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Updated September 28, 2017


THE case for mainstreaming is attractive. Groups that have for decades relied on violence, the argument goes, could be persuaded to take a growing interest in the democratic process. By being allowed to participate in polls, violent jihadists might come to see that power does not come only through the barrel of a gun but also by winning public support in a democratic way. Slowly, they could be turned into more centrist Islamists committed to the parliamentary process.

The NA-120 by-election result encouraged those who hold these arguments. The Milli Muslim League won 5,822 votes. It was enough to keep the Jamaatud Dawa interested in the electoral process but not so much to worry those who fear violent jihadists winning power. Some supporters of mainstreaming say that even if violent jihadists win a few seats, in southern Punjab perhaps, there would be nothing to worry about. ‘Let them!’ the argument goes, ‘they still won’t have any real power?’

There was a time when Nawaz Sharif might have been expected to support these arguments. But his third removal from prime ministerial office seems to have edged him towards ever more liberal positions. He recently said in London that the participation of banned groups in NA-120 was a cause of concern for democratic forces. Supporters of mainstreaming contend that this amounts to nothing more than the PML-N trying to ensure that a competitor with the potential to split the party’s conservative vote bank doesn’t even get the chance to stand.

As for other political leaders Imran Khan says he supports mainstreaming “on balance”. But even if privately they oppose mainstreaming, in public politicians are unlikely to go much further than Sharif. History shows that civilian leaders are so afraid of the violent jihadis’ capacity to assassinate them, they tend towards a policy of appeasement.

What will happen when extremists enter the mainstream?

As the NA-120 campaigning showed, violent jihadists have formidable organisational capacity. Few doubt that when it comes to running disciplined social media campaigns, their highly committed activists will do a more effective job than those in the traditional parties. But the main point of the opponents of mainstreaming is that violent jihadists should be forced to make a choice — support the parliamentary process or continue down the road of violence. Being allowed to hold a gun whilst simultaneously running in an election gives them an unfair advantage.

If the violent jihadists can use both violence and parliamentary tactics they will become stronger. Let’s suppose that at the height of its power 10 years ago, the TTP had been able to stand in elections. It would, no doubt, have intimidated the people in Swat into voting for them. How much more difficult would it then have been for the army to remove the violent jihadists from Swat? Elections confer legitimacy. Why on earth, critics of mainstreaming ask, allow violent jihadists in banned groups to become more legitimate? Just look, they say, at how others around the world have handled similar situations. In Northern Ireland, for example, the key sticking point in the peace process was the British and Irish governments’ insistence that the IRA disarm before it could participate in the political system. It took several years for agreement on that point to be achieved but, eventually, the IRA did decommission its weapons.

There are also pragmatic political considerations. The Israeli system has shown what can happen when religious extremists with a small number of seats hold the balance of power. Vital partners with the capacity to make or break ruling coalitions, they wield disproportionate influence and are able to force through policies which have very little public support.

Many liberals believe that senior military officers support mainstreaming. They fear that by allowing mainstreaming to happen, or even quietly encouraging it, the army is trying to build the case for backing the ‘good Taliban’. After all, it is much easier to argue that it is too difficult to confront the LeT and the SSP if they have an electoral base.

It has long been the case that many Pakistanis — military and civilian — have downplayed the fundamental contest between the violent jihadists and what Gen Musharraf used to call ‘the silent majority’. Even after the gruelling confrontation between the army and TTP made the nature and depth of that clash blindingly obvious, there is an unwillingness to face up to the fact that the violent jihadists are fundamentally opposed to the interests of most Pakistanis and are prepared to use force to impose their ideas on the rest of society. Mainstreaming, its critics argue, is the latest example of that disastrous ambivalence.

The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2017