Pakistan continues to find itself in a military operation against extremists in North Waziristan. The state condemns the crimes of terror, and political parties seem united in their resolve to fight it. Terrorists, rotting in jails for many years, are now being executed. There is a protest outside Lal Masjid to arrest one of the thousands of Taliban apologists that exist in all our cities. Ultimately, the question begs to be asked: has anything changed? The bitter truth is: not really.
A trip down the alleys of Lahore is sufficient to doubt the states’ resolve in combatting terrorism on all fronts. Empty spaces lie covered with wall-chalking, banners and posters illustriously promoting sectarian groups from all corners of Punjab and beyond, instigating hate crimes and celebrating their ‘religious purity’. These are not alien people; these extremists, apologists and hate-mongers are amongst us, hiding in plain sight.
The war against extremism and terrorism has never been fought on the front which matters. The state continues to openly fund, support and train extremist elements seen as assets to a system of foreign and internal policy drafted under past dictatorships and demagogueries. These outfits of terror continue to be used to wage a war in Kashmir and be used as proxies in Afghanistan and India. The days of the deep state deciding on matters of foreign policy are not yet over.
However, there continues a rhetoric of foreign elements wreaking havoc in Pakistan. The outpour of emotion after the massacre that took place in Peshawar was severely clouded with allegations and assumptions of involvements of foreign intelligence agencies who wish to destabilize Pakistan. Yet, the thousands that showed up to the funeral of an executed terrorist, were not foreign agents, they were amongst us, they were Pakistanis. The age-old apprehension of ‘foreign hands’ behind every act of terror in Pakistan needs to change. We need to accept the reality that is the Taliban, a force we created, funded and now find on the other side.
The categorization of terrorists must stop. There are no good and bad Taliban. There are no Taliban that can prove to be assets to a country as deeply crippled by extremism as Pakistan. The state, and its agencies, must stop categorizing between the terrorists it can fund and the terrorists it must combat. It must stop discriminating between the Imam that gives anti-minority fatwas on Friday and the Imam that picks up a gun against its armed forces. They are equally responsible for anti-state actions and must face the same severity of punishment under the law.
There exist zero checks and balances on religious institutions all over the country. Pakistan is home to thousands of religious places of learning: madrasahs. Not all of these madrasahs preach hatred or violence, but a large proportion are used to instigate inter-sectarian conflicts and are stages for hate speech. The people running all such religious institutions needs to be monitored, as well as the literature that these institutions produce. The unification of religious education is the need of the day. The state, while not trampling on existing differing sect-based religious ideologies, must create an amalgamated syllabus which is monitored and taught in madrasahs. The syllabus must focus on sectarian similarities and help students indulge in critical thinking rather than highlighting sectarian differences, instigating extremist ideologies and causing further defragmentation of the society.
The channeling of funds to extremist groups are done from within the state. There are no checks and balances imposed by the state, to its own advantage when misusing rogue elements on religious places of worship and learning. The funds that hundreds of thousands of people donate in their local mosques are often channeled to extremist groups which use them to fund their militant wings. Certain mosques and madrasahs collect funds from the general public through donation boxes placed on all corners and the collection of goatskins every Eid. Where these funds go, is anybody’s guess. The state needs a comprehensive strategy to counteract the channeling of these funds to anti-state elements and must at some level audit their expenditure.
Furthermore, we must challenge whether our current judicial system is equipped to tackle the immediate threat of terrorism. It is oft the case that terrorists are let go by the courts on the basis of a lack of voluntary witnesses, the weakness of anti-terror laws, corruption in the judiciary and the existence of Taliban-sympathizers in our state machinery. The state must recognize the need to reform, revamp and implement the existing laws to increase the conviction rate of terrorists while expanding the definition to include sympathizers, funders and apologists.
The state machinery, whether complicit or incapable, has so far failed in its attempts to tackle extremism at the grass roots level. Ideologies must not only be fought through the barrel of a gun but through counter-narratives and institutional reform.
Perhaps, the inherent problem lies in the indoctrination of the masses by the state through its own distorted attempts at distinguishing between who is a Muslim and who is not. Let us not turn the state into a failed theocracy, but rather fight this war on all fronts. We must recognize the threat that exists from within us, provide counter state-narratives and stop distinguishing between the terrorists we can use and the ones we must fight.
The writer is a student of Political Science and Economics at LUMS.