APS Massacre: One Year On and Pakistan Still Struggles With Its Extremism Problem

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN - DECEMBER 16: A Pakistani man lays flowers at a makeshift memorial for the victims of Taliban's deadlie
RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN - DECEMBER 16: A Pakistani man lays flowers at a makeshift memorial for the victims of Taliban's deadliest attack, at an Army Public School in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on December 16, 2015, to mark the first anniversary of the school attack which left more than 130 people dead. Pakistan deployed paramilitary forces and police in major cities on December 16 as it marked the first anniversary of a Taliban school massacre that left more than 130 people dead on December 16, 2014. (Photo by Muhammed Reza /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

It hardly seems as though a year has passed since the 16 December, 2014, APS massacre in which militants from the Pakistani Taliban attacked an army administered school in Peshawar. 141 people were killed in the rampage including 132 children.

Even for a country so stricken by terrorism, this was a level of tragedy that could not be countenanced.

The massacre unified Pakistanis of all stripes in the somber manner that only heartbreak can. Vigils were held in all major cities, Christian communities vowed not to wear new clothes at Christmas as an expression of solidarity and thousands took to the streets in protest.

There had been countless attacks before - Lakki Marwat, Lahore, Hazara Town - but this time things were different. This time the terrorists had struck at the most innocent of targets - the nation's children. This time, there would be no clemency, no forgiveness, no turning back and no hiding away from the issues. As the father of one of the victim's put it, "The smallest of coffins are the heaviest to carry" and this was a burden nobody wanted to bear again.

Alongside the grief was a searing anger at how such a thing could have been allowed to happen and with it came a determination to prevent similar atrocities from striking again in the future.

Among those leading the charge was lawyer turned activist, Jibran Nasir, who organized the #ReclaimYourMosques and #NeverForget campaigns which sought an end to state alliances with terrorists and a complete ban on militant outfits. The latter in particular caught the public imagination and its various countrywide rallies became a focal point for those who saw an opportunity within the horror to rid Pakistan of the scourge of extremism.

And it wasn't just regular citizens; the government and military establishment reacted with unprecedented urgency to the groundswell of anger. While the military stepped up their offensive against Taliban insurgents in North Waziristan, the most significant policy shift came with the lifting of a moratorium on executions in terrorist cases as well as an amendment to the country's constitution that allowed civilian terrorism suspects to be tried in military courts. In January the government also launched a 20-point National Action Plan with the goal of cracking down on militancy, curtailing extremism and protecting religious minorities.

Other measures included partnering with the UN's Safe Schools Initiative to improve the security of schools in the country.

And yet just a few weeks later at the end of January 2015 a suicide bomb ripped through a Shia mosque in Shikarpur attack killing 61 people; in February Peshawar was hit again when another Shia mosque was struck causing the death of 19 people; in March two blasts took place in a Christian church claiming 15 lives; in May 8 assailants attacked a bus carrying members of the Ismaili community and shot 46 of them to death; in October 11 people were killed when a bus exploded in Quetta; and just several days ago an explosion in a market in the town of Parachinar left 22 people dead.

With each atrocity the old routines were revisited. First the headlines, then the cries of horror and shame buttressed by hashtag campaigns and the well-rehearsed rhetoric of the political classes. And finally the weary hum of life returning to normal, accept for the families of the victims for whom normal was now learning to live with an earth-shattering grief.

APS then was certainly a game-changer - in so much as it finally showed that the game couldn't be changed so easily. One could almost call to mind comments made by British Journalist Dan Hodges on the Sandy Hook massacre in the United States when he said, "In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over."

In similar circumstance to America - where the right to own a firearm has come to be seen as an inalienable human right - the problem Pakistan faces is that people are willing to reconcile themselves to atrocities committed in the name of religion, even those as indelibly awful as APS, because religious intolerance has for several decades been allowed to metastasise in the country.

The very constitution and laws of the land are built on the foundations of exclusion and prejudice. No one questions why a non-Muslim cannot become president of Pakistan or why the country's blasphemy laws unfairly penalise some religious groups over others because it is a way of life everyone has come to accept. The school system with its divisive religious curriculum further cultivates these attitudes in the next generation making a solution to the problem even more difficult to come by.

Over the years numerous surveys and studies have highlighted growing extremism amongst ordinary Pakistanis. But just to get a measure of how alarming the situation has become, the Pew Research Center recently released data which showed overwhelmingly negative views of the Islamic State in countries with significant Muslim populations. Pakistan was the only exception. Here a meagre 28 percent of people were unfavourable to the group while an astonishing 62 percent were of no definite opinion.

Action plans and military operations are fine, however, they are only combatting the symptoms of a deeper illness that has swept over the whole country. You can't expect to get rid of extremism while allowing intolerance to go unchecked. If Pakistan really wants to do something about the fanaticism in its midst, in needs to wage a secondary war of ideas and that too mainly with itself and those of its institutions which enable tragedies like APS.

Questions also linger as to how serious the authorities are in seeing through the policies enacted after APS. The chief reason being that militant outfits have long played a crucial part in Pakistan's foreign policy, particularly as proxies in the rivalry with India. Politicians also remain weary of overplaying their hand from fear of backlash by mullahs and a religiously conservative population. The last thing they want to do is give the impression that they are in a fight with Islam. Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the case of Maulana Abdul Aziz the Lal Masjid cleric who famously refused to condemn the APS attack at the time and has long undermined the writ of the state with his support for the Taliban and constant calls for the implementation of Shariah law in Pakistan. Few though dare to confront him even though he embodies everything the government claims to want to eradicate.

In the days just gone and those still ahead, Pakistan will come together again to mourn the victims of the APS massacre. Vigils, gatherings and even concerts will stand as testament that the country hasn't forgotten about its darkest hour. However the issue is not one of whether Pakistan has forgotten, but rather whether it remembers enough to truly change.