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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

War of Narratives

PHOTO: AFP
Can Pakistan ever successfully develop an effective counter-extremist narrative? Would this help in changing the present self-destructive national course we have taken under the existing narrative? These questions are very relevant in the Pakistan of today. It is important to ask a few more questions here: did the existing narrative intensify the terrorist build-up in Pakistan by reinforcing terrorist organisations? If yes, does this narrative push Pakistan further along its self-destructive course? How does the existing narrative impact our impressionable youth? How does it turn them into foot-soldiers of terrorist organisations? And what kind of alternative narrative can help Pakistan change its course for the better?
Even if a new narrative can help, it is not easy to articulate or develop it. The present narrative is rooted in a paradigm promoting the sense that Pakistan is not a regular, normal state but a gift of God to Muslims of the subcontinent. According to this narrative, Pakistan has been under threat from external actors from the very moment of its inception and it needs to be saved and hence our national security state structure.
Those urging the development of a counterterror narrative assert that it should represent a new policy and a fresh standing of Pakistan in the comity of nations under a new perspective on nationhood, statehood and democracy. The present narrative, on the other hand, is of the view that we face the choice between either surviving as a nation or holding on to a democratic system — deeming the two mutually exclusive in the Pakistani context.
Lately, the official version on terrorism has started asserting that Pakistan is threatened more by internal forces than external ones. The instruments of internal forces that torment Pakistan are extremism and terrorism. However, while the National Action Plan has been launched with the resolve that the present narrative will be scrapped, it does not allow the scrapping of our security paradigm and policy that are at the root of this narrative.
There should be little problem in naming the sponsors of the existing narrative. They are the flag-bearers of the ‘national interest’, which, according to these flag-bearers, cannot be served without Pakistan continuing to be a national security state. In the past, this view bred terrorists and allowed organised manipulators to turn them into their foot-soldiers. A sizable proportion of the Pakistan population, for one reason or the other, has long supported the extremist and terrorist narrative. This happened because our paradigm as a national security state was glorified and terrorist organisations were considered instruments of this national security state.
The media, intelligentsia and political forces have only now begun to fear that the present national narrative is working against Pakistan and its people. Questions about the sponsors of this narrative are being asked more frequently ever since the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb. But these questions are not being asked as forcefully as they should be. While it is becoming a trend in the media and the academia to seek a national narrative that espouses peace, development and counterterrorism objectives, whether such a narrative can actually help the cause of peace remains to be seen.
Those striving for an alternative narrative first need to identify the sponsors of the present narrative and their political motives, their gains and ultimate stakes in the national drift. The harbingers of this narrative can be categorised as ideological, political and financial beneficiaries. The biggest achievement of the present narrative has been in its neutralising of the forces that could do something to stop extremism from seeping into the power structure.
What we must remember is that the new counterterror narrative, among other things, should focus on helping reduce the present civil-military divide. Any counterterror narrative that targets the military as the sole entity that coined and indoctrinated the extremist narrative into national arteries would only help the cause of terrorists. At the same time, no counterterror narrative can be articulated without recognising the urgent need for restructuring the state of Pakistan on democratic lines. If the present narrative has injected life into those power centres that have disrupted national life, the alternative narrative should avoid reinforcing another set of disruptive stakeholders in the name of democracy. It should rather seek political strength for democratic forces through civil-military reconciliation and restructuring of the state on anti-disruptive lines. 
Published in The Express Tribune, February 10th,  2016. http://tribune.com.pk/story/1043365/the-war-of-narratives/
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