We often look at the symptoms, reflect a little bit on the consequences of tragic events, but hardly put in place resources and systems through which we can get to the bottom of things. The war on terror in Pakistan is one such issue — so central to our security, stability and progress, yet our policymakers remain clueless about the causes of the terror. Without research and good analytical tools, the media, the policymaking community and the political class keep regurgitating meaningless sound bites, vague messages and catchy phrases. For about a decade now, we have been asking the same questions and repeating the same answers, falsely reassuring ourselves that we know what the problem is, why it is persisting what its solutions are. In identifying the causes, for some reason, the attention turns to madrassa education, religious clerics, poverty, illiteracy and conspiracy theories — that ‘foreign’ adversaries and their ‘agents’ in Pakistan are doing all this to us. This catchall way of understanding the problem, let alone finding a solution, will not help at all.
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Admittedly, there are multiple causes or factors behind the terrorist phenomenon, but we must do solid work to separate them for identification purposes, rank them and devise solutions for each of them. The one-size-fits-all method will never work. An approach based solely on the enforcement of law and order is one such method. It attempts to treat the symptoms, deal with the consequences and address largely, the aftermath of terror attacks. It is not as if such an approach has no value; but we need to remember that it is only temporary and is driven essentially by political urgency.
The biggest challenge for Pakistan and every country, for that matter — Muslim or Western facing terrorism — is to find out why some people choose to destroy innocent lives along with their own. The psychological and sociological theories and knowledge accumulated in these fields may us help understand some of the tricky dimensions of the terrorist mind. However, terrorism motivated by religion, unlike nationalist or anarchist, has its roots in 21st century political developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East. We may go a couple of decades back and reflect on the anti-Soviet Mujahideen war. One of the many unintended consequences of that war is the emergence of violent groups that pursued power through the barrel of gun, and had inflated confidence that they can conquer weak states.
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The great powers’ thoughtless policy of changing regimes, and rebuilding nations and states according to their script of political stability, whether it was the Soviet intervention or the more recent American wars in the Middle East, served only to destroy state infrastructure. States in our part of the world are not ideal, but they have provided some order, stability and security. Moreover, foreign interventions, wars and massive human and material destruction, as well as the physical displacement of peoples from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other countries have created an ideal social and political climate for militancy. Militant groups feed on the idea of injustice, and sell wars and destruction by others as a rallying point to gain strength. They target those they believe are collaborating with their enemies. In an anarchic world, injustice, real or imagined, breeds more injustice; only the perpetrators and victims keep changing.
At the micro-individual level, extremist thought seems to be rooted in the simplistic division of the world into good and bad, with the terrorist making it a religious mission for himself or herself to destroy the ‘bad’. As many of the recent events n Pakistan suggest, these individuals are graduates of modern institutions, have had careers and come from the middle class. Religious extremism and radicalism is an Islamic challenge, as much as it is a social and state problem. We need to teach ourselves to live in peace in an imperfect, unjust world, while thinking of justice not as revenge, but rather as an idea focusing on bringing about social and economic reforms from within.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 23rd, 2015.
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