You can soft pedal in the realm of nomenclature by calling them militants, the disaffected and the angry. But you cannot shy away from the fact that those who kill innocent citizens to spread terror are nothing but terrorists.
Similarly, you can call their supporters extremists, but they remain what they are: terror apologists. Ergo, the concept of mainstreaming them falls under one rubric. This one.
And while we are at it, let’s also face the fact that mainstreaming is most likely the right word representing what you intend to do here. A terrorist culture is built on an ideological infrastructure. Without demolishing this infrastructure, any attempt to bring such groups or individuals online in the mainstream will most certainly influence moderate, if not impressionable, minds. Hence, this stands the risk of mainstreaming terrorism itself. The word that you are looking for is reintegration – that too after due diligence and psychological rehabilitation.
But since there is little interest in such petty issues in our country, the random use of terms goes unchallenged. And the loss of thousands of precious civilian lives has not dampened the enthusiasm of those who want to see their ‘estranged brothers’ back in positive light. Therefore, this debate has been raging behind curtains for long before the Milli Muslim League was formed or decided to make its debut in the NA-120 by-election.
It is true that proscribed organisations come in all hues. There are the ones that are hell-bent on killing Pakistanis. Then, there are those who don’t want to see peace in Afghanistan. There are also groups whose names India doesn’t let us forget. Then, we have a sectarian mix and an anti-West mix. These groups essentially draw their philosophical legitimacy from a weaponised version of religious ideology. And since this ideology stretches the religious doctrine to a breaking point, it should not be difficult to dismantle it. Yet, curiously enough, we have not seen any serious attempt to deconstruct it in the 16 years of our fight against terrorism.
It can easily be attributed to the lack of political courage, especially after the assassination of Salmaan Taseer. The other reason could be the near-consensus among the religious on not cooperating with the state to do so. But even so, the state has many levers to be persuasive when it needs to. When the state has not been able to convince all elements within itself that this needs to be done, how can it convince others?
And there lies the biggest problem in mainstreaming. Consider how all these combustible materials, when put together, can cause a massive explosion. And you can immediately understand that mainstreaming – even in the most innocuous cases – can help slip in a few Trojan horses, biding their time and waiting quietly for the right moment to unite with other elements to cause maximum harm. After all, we do not have any mind-readers just to be sure. You have enough ideological foundations, sympathisers, resources and motivation to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it is at this point that the paranoia gets the best of you and the National Action Plan starts sounding like a tactical instruction rather than a coherent plan.
But this doesn’t mean that reintegration is an impossible task. Every other day, authorities capture foot-soldiers belonging to various terror groups who can easily be rehabilitated, bringing an end to the indoctrination and regimentation of their minds. After a precautionary period, they can be absorbed back into the normal national life. But this would involve meticulous planning and hard work. Sadly, because this hard labour looks like too much work, the entire idea revolves around accepting a few assurances and working out nominal deals with proscribed organisations before letting them in.
This course of action promises nothing but an absolute disaster. It needs to be stressed here that no leader of a proscribed organisation or its poster child deserves to be allowed back into society.
Then comes the matter of groups that have never attacked Pakistani citizens but were accused of using Pakistani soil to attack other countries and were subsequently banned internationally. Owing to a set of omnipresent conspiracy theories, there exists enough denial in the country to breed defiance. But this defiance is self-defeating. You cannot hope to win a war that was conclusively lost a decade ago. You can blame governments of the past all you want, but trying to mainstream such groups, reinvent them politically is bound to play right into the hands of the country’s enemies who want to convince the entire world that Pakistan promotes terrorism as a state ideology. In short, this is plainly suicidal. Conserve some energy to fight future battles instead of squandering it by obsessing over the past.
And India-focused groups present another challenge. Unlike other militant groups, it is not easy to dismantle their ideology, especially in the presence of a hawkish government in New Delhi. When the Modi government constantly attacks Pakistan verbally, diplomatically, covertly and overtly, the idea of building bridges with the country looks like a form of appeasement. So, even if you find a way to destroy the ideological infrastructure of other groups, with India-specific ones you will have to be particularly careful because they can act like horcruxes of terrorism.
The National Action Plan and its precursor, the National Internal Security Policy, envisaged the development of a platform to deconstruct the narrative of terrorists and to come up with a counter-narrative to combat them. Unfortunately, this glorious idea is lost in the mist of political expediency. No one seems to be ready to dive deep into the ocean of religious scholarship and find a lasting rebuttal of the perversion of our faith by terrorists. This work is left to the religious scholars who do not seem to be ready to oblige. In such a situation – and without defanging the militant ideology – the idea of mainstreaming such groups needs to be rethought.
The writer is an Islamabad-based TVjournalist.