The conversation we never had
As a powerful blast rocked Quetta’s beautifully built Serena hotel, and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility, one was reminded of our commitment to fight extremism and terrorism by all means necessary. It seems only yesterday that the vandals from the same terrorist organisation had butchered our children in APS Peshawar and the country had for once come out of its denial and vowed to defeat the menace of terrorism. A 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) that emerged out of top-level deliberations as a consensus document had committed to combating both the hardware and the software of terrorism including the underlying extremist tendencies. Two men, the then army chief and the PPP’s co-chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, reportedly played an important role in the consensus-building exercise. The kinetic operations that followed need no elaboration. Operation Zarb-e-Azb and later Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad went a long way in degrading and uprooting terrorist infrastructure. While the armed forces and the intelligence agencies played their part, the civilian side’s performance was a mixed bag.
Why is this discussion important today? Because once again the region stands at the crossroads. The Biden administration has announced that it will withdraw troops from Afghanistan on September 11, with or without a lasting solution to the country’s myriad problems. Pakistan has already presented a detailed dossier to the UN and various influential actors documenting India’s constant sponsorship of terrorism and export of destabilising ideologies to Pakistan. Some of the details like a Punjab National Bank receipt of a wire transfer to anti-Pakistan miscreants based in Afghanistan have been independently corroborated by the FinCen leaks. There are reports of the TTP factions regrouping on the other side of the border. In such a situation constant vigilance and implementation of the NAP seem the need of the hour. You may not be able to control what happens within the boundaries of other nations but you can certainly do something about what happens at home. This piece tries to address the software side of the problem.
More than one clause of NAP focuses on the issues pertaining to the narrative against terrorism and extremism. Clause 5, for instance, speaks of strict action against the literature, newspapers and magazines promoting hatred, extremism, sectarianism, and intolerance. Clause 11 declares a ban on the glorification of terrorists and terrorist organisations through print and electronic media. Clause 14 vows to take measures against the dissemination of terrorist and extremist propaganda on the internet and social media. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks and the unanimous adoption of the action plan, these clauses were quite visibly being adhered to. The TTP’s spokesman, for example, stopped or was made to stop making phone calls to live television transmissions and talk shows. Similarly, anchors who were using endism and eschatology to sympathise with the terrorists suddenly started talking about something else. But what happened next was quite intriguing. When they absolutely had to mention the kinetic operations against terrorism the otherwise chirpy anchors would transform into these boring automatons and in a soporific voice parrot only one line before losing interest: “Operation Zarb-e-Azb kamyabi se jari hai (operation Zarb-e-Azb is progressing successfully)”. When they had to talk of terrorism, they would churn out word salads that inevitably ended up decrying the murder of citizens by the proscribed organisation but economic terrorism. What is economic terrorism, you ask? Well, using obscure conspiracy theory devices like John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, they would make everything about corruption and about the politicians they did not like. Make no mistake. I am all for fighting corruption. Only that a scourge that has killed over 80,000 citizens and ruined the lives of countless deserves your undivided attention. Attempts to undermine the counter-terrorist, counter-extremist campaign by hijacking the key terms can mean only one of two things. Either you lack the sense of perspective, the sight of the bigger picture, or have sympathies for the guilty party and therefore deliberately misdirecting the conversation. Whatever the reason, this called for a strong counter-narrative against terrorism and extremism. And given the quality of education in this country, many of us emphasised the need for one.
Following these calls succeeding governments have tried to come up with something. But before this, you have to understand the key mistakes that drove a wedge between the state and its people. When General Musharraf received the fateful call after 9/11, the conditions he faced meant he had very little wiggle room. Consequently, he could not engage in the dialogue necessary to convince an unnerved nation that what the country was doing was not against Islam and was for the country’s greater good. Because he had absolute power there was little the country’s powerful clergy could do openly about it. But it certainly felt abandoned and slighted. Meanwhile, the absence of an elected parliament meant that people’s representatives were not there to be taken into confidence which in turn could have had convinced people that there was no threat to their faith. A low-level intellectual insurgency ensued which moulded the electronic media which was soon to be free. Instead of confronting the trend Gen Musharraf’s political successor just gave in to the trend. General Raheel Sharif’s tenure marked a concerted effort but the media effectively steered the conversation away to Karachi and elsewhere where the definition of miscreants did not offend the religious sensibilities of the media pundits.
If you want to know how easy it is to deconstruct the extremist narrative there is a simple example. It took Pakistani clergy over a decade to reach a crucial point: that since suicide was haram in Islam, suicide bombing could not be halal. The simple point. But to arrive here what you needed was the commitment of the political brass. Imagine how many lives could have been saved if this consensus had arrived in time. The state of Pakistan, while working with the clergy came up with Paigham-e-Pakistan (Message of Pakistan), a thin volume building consensus on the rebuttal of terrorism. But here is the problem. In case you have not noticed the forces of chaos have left no stone unturned to create more problems for the Pakistani state. This means that with every passing day another latent national fault line will be weaponised and will erupt. A piece of paper, a single document, will be insufficient to fight these challenges. You need a fully empowered, highly well-informed, and liberally funded civilian and transparent think tank or a research body to chart out the future course, build consensus, and combat propaganda with better arguments. Why should a country which has over 50 news channels have to worry that nobody sees its position? Why should a state with a 96% Muslim population have to fear that its position on the majority religion would be misinterpreted? The media and state religion should be the country’s assets, not deficits. And people’s civil liberties ought not to come under pressure because of any of this. Before floodgates of extremism reopen in the region, the state has to build this dam. Sadly, it is a conversation we haven’t even started yet.