Narrative of counter-narrative

Dr M Sheharyar Khan

islamabad - Pakistan’s fight against extremism is now 15 years old. Some teenagers would not even recall a time of peace since they born in the war period. These children of anarchy are the walking and talking reminders of our failure in providing them a safe and secure environment where they could grow, learn, entertain and channelize their youthful energies. Instead, they are lost and insecure and with no hope.

The reason is we still have not sorted out our demons. We still debate how to fight idea of extremism and violence. How to build a counter-narrative to the extremists’ discourse prevalent in our society? How is it possible that we as a nation of 200 million failed to come up with some genius idea of debunking the gruesome idea of violence? Are we devoid of intellect as a whole?

Every expert on terrorism studies would stress the need for counter-narrative. But little attention is paid to the working mechanism of development and operation of a political narrative in a given a polity.

To understand the operational aspect of ‘narrativization,’ one has to see its relation with power. A narrative is the reflection of power. Those who can exert power tell the story the way they want it. In any given polity it is the state which manufactures and popularizes the discourse. The power of state or state institutions is unmatched by non-state actors since the state resources are enormous.

In the case of Pakistan, the state sets the discourse through state media, educational institutions, influencing the private media and social media. The news agenda is set by the state. Even in democracies like America, the media gets its cues from the government. The war on terror is prime example where the government successfully influenced the media to get public acceptance for the war.

In Pakistan we already have master narrative regarding terrorism. The narrative dwells on delegitimizing those terrorists groups which are working against the state and wreak havoc on its people and security forces. However, the discourse gets somewhat fuzzy when it comes to other militant groups who emanate from Pakistan but target other governments. This creates confusion which is deliberate.

The militant discourse of all the terrorists groups dwell on certain common features like the ideology of jihad, hatred of the West, conspiracy theories, and victimhood of Islam and the Muslims. These frames overlap with the master narrative. The similar chord between the militant discourse and master narrative of the state only creates confusion among the public.

The similarity between master narrative and militant narrative should not be taken as strange coincidence. As a matter of fact, the state had nurtured such a discourse over three and half decades for the war in Afghanistan.  If the master narrative had completely debunked the Jihadi discourse, the de-legitimization of the terrorists groups would have been easier. But since it would also mean losing other strategic ‘good Taliban’ as well, the state is reluctant.

The purpose of such a discourse which doesn’t take on extremist ideology can be attributed to the fact that securitization is done by the state to further its own narrowly defined interests.  For instance, if the frame of illegality of Jihad for non-state actors is promoted, it will encompass those ‘good guys’ too. Occasionally, and at marginal and critical level, one can see criticism of master narrative, yet it cannot compete with master narrative.

The most interesting frame is that there is no consensus on the fight against terrorism and that there are people who still subscribe to the militant discourse of violent jihad.  Such master narrative very skillfully generates confusion in the minds of people. It gives room to the state to pursue its policies unhindered. 

Indeed, Pakistan doesn’t need a counter-narrative to terrorism. If the state follows its own constitution, penal code and international commitments, the need for counter-narrative would not be needed. There would be automatic de-legitimization of all those non-state actors who harm the state.  

If and when the state decides to take action and securitize an issue, in most cases, it does it by building the discourse to get public legitimacy. We have seen that in the case of Swat operation and operation Zarb-e-Azb. The state was able to set the news and public agenda to use force against terrorists.

It proves if state is serious in completely eradicating terrorism and radicalism from its midst, it has the power to set the discourse and delegitimize violence. So far, there is reluctance on the part of the government to do so.   This aspect of terrorism could further be explored if researchers draw their attention to the relation and mechanization of narrative and power in our polity.

—The writer is political and defence analyst based in Islamabad and can be reached at

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