A dangerous narrative

March 14, 2011


PAKISTAN today is a nation tearing itself apart, idea by idea. Whatever one thinks of the 'two-nation theory' it was this idea that made Pakistan a reality. Likewise, the slow dissolution of our national consensus has the ability to rend this nation asunder.

But most people are not ideologues; they do not work for change based on some deep philosophical commitment. Rather, most people feel inspired by a 'narrative'. Grand ideas of the type that build and destroy nations are supported by simplistic narratives that are easily digested by the masses. Narratives do not have to be true, they merely have to resonate.

The narrative behind the two-nation theory stressed the perils Muslims would face living as a minority in India. It is the narrative that provides glamour to an idea, making it attractive for young people to follow. And the narrative gaining most traction in Pakistan today is the very one suffocating this nation — the view that the end goal of Pakistan is the establishment of an Islamist state, and that the West is at war with Muslims over this very point. If progressive change is to come to Pakistan it can only come through the challenging of this narrative.

Islamism is not Islam. Islamism is the idea that seeks to implement one interpretation of Islam over the rest of society by law. Some Islamists seek to do this through politicking and others through violence. By violating a Muslim's divine right to choose which ijtihad they wish to follow, Islamism's primary victims are Muslims themselves. Born of Islamism and nourishing it regularly is the narrative that the West hates Islam and Muslims. Popularising such a narrative feeds the Islamists' power struggles by providing a war-like pretext for their autocratic designs and a justification for their witch-hunting and international isolationism.

The true measure of success for any idea is when its narrative is adopted by its enemies, as it thus gains independent validation and works to continuously nourish its parent ideology. After the recent spate of Islamist-inspired assassinations in this country, if we are left wondering how Pakistan got to where it is today we need look no further than our own culpability.

Through our misguided attempts at checking the rise of extremism in Pakistan, we have all been collectively yet inadvertently reinforcing the Islamist narrative for decades. And before anyone objects to my 'self-righteousness', let me first clarify that having helped set up an Islamist group in Pakistan during my 20s, I include myself first and foremost in this indictment.

We see many activists today locked in an unwinnable war on the assumption that they can take on extremism by challenging Islamic religious tradition head-on. Rather than focusing on Islamism as defined above, some liberals, humanists and leftists nebulously define extremism as religious practice itself. They then proceed to denounce conservative Muslims — who harm no one by merely choosing to wear a headscarf or grow a beard — as a sign of growing extremism in Pakistan.

The way in which the blasphemy debate has been framed is a case in point. This debate should not have been pitched as Islamic 'law' versus human rights, but as one of medievalism and 'closing the doors of ijtihad' on the one hand versus reform and keeping ijtihad open on the other.

What is often forgotten is that Europe's Reformation against state Catholicism was sparked by none other than Martin Luther, a Protestant religious fundamentalist. By sympathising with the polarising French-model of secularism we play directly into the Islamist narrative. What better validation is there that 'West-loving heretics' are conspiring to attack Islam as a faith than our own anti-religion posturing? No prizes for guessing who's winning this debate then.

And as for governments, it's no good insisting that the Islamist narrative is false while making one of the most monumental political blunders in recent memory. While those challenging extremism in Pakistan are out on the field daily debunking conspiracy theories that seek to blame everyone but ourselves for our faults, the Raymond Davis case is dealt to them like an oil spill over a neighbourhood litter-collection effort.

Through this one incredibly stupid incident enough fuel has been handed to the Islamist narrative to last it well into the next decade. Add to this continued drone attacks and a losing war in Afghanistan and the Islamist narrative is being nourished daily. Are we still expected to wade through oil spills in order to hand-pick street-litter?

Market-driven media empires fiercely competing for advertising revenue appear schizophrenic in their coverage. Among our bilingual media outlets we witness a 'linguistic apartheid' that panders to moderation and reason for its English readership, while at the same time fuelling all sorts of misogyny and bigotry for an Urdu readership. This is sometimes done through the very same author.

Such a 'linguistic apartheid' further alienates the intelligentsia from Pakistan's conservative masses (though the masses being conservative is a fact that certain liberals feel uncomfortable acknowledging), thus reinforcing the vicious cycle of mutual dehumanisation taking place in Pakistan. That was until the Islamists began importing in English-speaking cadres in order to infiltrate the elite too.

By obsessing over madressahs, the vast majority of which pose more of a socio-economic problem than they do a political problem, we ignore the fact that almost all political Islamists are university educated and socially mobile. Punjab University is no madressah, and we all know what goes on there.

Even when considering violent factions, we refuse to see that their leaders are from well-established families. The notorious Pakistani accused of masterminding the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad , is an engineer. The man accused of killing Daniel Pearl in Karachi, Omar Sheikh, studied at the prestigious London School of Economics.

The madressah students who do become violent extremists are used as cannon fodder to serve objectives set by people from our own class, not theirs. This denial culture again serves to reinforce Islamism by directing attention to the symptoms while under our own patronising gaze fashion icons, rock stars and former military associates thrive while spouting paranoid bigotry in the name of Islam and the caliphates of old.

All this is not to say that our policies should be held hostage to Islamist demands for fear of reinforcing their narratives. Rather, it is an appeal to all those who wish to see a truly stable and democratic Pakistan. Surely blunders and strategic approaches designed to challenge Islamism which only end up serving the Islamist cause are self-defeating?

It is time to see this struggle for what it truly is: a propaganda war. But those of us interested in winning against the Islamist narrative have been very late off the starting blocks. Is it any wonder then that while the Arab world heads towards democratic change, Pakistan stands alone in witnessing popular support for wresting away our democratic rights?

The writer is founder of Khudi, a counter-extremism social forum in Pakistan.