Violence in Pakistan is hardly breaking news, but the ways in which violence has permeated the national psychology and uprooted the innocence of childhood – well, that deserves more attention. The nation just celebrated its 66th year of independence from British colonial rule, an anniversary that this year fell close to the Eid al-Fitr celebration marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. In addition to fasting and prayers, Ramadan is also a special time for charitable acts, as many believe the benefits of charity – a central part of Islam at all times of the year – are particularly enhanced. At a time of the year when so many were focused on the needs and vulnerabilities of others, I was struck by the ways in which young children in Karachi chose to mark this most holy of months. Summer vacation is in full swing, and the streets have been filled with children. But on a recent stroll through the city, I came across a clutch of children targeting passers by with plastic toy guns – available from numerous local stalls in the markets of Karachi.
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I approached a group of kids ‘taking cover’ behind a parked taxi cab, greeted them with good wishes for the Eid festival and asked what they were doing. “We are practicing to kill the kafirs,” one of the boys responded gleefully. The term ‘kafir’ is used widely in Pakistan to denote anyone who is not Muslim. My heart sank. I can accept that Pakistan’s culture of death and intolerance may not be reversible among the more aged and ideologically entrenched, but I had hoped that a new generation might have seen the ways in which the country has been torn apart by sectarian violence, and refused to participate in it. Mohammad Arif runs a small shop in Karachi and says he does a brisk trade in toy guns during the Eid holidays. “Every year I sell more than three hundred of them and earn a good profit,” he said. He added that many parents wage a futile battle to discourage their purchase, but the children insist – and the parents give way. I see these toy firearms as symbols of hatred and discrimination. Fundamentalist groups such as the Taliban encourage youths to join their rallies and brandish their play guns – in the hope, no doubt, that it will prepare them for sturdier and deadlier weapons when they come of age. These toys are nearly exact replicas of real weapons, from their design to their loading mechanisms. Thankfully, I’m not the only one concerned about this. NGOs and other civil society groups have begun to campaign more aggressively to curb the prevalence of these fake weapons. Muhammad Arshad Khan, a member of the NGO Ranrraa Development Trust that works primarily among Pashtun communities to curb the purchase of toy weapons, told the Express Tribune
newspaper earlier this month that the sale of these ‘weapons’ poses a real threat to society. “If you are buying [toy] guns, you are training five-year-olds to load a magazine, put a bullet in the chamber and fire shots. After using the toy gun, a child can easily use a real one.” Ranrraa and other organizations have instead urged parents to purchase books and other educational materials. But the government has remained curiously quiet on this subject, at the same time that it endorses interfaith dialogue and other efforts to promote greater harmony among ethnic and religious minorities and the Muslim majority. As governments in other parts of the world that have high rates of gun violence take steps to impose bans on toy guns – particularly in the United States – the Pakistan government has done little to curb the proliferation of toy guns or even recognize the dangers these toys pose. The few organizations that have tried to tackle the issue, including the Catholic Church, have not kept pace with fundamentalist groups, who embrace the toy gun culture as a gateway for real gun violence. Until the government steps up to challenge this culture of death and intolerance, the cycles of violence that have plagued the country since its independence will continue to fester. Sadder still, the leaders of the future – our children – will continue to get a crash course on killing under the guise of innocent play. Archangel is the pseudonym for a freelance journalist based in Karachi