WHILE at the moment it is difficult to predict the impact the Afghan Taliban government will have on the relationship between state and society in Pakistan, there are some important facts to consider. When a parliamentary committee rejected the anti-forced conversion bill, which had also been opposed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, it had nothing to do with the Afghan Taliban but Pakistan’s own majoritarian mentality that has largely remained mired in exclusivity. The Taliban presence in the neighbourhood will only encourage this mindset and foster the process of ‘Talibanisation’ in state institutions and society in Pakistan.
Interestingly, the moderates of civil society always advocate a predominant role for parliament in terms of protecting the rights of marginalised segments of society, but our legislatures rarely take bold initiatives; instead, many lawmakers prefer to stand with the forces of control and repression. Had the superior courts of the country not fulfilled their constitutional responsibilities through bold judgements and critical observations, this majoritarian mindset would have eroded many legal safety valves. Sadly, not only parliament but the executive too has a similar mentality and exhibits its full authority to promote moral concepts and leanings which cater mainly to the religious constituency of their support base.
Pakistan needs at least a minimum level of inclusivity that can keep alive democratic values.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced the establishment of the Rehmatul-lil-Alameen Authority to raise awareness, both abroad and at home, of Islam and the life of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). This is a noble cause. However, religion is a delicate issue in Pakistan. Any initiative linked to religious or moral codes only strengthens the clergy. Pakistan’s history is replete with examples. Secondly, it is also important to see how the authority will work as it has a very broad agenda, ranging from the development of youth’s moral character and preparing and monitoring the religious curriculum being taught at schools, to countering Islamophobia globally, particularly in the West.
Apart from the mammoth scope and mandate of the proposed authority, it is also not clear who will lead it. If the clergy holding traditional Islamic scholarship is given a lead role, the authority will eventually become an institution of moral policing and may not be different from the Taliban ministry of Amr-bil Maroof Wa Nahi Anil Munkar meant to promote virtue and prevent vice. Another issue will be to identify and engage with religious scholars who not only have the required scholarship but also credibility with the masses in a diverse religious landscape. Had Pakistan such scholarship, the performance of the existing federal and provincial institutions, that are working for similar purposes, would have been far better.
Most importantly, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the establishment of the authority in a special gathering of religious scholars, instead of putting it before parliament or the executive; nor were its modalities and objectives debated in public forums.
Apart from parliament and the executive, the security establishment has also been exhibiting a similar approach. A revised and amended National Action Plan has been announced without any open discussion or wider consultations to craft the counterterrorism framework of the country. The revised NAP consists of 14 points and further strengthens the grip of the establishment on internal security affairs. Most of the points are broad and vague and can be misused easily, including the clause which explains action against the spread of terrorism through media (electronic, print, and social media), communication and cyber networks. It gives the impression that the whole idea behind NAP is to establish a punitive regime to counter terrorism. The much-needed focus on soft approaches like education, counter-narratives, and deradicalisation is missing once again.
As in the policy before revision, one component talks about the implementation of the ‘counter-violence extremism’ policy, but this phrase is used in a very broad context in decision-making circles; the task has been assigned to the National Counter Terrorism Authority, which means the latter has lost relevance in the country’s CT discourse. Apparently, the establishment has no trust in Nacta. As for NAP’s implementation, a new and separate secretariat has been established. Bureaucracy in Pakistan loves to create parallel institutions, which makes it easier to shift blame onto weaker institutions.
The new NAP is the death of the notion that police and civilian security institutions are the ones to lead internal security in the country. A mindset that believes in the concentration of power is at play in every institution of the country, and ironically, it has evolved a synergy among those displaying and owning that mindset. While the establishment has gradually gained control over most of the key institutions in the country, the executive is authoritarian in attitude and wants to run the system like a kingdom. Meanwhile, parliament has become the custodian of the majority’s interests. What else can we call the ‘exclusivity syndrome’? The latter does not tolerate difference of opinions, practises exclusion and adopts a self-righteous attitude. Compare it with what the world is demanding from the Taliban in Afghanistan. Certainly, Pakistan also needs inclusivity, or at least a minimum level of inclusion, that can keep alive democratic values.
The Taliban regime is new and came to power after 20 years of violent struggle. One can argue that they need time to create a conducive environment to fulfil their promises. But how are things different in Pakistan when its religious affairs minister says that the ‘environment is unfavourable’ for formulating a law against forced conversions?
‘Unfavourable environment’ is an excuse the state has been using for decades now, and it has empowered the forces of repression. Instead of making excuses, the state must create a conducive environment for ensuring the masses are given their constitutional rights. The majority mindset is divisive; the phenomenon is also in full swing in India. Pakistan always wants to be seen as different to India and that is possible only if its state and society become inclusive in their essence. Otherwise, the world will continue equating us with our neighbours across the western border.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2021