Pakistan: The politicisation of death

July 6, 2012

So many deaths in Pakistan; so many to outrage or upset us. How do we choose whose death to notice? The civilian killed by a drone strike? The Shia Hazara gunned down in Balochistan? The Ahmadi father knifed to death in his home? The beheaded Pakistani soldier? The mother who died in a suicide bombing? The murdered journalist? The child swept away by floods? The acid attack victim?

And let’s be clear – we do choose. The domestic and international media decide whose deaths to highlight. We put their stories out on Twitter. Politicians speak about their case.  Since there are too many deaths for us to condemn them all, we notice only some. I have been thinking about this, the politicisation of death, after two stories appeared in the last few days about two very different people killed in Pakistan.

One was about a man beaten to death by a mob in Punjab after being accused of blasphemy. According to newspaper reports, he was dragged out of a police station and after he had been beaten (the accounts vary here about whether he was dead at this point), the mob poured petrol over him and burned him. Nobody even knew his name.

The other was about a young woman, Farida Afridi, from Khyber Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), who was working on a project to improve the education and empowerment of women in the region. She was attacked by men on motorcycles shortly after she left her home, shot and killed. She was 25.

The first story made the international media; it reached the top headlines in the English-language domestic media; Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari demanded an inquiry. The second struggled to make it into the mainstream.

Now it is invidious to compare one death to another. Both people were innocent. Neither deserved to die. Their murders must be condemned. Yet since we have made a choice and given more attention to one over the other, we do have to explain why.

After all, we spend enough time fitting death into political categories. Some politicians choose to stress civilian deaths from US drone strikes over those killed by Taliban suicide bombings in order to win political gains from populist anti-Americanism. For others, the use and abuse of the blasphemy laws, or the killings of minority sects, is about political or personal power.

But why did the man killed by the mob win so much more attention than Farida Afridi?  Was it the manner of his death? Or because the tribal areas are so little known and understood, so much on the periphery, that people do not care so much about what happens there? Perhaps there were elements of that.

Or was it also because Farida Afridi was so vulnerable that we can reassure ourselves that it won’t happen to us? If our concern for the man killed in Punjab is so deeply held, should we not feel the same about the young woman?  Or is our concern less about the victim and more about our own fear?

We too are scared of the mob. This is particularly true now inside Pakistan.  Outside Pakistan – and this may help explain the international media interest – we are scared of the mob scaled up into an entire country; one with nuclear weapons and home to al Qaeda, that seems to be threatening the entire world.

And of course the stereotypes conjured up by the two deaths are easier to understand in the case of the man than of the woman. The blasphemy laws are internationally notorious, a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with Pakistan. But an educated young woman fighting courageously for women’s rights in the tribal areas – a place better known for its drone bombings and insurgent sanctuaries – fits less comfortably into our preconceptions.

I would like to have known more about her.

It would be too much to pause and think about every death in Pakistan. But we can at least stop to ask about the kind of attention we pay and why. After 9/11, many accused the U.S. administration of politicising fear. Perhaps we need to think instead about the politicisation of death.

(Reuters file photo of a newly dug grave in Pakistan)

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