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June 6, 2017



Reminders of collective challenge


Terror struck Afghanistan, the Philippines and the United Kingdom in the last few days. The horror and tragedy of terror binds human beings from all parts of the world and all religions together.

Even more than our common humanity, Pakistanis share an intimate and irrevocable bond with the people of Kabul, Marawi, Manchester and London. After acts of brutality, we all experience trauma. During the trauma, we all are exploited by cynical people in politics, in the media, in intelligence communities and across the spectrum of public and private spaces. Most importantly, despite the trauma and the attempts to exploit our vulnerabilities, we survive. We remain human: generous, kind, and sometimes, even heroic. How do a people keep plugging away at life when life is taken so wantonly from them so regularly?

This is a question that Pakistanis have answered again, and again, and again. For years, we used to complain, quite rightly, that society had normalised terror within it and that rather than reacting to terrorist attacks through mass protests, Pakistanis took it on the chin, and carried on with day to day life.

For some, this represents a shameful dereliction of duty as citizens and human beings. I would argue this is only partially true, and wholly unfair. Pakistanis, Afghans, Filipinos or Brits do react en masse through protest to acts of terror. It is just that the manifestation of protest is to show up to work, to go to school, to attend masjid, or church or temple, and to try to be normal in the face of abnormal levels of violence and trauma. The ordinary citizen’s greatest act of defiance is to keep calm and carry on, despite being terrorised and traumatised. The ordinary citizen can do nothing more heroic than upholding the ordinary. Ordinary is death for the terrorists.

The job of fighting terrorism and asphyxiating the space for it falls to the governments of the countries in which terrorists exploit vulnerabilities of society to kill innocent human beings and destroy communities through disorder and fear. In short, fighting terror is about limiting societal vulnerabilities, protecting human life, and strengthening communities. But because we live in the age of airplanes and the internet, no country can fight terror alone. And realistically, no country has, or does. Regional and global alliances involving shared intelligence and shared early warning systems have kept hundreds and maybe thousands of terrorist attacks from happening.

Democracies are incredibly susceptible to having their vulnerabilities exploited. Terrorists tend to know where the soft ligaments of a society lie – they operate almost exclusively in those spaces because they are easier to attack and destroy.

The two major terror attacks in England recently are also proof of terrorism’s predilection for exploiting societal vulnerability. Terrorists recognise that the ongoing general election campaign in the UK presents an opportunity to spur divisive rhetoric in a country where the Muslim son of an immigrant bus driver can become mayor of its biggest, most important, most spectacular city. What better way to trigger and sustain adolescent Muslim rage (and therefore support for the likes of Daesh) in the UK than increased stop and search, increased racial abuse and increased political exploitation of the vulnerability of non-Muslim voters in the UK to rhetoric tainted with poorly disguised Islamophobia?

The London Bridge attack’s victims include a Canadian, a French citizen, a number of Australians and of course people native to the UK. Citizens of among the most resourceful and powerful nations in the world. Yet they have been routinely reduced to a state of helplessness in the face of the evil and insanity of terror, by knife, bullet, bomb or speech. Countries like the Philippines, Afghanistan and even Pakistan, face all the same vulnerabilities that these countries do – with the added complexity of compromised territorial sovereignty: weak governance has created pockets of territorial autonomy for terrorist groups in parts of all these countries.

Regardless of countries being strong Western democracies, or weaker developing nations, there is a perfect storm that brews today for our collective notion of normalcy. We must identify the three key constituents of this storm and, at least for Pakistan, begin to seriously discuss how to address it.

The first is the dwindling capacity of the state. Nearly everywhere in the world, public services are becoming more costly but less effective. It is easy to talk people out of being good, obedient citizens if their citizenship is perceived to be worth very little. Those that speak of concepts like democracy, federalism and effective states often do so from the comfort of privileges that make the state sexy. Not everybody enjoys this privilege, and not everybody thinks highly of political office – by virtue of the virtue of those offices. Unsustainable debt levels and a constantly shrinking moral foundation for higher taxation has put the modern state in a vice. Without dramatic, China-esque economic growth, countries like Pakistan will be in a world of pain. But even with such growth, pain may endure.

The second is the democratisation of mass communication. Even a decade ago, people had limited means of broadcasting their opinions or ideas. No more. No matter how vulgar, crude or stupid, opinions and ideas travel far and wide in nanoseconds. There is nothing that stops the most obscene ideas (like killing people with speeding vans and hunting knives) from being presented as virtuous deeds. This fluidity of evil enables Daesh, on the one hand, and the machinations of right-wing fascists like Richard Spencer on the other. It also incentivises otherwise thoughtful and intelligent people to use rhetoric and language that has a chance of being heard in a free-for-all environment. We are on a perpetual slippery slope of decency and sophistication in the digital age. In the absence of visionary moral leadership, it is all downhill from here. (PS: it is all downhill from here).

The third complicating factor is the lower barriers but higher costs of divisive state-to-state rhetoric. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE have just cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar. India has pursued access to its terror-abetting spy, Kulbhushan Jhadav, all the way to the International Court of Justice. Pakistan reacts to terror attacks by sealing its border with Afghanistan. The Korean Peninsula is on the tip of a major conflict. The gloves are really beginning to come off in the international arena.

In part, this is because in the face of multi-layered chaos, it is easier to externalise complex challenges than it is to deal with them maturely and robustly. The UK versus the European Union. Russia versus the US. China versus Japan. Domestic political compulsions are pushing all manner of countries to take on strident bilateral positions that essentially end up limiting the scope for the regional and global cooperation so necessary to deal with the threat of demonic terrorists blowing up at funerals, and running about stabbing helpless women to death.

The end result is that at a time in human history where cross-border and cross-cultural cooperation is more needed than ever before, we are dealing with weak states, vulnerable individuals and communities, and trigger-happy countries. This represents a vicious cycle in which the inability to be effective incentivises leaders to adopt counterproductive narratives about faiths, peoples and countries that make the job of fixing this mess harder in the long term. In turn, the reaction spurs even more bad behaviour. Since states are increasingly incapable of dealing with such behaviour, the loop continues ad infinitum.

Pakistan is uniquely positioned to take on a leadership role in combatting violent extremism the world over. In part, this begins with an open and honest conversation about the demons that we allow to operate in this country, unmolested. In part, it entails realising the medium- and long-term benefits of a non-partisan foreign policy that allows this country the internal peace and external flexibility that the 21st century demands.

Most of all, it requires a broad strategic vision that goes far beyond our tactical ideas about Kashmir and Afghanistan. Such a vision can only come from political leaders. Until it does, Pakistan’s vulnerabilities will continue to be exploited – by violent extremists inside Pakistan, and the tireless and scheming enemy outside.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.