Anatomy of National Action Plan
by Hasnain Iqbal

Part I

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.

Part II

I was attending a funeral recently when the mourners were struck by a rather unpleasant proclamation by the local cleric. When summoned to lead the funeral prayers, he declined by saying that the deceased had never come to his mosque. Flabbergasted, the family had to send for another imam in proximity. I shared the incident with friends evoking amusement, grimaces and curses. The bizarre response of the cleric is symptomatic of a malaise that is way deeper than we imagine it to be. Our society is disturbingly fractured along religious and ethnic lines. The religious fault lines run deeper entrenching polarisation in a society already wracked by inequalities in the realm of education, income distribution, and access to opportunity and justice. The outsourcing of religion to the cleric, his empowerment during the Afghan jihad and social engineering pioneered by the Zia regime in the name of Islam gave birth to the Hydra of extremism. The cleric, having tasted power, is now hooked and utterly unwilling to let go of it. And he has the perfect ruse to justify his hate, intolerance, his conceptions of jihad, state and women, religion and his special relationship with God.

Given the cancerous nature of the problem, ground operations would, at best, severely degrade the terrorist’s ability to strike at will. This is already evident as the frequency of terrorist attacks has decreased significantly. In my last piece, I had mentioned that the National Action Plan (NAP) should, holistically speaking, encompass ground operations, systemic reforms and dissemination of an anti-extremism discourse. Reforms should zoom in on three key areas. The criminal justice system, education and the madrassa/mosque network. Reforming the criminal justice system would mean reengineering process to enable the police to successfully prosecute terrorists, forensic capacity building to improve the quality of the investigation, training and arming the police adequately and a credible witness protection programme. The dilapidated thana needs a serious facelift to restore public trust in the ability of the police. Information technology can come really handy in digitising thana records, maintaining a central database of criminals accessible to thanas across Pakistan and connecting multiple law-enforcement agencies into a monolith to facilitate real-time exchange of information. The Punjab Information Technology Board has made significant strides in automating the policing realm in Punjab.

Reforming education is a different beast altogether, given the massive scope of the undertaking. There are more than 50,000 public-sector schools in Punjab alone. The need of the hour is to have the curriculum standardised across Pakistan and dubious sections on religion and Pakistan history expunged. We have to strike at the roots of the problem and that can only be done if we start engaging our young who are most vulnerable to brainwashing. In addition, we have to disseminate a curriculum that encourages questioning, tolerance, co-existence and conformance to law. Ideally, the books taught in the private-sector schools should be no different from those used in the public sector. Our schooling system itself is contributing massively to polarisation in society, erecting barriers between those who speak English and those who can’t. This bears on their ability to hunt opportunity and a failure on that count breeds discontent and anger. Reforming the madrassa/mosque network is, simply speaking, greater state control over who is taught and what is taught. The funny thing is, we always look for a doctor who is appropriately qualified with a degree from a respectable institution, but completely blink away the implications of leaving our people at the mercy of unqualified imams and clerics running mosques and madrassas who relentlessly indoctrinate the young and old with their skewed interpretations of scripture.

Lastly, there is the question of how best to go about building an anti-extremism narrative and then disseminating it effectively. We must first define the key themes that we wish to wrap our narrative around. The themes could be co-existence with other faiths, tolerance-sect differences, nationalism, glorification of our martyrs and unequivocal condemnation of terrorists through all media forms, promoting the heroes of Pakistan regardless of their field or creed, and so on. We also need to engage religious moderates and have them craft answers to some really contentious issues like jihad, blasphemy and so on, and then have these disseminated through the Auqaf mosques to start with. There are 400 such mosques in Punjab alone. The imams of these mosques are state employees and must be made subservient to the state line. Imagine the footfall in these mosques five times a day and then the faithful going back to their families, carrying with them the message from the mosque. It is a long-drawn process but it must start now.

We can target the rural population through the medium of Punjabi movies. Meaning the state needs to engage filmmakers to create movies that explicitly showcase the narrative of tolerance. The NAP’s dimensions of reforms and narrative-building seem intimidating for sure, for their sheer intricacy, breadth of scope, diversity of stakeholders, all warranting a breathtaking degree of coordination and intellectual effort. That said, the idea of a dedicated body, Nacta, was mooted precisely to tackle this complexity. Fighting extremism is much more than guns and tanks. It is actually a battle to win hearts and minds. We need to move rapidly on manning, equipping and empowering Nacta to steer NAP forward.