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)

Comments

It is a fact that religious extremism is gradually consolidating its grip on the Pakistani politics.The social, political,military and economic forces are fast infected with Jahadi mentality . The trend is extremely alarming and the recent happening in Pakistan specifically the Osma’s capture/ murder in Abbottabad by US commondos, the brutal killing of ex Punjab governor, Salman Tasser and minister for minority affairs are the indications

Posted by F.M.Shakil | Report as abusive
 

It is a fact that religious extremism is gradually consolidating its grip on the Pakistani politics.The social, political,military and economic forces are fast infected with Jahadi mentality . The trend is extremely alarming and the recent happening in Pakistan specifically the Osma’s capture/ murder in Abbottabad by US commondos, the brutal killing of ex Punjab governor and federal minister for minority affairs are some of the many indications that Pakistan is heading for anarchy. The political and military forces are equally responsible for making Pakistan a Mullah state.

Posted by F.M.Shakil | Report as abusive
 

How could any of this ever change without Pakistan submitting to international standards of law and order? No country can be forced to join, however perhaps they can somehow be coerced to reach for their better selves and sign on to international criminal justice. The basics of human rights could surely be agreed upon by all but getting countries to submit to enforcement is the real trick. Israel, the US, Russia, and China have put up major roadblocks to the forming of an int’l justice framework. One has to assume that this is in order to pave the way for their own future wrongdoing. And the rest of the world is helpless to budge them (?)

Posted by chella | Report as abusive
 

Once again I’ve submitted a post to Reuters, and once again they’ve censored it. Reuters will censor any post on any flimsy pretext. It really shows the credibility of the site – or rather the lack of it. The critique I posted in response to Myra’s slanted article was legitimate, and shouldn’t have been censored. The more that Reuters acts unfairly, the more it educates the rest of us, and shapes our opinions of Reuters.

Posted by san-man | Report as abusive
 

Myra,
You certainly have a problem! Just remember certain basic changes in the background;

1) A very new USA, traumitised by the shock it received from the arab youth on sept 11 and followed by a second shock of having an African as the President.

2) Pakistan being run down by the miitary and then having a civilian President known for his ten percent fee.

3) Afghanistan being occupied by foreign forces whose marines are now urinating on dead bodies after frustation of over ten years fighting an enemy which is more brutal than any other force in the world.

Now you want to report on deaths of individual people caused by the evil Americans with their drones or those who lost their lives at the hands of lunatic criminals.Take your pick, but please do differentiate between the victims and the perpetrators.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

Myra you said on this blog that you would have liked to know more about Farida
Our organisation worked with Farida and her sister’s org Sawera…
You can see our founder’s blog about hearing the news here
http://www.asafeworldforwomen.org/about/ safe-world-blogs/chris-crowstaff/2773-mu rder-of-farida.html

Posted by safeworld | Report as abusive
 

Excellent article, Myra! Thank you for publishing it here!
It’s very disheartening to see how little attention Farida Afridi’s murder has received, and few are talking about it even if they know about it. I’m not sure if it’s because people fear that any association with–even supporting–Farida and her work would put them in trouble as well, or if it’s because they feel like she “brought it upon herself.” This event unfortunate reaffirms traditional Pakistani’s/Pashtuns’/Muslims’ belief that women should stay at home and not do anything “controversial,” even if it’s only to help others; mothers and fathers are now likely to discourage their daughters from pursuing such paths rather than supporting them and encouraging them to do it because the only way to put an end to this madness of killing women like Farida Afridi may be to have more women like her. Of course, there will always be the few exceptional parents like Afridi’s. Ultimately, few are willing to die themselves (as martyrs) or put their own families in danger even if their intention is to save more others.

On the killing of the man accused of blasphemy — perhaps it got so much attention worldwide because it confirms everyone’s (especially Westerners’) suspicion that Pakistan is a backward country where anything and everything is defined as blasphemy. Whether this is true or not may be a different story. But then, one could ask, “Could Afridi’s case not be highlighted to confirm everyone’s suspicion that Pakistan is a dangerous place for women, especially for women working for human rights?” True, true … but it may have something to do with the people’s personal/political beliefs about women like Afridi, or it may just be the troubling idea that many people think she brought this upon herself and by doing the kind of work she did.

Again, thank you for writing this :)
Peace be with you!

Posted by Orbala | Report as abusive
 

I find it incredible that Pakistanis will take to the streets to condemn drone attacks which more often than not do find their mark.

But not a peep when an innocent young woman, fighting to improve the lot of her neighbours is assassinated by Taliban thugs.

The silence is deafening.

More evidence that every day that goes by Pakistan is becoming more like Afghanistan than the other way around.

Posted by True.North. | Report as abusive
 

Myra,
The latest from Miss Amanpour of CNN is that the targets for the Drones are identified personaly by Mr Obama, implying that how can hey be illegal in International law? The Chicago man is getting ready for the Hague, but please keep the guy there in Hawai, America. The dark sun tanned people are not very popular in the non anglo saxon world.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

Myra,
The latest from Miss Amanpour of CNN is that the targets for the Drones are identified personaly by Mr Obama, implying that how can hey be illegal in International law? The Chicago man is getting ready for the Hague, but please keep the guy there in Hawai, America. The dark sun tanned people are not very popular in the non anglo saxon world.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

Dear Shameless Reuters Moderators,

You find all the problem in anything anti-pakistan or anti-afghanistan, but you surely allow the highly racist comments by your best poster RexMinor with latest being: “The dark sun tanned people are not very popular in the non anglo saxon world.” If Islam is so dear to you then go fight in Afghanistan instead of spoiling reuters name here. You have converted this blog into a jihadist and anti-America/anti-India/anti-Israel/anti -non muslim propaganda site.

Posted by 007XX | Report as abusive
 

Anyways, this is my last visit here now, since the only thing allowed here is thrashing of everyone non-muslim. Standards have fallen!!

Posted by 007XX | Report as abusive
 

007xx, Keep cool I did not call the guy Nigger, but simply used the name which the Italian former Premier gave him? You see any problem or did you want me to call him a constitutional law Professor, a noble prize Laureat for peace, who is carrying out extra judicial killings. Why blame Reuters moderators? Perhaps you should be blaming free press and CNN reporter Miss Amanpour who showed surprise that Drones killings are illegal since the targets were being approved By the President of once great Republic himself. Pax America is going down the route of Pax America. I better stop, since I am hearing the Drone noice above in the sky.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

007

Resist evil and tyranny so that human Freedom can survive and live longer. Think positive and be good to others for your sake. India will certainly face the music for its torture agaist Kashmiris.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

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