbarism.”

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