The secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Liaqat Baloch, was one of several politicians at a recent report launch on peace and conflict in Pakistan. High-level representatives of several political parties were present, along with noted commentators and representatives of NGOs and embassies. As the conversation veered to a discussion of war, Baloch tried to bring the crowd home. “See the behaviour of the powerful, the feudals, the government in this country. We need to talk about the daily problems of the common man — health, food prices, income.”
Baloch was the only one to turn a conversation about peace in Pakistan, to one about social justice. He may have been trying to divert the conversation away from one about militancy, but the idea was relevant. It coincided more with the findings of the report, “Understanding the Dynamics of Conflict and Peacebuilding in Pakistan: A Perception Survey”, by Search for Common Ground (SCFG) and the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), than the conversation at its launch at Serena.
For urban and rural Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Fata, the report states, “On average, political parties, religious groups, and feudals combined were perceived as the main actors in conflict by about half the respondents, followed by militant and extremist groups at 30 per cent.” In the national urban survey, “Social inequities between the rich and the poor (34 per cent), the powerful and powerless … were amongst the highest ranked reasons for conflict in all districts.”
When asked how to define conflict, survey respondents had a sophisticated view. The majority defined conflict as a difference in perspectives or opinion. In K-P and Fata, only some respondents — just 35 per cent in Peshawar — included the presence of violence or war in their definition. However, people in other urban areas, and especially in Gilgit, included violence at a high rate.
Underdevelopment may or may not lead to war, but the idea that social injustice in itself is a form of violence is supported by political philosophy.
When Johan Galtung, founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies, expounds on the meaning of violence he writes, “‘War’ is only one particular form of orchestrated violence … how narrow it is to see peace as the opposite of war …”. Instead, he talks about social, structural violence, which often has “exploitation as a centrepiece.” In a violent structure, he writes, “some, the top dogs, get much more out of the interaction in the structure, than others, the underdogs”.
The result is that a category of society experiences daily violence as an inability to fulfill basic human needs.
When faced with the term ‘conflict’, we see the violence that threatens us, physically and socially. Overwhelmingly, the SFCG/SDPI survey respondents understood the term to mean social conflicts and indirect violence. The discussion among societal top dogs, at Serena in Islamabad, reflects a much narrower view. Their discussion quickly assumed that these terms referred to militancy and overt violence. In her closing remarks, former ambassador Sherry Rehman related the discussion to violent intolerance and the threats she receives.
The point is a natural one: we should not escape a discussion on conflict in Pakistan without addressing violence as most citizens experience it on a daily basis. The SFCG/SDPI report tells us that most Pakistanis see ‘conflict’ as intricately tied to an unfulfilled demand for social justice and peace as more than the absence of war. In Quetta, for example, the major causes of conflict were identified as weak governance, exacerbated by a lack of accountability and leading to corruption in service delivery.
The rhetoric of the religious right heavily employs the language of social justice and welfare. For them, it is not just political language. Since its advent, Islam has always spoken to the underdogs of society. Peace and justice are mutually reinforcing concepts. The state of peace, for individuals and society, is seen as a state where justice is in abundance.
Like most rebel movements, which challenge the authority of a perceived ‘unjust’ state, insurgent groups in Pakistan survive not only on fear, but also on a mix of popular support and a demonstrated ability to co-opt power and resources for its followers. They deploy violence in the name of justice, while governments respond with violence in the name of peace. People may suffer war in hopes of a more equitable future. They may not subscribe to the promise of peace from a cocktail of ruling powers perceived to be unjust.
The international community, which drives the discourse about Pakistan even within Pakistan, also defines conflict in relation to itself. It is largely concerned with manifest, overt violence that has the potential to extend beyond Pakistan’s borders. But Pakistanis must decide if building peace in Pakistan means a more equitable distribution of power and resources, and giving equal importance to the daily violence that we have learned not to see.
This article was originally published at: The Express Tribune
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.