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The making of a counter narrative

Establishing a counter militant narrative will entail embracing the diversity we share rather than the uniformity we bemoan

The making of a counter narrative

Social concepts are contested; defining radicalisation is not an exception either. European Commission defines radicalisation as “the phenomenon of people embracing opinions, views and ideas which could lead to terrorism.” Similarly, a 2008 report by the European Commission Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation defines radicalisation as “a process of socialisation leading to the use of violence.” Likewise, Dutch Intelligence Services (AIVD) sees radicalisation as a quest to drastically alter society, possibly through the use of unorthodox means, which can result in a threat to democratic structures and institutions. Thus, the unanimity among all these definitions is that radicalisation is not coterminous with violence. It is, rather, a potential route towards violence.

Long overdue, the state and society finally seem to have woken up to the call of a counter militant narrative. We urgently needed one as early as the beginning of the 2000s when violence, mainly anchored in religion, started picking up steam. Since 2001, the state relied almost exclusively on kinetic approach to tackle the threat of Taliban, al Qaeda and their affiliates. This involved launching full-scale military operations in former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Intelligence Based Operations (IBOs) in the tribal areas and the country at large.

The state shifted gears partially as late as May 2017. Besides a kinetic approach, non-kinetic means were also employed to tackle militant violence. In collaboration with the Higher Education Commission (HEC), Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the army media wing held a seminar titled “Role of youth in rejecting extremism” at General Headquarters (GHQ) on May 18, 2018. This seminar helped highlight the issue of youth radicalisation. Ulema followed suit. Thanks to the efforts of Prof Dr Masoom Yasinzai, Rector International Islamic University Islamabad (IIUI), and Prof Dr Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Director General Islamic Research Institute (IRI), all five madrassah boards, representing five various schools of thought—Ahl-i Hadith, Barelvi, Deobandi, Jamat-e-Islami and Shia—ratified and issued a unanimous fatwa on May 26, 2017 in a seminar titled as “Reconstruction of Pakistani Society in the light of Misaq-e-Madina” held at IIUI. The fatwa reposed in state the exclusive repository to declare jihad; decreed suicide attacks haram, forbidden; and sanctioned the use of both kinetic and non-kinetic means to tackle extremism in its all forms and manifestations. The fatwa was improved upon in the form of a more comprehensive document titled “Paigham-e-Pakistan” which, besides including the fatwa, enunciated all relevant verses of the Holy Quran that serve as a prelude to the decree. The latest of its kind was a three day international conference on “Radicalisation: Perceptions, Realities and Challenges of campus life” that was held at Air University (AU) Islamabad from 26 to 28 December, 2017.

Some seven months ago, when Prof Dr Wasima Shehzad, the conference Chair and Dean Social Sciences AU, broached the idea of an international conference on radicalisation to highlight the issue of radicalisation in campuses and help contribute in the making of a counter narrative to that of the militants’, a few sane voices questioned any need of such a narrative on two grounds. First, militant violence had nearly petered out with rare outbursts only. Secondly, Paigham-e-Pakistan sufficed as a counter narrative. Such a position remains untenable on two counts. First, military operations and other kinetic measures are temporary remedies to the violent manifestation of radicalisation only. These operations, in other words, have helped extinguish fire, not the flickering embers. Radicalisation, the flickering ember, may spark the fire any time. An extension of the first, the second argument is that a narrative is a long term cure to the problem of radicalisation and Paigham-e-Pakistan was the beginning point of a counter narrative in the making. The persistence of militant violence post Paigham-e-Pakistan amply demonstrates that the document, a step in the right direction though, still lacks in what would finally suffice.

Informed by an understanding that drivers of radicalisation are complex, multi-faceted and intertwined, the AU’s conference mainly contributed on three counts. For one, it did not solely focus on religiously-inspired violence; rather it also highlighted nationalistic, ideology-driven and ethnicity based radicalisation in campuses. For another, the conference crafted a number of recommendations for policymaking institutions. In the joint session of vice chancellors, ulema and non-Muslim religious leaders, a number of wonderful recommendations were given including the lifting of ban on student unions, ridding them of political interference, incorporating Paigham-e-Pakistan in curricula and among others, the holding of such conferences regularly. Last but not the least, the conference was a collaborative venture of Air University, Higher Education Commission, Council of Islamic Ideology, Muslim Institute and Centre for Research and Security Studies, an initiative worth appreciation and emulation.

More is less. The problem of radicalisation we have been facing is far bigger than resources we have been committing to counter it. We need to revisit the very essence of our national narrative: the nature and direction of state and society. Pakistan did not have a single narrative at both the state and society level; it is perfectly fine. The otherwise common experience of oppression under the Raj elicited a variety of responses from the areas that made Pakistan. Throughout its history, the country has had a plurality of narratives though not all of them gained traction in the official discourse. The common theme in official narratives has been an undue emphasis on religion as a tool in nation and state building. It is this narrative that Islamists of all hues, including their militant variation, draw inspiration from.

Changing the narrative calls for changing the nature and direction of state and society. At the state level, we need a narrative that is nondiscriminatory, tolerant, pluralistic and all-inclusive. Propagated through all official channels including textbooks and curricula, the narrative needs to be informed by the diversity we share rather than the uniformity we bemoan. Conferences, seminars, talks and workshops are all steps in the right direction to evolve the consensus on a real narrative we choose than an imaginary narrative we were indoctrinated into!

Farman Kakar

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