WHAT do those who abducted the four activists want? What crime did those four commit? They used the digital space very effectively to create satirical commentary against an extremist narrative that is sweeping across the country with increasing ferocity. They wrote poetry.
Salman Haider was picked up without warning when he was returning from a visit with friends, and his car was found abandoned near Korral Chowk just outside Islamabad. His wife received a text message telling her to come and get the car, from his phone. Kidnappers usually turn the phone off at once, since it can be used as a tracking device.
Another two were picked up from their homes. In at least one of those cases, the family noticed that their WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger accounts were still on, and being checked, well into the night.
Doesn’t sound like your typical kidnappers again. The BBC, in their news story on the event, put it best: “No group has said it is holding them. All four aired views critical of the military or militancy on social media.”
Now we have news of a fifth individual, with a similar profile as an activist, also missing as per family reports. Whether or not this is the fifth in line, or the last, we don’t know.
What is going on? Whoever picked them up has no fear of being tracked. No group has claimed responsibility, and no ransom calls have been received. Quite apparently, this is not the handiwork of ordinary criminal gangs.
Days after the pick-ups began, a Facebook page by the name of Bhensaa was shut down. The page was reportedly run by two of the individuals who have been picked up, with possibly other partners. It carried material that touched on religion and politics in a way to counter the extremist narrative sweeping the country.
We are turning crooks into heroes on our TV screens, while the courageous and articulate amongst us are violently weeded out.
In a more sinister development, the page that was taken down became active again but with a new group of people posting to it, who began hurling abuse on the original creators of the page and accusing them of engaging in “hate speech”. Really? Hate speech? So is that how this is going to go down?
This in a country where banned sectarian outfits have felt free to hold demonstrations in an open lot in the capital city, complete with their flags, stage and loudspeakers, from which the most hateful speeches against minority sects have been delivered. This in a country where the interior minister himself meets the leadership of a banned outfit and grants its requests. This in a country where leading members of the same group can run for election, and in one case even win.
What on earth is going on in our country? What ideas are animating the people who issued the instructions for these pick-ups? What do they think they are achieving with acts such as these, which amount to little more than simple abductions?
For a country that is being practically swept off its feet by hate-filled narratives emanating from some seminaries and mosques, that is in the throes of a violent backlash by militant groups that seek to impose their own brand of extreme intolerance on the rest of us, that has had its military installations attacked as well as its schools, playgrounds and shrines, not to mention witnessed targeted killings along sectarian lines, for a country reeling under such circumstances to start using state powers for apprehending these violent and vicious elements, to instead start targeting bloggers and online activists is folly of unimaginable proportions.
Time and again it has been said that the fight against militancy will take far more than guns and bombs. It will take words, poetry, memes, Tweets. It is less a fight over territory and more a fight for the imagination. Such a fight cannot be waged with fake news and sponsored Tweets. It takes the imaginative genius of the citizenry, those with the guts and the brains to generate innovative responses to extremist propaganda.
Instead, the message we are sending to our citizenry is ‘be quiet and do nothing’. We are turning crooks into heroes on our TV screens, while the courageous and articulate amongst us are violently weeded out.
Time and again I am reminded of a story reported by one of the best Karachi journalists in the profession, about a family of boxers who were killed in gang war. Read the details and it will leave you immeasurably sad. These were heroes who stood up to the gangs, sought to rescue the youth from a life of crime by opening a boxing club and providing training and material, and served as role models for them. They were all hunted down by the gangs and killed in one violent swoop. That was the end of their story.
Far too much violence is picking off the best amongst us. Sometimes it is directed by the state, sometimes by criminal gangs, other times by terrorists. Sometimes, sadly, it comes from within the family or by a family against a powerless member of society who is forced into a life of servitude for a few measly rupees.
If we succumb to all this and resolve to lead our lives in a manner that seeks to avoid all contact with the possibility of violent retribution, we become a country of sheep. And nothing helps the terrorists more than that. Nothing hurts the cause of the fight against extremism and terrorism more than that. Nobody is more ill suited to fight against an extremist and terrorist onslaught than a country of sheep. We must demand, and continue demanding, that those abducted bloggers be returned immediately, and unharmed. Recourse to such measures must never be contemplated again in the future.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn January 12th, 2017