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Why Karachi's violence shouldn't define city

By Fatima Bhutto, for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Karachi is plagued by internecine violence, targeted killings and lawlessness
  • Karachi's violence does not have to do with Islam but with politics, Bhutto says
  • Bhutto says violent cycle is not new; during "Operation Clean Up," 3,000 people were killed
  • As a Karachi resident, Bhutto says she holds on to a city untarnished by violence

Author Fatima Bhutto's latest book is "Songs of Blood and Sword," a memoir of dynasty and politics in Pakistan. She is a member of the Bhutto family: her grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was Pakistan's first democratically elected head of state; her aunt is the late Pakistani premier, Benazir Bhutto. Fatima Bhutto lives and writes in Karachi, Pakistan. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @fbhutto

Karachi, Pakistan (CNN) -- Karachi has long been the face Pakistan wished to show to the world. The port city, one of the largest cities in the world -- placed sixth or seventh, depending on whom you ask, with a population of more than 18 million -- once represented the ideal of what Pakistan ought to have been.

Karachi was and still is the nation's most ethnically diverse, carrying a reputation for being generously accepting and accommodating; a city that opened its doors to refugees, to migrants, to traders, artists and business communities who sought a harbor from which to connect to the outside shores. With communities as varied as Zoroastrians whose philanthropy built much of the city, Jews at one time, Baha'is and Hindus amongst many others, Karachi is undoubtedly the most religiously tolerant of its fellow cities. But this is no longer the face of Karachi that the world can see.

It is a city now plagued by internecine violence, targeted killings and lawlessness. Karachi has become the battleground, as it always has been, for the country's inept and corrupt political elements. Even though 70% of the total annual tax revenue collected by Pakistan's government comes from Karachi -- the country's stock exchange is here, and it is the commercial pulse of Pakistan -- the government has been content to let the carnage in Karachi fester.

Read more about Karachi's violence

While Karachi, like all big cities, has always had its fair share of crime, the violence here mutates and constantly changes form. At times it is gang-related as it is now, the bloodshed mercilessly fought out between powerful criminal mobs with high-level political patronage from the ruling parties. At other times it has been more outward looking, and embassies and foreign fast-food franchises have been the target of ire against the War on Terror, a war most Pakistanis see as unjust and illegal.

And then there have been brutal suppressions of democratic protests here -- movements against martial law, various dictators and politically oppressive dictates have been cruelly put down by state forces in the city.

Fatima Bhutto
Fatima Bhutto

But we are not a city that operates under religious extremism. Karachi's violence has nothing to do with Islam, with Islamic fundamentalism or the ugly manifestations of religious violence. In fact, it is a city that in recent years has largely managed to hold itself away from this growing trend. The Danish cartoon riots in the city were less enthusiastic than in other parts of the country. The recent violence against the blasphemy laws was almost totally confined to the Punjab province, and religious parties in Karachi have traditionally been viewed with a mixture of antipathy and disinterest.

It's not Islam. Our violence has to do with politics.

Unprecedented fear in Karachi
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The ruling Pakistan People's Party -- under its current leadership nicknamed the Permanent Plunder Party or the Pakistan People's Problem by the more creatively frustrated -- have been fighting their coalition partners the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, an ethnic Muhajir party based largely in Karachi, almost since the start of their tenure in power.

Just this month, the PPP's senior provincial minister Zulfiqar Mirza fueled deadly protests in Karachi after he attacked the MQM, referring to it as being a party of "criminals, target killers and extortionists." The name-calling prompted the MQM to label the comments as hate speech, and Mirza apologized. A week later it was the MQM that accused Mirza of running "killing brigades," staging a walkout from the National Assembly with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in protest. The prime minister has ordered an investigation --- one of the many he has ordered this year in the face of growing outrage over his government's mishandling of the law-and-order situation in Karachi.

Two weeks ago Karachi saw a death toll of some 100 people killed in just about five days, casualties in a turf war waged between activists from political parties. Perhaps one shouldn't be surprised. In the mid-1990s, when the PPP and the MQM last formed a coalition government the two also fought a war on Karachi's streets; some 3,000 people were killed during what's known as "Operation Clean Up."

Meanwhile, the MQM is attacking the Pushtoon-based Awami National Party for control over the city's transport routes, an economic turf war that has been increasingly bloody. When the violence becomes inflamed, as has happened this July, the MQM threatens to walk out of the government, sometimes does, and then duly returns a few days later. And so the cycle continues, although leaders of the three parties met this week and agreed to work toward peace in the city.

The violence, which reared its head in 2008, has seen bodies dumped on roadsides in gunnysacks, riots that paralyze the city, journalists killed, and hundreds upon hundreds of innocents killed and maimed. Political activists saw a high death toll last year; as many as 237 were killed as were 300 other civilians in the city, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has calculated that 1,100 people have been murdered in the first half of this year, a murder rate that matches that of Cuidad Juarez, Mexico's infamously dangerous city caught in a brutal drug war. Juarez, however, has seen its homicides and violent crimes decline in recent months, while ours is escalating.

The Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies claims that overall violence in Karachi last year rose by 288% from the previous year, thanks to sectarian and political violence, crime and lawlessness. The government has responded to the violence by issuing orders for Karachi's paramilitary Ranger forces to shoot on sight armed men. But that's it for political solutions to our city's bloodshed: more bloodshed.

But Karachiites still hold on to a view of their city that is untarnished by this violence. Businesses open their shutters every day and run their trade without electricity -- cut for hours in the hot summer months and hours more in the winter. Couples still stand on Netty Jetty Bridge, built at the time of the Raj to connect the port to the rest of the city and make wishes into the salty sea.

We are aware of the many problems this city must face because we know that this violence doesn't define our city. It is imposed upon us, but it is not of us. Drive around the streets from Saddar to Korangi, and you'll see amongst the ubiquitous political sloganeering painted Urdu paeons to Karachi. This is a survivor's city.