NOT so long ago, the radio was in the news for all the wrong reasons. That was the medium chosen by the militant leader Fazlullah, who became known as Mullah Radio, to spread his messages of hatred and divisiveness.
For a long time, he broadcast his venom and the state did little to try and stop it. And then, he and his band ended up in de facto control of Swat.
During Mullah Radio’s comparatively brief rule over the area, his men imposed their own extremist version of religion; government buildings and schools were destroyed, opponents or those labelled ‘immoral’ were flogged or beheaded, the bodies strung up at intersections.
Fazlullah and his men were pushed out of Swat by the Pakistan Army in 2009 (though they still intermittently launch cross-border incursions into Pakistan from their shelters in bordering Afghanistan provinces).
This summer, a spokesman told Reuters via telephone that the group’s aim was to retake Swat and bid for control over all of Pakistan, and then establish what they refer to as ‘Sharia law’. A taste of things to come, because the monster of militancy now has many heads and many strains of hatred feeding it.
The drawing rooms of the chattering classes echo with despondency and many argue that the odds facing us are so insurmountable that there’s little point in even trying. Thankfully, that is not sage counsel for everybody.
A few days ago, the radio was in the news again, this time with an example of the sort of moves that Pakistan so desperately needs to help it stand fast against the dark tide.
The idea was conceived by journalist Imtiaz Gul: highlight the plight of the people affected by the insurgents’ brutality and start a debate among the people about the issues they are facing.
Is the polio vaccination campaign really a CIA plot? Let’s talk about that and get some facts on the table. Does the state go far enough by paying a sum of money to those who lost family members in natural disasters or acts of violence? What is your view?
The shows are called ‘The Dawn’ and ‘The Voice of Peace’, and they are a mixture of reports and live debates designed to not just start a critical discourse on militancy but also to give the victims of this bloody conflict a voice.
A Reuters report about the show referred to an episode in which a woman who had lost her son in a bomb blast recounted her grief to the audiences. And there is an audience, for people call in to comment or to ask questions of guests such as a police officer. More than 80 people called in during a recent episode about whether religious leaders of the area are doing enough to promote peace.
Reportedly, Mr Gul started his Radio Pakistan effort in 2009, but it took a long time for audiences to engage and start talking. They were too scared for at the same time other radio broadcasts were being made through FM stations by the militants who gave out the names of those on their hit-lists.
People would listen to progressive broadcasts, one must assume, but they also listened to the more fiery stuff to make sure that their names weren’t on the lists.
Can an effort such as this make a difference? While it cannot be pinned down in quantifiable terms, certainly such an effort can lead to a change in the mindset that was exploited by the militants spreading hardline propaganda. Tradition demands, for example, that a Pakhtun consider himself duty-bound to protect anyone seeking refuge. This custom is exploited on occasion when foreign fighters from across the border seek shelter with tribesmen on this side.
During an episode on the subject, reportedly a number of people called in to say that it was a tradition they were proud of. But others said that criminals or traitors should not be considered deserving of protection, or that difficult cases should be referred to tribal elders.
On the other side of the spectrum, far from the hinterland, we recently saw another example of resilience against the onslaught and a pledge to normalcy. On the day (Sept 21) the government had declared an unexpected national holiday, we were treated to a display of ferocious mob fury. In too many areas, protesters ran amok, burning, killing and looting. Most people sat in their homes, trying to get over the scenes of anarchy they had witnessed.
But in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, a few people — mainly young — squared their shoulders and set out to do whatever little they could. They went to the spots that had seen trouble and started clearing up, picking up stones and spent teargas shells, sweeping up broken glass, repainting pickets and bus stops.
And they sent out a very powerful political message: if this country is ever to be cleaned up (beyond the physical sense), then those who oppose the extremists have to get up from their armchairs and become more actively involved.
These are just two examples that imply that the light at the end of the tunnel is not necessarily a fire. There are others, drops of sanity in a sea of anarchy.
A bicycling group in Lahore gets exercise while sending the message that the streets belong to everybody. Traffic police across the country stick doggedly to what must be a hugely frustrating task, but they haven’t yet given up.
Theatre persons and filmmakers soldier on in a hostile terrain. Among a plethora of shouting voices in the media, there are also saner counsels. Radicals and extremists cannot be said to dominate Pakistani society, even though theirs seems to be the louder voice.
I suppose the question, then, is whether these pinpricks of light will prove enough to eventually save the day.
The writer is a member of staff.