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Opinion

December 21, 2014

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Taliban Stockholm syndrome

The calculated massacre of schoolchildren by the Taliban in Peshawar began as a hostage situation. But for over ten years now, Pakistanis have been suffering from a psychological hostage syndrome of their own. Our war/their war, enemies within/external hands, foreign militants/home-grown mujahideen – Pakistan’s decade-long conflict remains unresolved because it cannot agree on the source of this blood-thirsty hydra. It has kept us captive for so long now that there are signs that we are suffering a kind of Taliban Stockholm syndrome (a psychological condition where the hostage forms a bond with the captor).
The levels of ambiguity and the multiple identity crises that have defined this conflict is evident in the fact that we still refer to it as the scare-quoted, ‘War on Terror’, despite the fact that it is a war against the Tehreek-e-Taliban – or some factions, at any length. From their name, identities, structure, alliances, role, claims, even their motivations and intentions, it has been the TTP and affiliates who have defined the terms of engagement with the Pakistani state and not the other way around.
We seem to have formed a paradoxical emotional bond with our Taliban would-be captors, and we extend them all sorts of benefits of doubt….The Taliban may be anti-state but we should not call them non-state actors. They may be terrorists but isn’t the state a kind of legitimised terrorist too? They may attack citizens for being infidels and traitors but it is ‘We’ who Otherise ‘Them’. They kill innocent women and children in their expansionist quest but don’t drones do the same to retain territorial integrity?
These analytical shields that plead attention to the creation, humanity, victimization, class, revolutionary hope, masculinities, honour and even, the faith of the Taliban (as true shaheeds), makes them worthy of exceptionalism. Unlike other insurgents, their violence must always be contextualised and rationalised.

Unlike other citizens, their right to use armed violence must be recognised as a ‘cultural defence’ against state action against their terrorism.
We condemn right-wing religious groups and even the PTI, for being sympathetic and soft on militants. But the same teary-eyed liberals are just too polite to confront their twitter friends and Ivy-league web-politic intellectual buddies and leftist comrades for their identical mealy-mouthed, round-about equivocations on religious militancy and their unconditional ‘ideological’ opposition to any military action in Fata. Even after Peshawar, these apologists, disguised as virtuous anti-imperialists insist like the jihadists, that children die routinely of drones, poverty and disease – so why the horror on some misguided apolitical puppets who are simply victims of the Pakistan state and military?
This variety of the Stockholm syndrome also explains the military’s logic in patronizing the Good Taliban against the Bad ones. The Good being those whose reflection in the mirror is closer to our self-image. Unlike the serial suffering rejectionists who indulge only in useless rhetoric, some conservative sympathisers at least honestly offer their idea of a solution: that we should negotiate with the Taliban on their terms and maybe even offer them an office and chairs.
At the core of all these symptoms of the syndrome, based on associative sympathy, is the Taliban’s acclaimed cause of a radical Islam. No other cause or ideology in Pakistan, separatist, nationalist or class-based has been tolerated or dealt with such ambiguity, sympathy and ambivalence – not by the state, the military, the judiciary, the media or organised religion.
Apart from corporeal tragedies and material loss, religious conflict has inflamed multiple layers of identity politics. Obviously then, a decade on, the causes, actors, triggers and stakeholders of the conflict continue to be contested and debated in the most heated and contradictory manner – usually by self-made, recycled or media-defined ‘experts’ and analysts.
Several irresponsible ‘media people’ suffer this psychological condition. They offer no intellectual value and more dangerously, surge the electronic media waves with no accountability or editorial boundaries. At least with the written word there is a need for a pause, amendment and editing. But TV talk-shows seem to have become simply forums for an egotistical competition of verbal diarrhoea between anchors with an agenda and has-been retired military officers.
These are the very same military men who have often been directly guilty or responsible for our political messes in the first place. Instead of taking responsibility for their past and continued creation of this militancy and coercive interference in civilian politics and policies, the indictable Hamid Guls, Pervez Musharrafs and all the lesser wannabes, are invited by sycophantic anchors to wax lyrical on civilian failure and to advise, educate and insult our intelligence on governance and democracy.
It seems that the Pakistani electronic media has become a confessional, where military officers, their stooges and mullahs come to cleanse their guilt for what their anti-democratic adventures and politics have done to this country. And still, they can’t seem to be cured of the syndrome that makes them exonerate the Taliban and find them guilty only of being ignorant, misguided, empty and armed puppets of the enemies. The solution? Hang a few and that will teach ‘the real enemy’ a lesson.
After a few sympathetic platitudes over the murders of the children in Peshawar, we see the cycle of wash, rinse and repeat of the same ideological hogwash we have been subjected to over the last decade. The lack of a serious, well-developed analysis and consensual policy has meant that we have multiple intelligence agencies, institutions, committees and even judicial systems to deal with terrorism – itself a contested term and so broadly defined so as to lose its specificity.
Not only is the expansive definition of this crime a concern, the Anti-Terrorist Courts have been the subject of much contention and human rights organisations have for years protested against the ambiguities and lack of transparency under which these operate.
When social and mainstream media start pressurising for more punitive measures and reinstating the death penalty, they do so from complete lack of knowledge or study of the efficacy or effects of these. This deliberate populist move is often invoked to appeal to peoples’ basest instinct for revenge and bloodlust.
To refer to TV anchors as if they are some representatives or, the trigger-happy nation of Twitteratis who insist that hanging convicts will solve terrorism by ‘teaching a lesson’ or be a deterrent to future terrorist, is a facile and unthinking justification. Just the fact that the Taliban terrorist seeks death in his mission makes the notion of capital punishment absurd. Such a defeatist step disguised as ‘doing something’ provides an easy escape route for the conservative ruling party as if this is an effective policy. It is not.
Just like the psychological trap of the Stockholm syndrome requires treatment by separating the victim from the hostage-taker, we also need an unseaming of the values of religious militancy from the progressive ones of the state. In the case of religious militancy, the treatment must not be based on revenge and blood-letting but instead, by managing the state’s discourse on religion, religious politics and its circulation.
Whatever military or legal response is used in the short-term to restore some psychological ‘balance’, a visionary policy must not be based on resorting to old and conservative failed ways, but instead, by actively disabusing the political instrumentalisation of religion by the state, military, media, mosques, education sector but especially, religious parties and privatised jihadist outfits.
The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: [email protected]

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