First published in The Friday Times
The war of ideology is inevitably a war that must be fought with opinions and ideas; it must encourage discourse and transactions of reason; it must develop spaces for freedom of speech and of expression as the objective of ultimate victory. And it is a war that must form the basic pillar of a new and improved national security paradigm for Pakistan
The process of radicalisation in Pakistan took hold over three decades. After political organisations began using religion as an implement of social power (by defining Muslims, and therefore kafirs and murtads, in the 1973 constitution), radicalism became a force potent enough to engulf the apparatus of the modern state, render it redundant, and eliminate its writ from within its very territorial jurisdiction. In essence, Islam was no longer just a faith that bound a worshipper to the Almighty, it became a structural institution that could manifest in social, political, economic, and even military forms. Abuse of religion for political ends sowed the seeds of hatred that continue to bear fruit after decades.
This radicalisation took hold of Pakistan’s north-western tribal and Pakhtun-populated areas during the “Afghan jihad”, and slowly spread into the marginalised and poverty stricken areas of Pakistan – both urban and rural. Massive inflow of funding for religious institutions (mosques and madrassas) created an education system that espoused both a radical discourse and the eventual induction into a radical or extremist organisation, where the madrassa graduate found a career in becoming an ‘activist’ or ‘office-bearer’. However, these psycho-social processes that affect both individuals and communities are not irreversible; de-radicalisation is a rehabilitative process that moderates radical thought and principles, thereby reintegrating a former militant into society as a peaceful citizen. Counter-radicalisation means providing a counter-narrative to radical ideology and challenging the extremist discourse.
Having grown up in 1990s, we are silent spectators of this sequence. Some of us are even victims of this mindset, which is reflected in surveys highlighting the Pakistani youth’s propensity towards extremist ideologies. A Gallup poll released in May this year showed that a majority of Pakistanis (59%) view themselves as Muslims first, and Pakistanis second, making the very concept of the nation-state redundant.
That was precisely the problem in Swat, that led to the military operation against the Taliban. After a military victory, the army called for a ‘de-radicalisation programme’. Between July 4 and 6 this year, the ISPR held a seminar on the phenomenon of de-radicalisation. Scores of activists and journalists were invited to observe the reclaiming of Swat.
One noticeable element was that almost all locals seemed hesitant in voicing their honest opinion. Far from where the seminar was organised, we sat with a group of locals in Mingora city who were glad that Swat was cleansed of extremist militants, but considered the army and Taliban ‘two sides of the same coin’. “We saw them having tea together, when the Taliban were taking over. They literally had checkposts besides each other,” a local said. The army’s inaction while militants took over the streets of Swat is reminisced with anger. Some segments still consider army as too ‘liberal’, stating that funfairs and musical concerts caused the 2010 floods. This is the typical conspiracy theory mindset that we, as a nation, ought to counter: it perplexes our introspective ability to rectify errors. It was exhibited by locals of Swat who saw the siege and counter-insurgency happen in front of their eyes.
Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan commanders like the loathed Mullah Fazlullah and his equally dreaded lieutenants Shah Doran and Bin Yameen capitalised on the religious ethos of the community, and eliminated rule of law and customs from Swat by capitalising on the enforcement of so-called “sharia law” which was granted assent by Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi’s Sufi Muhammad, and later, by the government as well. Fazlullah, the self-proclaimed ruler of Swat, did not control the streets of Swat overnight. It was a gradual advance, and that explains how this ideological war should be fought. His ambition was emboldened because the stakeholders of Pakistan pretended to be ignorant of the looming threat whilst Fazlullah was busy broadcasting a radical version of Islam and coercing local people to abide by his “shariah” laws. The conservative ethos of Swat’s society was manipulated, and its indigenous cultural values of pluralism, interfaith harmony, and even Pakhtunwali (the Pakhtun code and tradition), were destroyed by the Taliban, according to Swat Qaumi Jirga leader Ziauddin Yusufzai.
The foundations of terror had been laid; the government and the army appeared apathetic. Slowly, dead bodies started piling on the streets. The Green Chowk was renamed Khooni Chowk. And those visions have been imprinted on Swat’s history, on the mind of its children and of the youth. “Some people were terrified, while others were excited,” said Saddam, a local youth. “Communities and even families were divided over whether to support Fazlullah in his so-called jihad or to flee.”
Counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation are two different things. Fighting radical elements and ideologies is as important as rehabilitating those who are misguided or exploited. But in order to successfully do both, a coherent distinction between ideological propagators, militarised elements, and fringes, or foot-soldiers, must be made. Unfortunately, counter-radicalisation is weak because neither the state nor the Pakistani society has been able to cogently challenge terrorist ideology, or the prevalent phenomena of religious intolerance and extremism. Lt General (r) Mustafa Khan, former CGS of Pakistan Army, emphasised this fact and said that the media and religious leaders must play a pivotal role in neutralising radical ideologies that exist across Pakistan. The war of ideology is inevitably a war that must be fought with opinions and ideas; it must encourage discourse and transactions of reason; it must develop spaces for freedom of speech and of expression as the objective of ultimate victory. And it is a war that must form the basic pillar of a new and improved national security paradigm for Pakistan.
Policy circles in Pakistan fail to understand that counter-terrorism is one part counter-insurgency and three parts counter-extremism or counter-radicalisation. The counter-insurgency component is essentially military in nature, but also implies transition to civil administration. The three parts of counter-extremism are ending political marginalisation, extending economic opportunities, and ensuring justice, rule of law, and writ of the state as basic services to the citizens. Since there are no clear parameters – no definition of friend and enemy, for instance – the War on Terror has sadly become a war of terror for the people of Pakistan. Afzal Khan Lala, who fought the Swat Taliban, urged the participants of the seminar to develop policies that devolve elected bodies and authorities to the district and tehsil levels so that local communities could make their own rules and abide by them.
Although Pakistan has suffered more military and civilian deaths than any of the other 49 allied nations in the War on Terror, we are unable to boast of mass consensus against radical elements, let alone any significant victory where we can brandish the “Mission Accomplished” banner. Every terrorist incident is viewed, popularly and misguidedly, from the prism of anti-Americanism. The resilience and sacrifice of the people of Swat in particular, and of Pakistan in general, must not go to waste. We as a society cannot ignore an emerging threat from radicalsm, that, if left unbridled, would bring no harmony and certainly no music.
Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is the founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance, and is affiliated with Khudi Pakistan and Hosh Media.