Missing the larger picture

June 17, 2017

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AFTER escaping mass casualty attacks for 12 years, the United Kingdom suffered three in quick succession in 72 days, suggesting the authorities are not able to stop low-tech, improvised assaults carried out by individuals or small groups. These pose a difficult choice for the so-called ‘free societies’: do more to contain the resurgent jihadist violence or risk political backlash by putting ‘draconian’ limits on civil rights and liberties. The answers are not easy to find and knee-jerk, reactive approaches are simply not working, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Kashmir, Yemen, Turkey or Pakistan.

In two out of three recent attacks in the UK, the perpetrators were known to the intelligence agencies but not thought to be dangerous enough to warrant a close watch. This points to the difficulty of the intelligence apparatus in determining whom to monitor.

The attacks also pose a policy conundrum for governments that uphold the values of liberty and free expression: how should they take the fight to an “amorphous battlefield”? Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, has monitored 20,000 extremists in the recent past. Keeping tabs on so many people is a struggle even for the most sophisticated security agencies anywhere.

Following these attacks, there have been fervent calls for international regulators to stop extremists from using cyberspace to win supporters. “We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed; yet that is precisely what the internet and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide,” lamented British Prime Minister Theresa May. The question is whether more curbs on the web would be able to stop the spread of radicalism.

An ‘intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness’ seem to be driving extremism.

Ms May has called for a “battle of ideas” against the radical version of Islam — in other words, “to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities, but as one truly United Kingdom”. This would involve “difficult and often embarrassing conversations” with the Muslim community. This is where she as a politician, thinking of an electoral outcome in a tense post-Brexit era, is treading a path of outlining a new counterterrorism strategy that puts ideology and integration at the forefront.

I fear that if the attacks continue, so will political pressure for measures such as large-scale preventive detentions, intrusive police surveillance and a panic-driven reactive counterterrorism strategy that would amount to following the failed militaristic approach of dealing with violent extremism as enunciated by Pankaj Mishra in his latest book Age of Anger.

The militant Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the recent bloodbath in the UK which also shows why governments must target the threat at its root and identify the causes that churn out militants, terrorists and insurgents in this age of rage. Mishra believes the West-versus-the-rest thinking since 9/11 explains “why our age of anger has provoked some absurdly extreme fear and bewilderment” that has produced intellectual robots who “cannot ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigour, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of [IS]”.

One must analyse the mindset of the educated young men and some women who are rushing to fight for soul-stirring but poorly understood causes, and often cutting their lives short. Mishra calls them “wandering outlaws of their own dark minds wanting to surrender completely to elusive dreams of eternal bliss after death”.

IS seems to pose even more perplexing questions than Al Qaeda did. Mishra wonders “why, for instance, has Tunisia, the originator of the Arab Spring and the most Westernised among Muslim societies, sent the largest contingent among 90 countries of foreign jihadis to Iraq and Syria? Why have dozens of British women, including high-achieving schoolgirls, joined up, despite the fact that men from [IS] have enslaved and raped girls as young as 10 years old?”

In Notes from Underground, referred to by Mishra, Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man says: “I’m convinced that man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos.” Mishra claims: “Dreaming constantly of revenge against his social superiors, this creature of the netherworld luxuriates in his feeling of impotence, and projects blame for his plight outward.” Even Nietzsche derived his understanding of ‘resentment’ and its malign potential as a “particularly noxious form of aggression by the weak against an aloof and inaccessible elite”.

My worry is that we are not seeing the big picture and seem to be, as the theologian Niebuhr would say, “suspended in a hell of global insecurity”. There is an overlap of religion and politics in this era of violent extremism. It is easy to blame an ideology without understanding the complexities of the chain of causality in acts of terrorism. There are social, cultural, economic and political factors that are stoking conflicts and radicalising vast sections of marginalised and disaffected strata of society. The result is, as political theorist Arendt feared, a “tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else”, and according to Mishra an existential resentment “caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness”.

Mishra concludes that “the old West-dominated world order is giving way to an apparent global disorder. Anglo-America no longer confidently produces, as it did for two centuries, the surplus of global history; and the people it once dominated now chafe against the norms and valuations produced by that history”.

Meanwhile, we in Pakistan, like the blind men in the fable who try to describe an elephant by feeling different parts of its body, cannot make out the challenges of extremism in all their dimensions, leaving it to the ‘barrel vision’ of an enormous regulatory or deep state, a government within the government, that calls the shots. Nations become strong on the legacy of trust — the kind that depends on institutions that foster collective decisions in response to existential threats. Lasting nationhood is based on a social contract between the state and individual in which each is accountable to the other.

We need to address this trust deficit.

The writer is member of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2017