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Fighting the Ideological War

Co-authored with Ali Abbas Zaidi for The Friday Times: Published in July 22, 2011 edition under the titleCountering Radical Ideology

The process of radicalization in Pakistan, and targeting of its youth by radical elements, has taken hold over a period of three decades. After political organizations began using religion as an implement of social power – by defining Muslims (and kafir’s, or murtad’s thereof) as stipulated in the 1973 Constitution – Islam ceased to be a faith among many practiced by the Pakistani people, and 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 a faith that bound a worshipper to the Almighty, and 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.

Ugay na mout zameen par toh aur kya hoga / Kay beej zeher kay baantay gae kisaan’on mayn

This radicalization took hold of Pakistan’s north-western tribal and Pakhtun-populated areas during the “Afghan jihad”, and slowly spread into the marginalized and poverty stricken areas of Pakistan – both urban and rural. Massive inflow of funding for religious institutions (mosques and madrassa’s) created an education system that espoused both a radical discourse as well as eventually, induction into a radical or extremist organization, 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-radicalization is a rehabilitative process that moderates radical thought and principles, thereby reintegrating a former militant into society as a peaceful citizen. Counter-radicalization means providing a counter-narrative to radical ideology and challenging the extremist discourse.

Having grown up in 90’s, we are silent spectators of this complete sequence. Some of us are even victims of this mindset, which is reflected in surveys highlighting the Pakistani youth’s propensity towards extremist ideologies; Gallup poll results released in May this year show that a majority of Pakistanis (59%) view themselves as Muslims first, and Pakistanis second, thereby making the very concept of the nation-state redundant.

Travelling to Swat was an exhilarating experience to say the least; revealing in essence and thought-provoking in substance. Scores of activists and journalists were invited to observe the reclaiming of Swat. Almost everyone had heard stories of massacre, flogging and of the infamous Khooni chowk. Protocol security measures added to the hype as the journey started from Rawalpindi. On reaching Swat, we were told not to move outside without permission and security. Curfew was imposed in some parts as VVIP’s were expected to grace the occasion. One noticeable element whilst talking to locals was that almost everyone seemed hesitant in voicing their honest opinion.

Far from where the seminar was organized, 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 Taliban were taking over. They literally had check posts besides each other”, a local narrated. 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 very eyes.

Between July 4-6, the ISPR held a seminar on “De-Radicalization”, which is the academic name for the antidote to extremism that manifests itself in the form of terrorism and anarchy. After Swat was “cleared” by a second military operation, the de-radicalization programme was a demand made by the Pakistan Army; a fact attested to by COAS General Kayani himself in his keynote speech to the seminar. Scores of intellectuals, politicians, journalists and military personnel gathered with the civil society of Swat to discuss a possible de- and counter-radicalization policy that could be instituted on national level, based on the experiences and results of the process of reclaiming Swat for Pakistan and for peace. Between the lines, one could feel the need of doing more than just fire-fighting after a paradise like Swat had been burnt down. The basic purpose of the seminar may have been to inform the media and the general public about the successful “de-radicalization” of captured militants at the Mishaal and Saba’oon facilities, but these models of tempering, pluralistic education are desperately needed throughout Pakistan – not just in Swat.

Essentially, Swat was a successful example, not only for us, but also for extremists who did manage to Talibanize the area – at times being allowed to go unchecked for reasons not known. Some locals blamed the legal process that exonerated hundreds of hardcore militants because of loopholes in the law of evidence, while others blamed political elements whose assets and allies were apprehended by the Army. But as this went on at in mid-level battleframe, the youth of Swat was subject to a radical ideology that was imposed on them in the name of Islam and jihad. According to Dr. Sara Savage, violent ideologies are simplified belief systems with one moral imperative, as opposed to cognitively complex systems that balance multiple moral processes. By emphasizing jihad and martyrdom, the life of this world became meaningless according to the militants’ brand of Islam – as Dr. Feriha Peracha puts it, the youth of Swat yearned for Paradise of the Hereafter, all the while ignoring the Paradise of Swat that they already lived in.

Counter-radicalization and de-radicalization are two different things: fighting radical elements and ideologies is as important as rehabilitating those who are truly misguided or exploited. But in order to successfully do both, a coherent distinction between ideological propagators, militarized elements, and fringes, or foot-soldiers, must be made. Unfortunately, counter radicalization is weak because neither the state nor Pakistani society has been able to cogently challenge terrorist ideology, or the prevalent phenomena of religious intolerance and extremism. Lt. General (Retd) Mustafa Khan, former CGS of the Pakistan Army, emphasized this fact and said that the media and the ulema or religious leaders must play a pivotal role in neutralizing radical ideologies that exist across urban and rural 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.

To underline the significance of radicalization in Pakistan, one needs to look no further than the example of Swat. TTP militant commanders like the loathed Mullah Fazlullah and his equally dreaded lieutenants Shah Doran and Bin Yameen capitalized on the religious ethos of the community, and eliminated rule of law and customs from Swat by capitalizing on the enforcement of so-called “sharia law” which was granted assent by TNSM’s Sufi Mohammad, 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 on his part, which is self-explanatory as to how this ideological war should be countered. His ambition was emboldened to the next level because the stakeholders of Pakistan pretended to be ignorant of the threat looming in Swat 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, inter-faith 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 Army appeared apathetic to notice and to amend; slowly, dead bodies started piling on the streets. The green chowk had been renamed the ‘Khoni’ (bloody) 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 became 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”.

It became inevitable to launch military offensive in the area; Operation Rah-e-Haq from November 2007 to January 2008, and then Operation Rah-e-Rast from May 2009 to July/August 2009. Though the area is deemed “clear of militants”, there is still considerable military presence in the settled communities, and road routes are manned and littered with check posts. Despite apparent relief from the tyranny of the Taliban, latent fear remains and public morale dwindles. Another local resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that the military stayed in their checkposts while the militants ran amok; ineffective political leadership and marginalized local communities turn even basic security into a rare commodity. Policy circles in Pakistan fail to understand that counter terrorism is one part counter insurgency and three parts counter extremism, or alternatively, counter radicalization. The counter insurgency component is essentially military in nature, but also implies transition to civil administration. The three parts of counter extremism are end political marginalization, extending economic opportunities, and ensuring justice, rule of law, and writ of the state as basic services for 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, the scourge of 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.

Despite the Pakistani nation suffering 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 have to learn not to ignore an emerging radical threat that, if left unbridled, would bring no harmony and certainly no music. We as a society must devote ourselves to pluralism and tolerance as core characteristics of our national identity; we must resolve to counter radicalism and extremism in all its manifestations, otherwise one day, they will come for us, because no-one else will be left.

Postscript: A suicide bomber struck a political rally in Battagram on Monday, July 11, killing six and injuring more than ten. The political leaders were delayed by a traffic jam precipitated by a protest against load-shedding. This shows the capacity and resilience of the extremists as they continue to target public gatherings where freedom of speech and of expression are celebrated – the processes of countering extremism and de-radicalizing Pakistan’s conservative populace must exhibit the same vigor and tenacity if Pakistan must survive this existential crisis.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is the founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance, and is affiliated with Khudi Pakistan and Hosh Media.
Shemrez Nauman Afzal is a researcher and defense analyst with Spearhead Research, and is a social media consultant for Responsible Citizens – Zimmedar Shehri.


About shemrez

I choose to live and to Lie, kill and give and to Die/ learn and love, and to Do what it takes to Step Through...


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