Published in HILAL, Vol. 51 No. 3
Pakistan Army has crossed the rubicon in its quest to slay the hydra headed dragon of terrorism.
Pakistan Army has crossed the rubicon in its quest to slay the hydra headed dragon of terrorism. The Battle for North Waziristan is both a watershed event and a defining moment in the counter terrorism history of the nation. It is a veritable paradigm shift that heralds a new approach and resolve in fighting a menace that had become a clear and present danger to the national security. Tomes have been written about the negative impact of this asymmetric war on national economy and social cohesion highlighting the baleful effect of this pernicious war. What has been lacking in our national discourse however is the pin pointing of the roots of this malaise. It is not the aim of this discourse to delve in the complicated causes of the phenomenon of local and regional terrorism since these are very well known by now e.g. governance vacuum foreign occupation of Afghanistan external abetment of militancy and a misguided religious evangelism manifesting in the form of Takfiri” megalomania.
While a multi-dimensional approach to deal with the pervasive phenomenon of terrorism at prophylactic and curative level is de rigueur it is essential to first take on the biggest bull in the China shop by the horns. That bull out to reduce our peace and security to shreds is the phenomenon of extremism that nourishes the terrorists’ narrative and strategy.
What nurtures the extremism is a distorted concept of Takfiri or rejectionist Islamic doctrine espoused by the misguided religious zealots. This doctrine gives a carte blanche to terrorists to kill in the name of religion making no exception for innocent Muslims and non-Muslims including innocent women and children. Their apologists who masquerade as political religious groups cite their bestial violence as a natural human reaction to drone warfare and counter terrorism actions of our Western allies. That Islam as a religion of peace expressly forbids violence against the innocent civilians women children and elderly even in times of war is a fact lost on such zealots.
Islamic history is replete with examples of such misguided groups that took ritual worship to extremes while committing unspeakable atrocities against fellow Muslims in the name of religion. These extremists who can rightly be dubbed as the chips of very old block have their origins in a fratricidal antipathy generated between the mainstream Muslim community and the breakaway extremist rebels known as Kharijites challenging the legitimately constituted political order. This group first rebelled against the rightly guided Caliphs and subsequently kept rearing its head intermittently against ‘Ummayads’ ‘Abbasids’ ‘Ottomans’ as well as the present ruling dynasty in Saudi Arabia. The desecration of the Kaaba the holiest shrine of the Muslims was done by the misguided Kharijites from Bedouin heartland of Arabia led by their purported Mehdi Juhaimun” in 1979.
The sacrilegious depredations of this band of extremists is well chronicled in the well researched book The Seige of Mecca” authored by Yaruslav Trofimov. Unfortunately for us our region was used in late seventies and early eighties as a proxy war battle ground between the USSR and the USA wherein the tool of religious motivation was employed to achieve the political ends of global powers. That created a class of warriors with an ethos that could later on morph into a violent religious evangelism through linkages with Juhaimun inspired” global Jihadis. Taking up cudgels ostensibly on behalf of oppressed Afghans against foreign occupiers these groups had an agenda of their own as well as political ambitions. The Takfiri ideology imported from Middle East soon engulfed the local sectarian and tribal volunteers that metamorphosed into the present day Kharjites” who consider it their religious and moral duty to kill and maim in the name of religion with the ultimate of objective of attaining political power.
The long drawn out talks between Taliban and the state representatives were also a manifestation of an asymmetry of will wherein the Taliban appeared imbued with an obstinate certitude vis-a-vis state flexibility to cede authority for peace.
The local sectarian groups and religiously brainwashed people dissatisfied due to social injustice and bad governance become their willing accomplices in the absence of an alternative religious narrative.
Now what is that contending national narrative that the state had to offer in order to wean such people away from the path of extremism The counter narrative to extremism required an unequivocal renunciation of distinction and getting all national institutions and segments of society on one page. A state that dithered where it had to act and prevaricated where it had to show gumption had no apparent moral strength and will left to confront those that rejected the constitution while preparing all the time to assail the ramparts of state power. The gullible population was left ideologically confused vis-a-vis the religious militants who started exploiting the public sentiments in their favour. What was more important getting the narrative right first or forging a national consensus To my mind it was getting the narrative right first followed by the attainment of consensus as it is the right message that ultimately becomes the medium to propagate one’s ideas.
While the militants and terrorists got their message across with metronomic regularity and evangelical clarity the state for sometime appeared blithely ambivalent. For a while it looked as though the state had capitulated along with the media whose few anchors were brow beaten into broadcasting the terrorists’ narrative live on prime time shows! As the well known writers on Asymmetric Warfare like Steven Metz point out that this war is not about asymmetry of material resources alone but the Asymmetry of Will” that clinches the deal in the end.
The long drawn out talks between Taliban and the state representatives were also a manifestation of an asymmetry of will wherein the Taliban appeared imbued with an obstinate certitude vis-a-vis state flexibility to cede authority for peace. The scope of peace talks with the marauding occupiers of Pakistani territory should have been limited to one agenda i.e. vacation of the territory alongwith renunciation of militancy by TTP and its affiliates. The nebulous agenda of talks with the militants foundered on the rock of Taliban misanthropy and arrogance. This happened chiefly due to their xenophobic world view and medieval interpretation of constitutional provisions and state sovereignty. The palpable incongruity of the peace parleys resulted in a stalemate that forced the state hand to ultimately go for a military solution.
Why message becomes the medium in a battle of ideas needs to be understood before dwelling on the power of a cohesive national counter terrorism narrative. Shaping of a common counter terrorism narrative is all about battling the rival idea with a better idea along with employment of a better medium to communicate that idea. In other words it is all about taking the sheen off the mystique of terrorists as noble warriors fighting for a noble cause. The denigration of religiously buttressed identity nevertheless is a serious challenge as some the terrorists can conveniently drape their sinister motives into a noble religious raiment. In this battle of the narratives the terrorists would always try to conflate their temporal motives with a religious evangelism wherein the state would be challenged to de-conflict the two.
The state narrative therefore has to be well supported by a puissant legal and coercive regimen in order to be really effective. During the Irish war the British government modified its criminal justice system to introduce speedy disposal courts known after the name of the jurist who suggested them i.e. Diplock Courts.” The best police officer of the UK was put in charge of the counter terrorism war and theintelligence gathering was improved to identify nab and punish the terrorists with celerity. The objective was to catch and treat the core leadership of IRA as common criminals with the ultimate objective to reduce the mystique of IRA militant cadres as noble freedom fighters. The state narrative targeted the criminality of the IRA militants demystifying their appeal as noble freedom fighters. When the people saw the militant cadre of IRA being jailed and hanged as common criminals their mystique plummeted low feeding thereby the state narrative.
This successful action backed narrative resulted in the Good Friday Agreement and the sustainable peace in Ireland.
So what does the Irish example tell us about our action backed narrative requirement The answer is simple. We need a clear and loud narrative that there are militants out there encroaching both our lands as well as mental terrain whose interpretation of religious edicts is faulty and repugnant to the true message of Islam. That the tolerant pluralist and syncretic version of Islam is far removed from the hate spewing sectarianism being touted by the Taliban Al Qaeda and others of their ilk. The state narrative must clearly state that the concept of superior jihad is against one’s Nafs” and not against innocent civilians and the state institutions of an Islamic state. The narrative should have zero tolerance against religious obscurantism and with absolutely no space for exceptionalism”.
The state must show enough gumption to reform those anti diluvian Madrassahs and their anachronistic syllabi that limit the professional choices of young students turning them into a readily available cannon fodder for militant cause. Liberal religious scholars under state patronage need to be co-opted in this endeavour. The action to back this state narrative requires establishment of special courts outside the purview of normal judiciary where the judges could prosecute the terrorists nabbed by the state apparatus speedily. When the terrorists of TTP and their sectarian acolytes are seen being hanged and serving serious jail time no media person will dare appease their egos on prime time TV again.
National consensus is an essential concomitant of a clear and bold national counter terrorism narrative. A counter terrorism narrative having zero tolerance for terrorists’ narrative needs to be crafted with all the national institutions i.e parliament judiciary media intelligence agencies and armed forces on board. The narrative should include a clear exposition of state position on religious militancy and de-radicalization. This narrative should form an integral part of national security policy and inform all counter terrorism efforts at national level. The narrative needs to be sedulously cultivated through strategic communications employed by all state institutions and national media. Though there would be challenges in forging a national consensus in a divisive polity such as ours where opinions are divided on religious militancy ethnic particularism and sectarianism still the ability of national institutions in shaping this narrative cannot be underestimated.
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