`THIS is a war of narratives … there is a dire need to come up with counter-narratives … the menace of terrorism cannot be dealt with without countering the extremist, militant ideologies.
These are some of the statements which have been echoing in our ears for the last several years. In particular, whenever some tragic terrorist incident takes place, such voices become louder in the public discourse. Apparently, the debate on extremism has been stuck somewhere in the fold of narratives.
The list of terms such as `narrative`, `counter-narrative`, and `ideological response` has become so extensive that at times people wittily demand that the state must establish an authority to control narratives.
However, the government has in fact assigned the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (Nacta) the tasl< of developing counter-narratives. One can imagine how the bureaucracy will deal with the issue. No doubt the challenge of militancy is a complex one and the state is in a hurry to fix it. The state wants to immediately address terrorism and extremism, but at the same time does not want to disturb the socio-religious and political structures of the state. Basically, the state`s perception of narratives is simplistic and not only the government but also a part of the intelligentsia believe that narratives can be produced `to order`. When a set of narratives expires or becomes counterproductive, replace it immediately with another set of narratives. Apparently it is as simple as that. Pakistan has two major paradigms which nurture narratives. First is strictly religious and the state has not only owned it but also considers itself the custodian of this domain. The second is secular also tagged as the alternative paradigm which entails the establishment of a modern and progressive society. The whole paraphernalia of extremism has been built on state-owned narratives. But now the state wants to clean the troubling narratives and appears accommodative to alternative narratives. It will not mind if the secular intelligentsia provides a remedy to get rid of terrorism. However, this should not be conceived as a paradigm shift. Interestingly, the secular intelligentsia suggests a long-term solution, which ranges from curriculumreforms to spaces for cultural expression and transformation of state-society relations. Obviously, this is not going to address the immediate issue of terrorism. Perhaps this is why the state falls back on its religiousideological allies for help in the `war of narratives`. Having become part of the power elite, the clergy offers its services. However, the religious leadership has failed to of fer a concrete solution. Mere `condemnation` of acts of terrorism and calling the culprits `misguided` is not going to serve the purpose. Nor is it going to build an effective counter-narrative to reduce the appeal of extremist ideologies. The real strength of religious extremists is their ideological framework, which has been built on religious arguments and strengthened by political arguments. In this context, this is not merely a war of superficial narratives but is deeply linked to religious arguments or interpretation of Islamic precepts. The religious elite is either not ready or incapable of coming up with counter arguments. A rational framework for countering the militancy challenge is missing. Are there any alternative solutions to counter terrorism? The answer is yes and the state is already employing some. The military operations are one of the effective responses to address the insurgency part of the problem. The National Action Plan was another solution to address a few immediate issues and to institutionalise the responses. However, though the military operations weakened terrorist networks, NAP has not effectively baclced up the military responses. For one, the security institutions remained confused about banned militant groups, which have become sources of recruitment for international terrorist organisations including the militant Islamic State. Secondly, the government rightly or wrongly conceived NAP`s point of curbing hate speech as an alternative to counter-extremism measures. However, the mother of all problems remains the lack of trust and coordination within the law-enforcement agencies. Nacta was created to fill this gap, but the authority prefers the job of controlling narratives rather than leading the war on terrorism from the front.Usually, the lack of cooperation from powerful security and law-enforcement agencies is blamed for the ineffectiveness of Nacta, but the government itself has not provided the proper resources and support which could make the counterterrorism body functional and effective. Interestingly, Nacta chooses the most difficult task for itself erroneously thinking that it will not face any resistance from any institution while creating counter-narratives. Narratives are neither slogans nor jingles. They reflect the larger consensus as well as the mindset of a nation. They are deep-rooted in culture and the behaviour of individuals and society, but most importantly are based on a rational framework. This framework entails certain values that, when followed, guide and shape behaviour. The state has an important role in such practices but with the consent and consensus of society. The state can facilitate a process where different segments of society with diverse shades of opinion and different cultural, social and intellectual backgrounds can engage in dialogue. The government can establish a national dialogue forum. It can serve as a platform for scholars, academicians, political and religious leaders and policymakers to bring all key challenges to the discussion table to understand each other`s viewpoints. Only an argument can counter an argument. Thus, sharp and rational arguments will be created and effective counter-narratives nurtured. However, arguments cannot provide immediate relief from terrorism. Purely from the security perspective, the government needs to sharpen its operational edge as well. The focus should not remain on military operations alone. Instead, provincial counterterrorism bodies must share more responsibilities. For this purpose, counterterrorism departments will require more human resources, funds, training and above all cooperation from other law-enforcement agencies. But this is the dilemma the state has been facing for the last one-and-a-half decade believing that narratives can fill the void of operational coordination. The writer is a security analyst. ....................................................... Muhammad Amir Rana is a security analyst