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The power of counter-narrative By Imtiaz Gul

After months of dithering, President Asif Ali Zardari signed the Fair Trial Bill of 2012 into law on February 20. The law empowers Pakistan’s spy agencies to intercept private communications in order to catch terrorists. The amended Counter Terrorism Authority bill has also been laid before the National Assembly.

Intelligence and law enforcement agencies will now be able to tap phone calls, emails, text messages, internet communication and conduct human intelligence on any individual on suspicion of their involvement in terrorist activities. The evidence collected through such surveillance will also be admissible in the court of law, subject to issuance of prior surveillance warrants by a judge.

The bill, originally passed in December 2012, had triggered a controversy after certain quarters felt that the wire-tapping powers would threaten privacy and civil liberties. The latest piece of legislation, however, raises several questions as to whether it will help Pakistan fight off the terrorist onslaught, and whether the civilian and military leadership is unanimous in its view of the creeping monster of radicalization in the society, and the space it offers to terrorist outfits. There are no easy answers to these questions. Let us discuss why.

By abolishing the caliphate and replacing it with a strictly secular political framework in March 1924, Turkey’s Kemal Ata Turk created a bulwark against political Islam. The abolition of the caliphate was an important dimension in Mustafa Kemal’s drive to reform the political system and to promote national sovereignty.

In Indonesia, the Pancasila continues to serve as the strongest buffer between the majority of Indonesia’s Muslims and the Al Qaeda-inspired militant narrative

In 1948, Kusno Sosrodihardjo Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia who occupied that position between 1945 and 1967, cultivated Pencak Silat, a unifying term for Indonesian fighting styles. It was a compound of the two most commonly used words for martial arts in Indonesia. Pencak was the term used in central and east Java, while Silat was used in Sumatra and Borneo. Pencak is the performance aspect of the martial art, while Silat is the essence of the fighting and self-defense. It is often said by practitioners that there can be no Silat without Pencak, and Pencak without Silat is purposeless.

The basis of state ideology in Indonesia, known as Pancasila, consists of five key principles: i) belief in one God, ii) humanity, iii) nationalism, iv) socialism, and v) justice for all. The basic objective of adopting this philosophy was to garner social harmony and prevent the predominantly Muslim society from falling victim to political Islam and sectarianism.

Ironically, General Ziaul Haq went the opposite way in 1979 and laid the foundation of a Sharia-based narrative. It put Pakistan on a path that has impaired, if not reversed, the country’s socio-political progress. It has created an unprecedented space for the religious narrative that meanwhile draws strength and inspiration from Al Qaeda and intimidates those advocating separation of politics and religion. By inserting the Objectives Resolution in the constitution, General Zia essentially condemned the country to gradually sink into religious radicalism.

In Indonesia, the Pancasila continues to serve as the strongest buffer between the majority of Indonesia’s Muslims and the militant Al Qaeda-inspired narrative, personified by the likes of Omar Patek. It also works as a major factor behind the grand political consensus on the centrality of liberal socio-political values as envisioned by the founding fathers.

The separation of religion and politics in Turkey too has at least so far survived Ata Turk. Parts of the Kemalist secular constructs are being dismantled, or appear at risk of dilution if not elimination, but the consensus on the state oversight of the clergy seem to hold, and probably will stay despite the predominance of the ascendant ruling party.

Pakistan, on the other hand, continues to reel under the controversial Sharia-centric system that Gen Zia had crafted for self-perpetuation – with all its contradictions and consequences for the society as a whole. Pakistan’s political security predicament also flows from the paradoxical approaches towards militant forces categorized as good and bad. Those considered helpful for foreign policy by parts of the security establishment enjoy shelter and sanction, while some are being hunted.

And this raises serious doubts about whether Pakistan can at all devise and then effectively pursue a counter-terror strategy as well as Indonesia does? In Jakarta, all state security organs are on the same page, the institutional struggle for territory and influence between the well-entrenched army and the civilian institutions notwithstanding. But in Pakistan, the situation is fluid, with divided institutional loyalties, sympathies and empathies as far as radical religious outfits are concerned. The selective hunt for militant groups clearly runs contrary to what could be called an across-the-board counter-terror campaign.

The reason is simple. The Pakistani security apparatus remains infested with jihadist elements, particularly the lower rungs. Their loyalties to the state are almost compromised and they may keep subverting state plans against all those shades of militants who consider raising arms against the state legitimate. Sifting such compromised elements within the security apparatus is a daunting challenge and unless taken care of systematically, they will keep subverting the fight against the forces of terror.

While Pancasila as a guiding principle almost guarantees effective fight against anti-state radical Islamists in Indonesia, the absence of such principles or a unified political vision in Pakistan means the troubles here will be hard to deal with.

Many Indonesians believe that the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2004 deadly Tsunami worked as an act of God, enforcing a national unity against human and natural disasters. One wonders whether it will take anything deadlier than the 2005 earthquake, the 2010 floods and the bloody anti-terror war that has taken close to 40,000 lives to foster a real counter-extremism vision and action in Pakistan.

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