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The dominant actor

April 14, 2014

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A TTP spokesman last week said that killing innocent people is ‘haram’. The statement may have been the most perverse act of hypocrisy ever witnessed in Pakistan, which is saying something. Perverse not only because the TTP has contributed to the massacre of 50,000 Pakistanis, but also because it issued the statement while deciding whether to extend a ceasefire — one that has been punctuated by horrific violence.

As Pakistan negotiates with the TTP, it’s important to consider what made the group think it could get away with such a public contradiction, and what it hopes to achieve by it. For weeks, the TTP has taken advantage of the ongoing peace talks to revamp its PR strategy, simply disowning acts of violence that echo its modus operandi and are traced back to it by intelligence agencies. Media-savvy spokesmen blame splinter groups, hidden hands, or foreign agents for the attacks, and we give them the benefit of the doubt even though it is known that militant groups are well networked and ready to collaborate.

The TTP has also tried to win the moral high ground through the negotiations process. It has made sure to come across as magnanimous in granting — and then extending — the ceasefire; it has also turned the tables on the army by demonising it for detaining non-combatants, including women and children (while their repeated slaughter of the same bears no mention).

By declaring terrorist violence to be ‘haram’, the TTP has taken another major step towards its own rehabilitation and legitimisation. Worse, it has robbed the government and liberal minority of the most accessible counter-narrative — one that those opposed to Talibanisation have floundered towards, but failed to articulate.

How has this happened? What can we do to stop it? Too often, discussions about the TTP’s growing audacity get bogged down in murky histories of our deep state, crises of national identity and questions about the role of religion in the public sphere. But there are concrete factors that have empowered the TTP to seize control of the dominant narrative about its own violent extremism. Identifying these is the first step towards course-correction, and making sure other violent actors do not capture the public imagination in the same way the TTP has done.

Shoddy, hysterical journalism is one of the main culprits. Our television channels are adept at pulling together montages to mock politicians, but make little effort to compile documentation that highlights the hypocrisy of militant groups and the scale of atrocities they have committed (and claimed). Some may say the media has been intimidated by attacks against journalists. But this excuse would hold only if media houses were busy bulking up security, providing safety training, and using their clout to pressurise the government to provide more protection for journalists. In the absence of that, we have to assume the decontextualised and extensive coverage of TTP statements is a result of ratings pressure, even ideological affinity with the Taliban.

The rot within our education institutes is also to blame. Even supposedly educated Pakistanis have little capacity for critical thinking and research. They are not empowered to sift through the white noise and make sense of the information about extremist groups available to them in rational and informed ways. It doesn’t help that youngsters capable of critical thought are recruited by extremist groups, which have made a concerted effort to infiltrate university campuses.

Pakistan’s inability to engage in public discourses about religion has also created more space for the TTP. This inability results from a long process starting with the Objectives Resolution, peaking with the passage of draconian blasphemy laws, and persisting through inanities such as the YouTube ban. Thanks to such developments, only the most right-wing fanatic can issue statements pertaining to Islam, confident that he cannot be challenged by anyone further to the right on the ideological spectrum — and certainly not by secular voices. Today, the TTP and its ilk occupy the position of right-most religious pontificators. I shudder to think what might come next.

Our state security policies have hardly helped. Despite tens of thousands of killings, old games are afoot: good Taliban vs bad Taliban; my strategic asset vs your terrorist. The idea that rogue militants can be brought back into the security establishment’s fold and used as foils against stubborn hardliners continues to be entertained. In this context, why wouldn’t groups like the TTP seek public rehabilitation?

The government took a good step in dismantling the TTP’s Umar Media website. The fact that it has not promptly resurfaced suggests the group considers an authorised online presence a low priority — it knows it already has the nation’s ear.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

Twitter: @humayusuf