“The menace of Brussels lies not (just) in the terror, but in the responses to terror.” — Simon Jenkins in The Guardian
The impact of the heinous Brussels attacks may not have altered daily lives in Europe just yet, let alone the rest of the world, but in the absence of global policy coherence it incrementally will. If nothing is done at a multilateral level to address the aftermath, the responses by different governments and actors will be piecemeal and often counterproductive to stated end goals of reversing the tides unleashed. Although several Western leaders have cautioned restraint in rushing to judgment in fuelling anti-Muslim apartheids, including President Obama, the die is cast. The IS/Daesh terrorist in Paris and Brussels wanted fear to still the heartbeat of Western civilisation, and he has succeeded.
He has succeeded because his goal is first fear, followed by a mushroom-cloud of suspicion, division and exclusion. The Daesh’s first goal is to divide the world into black and white, into a clash of civilisations, followed by capture of cash, booty and territory. His toolkit is low-cost and can cause carnage without sophisticated hardware. His ideology provides instant gratification as well as self-glorification. He is a postmodern rebel with what he thinks is an existential grievance against the empowered world, and he has a digital megaphone that can’t be turned off.
Between the travel advisories and the enhanced muscularity of border controls in Europe, the tilt to more than random Muslim profiling will likely be real. The narrative fires of rising European nationalism, and an unprecedented rightist Republican guard in the US may well cause a swing to the once-moribund left. But constituencies for exclusion have the microphone now, and if left unchecked, can lead the way to a darker age, where citizens that were once more agnostic to hate may find new exclusions digestible. Despite the fact that the majority of non-Muslim citizens in these societies will continue daily affirmations of solidarity with Muslims in public spaces, the shadow will fall among us all like a biblical serpent. Whether real or imagined, it will have its flesh.
The habitual accommodations that many cultures and countries make to live with immigrants and minorities will hardly muffle out the angry noise. Assimilation and its terms will become a harder battleground for race, culture and less negotiable identities. Secularism’s glittering promise will both be challenged by the fear of diversity, while the daily norm of un-policed tolerance will be harder to enforce. Here’s why. Everyday kindnesses or legal entitlements do not make headlines, nor do facts always inform policy, especially in the reactive world after 9/11. Facts too often don’t, and won’t matter in such a context. The US invasion of Iraq is a prime example of state responses based on wrong intelligence, and an entire region vortexing into chaos. Another example is the state of terror-related casualty figures in Europe even after Paris and Brussels. It won’t matter that Europe is safer today than it was in the 1980s, because terror is not treated through the machinery of crime now. It begets visceral responses that suspend fundamental rights in seconds. In Pakistan, too, we treat terror now though a prism of moratoriums on due process. It is seen as an attack on civilisation as we know it. Anyone seeing the Daesh-style beheadings and grisly executions will find it hard to disagree.
In the age of low economic growth and growing inequality, irrespective of wealth creation in colder climates and even Asia, anger will not be in short supply in any continent. Cantonized states in the Middle East will remain central to borderless conflict, terrorism, sectarian wars, narcotics and human traffic. Just the Syrian implosion, which has created mass slaughter and homelessness on a scale that the 21st century should not have had to witness, will breed more sub-optimal policy choices, and likely evade conventional dispute-resolution or an enforceable peace. Afghanistan, too, will fight and talk while remaining under predation from Taliban insurgents, who in turn fight Daesh. Iran and Saudi oil, with crashing prices and clashing agendas, will not bankroll stability, nor fight a common enemy in any coherent strategic play that demonstrates Muslim state leadership in times of epochal crisis. Smart global policy that unifies state agendas and identifies common enemies will continue to evade retreating powers. For both the Muslim world and the Western behemoth, unity on key single agendas will remain a mythical unicorn.
For Pakistanis, the pain will be magnified, for obvious reasons. Epitomised in global headlines as the place where all terror is routinely hatched and disseminated with impunity, we will find ourselves answering for many of the sins of commission and omission of the state and non-state actors. While 81 Pakistanis with visas were just recently denied entry into Russia, other Western countries will be reviewing their visa policies too. Will that mean we seal ourselves into self-referential silos, bereft of imagination or agency? Will we allow hyper-nationalism in other countries to auto-power our own, or will we shape responses that are constructive?
Under-powered governments in Pakistan begin to look snowed in by the mid term in any case. In the high-velocity policy climate of eroding international order, when responses matter in real-time, institutional lags overshadow intent. Countering violent extremism is now a stated priority, but the real questions cut a big to-do-list swathe. From hate-speech reform to who we tolerate as second priority on our prosecute-terror list, change is patchy and slow. The questions to ask are about how many successes we are scoring in shutting down our own terror sub-groups. How well are we able to manage the border and ensure a semblance of peace with Afghanistan, when we know Daesh-style franchises are popping up in Kunar and Nangarhar. We also know that the terrorists at home may subscribe to different names and sub-nationalities, but that the Safoora Goth and Sabeen Mahmud killers in Karachi have sworn allegiance to Daesh. This kind of lone wolf actor, or a group such as Jundullah which has declared itself a member, may not have sprung whole from the Iraqi mother-lode or from foreign fighters with oil money to burn, but will cut a wide arc of headline terror if links are found to any international episode.
In many cases, the exception will become the story and inform the Western headline. Little care will go into the nuance of how Pakistan degraded al Qaeda on its territory, or how many mothers still cry for their children killed in heinous attacks such as the APS massacre and then later at the university in Charsadda. The brutal cardboard cutout of Pakistan as a spoiler will trump all sacrifice, or the painful slog of policy turnaround, especially if militants on UN watch lists and bounty calls roam the country at large. Afghanistan and its failures of unification or post-US withdrawal conflict will become shorthand for Pakistan’s supposed inaction, with the search for Taliban leverage becoming an existential albatross.
These were just possible futures. Armageddon is, of course, not imminent. But denial is neither a policy nor a plan. Pakistan must think of re-imagining Pakistan first in a changing world, and not channel outrage based on real and perceived demonisations. A National Action Plan that is not really national, or still building its civilian war room, will not inspire confidence. Policies must go through a real re-think and have purchase at home before they matter or impact responses abroad.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 27th, 2016.