At the height of terror attacks in Pakistan the need was felt for a national consensus against the scourge. It was in those days that one opinion writer observed that there was consensus in Pakistan on terrorism – but that it was not against it. This statement was immediately rejected as another proof of the intellectual class’s cynicism. But, despite sustaining such a heavy loss at the hands of terrorists, you will notice that the Pakistani society does not respond as vociferously against terror as any other existential challenge – say, for instance, against Indian hostility.
I am sure you can name many national heroes who died fighting India and were awarded the Nishan-e-Haider. But how many names can you recount of the soldiers who fell fighting terrorism. Do you know there are thousands of them? Terrorism doesn’t just kill; it leaves behind countless mutilated, crippled bodies behind. How many have you inquired about or tried to help? How many charities do you know of that are dedicated to the welfare of civilian victims of terror? Where do you go when you need to know who and how many have been victims of terrorism? How many national monuments are built to honour the sacrifice of these victims of terror and the soldiers who died combating it?
It is clear then that even if there is a consensus in society, it is not against terrorism. But is it not perplexing to note that no such consensus exists against this pestilence when it has damaged this society so deeply? Terrorists have killed our children in APS Peshawar, attacked women in bazaars, assailed the GHQ and other defence facilities, courts, mosques. Why this indifference then?
The answer lies in the perceived identity of the state itself and the wrong assumptions about the faith. To understand the identity problem of the state just take a look at the country’s history. To establish an identity independent of India, it was concluded that Pakistan had to be an Islamic state. It was primarily because of this choice that the founder of the nation’s August 11, 1947 speech stipulating a secular vision for country’s future was so blatantly censored by the state machinery. In adopting political Islam, nobody cared to notice that, since the ideology banks heavily on pan-nationalistic worldview, it works to undermine the very existence of a nation-state.
But no heed was paid to the matter. In the constant confrontation with India, this ideology came handy. And in the charged environment of the cold war, it proved doubly useful and rarely threatening. The ensuing state indoctrination was not just tolerated but actively helped by the West. But this ideology truly got weaponised after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the West and religious militants started considering each other as enemies. The Pakistani state, which did not consider the West as an enemy, did precious little partly because of its fear of encirclement and partly because of its interest in the then religiously driven Kashmir insurgency.
When after 9/11 an effort was made to reverse this tide of indoctrination it was too late and the militants had grown strong enough to wage a war on Pakistan. Since then, the state has primarily been occupied with putting out day to day fires and has done little to change the predominant narrative in society supporting political Islam. Meanwhile, left to its own devices, the predominantly right-leaning intelligentsia has been coming up with one conspiracy theory after another. The resulting paranoia has further diminished the capacity of state functionaries to bring about a paradigm shift.
Now a look at the weaponisation of faith. After the fall of the Soviet Union, religious militants felt abandoned and often targeted by the West. So, they had to declare the US and its allies as the enemy. But how do you declare someone an enemy when he has been your closest ally until yesterday? The solution was found in Islamic eschatology. Suddenly, literature started appearing about the end of times in which the West was projected as the enemy of Islam and a deliberately distorted image of the Western lifestyle was projected. It was a clever idea because if it was painted as a religiously ordained last battle between the good and the evil, there was little chance anybody would dare to contradict it.
This narrative has since permeated into various walks of life in Pakistan. The introduction of almost fatalist views like Huntington’s clash of civilisations, and the Gulf war that resulted in the presence of sizeable contingent of US forces on Saudi soil did not help. This was all seen as definitive proof that the forces of evil war moving closer to the Islam’s holiest spaces for the final kill. When such reactionary interpretations are combined with various conspiracy theories, you get a lethal mix.
Since the decision to join the fight against terrorism was made during the rule of a dictator and there were no democratic forums to build a broader consensus, the relatively moderate clergy went into a reactionary mode. It was already a product of decades-long official regimentation where political Islam was considered central to national identity and to their own purpose of existence. Sadly, wrong assumptions have constantly limited society’s ability to rally against the challenges posed by terrorism. And the religious elite has been lacking in conviction to declare terrorism unIslamic. Consider only this. Despite knowing it well that suicide is definitely and absolutely forbidden in Islam, it took our religious scholars 15 years to come up with a unanimous edict to declare suicide bombings un-Islamic.
These are the fault lines created by a politically motivated interpretation of Islam within our country and state. This is where single-minded focus was needed to dismantle reductive and reactionary worldview popularised by militants and their sympathisers. And gradual work had started owing to the resumption of the democratic process in the country. The largest party in the 2013 elections, the PMLN, was not very vocal against terrorism at that time. However, as it shouldered the burden of governing the country, and terrorist attacks continued unabated, it started owning the fight against terrorism. But with the dismissal of its elected leader the fear is that the focus has shifted away from the existential struggle.
It is at times like these that one is compelled to remind the country’s elite that the biggest threat to the country is posed by terrorists and not politicians. In this age there is no room left for non-state actors that sully the name of faith and are hell-bent on destroying Pakistan and its relationship with the rest of the world. Unimpeded democratic cycles, by empowering the citizens, could have convinced them that the use of a politicised interpretation of faith for national identity would only harm us in the long run. That opportunity now seems to have been further delayed.
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist.