An effective counter-narrative

Difference between Taliban and us is not that they are so totally wrong, difference is that we must protect our...

Zahra Sabri January 02, 2015
The writer has been a journalist and lecturer at the University of Karachi. She tweets at @ZSabri1

A broad consensus on firmly tackling the Taliban threat existed in Pakistan even before the Peshawar attack. None of the major parties spoke out against the launch of the North Waziristan operation in June, and the electronic media’s attitude has also been far less critical than it would have been in earlier years. However, this consensus clearly did not come early enough to prevent this latest bloody incident in Peshawar, and the heavy loss of civilian and military life such attacks have caused, and will continue to cause, both on ‘our side’ and that of the Taliban.

Why did it take us so long to raise a general outcry about our military and civilian administrators’ failure to bring the Taliban issue to a clear and decisive conclusion? It was not as if the majority of us, the people, actually supported the Taliban. Perhaps it was that we recognised, quite rightly, that the Taliban were not so far removed from what we ourselves are, and that in many ways, we had more in common with them than with the forces they initially sought to fight.

Not that we agreed with everything the Taliban ever did at any given point. How could we? We could never endorse such tactics, either due to Islam, or due to any other powerful ethical motive. But once Iraq was invaded and the Abu Ghraib pictures emerged, a terrible silence descended on us. When the Taliban used their own brand of tactics to speak, we didn’t speak up in active agreement with them. But the voices of many of us outside their immediate orbit fell morbidly weak — our disagreement was expressed in a dismayed murmur rather than an angry shout. And for this — this paralysis imposed on us by the sharing of their rage, pain and deep sense of grievance — we are now paying a terrible price.

What also served to subdue our voice was the nature of the ‘counter-narrative’ against the Taliban. The blame for our present crisis lies not only with those who failed to act early enough to avoid it. It also lies, ironically enough, with many of the commentators who did call for action against the Taliban. Too often, they allowed their frustration and paranoia to frame the debate in such a way that acknowledging the injured humanity of the Taliban and recognising the need to take effective action against them appeared to be part of two irreconcilable narratives.

Yet these two narratives have never been irreconcilable. The Taliban insurgency is no mere, inevitable continuation of the religious and sectarian schisms which manifested themselves in our society prior to 9/11, as some commentators have sought to portray it. The scale of what we are experiencing today — the suicide bombs, the incessant murder and mayhem — is altogether different from anything we ever experienced before the setting in of the impact of US policies post-9/11 and our state’s ambiguous collusion in those policies.

It would be dishonest to downplay the role of the sort of political grievances that groups like the Taliban themselves cite, and to portray their insurgency as being chiefly the result of ‘barbarism’ and ‘extremist’ religious ideology, and as something that simplistic, if well intended, measures like rewriting textbooks could correct. We can fix the biased and erroneous accounts in these books to reflect a truer picture, but would the whole truth be any the less ‘radicalising’? Even if we delete the word ‘jihad’, a word like ‘struggle’ would always exist.

Perhaps we would have enjoyed greater success in developing an effective counter-narrative against the Taliban had we not imported wholesale a biased, ignorant, highly subjective, and Islam-obsessed Western vocabulary to describe them; if we had instead taken care to articulate a more independent line on this issue.

The truth is that this is not a war between good and evil, between secularist-humanist love and narrow religious bigotry, between modern civilisation and medieval barbarity. This is a war of interests, pure and simple. And it has been dawning on us for quite some time now that while we need to find correctives for this system of ours which doesn’t struggle effectively enough against global forces of oppression, it is still against our interests to let forces like the Taliban run riot in our country.

In this ‘war on terror’, too many written and unwritten codes have been abused by all parties for us to delude ourselves that we are clearly on the side of moral force and justice. The difference between the Taliban and us is not that they are so totally wrong, while we are so completely right. The difference is that we must protect our ‘own’, and this ‘own’ includes not just army personnel and their school-going children, but also the Christians, Ahmadis, Shias and Sikhs.

In order to fight them effectively, we do not need to think of the Taliban as barbarians and as less than human, as if brutal tactics of slaughter and torture are something no other human has employed in this war. It is, in fact, more important than ever for us to remember right now just how human they are, so that we can avoid inflicting greater violence on them than is strictly necessary to achieve our goals.

As for the world who has ‘stood with us’ to mourn the murder of our children, we must also question whether all condolences have the same value. What, after all, is the worth of the condolences of those who refuse to perceive the roots of this violence, describing it merely as the senseless act of an ill and brainwashed mind? Of those to whom our humanity only seems to be really discernable when dressed in school uniforms similar to what their own children wear?

The truth is that our grief at Peshawar is no simple grief. It is the combined grief of what was done to ‘our’ children, and the grief of what was done to ‘their’ children that they did this to ours. And we are not being apologists when we acknowledge both kinds of grief. We are not indulging in ‘whataboutery’ when we seek greater nuance and balance in our counter-narrative.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 3rd, 2015.

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Solomon2 | 9 years ago | Reply

....once Iraq was invaded and the Abu Ghraib pictures emerged, a terrible silence descended on us. When the Taliban used their own brand of tactics to speak, we didn’t speak up in active agreement with them -

And through your inaction condoned extremism - choosing to ignore that it was Americans who discovered their own sins and worked to deliver justice by convicting the wrongdoers. You chose the extremist path yourself. Americans can do a little to help you get out of it but the hard work of changing your minds and acknowledging personal and collective error is yours, not ours - as will be the rewards.

Hasan Mehmood | 9 years ago | Reply

@Sexton Blake: That is one of the plausible theories. Thanks for nicely articulating it.

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