By Marvi Sirmed
March 29, 2016
On March 27 when the terrorists were bleeding Lahore, the religious zealots were creating havoc in the federal capital celebrating a convicted killer. This hints at different layers of the scourge of religious terrorism in Pakistan.
On one hand is the Deobandi-Ahl-e-Hadith-ideology-inspired outright terrorism, on the other is violent extremism based on Barelvi school of thought. There is yet another challenge of non-violent extremism, mainly propagated by the likes of Tableeghi Jamaat, which has strong potential of turning into violence any time.
After the attack on APS Peshawar in 2014, much excitement was shown by the political and military leadership for National Action Plan under which most statistics that have come so far, deal with cracking down on selective groups of terrorists leaving out the ‘soft’ facets of these militant groups. Other more ‘strategic’ groups were also left alone.
When asked why the anti-Shia Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) leaders were not nabbed under strongly developed cases for their violent extremist rhetoric and links with Shia-specific terrorist acts, an Army official had said a while ago that this group was ‘lying low’ and was not posing any problems for the state of Pakistan. Opening so many fronts at once would burn out our forces, he had said, who are fighting on so many fronts already including Zarb-e-Azb on the Western borders.
This is where the problem lies. The National Action Plan (NAP) was not conceived as a comprehensive strategy to counter all kinds of violent extremism, radicalisation and different layers of insurgencies. Phasing out the narrowly envisioned Counter-Terrorism (CT) plan has proven less productive than was expected. You can’t clean the courtyard of the dirty water by sweeping it endlessly if the taps bringing that water are not completely shut down simultaneously.
Lying low of violent or non-violent extremist organisations but continually allowed to operate means following: 1) They would do everything to remain relevant despite ‘lying low’; 2) In order to remain relevant, they would have to keep their rank and file intact; 3) In order to keep their rank & file intact, they will keep supplying them with extremist rhetoric and new targets to work on; 4) If they won’t do that and are still being allowed to operate with impunity, their rank and file would either leave them to join actively violent groups OR would engage themselves in proselytising their extremist narrative thereby creating more foot soldiers and mainstreaming that narrative to create social acceptability; 5) Given the support (that is so clearly there and is unmistakably visible too), they would re-position themselves as either pro-welfare philanthropist groups or as lawful political players; 6) In such case, they would get more public legitimacy and authenticity with their same old extremist narrative; 7) If all of that happens, the entire fabric of the society and politics would experience a great leap towards extremist ideology and would get representation in not only the political decision-making forums but would also create their space in vitally important institutions of the country. Following all this, these groups win a formidable public approval and support.
Rings some bells? That is exactly what has been happening in Pakistan under the stuffy noses of security establishment. What would follow when this happens? Even the long established indorsed political parties would have to work with these newly legitimised, militant turned ‘political’ groups and get a tilt towards their narrative. Rings another bell? This has exactly what happened when in successive elections we witnessed almost political parties scoring success in the electoral process with active support of these neo-political elements.
This policy had been beneficial to some extent for the establishment but largely proved lethal for the people and the country as a whole.
Since these neo-political groups owe their existence and new image to the establishment’s largesse, they do not leave an opportunity to serve latter whenever it requires them. Difa-i-Pakistan Council, a conglomerate of all such groups and individuals, is a case in point. On all things related to foreign and security policies, they have rented themselves out to the establishment whenever a certain narrative had to be propagated.
All such groups ranging from the Deobandi ASWJ to Barelvi Sunni Tahreek to Shia Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen (MWM), have been taking out rallies in support of Army till late. It was not long ago when even the blasphemy law was used against a media house when it had to be taught lesson for going against the army’s policies. One was waiting to see firm action against and complete separation of the state from these groups when both the PM and the COAS repeatedly assured us of their seriousness in curbing all kind of terrorism. Unfortunately, none of them appears to be realising how the thin line between radicalisation and violent extremism is rapidly dissolving. And how violent extremism is creating space for the acceptability of terrorist narrative.
Less than two thousand people can gather in Rawalpindi, get all the opportunity to march to the federal capital and create mayhem there destroying public property but none of the civvies or the khaakis are able to stop that. Despite the arrest of 200 people from among the violent goons at the D-Chowk, they are continuing with their siege and the government can’t do anything nor can the army that was called in to secure the Red Zone of the capital. Everyone is shifting the responsibility to the others’ shoulders and no one is sure where stops the buck. Interior ministry is nowhere to be seen, army uniforms are silently standing in front of important state buildings while letting the hooligans have their sway. The main leaders of the bedlam, including Serwat Qadri and Khadim Rizvi among many others are freely leading the process unhindered. Prime Minister comes on TV, gives of hackneyed rhetoric and vanishes away.
Should the civvies be left alone to play with people’s lives and country’s ideological health by cowering down to these extremists? Should the army be allowed take refuge under the trumpeted civilian incompetence? Should the violent mob be permitted to bring destruction in the name of Islam? One can’t see angry Muslims coming out to protest against this Tamasha. The mythical silent majority, if it is there, is not ready to break its silence. What now?
First things first, the state must take control of and monopolise all organized violence. Push the hoodlums out of way. Civvies must sacrifice their immediate political benefits, while the security establishment must show the have let their antics go. Anyone challenging the state writ, bearded or un-bearded, must face the law. Period.
Looking retrospectively, security establishment has been the fountainhead of all kinds of religious zealotries be it Deobandis, Ahl-e-Hadith, Tableeghis or Barelvis. These groups were used to ‘balance out’ the undesirable political actors. Both civilians and the security establishment must refrain from using religious zealots for political advantage. Convert your CT plan into a comprehensive program including Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) and Counter Radicalisation (CR). Before that, people would keep dying and Pakistan would keep becoming a laughing stock.
Marvi Sirmed is an Islamabad based freelance columnist.