How to build an effective counter-narrative to extremism in Pakistan?

Confronting Extremism Through Building an Effective Counter-Narrative

This article was originally published in the Development Advocate Pakistan on April 25, 2016.

While Pakistan is using kinetic means to push back terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), it is still struggling to find an antidote to religious extremism and bigotry that provides space for extremist thinking and consequent violence across the country. The ideas of pluralism, religious harmony and openness to diverse political views have slowly given way to narrow mindedness, sectarianism and intolerance. The democratic experience is equipping Pakistan to revive its balance in the socio-political domain, but it is a fact that the social space in the country today is highly contested between extremist and progressive elements of society.

The blame for these trends within the media and policy circles of Pakistan is often directed towards regional conflicts, political grievances, and socio-economic challenges leading to growing instability. While this is all true, what is often disregarded is the reality that extremist groups in Pakistan have developed and introduced their narrative across the society in a gradual and relatively imperceptible manner through media, religious education infrastructure, and penetration in state institutions. Authoritarianism and poor investment in education allowed such narratives to grow faster than usual. Muhammad Feyyaz of LUMS in his insightful paper focusing on the absence of a counterterrorism narrative in Pakistan, accurately argues that there is a virtual vacuum for the terrorist organizations to propagate their narrative at will. He further maintains that many youth embrace radicalism because such views are not challenged by an alternative discourse in the country. An absence of investment in ideas to prevent extremism has allowed the extremist narrative to grow almost unchallenged for quite some time. Those who attempt to stand up to extremism are touted as liberals and foreign agents, etc. in an effort to discredit their discourse. In a nutshell, the core factor at play here is the extremist narrative and hence the need to develop and support a strong and indigenous counter-narrative.

There is an increased realization in Pakistan concerning the importance of countering the narrative of violent extremism, however any meaningful effort in this direction requires three important steps: a) A clear understanding of what are the central features of the extremist narrative in the country and its sponsors; b) Developing an outline of the counter narrative, and finally and importantly, c) Which institutions can play a constructive role in challenging the narrative and how. This essay is primarily focused on the third step but the first two issues will also be discussed to explain what dynamics are at play and the most critical challenge of implementing the counter narrative strategy. The role of political parties and the law enforcement agencies will be evaluated and analyzed as potentially the two most influential and relevant institutions in this context.

Main Features of an Extremist Narrative

There is a wide variety of extremists in Pakistan with fluctuating agendas and objectives, ranging from spearheading a radical revolution in Pakistan, to converting it into an Islamic caliphate, to sanctioning Jihad against India to win over Kashmir, and supporting global radical movements. The Zia era (1979-88) played the most devastating role in pushing Pakistan in this direction. His protégés and products-both in the military and political arena-groomed and sponsored local extremist and militant groups that continue to play havoc in the country. Some of these extremist groups believe in taking up arms and adopting violent measures, whereas others focus on operating more surreptitiously by bullying progressive elements and expanding their influence through educational institutions, charity organizations and media outlets. The word “Islamic” is used here to connote the interpretation of Islam according to these extremist groups. Below are the 10 primary features of the core narrative of Pakistani Muslim Extremists to provide a glimpse into extremists’ thinking patterns. Some of these may sound a bit simplistic and generalized but the purpose is to provide a context for thinking about the counter-narrative building challenge.
  • Islam is under threat globally and Western states, especially the United States, are at war with Islam. The focus here is to create polarization through inculcating a sense of fear and existential threat.
  • Muslims must aspire to change the global status quo and challenge all those opposed to an Islamic worldview through all means available but preferably through use of force and violence.
  • Pakistan was established as an Islamic state and it must strictly adhere to Islamic principles as viewed and interpreted by these groups; Pakistan’s constitution and laws must be fully revised towards this end.
  • Democracy is contrary to an Islamic system of government.
  • Pakistan’s rulers and powerful institutions including military, are allies of the global anti-Islamic forces and must be resisted and targeted.
  • Minority Muslim groups and non-Muslims living in Pakistan cannot enjoy full status as citizens of the country and they cannot be allowed to practice their religious beliefs in public. They cannot be allowed to project and propagate their views openly.
  • Pakistan’s art and cultural activities must be allowed within the bounds of Islamic values and the state should impose curbs on any western inspired or liberal oriented practices.
  • It is legitimate to take law and order in one’s hands for enforcing Islamic laws. In other words, vigilante action is permissible for such actions.
  • Any challenge to Islamic laws and values in any form is deemed as blasphemous to be punished with death or severe penalty.
  • Women should be restricted to the home and should follow an Islamic dress code in public.

Outline of an Effective Counter-Narrative

It is important to emphasize here that the counter-narrative is not only geared towards extremists but also towards those who are often dubbed as members of the “silent majority” or more accurately, silent spectators. They either have mixed opinions or lack the courage to take a public position. These “independents” are potentially more open to ideas directed at preventing violent extremism. The ideas are mostly couched in religious terminology, as unfortunately twisted and misinterpreted religious ideals are a significant and critical part of the extremist narrative. This approach is also deduced from the research showing that when extremists feel that their core values or identity are being threatened, “material incentives to encourage compromise backfire,” and hence counter extremist narrative has to be framed in the same context as the one that extremists draw on. Arguably, that is a potent way to delegitimize extremists’ narrative. In some instances, creating a doubt in the mind of the extremists about the authenticity of their flawed beliefs can do the trick. Here are the five central pillars of a counter narrative for Pakistan:

  • Pakistan was established for Muslims to pursue their economic, social and political goals as free citizens and for breaking the chains of marginalization on religious lines. The sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in 1947 will go to waste if Pakistan cannot give equal rights and respect to its minorities. Muslims belonging to all major traditions and sects of Islam led Pakistan’s freedom movement, and non Muslims living in Pakistan today made a conscious decision to stay in Pakistan and have played a constructive role during the formative years of Pakistan.
  • Islam was brought to South Asia through the message of love, inclusivity and harmony taught by the great Sufi saints. None of Islam’s luminaries called for imposing Islam on anyone through force, subjugation or creating fear. The teachings and works of these sufis, such as Bulleh Shah, Data Ganj Bakhsh, Bari Imam, Rahman Baba and Lal Shahbaz Qalanadar constitute the most powerful elements of a counter-narrative to extremism in Pakistan and broader South Asia. Their works must be included in the school curriculum in Pakistan.
  • Democracy provides the most efficient and peaceful channel for making leaders accountable, consulting public opinion and establishing justice-the three central principles of governance in Islam. There is no other system that nourishes the idea of equality the way democracy does-another of the critical themes of Islamic teachings.
  • Taking laws into ones hand has neither any sanction in Islam nor is it conducive to the functioning of any state or society. Vigilante action leads to chaos and anarchy that can destabilize societies quickly and severely with long-term consequences. In comparison, rule of law-based societies are at peace with themselves and they prosper in economic terms. Islam is acknowledged globally as one of the great religions of the world and it is also the fastest growing religion internationally. Islam’s contributions to scientific learning and human civilization are too strong to be erased through any limited wars of the modern era. Any wars in which Muslims are involved cannot be deemed as Islamic wars per se. Muslims should be proud of their history and identity and must aspire to contribute to humanity in a constructive, peaceful, and educative way.

The Role of Political Parties and Law Enforcement in Countering the Extremist Narrative

The responsibility of building a counter-narrative does not lie on the shoulders of state institutions alone. At a broader level, extremism is a byproduct of societal developments and hence any effective response has to emerge from a grassroots level. Political parties have to think beyond reaching the power corridors; they have to take responsibility for properly imparting civic education to their members also. More so, Pakistan’s major political parties have nationwide infrastructure to support counter-narratives generated at the local community level. It appears that the potential contribution of the country’s mainstream political parties in influencing this arena is underestimated. Extremists have targeted Pakistan’s major political parties, especially Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttihada Qaumi Movement (MQM), during election seasons and this clearly indicates the depth of the extremists’ understanding of the challenge posed by political parties to their narrative. Political parties can contribute in developing as well as popularizing counter-narrative to extremist thought by, for instance:
  • Being inclusive and opening up representation opportunities for the disenfranchised and especially young members of society-both men and women-who can communicate with the younger generation more effectively. By also recognizing that political and social alienation combined with state repression (mostly happening under military dictatorships) push marginalized groups to violence.
  • Preparing leaders who have a clear understanding of extremists’ worldview and training them to challenge bigotry in their constituencies through political outreach activities.4 Training legislators about the nuances of law-making (for instance on how to induct FATA into mainstream Pakistan) and on how to discourage extremist tendencies through better and targeted laws.
  • Shunning extremists in their ranks who build their political appeal by yielding to radical ideas.
  • Enabling second and third tier political leaders to contribute towards democratic governance which helpsmitigate the risk of violent extremism.
  • Nurturing tolerance through their manifestos and broader political outreach, emphasizing the importance of reconciliation, dialogue and peaceful settlement of disputes both internally and externally.
  • Realizing that legitimacy of the counter-narrative message is linked with the legitimacy of the messenger and hence the charisma and credentials of political role models can have a great impact on society.
  • Empowering communities and strengthening their resilience against extremism.

The role of a criminal justice system in general, and policing in particular, in crafting and implementing the counter-narrative is critical. Given over emphasis on kinetic means-both in Pakistan and globally-the centrality of police’s role in the field of counter extremism and counterterrorism is often overlooked. Police incompetence and reputation of corruption also comes in the way of taking this institution as a serious contender for any constructive role in society. This will have to change if Pakistan is to develop as a functional and progressive state. It is so because extremism first introduces itself in the shape of hate speech, bullying and intimidation. Police forces, if properly resourced and trained, are the first line of defense in such instances. Extremists gain space and strength as the state fails to stop them at the outset of their nefarious actions. The state at the most basic level on the ground is represented by its law enforcement capacity. Hence, a police role can be instrumental in nipping the trouble in the bud.

The role of police in developing a counter-narrative is also critical given its access to investigation and interrogation reports of extremists and terrorists. In my research, I have come across many instances where police officials are among the very first ones to pin point new extremism trends in society. They are also among the first responders who get a glimpse of the network building of criminals and militants. The early interrogation reports of militant suspects are a treasure trove for developing a counter-narrative to extremism and militancy. Perusing written and electronic materials that generate hatred and incite violence, as well as pursuing legal measures against such efforts is also a police task that is rarely undertaken. At present, Pakistan lacks the organizational mobility needed to make best use of the vast data that the state has access to. The state authorities are not even cognizant of this potential it appears. The idea of National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA) was an effort in this direction but it has taken a very long time for it to be established, made functional and properly resourced. NACTA, if empowered, will also require major support from the military and intelligence apparatus to emerge as a central resource that can provide critical input to Islamabad to devise effective counterterrorism strategies and develop a powerful counter-narrative to extremism. Pakistan cannot afford to delay investment in its civilian law enforcement infrastructure for better policing as well as for it to perform the critical counter extremism role.

Hassan Abbas is the Professor and Chair of the Department of Regional and Analytical Studies at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs. He is also the author of ‘The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier’


Popular posts from this blog

"Society can survive with kufr (infidelity), but not injustice":

What was the Moplah Revolt? by Khaled Ahmed

Political feudalism in Sindh