Pro-life politics in Pakistan

NGO literature photo. Pakistan, 2010.

Pakistan is facing fresh violence following the deaths of over seventy people, and the injury of several hundred more, during a martyrdom operation on Easter Sunday, in Lahore, directed against Christians. As Punjab prepares for a military crackdown, it is critical to understand the situation in its proper context. The Pakistani government is responding to the Taliban (more specifically in this case, the Jamaat al-Ahrar faction) by intensifying its use of indiscriminate violence.

Essential here is the question of what Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics. Suicide bombing must be analysed through an interrogation of how control over death reflects itself in Pakistani politics. The Easter bombing arose, fundamentally, from a problematic of sovereignty. That is, an inability of Pakistanis to control the circumstances of how and where they die.

Suicide terrorism is popular among political factions organising in a context of terror. They reflect a setting in which oppression is being experienced physically through army raids, air strikes, and the mass displacement typical of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, but also psychologically, through policing how one can express themselves politically, under the duress of state harassment and oppression.

Martyrdom operations are an attempt to exercise personal sovereignty in such a context, through resorting to the use of necropower. They allow the repressed Pakistani to obtain, as Franz Fanon argues, “the capacity to determine who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.”

The Pakistani suicide bomber secure freedom through killing, and dying, in defiance of the state’s insistence that it have sole monopoly over such powers. This is obviously a response to the worsening crisis of life in Pakistan, accelerated by the War on Terror.

Since partition, the Pakistani government has responded to domestic unrest, and the threat of serious political challenges, with brutal violence. Perhaps the most infamous example is the 1971 India-Pakistan War, and the genocide in Bangladesh.

Violent groups like the Pakistani Taliban, Jaish-e Mohammad, and Lashkar-e Jhangvi, pose a stark challenge to the necropolitical component of this authority. This is what theorists like Mbembe mean when they refer to individuals having the necropower to decide the “state of exception.”


In Pakistan, multiple taboos about life are being eroded. The Rangers violate human rights  during their interventions in the poorest areas of Karachi, as Khorasani directs Jamaat al-Ahrar to target a park in Central Lahore filled with families celebrating Easter. The Pakistani military displaces millions during a major police operation in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, as militants shoot 141 people dead (including 132 schoolchildren) in an Army Public School in Peshawar.

Clearly, as the War on Terror continues, Pakistanis are finding their ability to control how and when they die even more challenged. In the midst of this, the Pakistani government continues to justify its anti-terror crackdowns by arguing that it is preventing more attacks by being ever more violent.

That may soon be impossible. If people attain freedom by breaking rules, terrorism represents a perversion of this tendency. Pakistanis need to have more authority over  their lives, without making killing an end until itself. The current situation in Pakistan has devolved to that point. Taboos against death have become so useless that new, more binding taboos won’t be enough to restore order.

Indeed, something tougher is needed, and it has be more than just an authoritarian religion, or state. In the interim, conflict needs to end. Otherwise, anarchy will become the new norm, and there will be no sense in pretending that Pakistan is not a failed state.

Photograph courtesy of Feed My Starving Children. Published under a Creative Commons License.