Reporting Pakistan - Terrorism and Travel after the Nanga Parbat Massacre

Polo match in Gilgit
In an article on this blog about the Nanga Parbat massacre I said that political violence in Pakistan is becoming increasingly xenophobic. Someone in Pakistan retorted with a tweet alleging that my article was xenophobic.

© Shaun Metcalfe

My accuser isn't a member of the Pakistan Taliban. She is a journalist called Sumaira Jajja, who works for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper. Her track record includes some valuable articles on human rights issues and sectarian violence.

Her accusation is arguably defamatory. So why has she made it?

My article isn't very respectful of Pakistan's government or its state institutions. Perhaps I was a little rough. The current government headed by Nawaz Sharif - in power since June - seems so far to be rather better that the jaw-droppingly awful coalition that runs Britain or the increasingly vicious regime in the White House. But that's as far as I can go. It can't be good news for Pakistan that its government is headed by one of the richest people in the country.

The governor of Punjab province, Mohammed Sarwar, was until 2010 a member of the British parliament representing Glasgow Central constituency. He won his Glasgow seat in 1997, becoming Britain's first Muslim MP. By then he was already a successful businessman, wealthy enough for his metamorphosis into a Labour MP to raise some eyebrows.

Mohammad Sarwar

Mohammad Sarwar
Photo: Wikimedia some rights reserved

He turned out to be a decent enough MP. But his years representing Glasgow were the years of Labour governments headed by Blair and Brown, governments that moved much further to the right than any previous Labour administration. Glasgow needed an MP who would stand up against the Labour leadership. Glasgow Muslims needed an MP who would stand against policies and rhetoric spawned by the "war on terror" that bore down heavily on their community. That was never really in Mohammad Sarwar's line, though he was one of 84 rebel Labour MPs who voted against the Iraq war in March 2003.

Governor of Punjab

I helped to organise one or two public meetings in Glasgow to which Mohammad Sarwar was invited. The meetings dealt with problems raised by the government's increasingly oppressive anti-terrorism laws and its treatment of asylum-seekers. Mohammad Sarwar would turn up, say his piece, and then leave before the meeting was opened up for questions and contributions from the floor.

Before taking up his position in Punjab at the beginning of August, Mohammad Sarwar renounced his British citizenship. Apparently that removes the risk of a conflict of national interests. Never mind that his son Anas is the deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

If Mohammad Sarwar is entitled to govern Punjab, I am certainly entitled to pass occasional comments on Pakistan's affairs. It's a small world.

Racist poster

Intimidating posters in UK Borders Agency Waiting room, Brand Street Glasgow Govan
Photo: Positive Action in Housing

In Britain, anyone who comments unfavourably on the country's institutions and appears to be of un-British descent is likely to be invited by right-wing thugs to "go home if you don't like it here." It's easy to guess where that might lead. In fact, Britain is very nearly there. In the last few weeks the government office in Glasgow where asylum-seekers are required to check in regularly has been displaying large posters that say:

"Is life here hard? Going home is simple."

Suspicion of foreigners is in the long run a lot more dangerous in a country like Britain, with a  history of imperialism, than it is in Pakistan. But it isn't cute anywhere.

I accused Pakistani militants of xenophobia because Jundullah, one of two organisations claiming responsibility (perhaps shared) for killing  10 foreign climbers and a Pakistani man at Nanga Parbat base camp, told the media:

"These foreigners are our enemies and we proudly claim responsibility for killing them, and will continue such attacks in the future."

Sumaira Jajja thinks that I am xenophobic, too. Apparently (according to a personal twitter message from her) she is worried about the effect my article might have on people whose livelihoods depend on tourism. Tourism is particularly important in Gilgit-Baltistan, the northern territory that includes Nanga Parbat and much of the Karakoram range.

Truth is the first casualty of tourism

In Scotland, as in the mountains of Pakistan, a lot of people depend on tourism. I wouldn't be surprised - unfortunately - to discover that the Scottish tourism industry is trying to discourage overseas media outlets from carrying articles unhelpful to its marketing strategy. But I would be very worried if I found that  industry efforts at media manipulation were being assisted  by a journalist working on a mainstream newspaper.

Neither Scotland nor Pakistan will benefit, in the end, from tourist industries that try to persuade tourists to behave like children with too much pocket money. Tourists will be denied the information they need if they are to relate seriously to the places they visit. Those who obtain some of the background anyway, from their own experience, will be encouraged to believe that the sophisticated and responsible thing to do is to keep their mouths shut or to talk like a tourist brochure. An opportunity to improve international understanding will be lost. The gap between visitors and residents will grow deeper, papered over by platitudes.

Perhaps truth is the first casualty of tourism, as well as of war.

In writing about the Nanga Parbat massacre I tried to include some background that people might otherwise miss. I tried to explain, de-glamourise, de-mystify. I tried to examine the relationship between attacks on foreigners and sectarian attacks on the Shia community. I tried to look at the effects of US drone strikes, said by the groups claiming responsibility for the Nanga Parbat massacre to be the reason for their action.

Many of the media reports I used were sketchy and contradictory. I included cautionary notes where I thought it necessary. There were rumours that the army had encouraged the media to minimise their coverage  of at least one violent incident in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Violence obviously isn't omni-present in the territory. But violent incidents have been large enough for it to be clear that they  must be the outcome of very serious tensions. Dealing with this state of affairs is a lot more important than dealing with the question of how to insulate tourists and mountaineers from it.

The economic benefits of tourism do not trump the need, in the interest of everyone in Gilgit-Baltistan, to address the issues openly. Nor do they trump the need for justice for the families, Pakistani and foreign, of the people who have been killed.

Reporting on violence and conflict is hard. Any journalist who tries to do so deserves respect and support, whether or not they are entirely successful. For the moment, the story of community tension, violence and terrorism in Gilgit-Baltistan is incomplete and inadequate. If my article were to provide even the most marginal encouragement for journalists to keep working on the story, I would be very satisfied.

Until that job is done, I don't think any journalist based in Pakistan should even think about trying to discredit an article that could draw more attention to the issue.

Is Pakistan a safe travel destination?

Is Pakistan a safe travel destination? I couldn't guess when I wrote my previous article, and I can't guess now. According to Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, around 270,000 British nationals visit Pakistan every year. Hardly any of them fall victim to violence. Until now, Pakistan has quite plainly been a reasonably safe place for British people to go.

But the Nanga Parbat massacre in late June, and the statements made about it by Jundullah and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), may mean that the situation has changed. At the very least, the massacre shows that some TTP groups now believe foreigners from a wide range of countries to be legitimate targets, and that no one amongst the TTP and its allies is willing to publicly disown this position.

As it turns out, it has not been open season on foreigners in Pakistan. There have been no more attacks on them since the Nanga Parbat murders (though there have been serious anti-Shia sectarian attacks).

Perhaps there isn't really much enthusiasm amongst militant groups for a policy of attacking innocent foreigners. Perhaps the campaign has been put on hold because the Nanga Parbat massacre was followed by a lull in US drone attacks. Unfortunately, the peace was broken by  further US drone strikes on 31 August and 5 September.

Or perhaps tensions have been eased by moves towards dialogue between the Taliban and the Government. The likely impact of the Nanga Parbat attack on Pakistan's international relations - especially with China (Chinese citizens were killed in the massacre) - must have been one of the factors that pushed the government towards talks.

Chalunka Village, Baltistan

Chalunka Village, Baltistan
Photo: Prabhu B Doss some rights reserved

Security measures by themselves cannot guarantee the safety of visitors to Pakistan's mountains. The goodwill and warm hearts of people in the mountain areas won't do so either, unless those qualities can find effective political expression. So it would be a very good idea for anyone thinking of making a visit to keep up to date with political developments.

The US Department of State currently warns U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to Pakistan.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) currently advises against travel in large areas of Pakistan. It advises against all travel on the Karakoram Highway between Islamabad and Gilgit, and it advises against all but essential travel in the rest of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Committed mountaineers and travellers may regard their journeys as essential. Fair enough. Just take care.

Travel warnings have some potential to be used as an easy and rather underhand way to apply economic sanctions. But it isn't likely that the FCO is in this case abusing its role in that way. Britain's Pakistani community is simply too numerous, and its business interests too significant, for that to be an attractive tactic.

On the contrary, successive British governments have seen the links that British people have with Pakistan as a channel for promoting a positive view of British policy. Development programmes in Pakistan are an integral part of Britain's counter-terrorism strategy ( Contest pdf document, p71), which in turn is intimately connected with Britain's foreign policy. That is not necessarily a good thing. Education and development should not be geopolitical playthings.

For the moment, the risk to travellers in Pakistan is hard to assess. The intentions of the Pakistan Taliban are unclear. The Nanga Parbat attack may have been an anomaly, though the words of the attackers suggest otherwise. Only time will tell.

If you wish to travel to Pakistan, think carefully about your plans. If you write about Pakistan, think carefully about the weight of your words. Peace will not be built from tourist brochures.

If you cannot write freely, do not abuse those who do.

Sumeira Jajja was invited to contribute an article for this website explaining her point of view. She has not so far done so. She says that this would need permission from Dawn newspaper, which she has yet to obtain.

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