The menace of terrorism – which is one of the potential outcomes of extremism – is a widely discussed topic these days. The acts of violence in public places lead to the killing of innocent people. These acts of violence are part of a calculated strategy pursued by the anti-state forces.
On the one hand, they are responsible for brutal attacks on state institutions and, on the other, they are targeting the youth of Pakistan by influencing their minds in a negative manner. A multi-layered approach is adopted to instil or aggravate feelings of deprivation, frustration, desperation and disillusionment. A bleak picture is painted in the minds of youngsters to shake their belief in the country they are living in.
An important objective of the anti-state forces is to constantly engage state institutions and create an uncertain law and order situation. This is done to attain some crucial targets such as stifling the economy by discouraging the foreign investors, isolating the country at the international level and creating a sense of disillusionment among the youth about the future of the country.
The two-pronged attack of subversion by the anti-state forces includes direct acts of violence and the subtle subversion of young minds. For this purpose, money is used to exploit the economic needs of people to trap them in the vicious cycle of crime. Besides cash, other dazzling incentives are offered to persuade people to take part in the nefarious activities committed against the state. Sometimes religious feelings are exploited to motivate the young minds to lay down their lives in suicidal attacks for a fantasy world hereafter.
This subtle subversion of minds is more dangerous than overt acts of violence as the young minds internalises the message and start seeing, believing, thinking, behaving, and doing things according to the agenda set for them. This wilful mental surrender is in line with the concept of ‘spontaneous consent’ propounded by Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci. Certain stereotypes are created and mandated realities are constructed in a subtle and skillful manner to be internalised by the targeted groups. Intolerance, impatience, extremism, narrow-mindedness and self-righteousness are promoted through different social institutions, such as the family, educational institutions and the media.
It is important for these social institutions to be used to debunk some of these stereotypes. The roles of the family and educational institutions – madressahs as well as formal educational institutions – are important as both of these social institutions can potentially play an important role in the construction of realities for young people. But the media – which has emerged as the most potent social institution – has dwarfed other social institutions in terms of its influence and effect on minds.
What is the secret power of the media that gives it an edge over other social institutions? To respond to this question, we need to look at its distinctive features. The media, especially the electronic media – that may also include social media as well – has four clear advantages over other social institutions.
The first is the swiftness with which it carries the message to the audience. The second advantage is the large geographical expanse that the media covers as the message transmitted through the electronic media instantly goes to multiple geographical regions. The third benefit is that a large number of people that can be covered in a single go. The fourth advantage is that the message disseminated through the electronic media is usually presented in an entertaining manner, which makes it more palatable for the audience.
As a result, the media is inherently a powerful social institution that can create social realities and construct stereotypes. In other words, the media has the potential to make people think, believe and feel in a systematic way. Owing to its potential effectiveness, the media is considered to be a powerful social institution. We can refer to Foucault’s idea of the nexus of power, discourse and social reality. This idea explains how a powerful group constructs, validates and advocates a social discourse that results in a social reality which provides a justification to powerful groups for their actions.
What could be the role of the media in facing the challenges of extremism and terrorism in society? There are two major schools of thought on the potential role of the media. One school of thought does acknowledge the media as an important social institution. Instead, it believes that the media only plays a part in executing a narrative. The construction of the narrative on extremism is essentially the job of the state. The role of media, according to this school of thought, starts after the state hands this narrative down to it. This approach places the media on the receiving end and suggests that the ‘thinking job’ should be done by the state and the media would only act as a consumer and executioner of this narrative.
A competing school of thought, on the other hand, views the media as a powerful tool whose job is to construct a narrative and guide the nation and state. This view glorifies the media’s role at the cost of underestimating the economic concerns and external pressures on media houses. It ignores the ground realities of the country and attaches greater expectations on the media. These expectations appear to be unrealistic and unfair in the wake of commercialism.
A more realistic stance is to take a balanced view which lies between these two extremes. This view assigns responsibilities to the state and the media along with other social institutions by assigning them a more vibrant role. As per this approach, the national narrative on extremism and terrorism should be co-constructed by the media and the state by accounting for the national needs.
In the wake of the challenge of extremism, the state and the media are expected to play a positive role along with other social institutions like the family and educational institutions. Such holistic approaches to extremism are realistic and are more likely to succeed.
The writer is an educationist.