The News on Sunday: The word mainstreaming of banned militant groups has gained currency again. What does it really mean and how is it different from deradicalisation and disengagement or are they all a part of the same process?
Muhammad Amir Rana: The concepts of deradicalisation, desertion, demobilisation, defection, rehabilitation, reintegration, reconciliation, dialogue, and disengagement, etc., vary in functional attributes if not much in objectives. The main reason for the use of different terms in different societies seems to be a realisation of the socio-political activities attached to each term. But two of these terms — deradicalisation and disengagement — are used more frequently. Deradicalisation and disengagement can be defined as the process of individual and collective withdrawal. Disengagement refers to a behavioural change, whereas deradicalisation implies a cognitive shift, i.e., a fundamental change in understanding. Mainstreaming is a somewhat larger outcome of these functions.
Deradicalisation and disengagement — name them your way — occur when ideological, political and socioeconomic situations change and non-state actors are provided opportunities to reintegrate into society. There are many examples of that from Africa to Latin America.
TNS: Can you make a distinction between the groups that can be deradicalised and mainstreamed and those that can’t? Is there a rough estimate of how many people there are who need to be brought into the mainstream?
MAR: In 2016-17, one of the 10 experts’ groups facilitated by Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) in Islamabad debated the options and probabilities of reintegrating banned militant organisations. The group also listened to the points of view of the leaderships of two banned organisations. It reached the conclusion that it is parliament’s job to determine the direction of any reintegration plan and for that it should also constitute a high-powered, national-level truth and reconciliation commission to review the policies that produced militancy in the first place. Most importantly, it was deliberated that such probabilities [of reintegration] should only apply to those groups that are conventional in nature and labelled as proxies.
However, a major challenge for the state is how to neutralise these groups that once served its strategic purpose. Many experts and most of Pakistan’s civil society believe that these groups should be treated under the rule of the law and that Pakistan must fulfill its commitments under UN Security Council resolutions. Few also argue how to mainstream groups that have been for decades promoting an anti-democracy and anti-constitution (or anti-man-made legislation) mindset. For instance, there is still plenty of literature being produced by Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) against democracy and the Constitution. A brief background of the party’s anti-democratic ideology and practices can be found in a book, Qafila Dawat-o-Jihad, written by Ameer Hamza, a JuD founder.
Those who oppose reintegration of conventional militant groups argue that it will only encourage these groups, who will reconnect with their radical and violent agendas once the pressure is off them. They fear that these groups will continue nurturing hate narratives in the Pakistani society.
Still, the reintegration approach can be more effective for conventional groups only that have not taken arms against Pakistan; even among them, some will have a greater tendency to reintegrate as compared to others.
At the same time, the risk of attrition always remains high in these groups and many individuals and small factions continue to break away and join other militant groups. A rehabilitation programme for splintering members should also be created.
TNS: There is a view that these militants could be included in paramilitary forces. How will this be made possible, please explain.
MAR: The option of inducting members of banned groups into the paramilitary forces was perhaps first considered during the Musharraf regime, after the first ban was enacted on the militant groups in 2002. But it could not be materialised because of several reasons, but mainly out of fear that those included in paramilitary might radicalise the forces. However, after passing through a comprehensive deradicalisation process, the repentant or former militants could be considered for an inclusion in paramilitary forces. But that will be a huge task to accomplish and Pakistan has only limited experience. The military has been running a few rehabilitation centres for militant detainees but civilian law-enforcement agencies lack such capacities and could take time to initiate similar projects.
TNS: Banned outfits have shunned violence in the past and have branched out into welfare works and started operating under different names. How can they be prepared to renounce their ideology; is the state going to work on individuals or groups or both?
MAR: True, it is not easy for militants to renounce their ideologies. Indeed, at times, changing behaviour of some sectarian or militant groups can confuse the state’s response also, especially when these groups offer complete disengagement from violence in return for entry into mainstream politics. But there are no reliable indicators available to measure such changes in militants’ ideology and behaviour. Nor can the leaderships of such groups guarantee to hold back their vulnerable mid- and low-rank cadres from committing acts of terrorism, or joining some other violent groups.
That is also true that while keeping their violent ideologies and agendas intact, militants can try to build their soft image through bringing to fore their charity and political passion. And that strategy has indeed proved effective.
Indeed, they have been taking benefit of their ability to harmonise their ideologies with the Pakistan ideology, which is also religious in its construction. To reduce the appeal of such violent ideologies, militants should not be allowed to hide behind the state’s religious-nationalist paradigm. Secondly, these groups should not have any space in the political or strategic calculus of the state. Thirdly, the government needs to ensure a complete blackout of militant and sectarian groups by the media and in public domains, a ban on their publications, and zero visibility for them in cyberspace. This should be part of the state’s contingency plan against militant groups.
TNS: One possible way open to them is to contest election and become a part of the political process and we even saw this in the last general election. Does mainstreaming include this route as well?
MAR: This would not be a good idea as these groups can use this as an opportunity to survive. Instead of allowing them to establish their own parties, members of these groups who don’t have a criminal record could be encouraged to join existing mainstream political parties, including religious-political ones.
Dealing with banned groups needs a comprehensive policy framework and the first step in this direction should be to initiate an open debate in parliament on the status and future of banned groups.
One should not forget, as cited earlier, that militants use political umbrella to build their soft image besides expanding their outreach in political spaces and avoiding confrontation with the government. The establishment of the Milli Muslim League is a case in point.
TNS: As you have indicated in your last columns, there is also the issue of seminaries and charities run by these organisations. Will these be mainstreamed as well and how?
MAR: The state must deal with the madrassa issue separately and with full vigilance and adopt a step-by-step approach. Initially, it should come up with a policy of registration, which binds madrassas to provide compulsory formal education for certain hours a day.
However, managing the assets of these groups in the form of private schools, health centres, and other welfare operations would be a huge challenge in mainstreaming efforts. The charity operations of these groups can be put under the supervision of some legitimate charities and local governments.
However, importantly, there is a need to reassess the ways of bringing such groups under the rule of law completely. The state can freeze their assets, shut down their charity and organisational operations, put their leaderships under different schedules of anti-terrorism laws, try their leaders in courts of law, and, in the worst case, strip them of their nationality. But will this eliminate the problem? Do we have an idea about the penetration of these groups in society, different layers of their members from mid to lower ranks, and their numerical strength? How will they behave and what kind of responses can they evolve?
TNS: Do we have a successful example of deradicalisation and mainstreaming elsewhere in the region or world?
MAR: Each of the deradicalisation models and approaches in Muslim and Western countries is unique and has specific cultural, political, and social context. These programmes are mainly aimed at countering the appeal of extremism and militancy, changing attitudes and at getting repentant terrorists back into society. Nonetheless, disengaging a militant from violence and extremist tendencies is an uphill task because of his or her ideological and political association with a cause.
Similarly, distinguishing between successful and unsuccessful strategies to do that is also not easy. Indeed, the ratio of success of deradicalisation programmes launched in different countries remains debatable, notwithstanding the claims made by the states.
The interview was conducted via email