For decades we have remained in a state of denial about terrorism and militancy, shielding ourselves behind a thick screen of ambiguity.
However, after a long spell of extremism, there is growing realisation that force alone cannot defeat violent extremism, therefore, the situation warrants the knitting of a national counter-narrative. Yet without understanding the radicalisation process — how and why individuals are converted to extremist causes — it would be difficult to counter the poisonous narrative of the radicals.
Extremist organisations like the militant Islamic State group focus on religion, or rather their version of it. Right from their motto, emblem and flag to their appearance, everything is wrapped in religious colours. Such organisations also try to convince their followers about the benefits of a ‘caliphate’ and envision waging a struggle for the revival of the system, as opposed to the existence of the modern nation-state system.
Countering extremism with a narrative falls within the ‘softer’ approaches. Before the APS attack there seemed to be little clarity about clamping down on the glorification of acts of terrorism.
But the formulation of the National Action Plan indicates that at last we have left our state of denial and opted for clarity. Point five of NAP categorically explains the resolve of the state to counter hate speeches and extremist material. Point 11 bans glorification of extremists on mass media. Prior to NAP, non-state actors captured significant airtime and space in the media. To reduce space on social media, point 14 determines that action shall be taken against those who lure youth towards extremism through social media.
As our electronic media is still in a nascent phase, it is unable to set an agenda that may promote de-radicalisation. Gone are the days when state-run PTV dedicatedly promoted ‘Pakistani’ values. To inform and educate are two universal functions of the media but our media hardly educates the audience regarding the national narrative.
By employing force, we may quell visible extremists, but prevention of the incubation process of violent extremism requires softer approaches. Undoubtedly, through the media the state can easily educate citizens and in response, citizens may volunteer to protect the state’s interests.
Ideally, who shall draft the narrative — the state, media or the intelligentsia? All three have a role. The national narrative should be drafted by the intelligentsia as desired by the state and should be amplified by the media. In the past, the intelligentsia, media and state-run institutions operated in isolation hence synergised efforts are required on the part of all stakeholders. While drafting a narrative an inclusive, holistic approach will pay dividends.
Groups like Al Qaeda promote a narrative of the Islamic world under threat, hence the obligatory need to defend it through ‘jihad’. The unbridled influence of such elements has increased militancy and sectarianism.
Extremists try to make issues related to health, education and democracy controversial. For example, the role of NGOs, polio vaccination, girls’ education and women’s right to vote are topics the extremists repeatedly raise. Militants term such issues as part of a foreign and ‘un-Islamic’ agenda, hence illiterate, poor folk are left with few options but to jump on the bandwagon.
In the counter-narrative, the messenger, message and target audience all are important constituents. An effective counter-narrative requires naming and shaming a terrorist leadership, highlighting the sufferings of victims and the fact that the extremists’ interpretation of religion is inaccurate.
A more logical interpretation of religion is the clergy’s domain. A few individuals in this domain, like Maulana Hassan Jan, Mufti Shamzai, Dr Farooq and Mufti Sarfaraz Naeemi, have been silenced forever. Hence protecting the messengers should be the state’s responsibility.
A counter-narrative must be more creative, proactive, flexible and positive than reactive. An appealing, logical and viable narrative is not possible without reforming the curriculum and educational system.
Clarity should be the essence of the message; it should not only prevent violent extremism but also change the mindset that accepts violence. Extremist narratives are based on violence, hence the state should glorify the dividends of peace. The narrative should highlight how because of terrorism Muslims have suffered much and incurred major losses. Political parties should also discuss the counter-narrative in their manifestos. To convert NAP into reality is a collective responsibility. We are still looking to state institutions alone; why not incorporate teachers, parents, sportsmen and the youth?
The counter-narrative should also say that carrying guns is the prerogative of the state alone. If this happens it will synchronise with Article 256 of the Constitution that forbids the functioning or existence of armed militias.
Writer: M.A. Babakhel
The writer is a police officer.