By Tariq Mahmud
There is enough evidence available by now that terror attacks are preceded by a well-incubated phase of radicalisation of the perpetrators of these acts. A person under such influence begins drifting towards extreme political, social and ideological views whereby he starts questioning the basic assumptions on which the whole edifice of society is raised. His ordained mission becomes to undo what he finds around him, either violently or even non-violently. Radicalisation in either form, as a group norm, distinguishes its holders from the larger swathe of people. As an individual gets embroiled in his radical beliefs, his social circle gets narrower. A violent perpetrator draws on support from a network of people within his community while he translates his ideas into action. He finds a natural nexus with non-violent, radicalised elements, which are resilient and can provide him with support while behaving normally with all other elements in the neighbourhood. In the process, a lot of physical and social space is made available to violent elements and they are able to sustain their designs and extend their outreach.
Political radicalisation is less difficult to manage as it is domain-specific and is more about political and economic rights, which are amenable to negotiations and bargaining. That may not be the case with religiously driven, ideological radicalisation, which can lead to the shaping of an inimical worldview that is poles apart from the prevalent worldview. In such a scenario, dogma takes over freethinking, religion stands for literalist interpretation and the temporal context is purposely missed out.
Humans live at multiple levels, which makes a society tolerant, vibrant and multi-faceted. In the radicalisation process, existence at multiple levels is the first casualty, which starts sapping the tolerance and vibrancy level in the society. A radicalised individual forecloses all other avenues in life while continuing to circulate in his own orbit, further hardening his views. Society at large and the community he belongs to in particular is only relevant to him so long as it facilitates his extreme views and violent acts.
Pakistan has paid a very heavy price on account of this thinking, which has led to countless violent acts. We have lost more than 50,000 innocent lives, apart from suffering on the economic front and the damage caused to our image. Operation Zarb-e-Azb has hit out at radical elements in their safe havens. While this has been a Herculean task, it is reportedly close to the finish. There is, however, no room for smugness at this stage. The battle in the field may be over soon but the war is still on and it needs to be fought in our social spaces. The networks and infrastructure that aid and abet the radicalised mindset continue to exist and make their presence felt. Young, raw minds are lured by their handlers to become ‘fidai‘ and sacrifice their lives, extolling a cause that believes in eliminating the lives of those not considered ‘true believers’. Such nihilistic groups are not unknown in Muslim history. They remind us of the ‘assassins’ of the 11th century, who would indiscriminately kill their adversaries. These ‘fidais’ were driven by the promises of a make-believe paradise, which they could enter if they carried out assassinations as desired by the founder of the creed. In the 21st century, we still see young men having undergone similar indoctrination, which has turned them into live ammunition.
In our fight against terror, what is dangerous is that our ruling elite and policy planners are not paying adequate attention to those social spaces that facilitate the radicalisation process, wittingly or unwittingly. To explain this phenomenon, I would like to turn a leaf from memory while I was still in active service. We are the only country in the world, including the Muslim world, where a Pakistani passport holder, when he travels abroad, is singled out on the basis of his religion by the state of Pakistan itself. A passport is a travel document indicating the citizenship of its holder. Machine-readable passports, the world over, conform to standards laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a UN organisation that sets and codifies guidelines for member countries for international transportation, travel and aviation. I am witness as to how the column of religion was inserted in the Pakistani machine-readable passport. This was done over and above the decision taken by the then cabinet, which had already approved the design without such a column. This happened during the Musharraf era. As soon as machine-readable passports were released to the general public, there was an uproar caused by a section of clerics against the non-inclusion of the column on religion in the new passport. The government went on the backfoot. As the interior secretary at the time, I was asked by the prime minister to make a presentation to the cabinet. I pleaded the cabinet to consider that the religion column is not found in in any other passport in the world and any such move would be a digression of ICAO standards and will unnecessarily set us apart from the rest of the world. Information regarding religion was already recorded by NADRA and in passport application forms for internal use. I also presented the passports of Saudi Arabia and Malaysia with the relevant entries, which did not include this column. Apart from two ministers from Punjab, the rest of the cabinet was satisfied with my briefing. Then prime minister Shaukat Aziz, however, set up a subcommittee to further ponder on the matter. From then onwards, nothing came up before the cabinet except a news item in the media that the government had decided to include the religion column in the machine-readable passport. This entry, however, could not be included in the coded bar of the passport for technical reasons and is now displayed separately. I have cited this example just to show how desperate our ruling political elite can get to curry favour with politico-religious elements.
The war on terror has backward and forward connects. The flushing out of militants from Mir Ali and Shawwal are only one part of this story. The other part is glaring at us while radicalisation is still well-entrenched in our social spaces and normal habitats. These should be underpinned effectively and neutralised without buckling under any sort of pressure from the religious right wing. We must not only protect the precincts of our educational institutions from terror attacks, it is now also time to cleanse our syllabus and curricula of nefarious content, which work as a powder keg, disseminating toxic vibes against ethnic and religious minorities and the outside world, imbibing our youth with a narrow worldview. Without having a clarity of goals in the war against terror, victory would remain interminably elusive.