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The vulnerability of Pakistan to terrorism continues to remain high at least in the medium term in view of the multiplicity of factors including the potential radicalization of wide range of alienated and misguided groups, perceived sense of political alienation and widespread socio-economic disparity which have assumed appalling proportions over the years. The external interventions both from the hostile countries as well as religious-cum-sectarian motivated intrusions of some of the so called friendly countries further exacerbate the situation.

Terrorism is neither an isolated phenomenon, nor, for that matter, a simple straightforward riddle. It is characterised by a perverse and radical ideology of elimination, hatred, oppression, violence and militancy interwoven with a complex web of organised crime including kidnapping for ransom, drug trafficking, illegal arms trading, illicit financing etc. The decades of governance dysfunction, politico-religious expediency, mismanagement of law and order, inadequacy of institutional capacity especially that of civilian law enforcement agencies, absence of effective accountability mechanisms and lack of state-citizen synergy have contributed to fomenting radicalization, militancy and terrorism in the country: it now poses a grave threat to the national security, assets and human safety.

The dastardly terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on 16 December 2014 resulting in the loss of around 141 lives, including an overwhelming majority of young innocent schoolchildren jolted the entire nation from apathetic indifference and built the necessary politico-military-citizens consensus to act decisively against terrorists. A 20-point National Action Plan on Counter-terrorism (NAP) was announced on 24th December 2014 with the intent of eradicating terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. Earlier on 25th February 2014, the first-ever National Internal Security Policy (NISP) was adopted to protect national interests of Pakistan. Based on principles of inclusiveness and integration of all national efforts, it, inter alia, envisaged: (i) dialogue with all stakeholders, (ii) isolation of terrorists from their support systems, and, (iii) deterrence and capacity enhancement of the security apparatus to neutralize the threats to the internal security of Pakistan. The 21st Constitutional amendment paved the way for establishment of military courts to ensure speedy trial of the terrorist accused. Apex committees' structure was also put in place for NAP implementation. Despite these ostensibly effective measures, there continues to remain significant gaps and weaknesses to effectively combat terrorism and radicalization especially in the wake of NAP's uneven and at times lackadaisical implementation.

NISP, among other things, clearly provided for constructing a robust national narrative, through inclusive process, as an ideological response to non-traditional threat (paragraph 20 of NISP). It also mandated NACTA to develop a National De-radicalization Program. Little progress, if any, has been made by NACTA on these accounts presumably due to lack of capacity, dearth of resources and a culture of reactive ad hocism that characterises the functioning of NACTA. Efforts being made elsewhere to develop counter-terrorism narrative or alternative narrative also seem to be patchy lacking depth or understanding of the intense dynamism and amalgam of historical, socio-cultural, political, economic, legal and trans-national factors and their ramifications for Pakistan.

It needs to be recognised that the terrorists' narrative draws strength and "legitimacy" from strong traditions, historical heritage and Dars-e-Nizami curriculum rich in philosophy, logic and divine system of ideas and beliefs on the one hand and on the other aversion to "secular modernity" which in their view tends to threaten the socio-cultural and political foundation of the Islamic society. The laws of rhetoric and speech, selective religious doctrines, highly elaborate and sophisticated logical deductions and the distorted glorification of the past create the mindset blindly committed to protecting and propagating the authenticity of the respective brand of identity, beliefs and religious practices. The indelible imprints on the formative young minds inculcate in them a false sense of superior righteousness and conviction; they tend to view the world from their own "tainted lens" and negate all other perspectives. The 'ideology' carries great energy and persuasive power and serves as a cognitive map to disdain the existing social, political and economic order, both national as well as international. The increasing incidence of injustice, inequality, poverty, exclusion, and alienation prevalent within the national landscape coupled with tyranny and oppression perpetrated on the Muslims elsewhere in the world and as evidenced in the blatant violation of human rights and persecutions in Palestine, Kashmir and Myanmar, to quote a few, reinforces their radical thinking and view of the "unjust world". If this were not enough, the fractured, disjointed and half-hearted response of the Muslim countries to the atrocities committed against the Muslims and the myopic self-seeking interests of the rulers to please their western masters further increases their vulnerability to the extremists' narrative.

Against this backdrop, the challenge for the national or alternative narrative in Pakistan is to come up with the level of rigour, morality, evidence, knowledge and intellectual depth that surpasses and over-powers the terrorists' narrative. It has to be extremely persuasive and convincing to fully satisfy the mental quest especially of the youth as to what the real "truth" and system of ideas, values and beliefs which Islam and Pakistan as nation state stands for. This narrative must also present a compelling evidence as to allay the general sense of disempowerment, alienation and lack of equal opportunities to exercise and expand development choices in the social, cultural, economic and political spheres and to bequeath a better Pakistan to posterity. For the purpose, a sense of inclusiveness and participation in establishing a just and fair socio-political and economic order is sine qua non for neutralising the radicals and mainstreaming them in the national effort to create tolerant, receptive and enlightened society.

In this endeavour, great care and caution will have to be exercised not to be enticed by the tendency to package the motley of some success stories achieved by individuals or entities in social, economic, cultural and philanthropic fields within the country. While the episodic positivity, success of these models and achievements at the micro level cannot be belittled, in the wake of magnitude and enormity of problems including the convoluted and skewed interpretation of religion; political alienation; economic deprivation; corruption; institutional and governance dysfunction; "compromise cum exigency ridden deals" of military-political complex; subservient and servile bureaucracy; multidimensional inequality and poverty; and lack of access to justice, any narrative based on "packaged positive image" will not be sustainable. Such a narrative will be ephemeral, treating the problems at the margin and could lead to a huge credibility deficit both within the country and outside.

In fact, for the narrative to be authentic and sustainably receptive, some fundamental questions will have to be addressed including; whether our core values based on history, heritage and religion, what was the Narrative presented at the time of creation of Pakistan including the role of religion envisioned by the founding fathers, how has this Narrative been contaminated and departed from over the years, what is the perception of an average Pakistani about Pakistan (disillusionment and despair; rapacious, greedy and corrupt political elite; absence of rule of law; lack of protection of minorities; failure of justice system; pervasive sense of insecurity; inequality and abject poverty; lack of access to basic services etc.), what is the perception of the outside world about the image and reputation of Pakistan (a safe haven for terrorists, militants and religious extremists; poor governance etc.), and lastly a concrete decision also needs to be taken as what strategies and policies need to be adopted to neutralize the terrorists and extremists construct by presenting the true ideological spirit of Pakistan and at the same time ensuring the citizens of their right to exercise and expand their choices freely and inclusively in political, economic, social and cultural fields.

The narrative must logically and convincingly blend the religious and ideological basis of Pakistan with its spatial and territorial identity so as to generate unflinching national commitment to the country and curb the propensity to seek inspiration and guidance from the outside sectarian brands and interests.

(The writer is the Vice Chairman of the Shahid Javed Burki Institute of Public Policy (BIPP) and an ex-civil servant. He can be reached at [email protected])

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