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September 26, 2017

The 13,000 voters of NA-120


September 26, 2017

A picture doing the rounds on social media captures an overhead bridge in Rawalpindi with a hoarding that bears the advertisement of an internet service provider. The message, promising cheap internet, is partially obscured by the flag of the IS hanging in the middle from atop the bridge, with the statement “Khilafat is coming” emblazoned in signature white over black at the bottom.

The dangerous rise of IS influence across the Punjab, particularly in larger cities like Lahore and Multan, has also been reported in the media, with flags and posters popping up across these cities and their environs. It is in keeping with the general trend of the rising sympathy for local radical and proscribed outfits who espouse the values and mission of the IS and this support was evidenced in the results of the NA-120 by-poll, where, disturbingly, two members of proscribed organisations who contested the elections as independent candidates managed to bag 11 percent – some 13,000 – of the total votes cast in the by-election.

It appears that these 13,000 men and women in Lahore believe that Mumtaz Qadri is a martyr and is currently residing in heaven, that his cause and of those others like him – who consider vigilante justice in response to blasphemy to be their essential religious right in the service of God – is a noble one, that the path to establishing a caliphate is necessarily violent, that democracy as a corollary is an evil failure and that both the political contest between the PML-N and the PTI over the by-election and the Panama imbroglio before it have all the importance of a schoolyard squabble.

Yes, that’s what 13,000 men and women in Lahore believe, dear reader, because that’s exactly the content of the sermons and the rants of both candidates in the NA-120 by-election: Sheikh Azhar Hussain Rizvi of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) – the Mumtaz Qadri movement – and Yaqoob Sheikh of the Milli Muslim League (MML) – the newly-formed political front of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the JuD.

And that’s just one constituency in Punjab. With the state apparatus apparently willing to mainstream proscribed organisations through an entry into electoral politics – something all political parties are not only aware of but appear to be either overtly supporting or regarding with smug indifference – it is quite possible that these proscribed organisations will field more candidates in 2018 and may even gain further, if only incremental, power in parliament. The drubbing received by both the JI and the PPP in the NA-120 contest further affirms this.

If it’s only incremental, then what’s the bother you ask? Well, to begin with, the insignificant representation (only thus far we may add) in parliament is deceiving because proscribed outfits mainly function behind the scenes in Pakistan and, over the decades, have enjoyed the kind of state patronage that allows them access to funding, freedom of movement and freedom of speech, with space to reorganise and metamorphose conveniently into welfare movements the moment their overtly militant activities and messages make global headlines – which, in turn, makes it untenable for the state to look the other way.

And for decades, the welfare activities of proscribed organisations have slowly but surely gained in size, outreach, momentum and effectiveness to expand across the entire country – ironically winning the hearts and minds of even the Hindu populace of Thar. This bodes poorly for mainstream political parties that, in comparison, appear corrupt. They have failed to deliver a coherent and consistent public sector development programme and have thus failed to offer any modicum of social justice to a primarily uneducated populace – which is eking out an existence in a subsistence economy that functions in parallel with a highly-developed market economy – and only serve the interests of the privileged few.

Second, and more importantly, the appeal of proscribed outfits and their political agenda lies at the heart of radical and militant Islam. These movements are not the outcome of the lunatic fantasies of a bunch of maniacs with illusions of world domination, but rather the reaction to the post-war liberal order of the global market economy, dominated by the West, that essentially challenges how the family is organised in the modern world as opposed to its organisation in traditional and developing, yet backward and conservative religious societies. For such societies, found in both the West and the East, the lack of access to economic resources defines their response to progress and modernity, making the imposition of the latter a particularly painful and disruptive experience.

The traditional order of the pre-industrial world required a family arrangement where the woman was the centre of economic sustenance, being tasked with the important job of staying at home and producing and rearing enough children, preferably men, to go out and earn a living. Such a family arrangement was, by default, patriarchal and it worked because women were necessarily economically dependent on men.

This economic dependence – and thus the stable family arrangement – has been upended by the impact of globalisation, education and the free market as women across the world have continued to achieve varying degrees of emancipation over the course of the last two centuries. In the developed countries at least – and for a minority in the developing world today – they can choose not to marry, can walk away from civil unions without experiencing economic ruin, can decide not to have children or can limit the number of their offspring and can refuse to submit to patriarchal authority enshrined within the moral codes found in all the major world religions.

The metastasising influence of such a disruptive moral code, coupled with the economic disadvantaging experienced in free market capitalist economies by a large rural-agrarian-blue collar populace, has alarmed traditionalists and conservatives across the globe. The mission statements of Al-Qaeda and the IS – and the proscribed outfits in Pakistan inspired at least in spirit by them – is to wage a war against this economic injustice and moral decay. Their message thus appeals to the vast majority who exist on the peripheries of economic development and modernity and fear change.

Third, there is the absence thus far of a coherent national debate and state policy on terrorists and terrorism – which is particularly confusing as we note that most of the outside world is now united in the conviction that Pakistan has failed to implement an effective counter-terrorism strategy to ensure regional peace. How is the public expected to react when they find men from banned militant outfits contesting elections, roaming around freely, enjoying dinner parties, convening and attending large public rallies with politicians and threatening violence?

The failure to take the public into confidence, the issuance of denials and smug rebuttals to counter international criticism, the active cultivation of all manner of lies in the public domain – particularly about foreign hands and Western machinations – and the duplicitous actions of politicians as they seek short-term profit through the forging of alliances with radical outfits are all ingredients in a recipe for disaster.

We have crossed the deadline for pursuing policies of convenience and strategic self-interest in our approach to terrorism. Extremist Muslims are recognised as the scourge of the modern world – the primary threat to world peace – and we have no business appearing, even accidentally, as their aiders and abettors. Whatever discomfort a policy adjustment may cause and whatever new challenges it may throw in our path, we will be better off confronting all terrorist outfits, placing a complete ban on their activities, movement and funding, launching a mass communications campaign to destroy their credibility and working at the same time with the international community to ensure that our regional economic and security interests are not compromised in the process. That is the only way forward for Pakistan.

The writer is a freelancecolumnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kmushir