Pakistan is a country that few, if any, of us have ever been to or expect to visit. It is a world away both geographically and culturally.
Although Jews are permitted entry, Israeli citizens are not allowed into the Islamic country, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel and has hewed to an inflexibly anti-Israeli policy for decades. Even individual Jews with passports from other countries are routinely advised not to advertise their identity and to avoid discussion of religion or Mideast politics during their stay in Pakistan. As one travel advisory notes circumspectly, it could cause “discomfort.”
It is only natural, therefore, that Pakistan rarely occupies our thoughts and makes no claim to our sympathies.
But yesterday was different. For yesterday was election day there. The roughly 100 million potential voters got a share of the world headlines — which also pays the country relatively little attention on most days — as they went to the polls.
Tragically, those headlines on Wednesday were drenched in blood, as at least 30 people were reported killed and many more wounded in a suicide bombing at a polling station in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta.
“[The bomber] was trying to enter the polling station. When police tried to stop him he blew himself up,” a local administration official, Hashim Ghilzai, told AFP.
It was by no means the only violence in the campaign. A terrorist attack on a political rally in Mastung, in Balochistan province, killed 151 people, an election-related shooting left one dead and two wounded in Sawabi, and overall four candidates have died in the violence.
Moreover, the election takes place under a dark cloud of military intervention. The army, which has at various times in Pakistan’s history taken over the government, has been accused this time around of manipulating the campaign to assure the ascent to power of the PTI party’s Imran Khan, against PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif. It is widely believed that Khan, a former cricket star, is their man because of his right-wing politics versus Sharif’s tilt toward putting reins on the military during his term as prime minister. Sharif has been in jail on corruption charges during the campaign.
The Pakistani military maintained an ominous presence on Wednesday, deploying nearly 400,000 soldiers at polling stations, an estimated five times the number deployed in the 2013 election. Ostensibly, they were posted to maintain a peaceful and orderly voting, but in districts where support for Sharif was strong, the sight of the army was presumably intimidating.
At least, that is the picture painted in the Western media. Pakistanis may see it quite differently. In their eyes, Khan may not be the villain he is depicted as, nor Sharif the better candidate, nor the military the evil entity hovering over everything.
It is not our business to take sides in the Pakistani election. Rather, what concerns us is the spectacle of a huge nation caught up in a maelstrom of violence and hatred.
The victims blown to pieces in Wednesday’s bombing were exercising their democratic right to vote. It was as much an attack on democracy and freedom as on any one party. Such violence is the enemy of democracy, which postulates the ability of people to peacefully and freely choose their government, as opposed to rule by military force or dynastic privilege.
Such sentiments would apply to electoral violence anywhere. But in Pakistan, there is another dimension that should not be forgotten: Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
The country has an arsenal estimated to hold 110 to 130 nuclear bombs. That stockpile is growing. In 2015, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Center& published assessments that Pakistan, with a bomb-building capacity of about 20 devices annually, is in the running to be the third-largest nuclear power in the world, after the U.S. and Russia.
Instability in Pakistan is a frightening thought. It conjures up fears that terrorist groups could obtain control of some of those weapons, threatening the security of the region and beyond.
Assurances from Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, which is responsible for watching over the bombs, that 10,000 troops and intelligence personnel will keep them out of the hands of the Taliban (who are in any case encamped on the northwest frontier, far away from the nukes in Punjab), somehow do not provide much reassurance.
For that we turn to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, to watch over the watchers and makers of bombs in Pakistan and elsewhere.
And one can feel thankful that we live in a country in which, with all of its problems, a military coup is not a realistic worry, and where casting a vote is not a life-threatening proposition.