Are extremists are becoming mainstream, or the mainstream is becoming extremist?

Ehsanullah Ehsan and Nareen LaghariThe appearance of Ehsanullah Ehsan on TV will go down as one of the largest media blunders in history. That this was orchestrated by ISPR cannot be doubted. The captured TTP spokesman was in Army custody. He did not hire a PR team to arrange his interview. No, it was obviously a plan of Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor’s team. But why? The answer is obvious. Part of it was explained by Mohammad Hanif in his article that the powers that be don’t want anyone to read:

With his appearance, the Pakistani Army seemed to be sending this message: You can kill thousands of Pakistanis, but if you later testify that you hate India as much as we do, everything will be forgiven.

It’s not just anti-India message that the TTP leader was giving, though, it was more. In his ‘confession,’ Ehsanullah Ehsan even pointed a finger at Israel. The narrative here, to use the Army’s favourite expression, is not that militancy is illegitimate, it’s that these militants are illegitimate.

However, after this fiasco blew up in ISPR’s face, they were given a second chance. Ehsanullah Ehsan is hard to feel pity for. He is the same who was gladly announcing the brutal massacre of children at APS Peshawar. As he is ushered off the stage, though, the second performer steps into the spotlight.

Enter Noreen Leghari.

Nareen Laghari interviewLike Ehsanullah Ehsan, Noreen was also involved in terrorism. However, her target were Christians, and she did not get the chance to carry out her evil plans. Now that she has been captured, she has realised her mistake. Noreen’s confession is not as detailed as the confession of Ehsanullah Ehsan, but her role is different. A medical student, Noreen has pointed a finger at social media. You see, this is how she was radicalised. Social media. On the internet. Not in our own society.

Noreen Leghari is the anti-Malala. She was not resisting radicalisation, she was gladly radicalised. She was not an innocent victim of extremists, she was an extremist. Only she got carried away. It could happen to anyone, even a bright university student.

Even a humble daughter.

Noreen Leghari was arrested only two weeks ago in a raid on a Daesh hideout. During her two weeks in custody, she has been deradicalised. She is not working with human rights NGOs, she is working with Army. She is not giving speeches on problems in Pakistani society in foreign cities, she is giving interviews here about dangers of social media and external threats to Pakistan. And she is not denouncing jihad. She is denouncing misguided jihad. In other words, it is the difference of ‘bad‘ jihadi vs ‘good’ jihadi.

Apologists explain that Army is that by mainstreaming extremists like these two, we will set off a chain reaction and other extremists will be mainstreamed also. What is not clear, though, is what is our definition of ‘extremist’. Until we know this, how can we know whether extremists are becoming mainstream, or the mainstream is becoming extremist.

blasphemy riot

Who should be lecturing who on strategies to de-radicalise youth?

This week an invitation was delivered to Vice Chancellors of every University in Pakistan summoning them to Army Auditorium, GHQ for a seminar on ‘Role of Youth in Rejecting Extremism’ organised by ISPR.

Email to University Vice Chancellors from GHQ

The timing of the announcement was unfortunate because it was delivered the same day that a major newspaper published a blank space in the place where there was supposed to be a piece on the threat of extremism by Mohammad Hanif, once again showing that when it comes to discussing the problem of extremism, certain quarters have their limits.

blank page newspaper

It is commendable that Army leadership recognises the important role of young people in ridding the society of the curse of extremism. However, if the military wants to demonstrate its ‘unprecedented support to Education’, the obvious answer is not to invite Vice Chancellors to be addressed by the Hon’ble Chief of Army Staff, but to invite the Hon’ble Chief of Army Staff to be addressed by actual educators who have developed an expertise on education and extremism. People like Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, who has been lecturing on roots of extremism and strategies for de-radicalising youth for years.

If Army is serious about eliminating extremism and the role of youth in rejecting extremism, GHQ should be inviting Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, Dr Salman Haider and other educators and experts to educate ISPR on what is needed. Then, maybe ISPR will arrange for Dr Hoodbhoy to give a special interview on TV, and not the spokesman for TTP.

Narratives and Counter Narratives: Who Are We Supposed To Believe?

President Mamnoon Hussain has joined the call for a counter narrative against extremism and terrorism. This statement puts the President on same footing as ex-COAS Gen Raheel Sharif who gave a similar recommendation at World Economic Forum in January. With such luminaries making the case for a counter narrative against extremism and terrorism, one would be sure that the state had finally reached a unified approach to combating the threat of militancy. Despite these lofty remarks, however, the message reaching the people remains divided.

Lt Gen Muhammad Asad Durrani

Ex-DG ISI says terrorism justified

President and ex-COAS have called for counter narrative against terrorism, but former DG ISI Lt Gen (r) Asad Durrani has a new piece in Dawn justifying terrorism as a ‘technique of war‘, and possibly just ‘part of human nature’.

Gen Mirza Aslam Beg

Ex-COAS says Taliban ideology is equal to Islam

Lt Gen (r) Asad Durrani’s pro-terrorism stance was quickly supported by no less than  ex-Chief of Army Staff Gen (r) Mirza Aslam Beg who wrote in The Nation that Pakistan’s national security was threatened by anyone who criticises Jamaatud Dawah and Taliban, both of which are black listed in the world as terrorist groups. In case there was any doubt, Gen Beg explained that Taliban can never be defeated because of their ideology which he says is equal to Islam.

Official press releases declare that whole nation is unified against terrorism and extremism, but the reality is not clear. We have always been taught to trust our Generals as beyond doubt. Now they are telling us that we should be for terrorism and that Taliban ideology is Islam. Others are telling us that terrorism is never justified and Taliban ideology is not Islam. Meanwhile whole nation is divided and confused who to believe? Pakistan will continue to suffer.

PSL Final: A glimpse of the possible, and the danger of complacency

Lahore PSL FinalIt was spectacular. The most historic PSL Final held in Lahore among glittering lights and screaming fans was a much needed reprieve from the doubt and despair that crept back again after last month’s string of terrorist attacks. But it was much more also. It was a glimpse into the greatness in our country that is being held back by extremism.

If we are going to successfully see the possible become the norm, however, we must avoid the trap of complacency. We should be proud of what we accomplished. We had our moment one the world’s stage and we shone brightly. But we did not defeat terrorism.

The successful match brought out our national pride on social media, but it also brought out dangerous delusions. There were the hypernationalistic pro-Army accounts that once again tried to steal the nation’s prize for a few only

Obviously security agencies deserve our respect for their role, but it was more than just Armed Forces responsible for security. It was police also. And it was us, the citizens, who made sure that everything went accordingly. Credit goes to all of us, not just Armed Forces.

These posts were part of the misguided trend that has appeared of #VictoryAgainstTerrorism. We must be careful about declaring every successful event as a victory against terrorism because doing this suggests that terrorism is the norm and being able to do anything without an attack is unusual. PSL Final was a victory of Pakistan in every respect – sport, civil society, government, LEAs, business, etc etc etc.

Worst, though, is that trends like #VictoryAgainstTerrorism could allow some sense of complacency to creep back in. If we learned anything from Zarb-e-Azb, it’s that declaring victory prematurely and trying to win a fight via press release is a recipe for failure. Raddul Fasaad is in its infancy. It must be given time to mature and root out the threat of militant groups and the extremist ideology that feed them.

Hours after PSL Final wrapped up, 5 more soldiers were martyred in another militant attack. Their sacrifice is the reality that the successful PSL Final was not a sign of the success of Raddul Fasaad, but a sign of why it’s so important to finally pull extremism out by the roots and let Pakistan’s greatness shine through every day.

The existential threat is not terrorism

Lal Shahbaz

I had planned to write a short piece about this week’s suicide attack, but then there was another one. And another one. And then there was another one. The big one. Lal Shahbaz shrine attacked and close to 100 innocents killed, with hundreds more wounded.

This wasn’t supposed to be possible. Gen Raheel had broken the back of terrorists. Gen Bajwa reassured us, terrorism had successfully been defeated. The war was over. We won. Yes, there were still some acts of violence, but these were acts of sabotage by foreign agencies who wanted to derail CPEC. Or PSL.

A foreign conspiracy could be found for every attack, and we were told that if it wasn’t for world powers fear of our coming rise to super power status, this would be a land of peace and prosperity. But what economic route runs through Lal Shahbaz? What cricket tournament was being hosted there? What sensitive installations were hidden underneath? The only thing there was a crowd of common Pakistanis looking for peace.

Lal Shahbaz blast was a wake up call. The state swiftly responded with promises of ‘no more restraint for anyone’. The nation was now in a state of ‘all out war.’ The words were right, but they were met with confusion. What does this mean ‘no restraint against anyone’? Wasn’t that the National Action Plan that is now two years old? What does this mean ‘all out war’? Wasn’t that Zarb-e-Azb launched three years ago? If now we are done showing restraint, does that mean we have been lied to since before?

What came next left even more questions. Under what authority does GHQ summon foreign diplomats? Is the state really so gullible to allow militants to enter Pakistan if they ‘disavow terrorism‘? Why are we sealing Torkham border when the militants are coming from places like Multan? The state’s response to this week’s terror operations has been to repeat the same old script. Terrorists are foreign agents. We will not rest until they are stopped. Problem is, we have heard it all before. What is new this time?

Many so-called ‘liberal’ writers and bloggers have been criticised for not supporting Army’s efforts against terrorism since the past few years. But is reality ‘liberal’ or is it just reality? On this blog we have warned that terrorism was flourishing despite Zarb-e-Azb. We noted that despite all claims that terrorists werer foreigners, it was always Pakistanis being arrested. We warned that double-standards for different militants was a dangerous policy that would undermine our security. Every time, we are accused of being ‘anti-Army’. But everything we reported was just reality. It wasn’t anti-Army, even if it was critical of national security strategy. If national security strategy is in conflict with reality, isn’t it actually pro-Army to let them know?

Some in our agencies have tried to bend reality to match their national security strategy. It is a complete and total failure, and the damning evidence are the innocent lives lost in this week’s terrorist attacks. Terrorism is not the existential threat to Pakistan. The existential threat to Pakistan is the desire to bend reality to match our national security strategy instead of adapting our strategy to match reality. If we cannot do that, I’m afraid there is not much hope for us.