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View Point: Countering extremist narrative

It was his sheer presence of mind and some luck that journalist and television commentator Raza Rumi ducked down in his car on hearing gunshots and survived a terrorist attack while his driver died from multiple bullet wounds. Rumi, of course, was targeted for speaking the truth about TTP, its aligned sectarian groups, and opportunistic policies of some past and present politicians. Within the wider perspective, the attackers may yet have achieved their aim of creating fear and terror. Take for instance the advice Raza got from the police that he should stay at a safe location in order to be protected. Think of his family who would be scared to death about his safety, and would want him to tone down his criticism of the forces of darkness so he stays alive. Same would be the case with other outspoken critics of the Taliban and sectarian terrorists. One knows the spouse of a particularly bold person who has been confronting Taliban apologists head-on as a TV talk show discussant and, briefly, as a presenter. He says he has begged her to keep out of these programmes for the sake of her family.

Taliban representatives and apologists, on the other hand, enjoy complete freedom to defend the use of violence against innocent people, and indirectly encourage targeting of those who question them through civilised discussion and debate. These people get ample time and space in the news media to publicise their narrative while downplaying the TTP’s indiscriminate killing of citizens in suicide bombings (an estimated 50,000 Pakistanis have died at their hands), and butcheries like the beheading of soldiers and playing football with their severed heads – all in the name of a religion that places a lot of emphasis on compassion and forgiveness. Falsehoods and distortions of historical facts are galore. The real issue they tell the people – most of whom may find it difficult to discern truth from falsehood – is that the government is not fulfilling its obligation towards Islamisation in a country that came into being in the name of Islam.

Soft pedalling the Taliban narrative in cities like Lahore, little known groups like ‘Sautul Umma’ and ‘Ansar-ul-Umma’ openly carry poster boards mounted on rickshaw backs and other vehicles terming the country’s Constitution un-Islamic. Then there are foreign financed sectarian outfits indoctrinating, for a long time, young minds to hate and kill followers of other schools of religious thought at the behest of their outside backers.

Slowly but surely all these people are working on the project of undoing this country’s founding ideals. Without a doubt, the Muslim League led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah had envisioned a democratic, pluralistic state, never a theocracy. It may sound trite but one must recall that in his famous August 11, 1947 speech in the Constituent Assembly the Father of the Nation had emphatically declared that religion, cast or creed had “nothing to do with the business of the State.” Telling the people to keep that ideal before them he went on to aver, “you will find that in course of time Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.” This vision is completely irreconcilable with the claims of our present-day Islamists.

It must also never be forgotten that during the struggle for Pakistan all religious parties, including the Jamiat-e-Ulema Pakistan (then called Jamiat-e-Ulema Hind) and the Jamaat-e-Islami – now principal supporter of the Taliban and the Islamisation demand – had vehemently opposed the creation of a new Muslim homeland contending that Islam being a universal religion could not be confined to the boundaries of a nation-state. And is must not be forgotten either that within a span of just 24 years, the new country’s majority population province, the erstwhile East Pakistan, decided to secede because of political and economic grievances. Clearly, the driving force behind the formation of Pakistan was not an urge to establish a theocratic state, as the JI and its ilk insist was the case; but Muslim aspirations for a progressive, modern state that would guarantee their political and economic rights. In fact, the idea of establishing a theocratic state failed to occur to any of the religious parties that now claim to be the custodian of the so-called ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ by fabricating historical facts and using intimidation and violence.

The challenge for the legitimate inheritors of this State is to reclaim its eroding foundational ideals from religious parties/groups and their militant cohorts. Part of the responsibility lies on the media to stop unregulated airing of the extremist narrative. Freedom of expression has its limits. As per a well-recognised democratic principle ‘one man’s rights end at another man’s nose’. It is about time media houses’ managers and editors formulated a code of conduct to keep Taliban sympathisers from propagating their murderous agendas and justifying horrendous violence.

The government needs to act urgently to take at least two measures. First, it must streamline, through administrative and financial check, the affairs of madrassahs which serve as nurseries for producing foot soldiers for sectarian terrorists as well as the Taliban. Second, the existing law ought to be implemented effectively that prohibits propagating religious hatred, either through sermons or written word, against other sects and minority communities. Civil society groups too have a role to play in confronting violent extremism by making concerted efforts. Complacency is not an option. For, silence and inaction at this point can gradually condition people to start accepting the extremist narrative. Pakistan needs to be saved from the Taliban and their ilk who opposed it tooth and nail at the time of its inception.

Saida Fazal, "View Point: Countering extremist narrative," Business recorder. 2014-04-03.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social problems , Social media , Electronic media , Terrorism-Pakistan , Terrorists , Raza Rumi , Madrsahs , Pakistan