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About a counter-narrative

December 29, 2016


DISAPPOINTED at the government’s failure to develop a narrative to counter the militant extremists’ explanation for their terrorist activities, the judiciary and civil society organisations are offering alternative narratives and these surely deserve notice. If nothing else, these initiatives should generate a debate on what needs to be done to blunt the militants’ appeal to common citizens.

In his report on the Quetta carnage in August, Justice Qazi Faez Isa has derived a counter-narrative from the Quran and hadith. He has quoted verses in which the Holy Quran says that the killer of a believer will go to hell and attract the wrath and curse of Allah; prohibits killing anything which has a soul, which Allah has made sacred; prohibits suicide (and, by implication, suicide bombing); and enjoins all places of worship to be safeguarded, making specific mention of monasteries, synagogues and mosques.

The Quran also enjoins tolerance as it says “there is no compulsion in religion”; forbids division in Islam and among Muslims and calls upon Muslims to hold fast, and together, to the rope of Allah and avoid division into factions. There is also a hadith, reported by Bukhari and quoted by Mawardi, according to which the Prophet (PBUH) said: “He who harms the non-Muslim citizen of a Muslim state, I am his adversary, and I shall be his adversary on the Day of Judgement.”

A common, unbiased Muslim will readily agree with Justice Isa, but we face two problems. Most Muslims accept the monopoly of ulema on interpretation of the Quran and most of these ulema do not condemn extremists’ violence. They are unlikely to change.

Deradicalisation of society needs to be part of a broader attempt at national reconstruction.

Besides, the extremists deny killing believers and innocent non-Muslims. They claim to target only enemies of Islam whether they bear Muslim names or are known as non-Muslims. These people are liable to be killed, it is said, because they side with the Americans (who the jihadists are fighting in Afghanistan) and those who support, or do not oppose, the state of Pakistan, which is allied with the Americans and is killing the jihadists. Thus, according to these militants, the Quranic verses quoted by their critics do not apply to them.

A report titled Reconstruction of the National Narratives and Counter-Violent Extremism Model for Pakistan has been issued by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies that is widely respected for its analyses of militancy.

This report calls for a review of the “political construct of religion as well as religious thought on concepts like the ummah (pan-Muslim statehood); collective order and state and society”. It suggests a dialogue between religious scholars and social scientists to determine a modern society’s needs. According to this report, it is necessary to restructure a non-discriminatory religious thought, develop proper education and guidance on sensitive religious issues so that the terrorists’ wrong interpretations of religion lose their appeal.

The report also recommends building Pakistani culture on tolerance of diverse cultural identities, making cultural diversity the basis of education, elimination of class divisions, reforming the justice system, making Pakistan a welfare state, and persuading the media to discourage the extremist narrative.

The most significant feature of this report, apart from its enthusiasm for idealism, is that it envisages the required counter-narrative as a process and not merely as a policy declaration.

It is clear from these two exercises that it is not impossible to develop a sound, pragmatic and convincing reply to the militants’ religiosity. But could a single narrative offered from an official forum wean Pakistani citizens away from the extremists? Most unlikely.

A realistic diagnosis of the people’s mental bondage to orthodoxy will show that obscurantism and fanaticism have struck deep roots in Pakistan society. This problem can only be addressed by an institution that can engage the people in a proper intra-religion discourse over a long period. This will demand the creation of an independent council of Islamic research and instruction of the kind originally proposed by Dr Fazlur Rahman, a wasted half-century ago.

However, as indicated in the report, terrorism/ militancy/ extremism is not an exclusively religious issue; it touches on a series of issues that are rooted in people’s non-religious experiences. Obviously, these factors also need to be tackled.

In other words, deradicalisation of society, which is what a counter-narrative is supposed to achieve, needs to be part of a broader effort aimed at national reconstruction. The eradication of factors that foster extremist thought and militancy/ terrorism should receive priority.

For instance, glorification of violence during the Afghan jihad and guerilla tactics in Muslim lands under alien occupation has thoroughly brutalised society. If people could be cured of their inclination for brutality they will become less vulnerable to the logic of terrorism. The state should launch a crash course to end all forms of violence, such as carrying out the death penalty, extra-legal killings by state functionaries as well as targeted killings by non-state actors, all forms of violence against women and girls, corporal punishment in schools and homes, and domestic violence.

Textbooks prescribed for educational institutions have been criticised at various platforms for promoting/ condoning violence. The study done by A.H. Nayyar and Ahmed Salim for SDPI, and other studies done by civil society have exposed biases against non-Muslims and the Baloch community. These textbooks must be purged of all hate material.

Religious militancy fuels the oppression of non-Muslim Pakistanis and discrimination against non-Muslims fuels militancy. This vicious circle must be broken.

Women are among the main targets of militants and they also have the potential to defeat them provided they are allowed their basic freedoms and permitted socioeconomic independence.

Finally, a society where poverty and inequality increase at a faster rate than that of GDP growth, where merit is at a discount and access to justice depends on the size of one’s pocket, no counter-narrative, however rationally assembled, will rout militancy.

Published in Dawn December 29th, 2016