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March 18, 2016

Re-prioritising or rebranding?


March 18, 2016

There has been much debate in Pakistan about the recent initiatives taken by the government to combat terror and some positive effects that, according to reports, have been visible.

In addition to Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a notable step that is being consciously promoted as an example of this effort is the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed murderer of former governor Salmaan Taseer whom he had killed on an ill-conceived assumption of blasphemy. But the cardinal question that continues to seek an answer is whether such routine steps will be enough to offset the spread of radicalisation, which remains rampant in the country.

While there are multiple other reasons for the rapid radicalisation of society, religious seminaries play a pivotal role. At the time of Partition, there were only 300 of these madressahs which number has now jumped to over 35,000 where, according to one count, four million students are enrolled. Most of these seminaries are located in Punjab, followed by Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

According to one survey, madressah students are the most intolerant of all student groups in Pakistan: “...madressah students are more likely to back war and militant conflict and less inclined to support equal rights for members of the oppressed groups than their counterparts in other schools”. The added problem is that the impact of what is taught at these seminaries does not remain confined to the students alone. Its effects also permeate their immediate and extended families as also society in general, thus creating large regimented groups of radicalised people.

According to another report, in addition to the ever-rebellious Lal Masjid, there are 83 illegally constructed mosques and madressahs in Islamabad alone which the government is hesitant to demolish fearing a violent backlash. There are also a large number of illegally-constructed seminaries and mosques throughout the country, which continue to operate unconstrained by relevant rules pertaining to the approval of construction plans, the syllabi that are taught and disclosure of their funding sources.

In the National Action Plan (NAP) adopted in the aftermath of the dastardly attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 that killed 145 people including 132 students, it is clearly laid out that seminaries and mosques will be registered and regulated and action will be taken to stop the spread of religious extremism and protect religious minorities. On account of some half-hearted attempts by the government, nothing substantive has been accomplished so far. There is strong, even militant, reaction to the government’s often-stated intention which has further dampened the prospects of any progress.

While optics makes for an important tool in ultimately winning a battle, it provides no guarantee to success. As a matter of fact, an ill-advised overdose of this ingredient has an explosive potential of boomeranging. Lifting the moratorium on capital punishment and sending to the gallows criminals who had been languishing in prison cells for over fifteen years in certain cases is a classic case of dereliction of justice. Simultaneously, just dealing with the gruesome manifestations of terror and believing that this would drive out the heinous scourge from the country is a gross fallacy.

By promoting these acts through the media with the dominant intent of rebranding the leaders, the government can definitely score some electoral points, but it is hardly the right way to go about fighting an existential war that Pakistan is currently confronted with. If winning the war remains the ultimate objective, as indeed it should, Pakistan needs to take some initiatives aimed at rooting out the causes of terror.

This calls for stringent measures to be taken against the multifaceted nurseries of terror in the country, be these religious madressahs, non-state actors, sectarian invocations from the pulpits, hate literature, the funding sources of terrorist outfits and, most important of all, the nexus linking crime with religiosity, militancy and political patronage. This presents a wholesome challenge that the government appears ill-prepared, even unwilling, to address at this juncture.

What is required is a firm resolve backed by a comprehensive operational mechanism. Killing a few here and hanging another few there provides no recipe to eventually address the scourge of terror.

Another factor that is generally overlooked is that the longer it takes to realise the ineptness and the inherent weaknesses of the plan underway to tackle terror, the deeper its roots will grow. This is so because the nurseries that are impacting impressionable minds and indoctrinating them to pursuing violent means for attaining their myopic objectives continue to operate uninhibited. Exploiting considerable grassroots support, they are busy further expanding their reach and repertoire. This is amply demonstrated through the ever-increasing number of these seminaries of hate surfacing across the national expanse.

There are also indications that the government has already started wilting under the pressure of the pulpit. The reported inclination shown recently by the prime minister and the chief minister of Punjab to have amendments incorporated in the Women Protection Bill is ample proof of the wobbly knees of the leadership. The clergy conglomerate has given the government till March 27 to annul the bill. If this were to be the case, implementing the clauses of the NAP would be a far cry – almost unthinkable.

The spectre of radicalisation is haunting, and real. Eliminating it is a battle that Pakistan is yet to begin fighting.

The writer is a political and security strategist, and heads the Islamabad-based think tank, Regional Peace Institute.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @RaoofHasan

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