In the media and educational institutions, sermonisers were given a free hand to spread their discourse of hatred and bigotry while progressive rationalist thinkers were actively discouraged.
Just as we bid farewell to an eventful 2013, hardly did we know that much worse awaited us in the first month of the New Year. An unprecedented rise in terrorist activities has been witnessed as, from ordinary polio workers to services personnel, from political workers to worshippers belonging to various faith communities, all have fallen prey to the hounds of militant extremism. The recent surgical operations in the tribal areas might be a precursor to a full-blown operation against the militant groups but can a military operation alone remedy a situation that is the result of our choices in the past? That is the million dollar question we need to consider more dispassionately.
As calls for an anti-terrorism strategy are becoming a rising chorus, it is useful to first understand what ‘strategy’ is. A strategy answers four simple questions. One, where are we at the moment? Two, what did we do in the past that brought us here? Three, where do we want to be? And, four, how do we get there? Perhaps we can help the government devise its strategy if it is finding it hard to come up with one by answering these four questions. However, the thrust of analysis should be anti-extremism and not anti-terrorism. The latter amounts to curing symptoms and not addressing the causes as terrorism is the outcome of the choices we made in the past in various fields of public policy. In my last piece, I had argued that faith is used by different sections of society differently depending on their special needs. While the haves enjoy religion for contentment and social ritual purposes, the have-nots use communal faith for organising and motivational purposes. If the ruling classes are using religion to maximise their social control, it is very naïve to expect that the deprived classes will not use it for their own empowerment by motivational slogans of jihad and sharia.
Where we are is not hard to answer. From businessmen to sportspersons, everyone shudders at the thought of visiting the country of Buddha, Bulleh Shah and Rehman Baba. “You are free; you are free to go to your temples” was the promise of the founder of the nation and today no member of any faith community feels safe in his/her place of worship. What were our choices in the past that led us to the situation we find ourselves in is the second question. Political leaders like Imran Khan and Munawar Hasan make us believe with their ‘Amreeka ki jang’ (this is the US’s war) rhetoric that it was all rosy before 9/11 in the country. In reality, religious and provincial rights questions began rocking the boat soon after Pakistan came into being. Religious extremism demonstrated its first show of muscle when martial law had to be imposed in 1953 to quell riots spearheaded by leaders of the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat movement. We kept appeasing the religious establishment and it kept gaining more muscle.
Unfortunately, while the founder of the country was sincere in his vision of a secular and liberal state, his deeds did not always support his words. In his enthusiasm to outmanoeuvre Nehru, he played the religion card in the tribal areas and, in order to lure the tribesmen, promised them unrealistic and unwarranted terms for joining Pakistan. As an unfortunate corollary of this original sin, use of tribesmen for waging proxy wars in our neighbouring countries further sowed the seeds of the troubles that we now see mushrooming all around us. Adoption of religion-coated motivational doctrines by our military institutions further paved the way for encouragement of jihadi discourse. In the media and educational institutions, sermonisers were given a free hand to spread their discourse of hatred and bigotry while progressive rationalist thinkers were actively discouraged. This environment proved an ideal breeding place for the militants who now, like Frankenstein’s monster, are threatening the existence of their inventors.
Once the first two questions are honestly answered, finding answers to the remaining two questions is not difficult. We want to be an emerging economic tiger like India, Turkey, Brazil and Vietnam. In order to attain that desired ideal we need to have an anti-extremism policy, which should encompass all spheres of our socio-economic life. The syllabus of mainstream and religious institutions will have to be purged of any extremist content. The media and educational institutions need to discourage unbridled discourse of hate and should instead promote critical, rationalist thinking. Those who challenge the writ of the state should be summarily taken out of business. Most importantly, necessary amends need to be made to address the original sin. There is no place for tribalism and safe havens in 21st century Pakistan and hence FATA needs to be brought into the general rule of law with accompanying duties and responsibilities.
As an emergency measure, demolishing the terrorism infrastructure of extremist gangs needs to be high on the national agenda. This short-term policy needs to be supplemented by a long-term anti-extremism policy with a wider outlook. Before the elections last year, I had stressed upon Nawaz Sharif to find the missing ‘E’ of extremism in his party’s manifesto, which centred on ‘economy, energy and education’. Surgical operations can bring some temporary relief but only a comprehensive solution based on redefining our foreign policy paradigm and rationalising the use of religion in our public policy can guarantee long-term peace and progress.