October 17, 2010

"The extremism of simple phrases" - Pakistani intelligence services

Recently, I went to the launch of a new social movement in Pakistan that seeks to promote democracy and counter extremism. I was later talking to a friend who had followed the launch in the media. You could say that he had a unique take on the matter - as a former officer in Pakistan's intelligence services, he spent many years working on counter terrorism and I was interested to hear what he had to say about all the new kids on the block setting up shop on his turf.

Most people who read this blog regularly can probably guess what I'm going to think about any given topic (particularly if it involves the media) so I thought it would much more interesting to hear a new take on a familiar topic. My friend graciously submitted the following article. However, be aware, the opinions are his own and do not represent those of his former employers or anyone else.

The extremism of simple phrases

The banner said, "Extremism leads to Terrorism". It's simple idea but a catchy phrase is seldom a good basis from which to understand a very complex problem.

Extremists come in a variety of forms. Some say that Muslim extremists are those that follow their religion rigorously. But Muslims aren't the only people with a set of strongly held convictions. Others, for example, might feel extremely attached to animal rights. However, in parts of the world where a fear of Islam is becoming widespread, the sight of Muslims praying can cause panic, while cabbage picking hardly raises an eyebrow.

Pakistan is becoming a test tube for people who want to understand and challenge extremism. Approaches are varied and often conflicting. A social movement called Khudi led by a former extremist recently launched in Pakistan. Khudi's approach reminds me of a faded hip-hop artist looking to get back in the limelight on the basis of a catchy remix of an old tune.

Maajid Nawaz, the former extremist, seemed like our own Nawaz Sherif (Ed. Leader of Pakistan's opposition Muslim League party) in Western clothes and a $100 haircut. He repeated pretty much the same rhetoric you hear surfing our news channels and came off sounding like a salesman trying to peddle himself as new visionary leader and the answer to our political vacuum. The media was there to lend its weight.

The speakers repeated their old - unremixed - tunes that the military and intelligence agencies were constantly curtailing the media, which is why it must grow and gain more power. They tried to make us understand that even if we weren't lucky enough to be noble journalists, we could help Pakistan - of course, by making everyone think like them. In reality, the media has no plan for the betterment of Pakistan; its only quest is to amass more influence for its chosen sons and daughters.

In guarding Pakistan, all separatists, regardless of their geography or level of education, need to be countered. Therefore, if certain members of the media have decided to mislead the nation on the pretext of liberties or the hidden evil of the security services they should be challenged with the same energy we put into stopping armed attackers and suicide bombers. The motive of both sets of people is the same, self-promotion at all costs, including the stability and security of the nation.

The real question here is, who are the terrorists and where is the war? And yet, the answers make the issue no clearer still. For example, Karachi's Binori Town madrassa is led by a man whose own immediate family resides in the United States. And yet, we still face threats from the institution's students and even faculty members.

We, as Pakistanis, feel ashamed when we are told a Pakistan has been arrested on terror charges in the US or the UK. The arrests continue, but so do the drone strikes. I don't believe that we should form an alliance with the enemy. When confronted, we should look to see whether we are facing a wolf or a wolf in sheep's clothes. In a time of war, people are called upon to take sides. There was Bush's "war or terror" and the "axis of evil". Whereas Islamists talk of the Harb al Kabeer, or the Great War. Those who choose a path of their own make powerful enemies.

New social movements for the growth and future of Pakistan are important. But we cannot let ourselves be guided by the agenda of a lone, self-serving individual. With his comment "I corrupted the minds of Pakistani army officers as well as others around the world." Maajid Nawaz showed that he had merely switched from one extreme to another. And as the banner implies, extremism leads to nowhere Pakistan might want to go.