Anatomy of the National Action Plan — I

Independent media has not only liberated human mind, it has fundamentally reshaped the dynamic of public engagement

Hasnain Iqbal April 25, 2016
The writer works for the Punjab Information Technology Board. He is a graduate of the University of Warwick, UK

In an earlier piece of mine, “Peaceful Pakistan: The Counter Narrative” for The Express Tribune, I had argued for constructing a national narrative against extremism that exploits the outreach of media, mosques and madrassas to promote inter-faith and intra-sect harmony, enlighten the public on some contentious issues with arguments rooted in Islamic history and Quran and, lastly, showcase a positive image of Pakistan by celebrating our heroes in the realm of sports, music, arts etc. I had given the examples of North Korea and Hitler, where the state used fear, media and education to build personality cults which in turn allowed these tyrants to win unquestioning public acceptance of their socio-political doctrines, no matter how skewed or divergent from rationality.

Germany and North Korea deployed similar tools to shape the public conscience and perspectives. Neither charisma nor subliminal propaganda or indoctrination through education, the key element that actually drove their narrative crafting machines forward, killing the public incentive to think and challenge was fear. How the state instilled dread and raised the spectre of social banishment and physical pain in case one dared to disagree. Descartes, one of the intellectual architects of the French Revolution, had famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” Fear, once entrenched, drains the individual of the ability and drive to think, question and disagree. Abject submission, unwavering and unflinching compliance and unthinking obeisance become virtues morally sanctioned by the society at large.

This brings me to the modern Pakistan. Do we have the power of fear at our beck and call to sell the national discourse? The answer is a big ‘no’. Since Hitler, the world has evolved phenomenally. Independent media has not only liberated the human mind, it has fundamentally reshaped the dynamic of public engagement. We talk a lot about Daesh’s hugely successful recruitment campaigns and their ability to convert even the most educated. Well a lot of credit for that must be laid at the door of social media which has been masterfully used by Daesh to sell its extremist narrative. Not to forget their out-of-context use of Quranic verses and apocryphal events from Islamic history to lend credibility to the discourse. Can we possibly eliminate an enemy with only guns, an enemy that is well armed, both intellectually and physically? No, we cannot. This is a war we have to wage on multiple battlegrounds concurrently. Most importantly, we need to fight the extremist onslaught on the battleground of their choice, that is the narrative battle, and with the same weapons they love.

Let me start with the declaration. It will be a slow, long drawn process to weed out the rot that took several decades of nursing and apathy to blossom into the Hyrda it is now. I was having a discussion with the DGPR, Punjab government and totally agreed with their contention that the war against extremism had three key dimensions: operations, reforms and narrative. The National Action Plan (NAP) should ideally be an all-encompassing exercise taking tangible, specific and measurable actions in all the three areas. Zarb-e-Azb is effectively addressing the operations part where the immediate physical threat is being neutralised by the use of force. This should ideally completely destroy the active terrorist network or, at the least, degrade their ability to strike at will. It will also deter many from joining the terrorist ranks. That said, the operation is at best a short-term fix. Reforms and narrative are long-term measures meant to attack the incubators, from which sprout the perverted notions of xenophobia, self-righteous madness and hate.

There is no disagreement that the madrassas have been breeding grounds of the extremist ideology. Reforms should mean regulation of madrassa curriculum, expunging the hate material from it and incorporating subjects like Maths, Science etc. Given our population explosion, the ubiquitous madrassa network can actually be beneficially used to educate our youth, provided we rein in this platform that has been abused to craft cleric fiefdoms, breed intra-sect intolerance and purvey a religious interpretation to benefit a certain sect, a funding source or a political party. I will delve into detail about the reforms and narrative parts of the NAP in my next piece. In the hugely successful Indian movie, Sarkar, Amitabh plays Sarkar, the god of the underprivileged. It is a fantastic Indian adaptation of the Hollywood classic, The Godfather. One of Sarkar’s enemies while planning to assassinate Sarkar declares, “to kill Sarkar, we need to first kill his repute, his ethos.” And this, pretty much, sums up the argument for building the anti-extremism narrative as part of a holistic, national effort.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 26th, 2016.

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