War of narratives

June 5, 2016

In a society where the liberal approach to socio-political problems has remained confined to English-language press, a book of Yasir Peerzada’s Urdu columns is a pioneering work indeed

War of narratives

By a strange coincidence, the departure of the first directly elected government in our country in the late 1970s was closely followed by the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. This led to the emergence of a paradigm that essentially endorsed terrorism as legitimate instrument of state power in Pakistan. Press in Pakistan furnished the conceptual parameters to this connivance with the following salient features:

Democracy was unsuitable for Pakistan and the presumed objectives of the ideological state of Pakistan can better be served under a conservative military dictatorship.

Non-state Islamic elements could provide a relatively inexpensive fighting force to achieve strategic objectives in the region.

Social values and norms needed to be geared towards conservatism with emphasis on disempowerment of women and religious minorities.

A framework for legal dispensation should be in place, drawing on support of ideological indoctrination.

The initial goals of this roadmap were achieved in the 1980s. After the departure of Soviet forces from the region, Afghanistan became a virtual satellite state for Pakistan, and Indian-held Kashmir was the next campaign. There was a mushroom growth of militant outfits with pronounced sectarian features. This was a decade of virtual impunity for religio-military alliance in Pakistan with its tentacles sprawled across Central Asia on the one hand and the Gulf States on the other.

The high noon of this regime came along in 1999 when another elected government was toppled, and the relations with the world largely became tense owing to nuclear tests. A military adventure at Kargil had shattered the dream of Pakistan-India peace. The denouement came in September 2001 with attacks on America.

The press in Pakistan which had been reinforcing and, sometimes even proactively, pursuing the jihadist anti-modernity narrative came out in full force to extend an apology for the terrorism-driven narrative. So the press discussed at length the definition of terrorism; meaning thereby that term ‘terrorism’ would be employed to confound it with the legitimate strategic interests of a nation state.

The real culprits are those apologists who not only concoct many ‘noble’ excuses to endorse their killing spree but also stand by them in making a mockery of our suffering.

The media denied that there ever existed anything like al-Qaeda; it insisted that Osama Bin Laden espoused a cause which was as sacrosanct as the national liberation movements in the first half of the 20th century. The media also drew upon the class discourse of the erstwhile Left, and declared that Taliban movement was in fact a class struggle of the have-nots. It actively denounced democracy. It presented the right to faith as a legitimate political plank and the congregation as the true constituency for a political scramble. The press also tried its best to create hostility towards the west and pursued the alienation of the populace at home.

Conspiracy theories abounded: any possible presence of the Taliban on the Pakistani soil was wholly denied. The news of the emergence of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in 2004 was emphatically contradicted. Acts of terrorism were portrayed as a reaction to western acts of hostility towards Muslims. The increasing incidence of terrorist activities in Pakistan was ascribed to drone attacks. A very discernible campaign was launched to portray Taliban as divided along lines of good and bad, the good Taliban being seemingly operative in Afghanistan and bad Taliban engaged in subversive activities in Pakistan.

In the backdrop of this scenario, it was a challenge for the resistance journalist to clearly define terrorism and denounce it in all its manifestations and forms, which is what Yasir Peerzada has precisely done. His book Biyaniay ki Jang (War of narratives) begins with a most relevant Dante quote: "The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis".

In one of his columns, he says, "Against the war on terror, we have confused our society to an extent that currently we are paying a heavy price, in the form of picking up dead bodies every other day. Apparently, we all oppose terrorism; there is no one who would say, ‘Sir, what a perfect throw it was from the jihadists!’, or ‘Sir, one has to applaud the warriors who, bursting into a bus, opened fire on unarmed people,’ or ‘How adorable are the young men fighting down our forces!’ No one says so (at least directly), then on what grounds are we all delusive about identifying terrorists, their agenda and the way to bridle them?

Arif Waqar-1

"Why are we confused about our enemy? Is the agenda of terrorists to abolish poverty and illiteracy from the country? Is a terrorist a byproduct of illiteracy and poverty, or a university graduate may also slaughter unarmed people on sectarian grounds? Keeping aside what masses believe, just enquire from a bureaucrat who is a part of decision making process, you can never get the right response. Why? Because of two definite lapses: our first lapse is the theory that terrorism is the progeny of poverty and illiteracy. We have been holding on to this theory for years. Whenever we are unable to track down the causes of an issue, it is quite convenient for us to pin it down on poverty or illiteracy.

"In case of terrorists, our strongest reasoning is that the children they employ as suicidal attackers after washing their brains are poverty-stricken, having nominal formal education; that is why it is easier to incite them for this job. Apparently, this seems to be a lucid argument. What we tend to ignore, however, is the fact that the youngsters employed as suicide bombers are being used merely as fodder; the operation is masterminded by others."

In another piece, Yasir Peerzada says, "As a rule, we should not grumble at the Taliban… They are what they are… hell-bent on spreading terror with clean conscience as they have been apprenticed, brain-washed and trained for years. The real culprits are those apologists who not only concoct many ‘noble’ excuses to endorse their killing spree but also stand by them in making a mockery of our suffering. These people are not from Mars, they are all around us like air; they join us in rites and rituals, feasts and festivals, and they are omnipresent in TV talk shows and newspaper statements. The irony is that whenever some act of terrorism rocks Pakistan, they condemn it in their ‘homeopathic’ style’’.

By and large, the liberal approach to our socio-political problems has remained confined to the English-language press. This pioneering work of Yasir Peerzada marks an attempt to promote rationality of thought and style in the collective body of Urdu journalism. Predictably, the publication of his columns in a book form is being well received by the vernacular readers, but an English translation of some of the selected pieces is also likely to evoke an equally welcome response.

Biyaniay ki Jang
Author: Yasir Peerzada
Publishers: Dost Publications, Islamabad.
Price: Rs.550

War of narratives