A leading English-language monthly magazine carried Pakistan's founding father Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah's caricature on the cover of its February issue, showing him espousing a beard instead of the familiar clean-shaven face we all know and love. The shocking cover attempted to symbolize efforts made by handful of extremists and violent non-state actors to distort and tarnish our revered leader's vision of a prosperous, moderate and progressive Pakistan.
The alteration of Quaid-i-Azam's image ignited some intense debate on the social media and concerned circles, but perhaps it's a topic for a different forum where values and ethics of journalism are under the microscope. In the larger scheme of things, the cover is just another small manifestation of the ideological chasms in our society that remains caught in the vortex of unabated incidents of terrorism and violence for the past many years.
The vital question, however, is whether these ideological differences have seeped into the hearts and minds of majority of Pakistanis or confined to the small and organized minority, holding our entire country hostage to their extremist views? What are the aspirations and dreams of majority of Pakistanis, who are proud of their Muslim identity and want to carry on with their lives holding both modernity and tradition hand-in-hand? Equally important are Pakistani Christians, Parsis, Hindus and other religious groups that have as much stake in the country as Pakistani Muslims.
As a whole, this Pakistani majority today is pitted against the organised and violent parochial forces, which stand against the tide of times and want to push the country into strife and discord on narrow sectarian and religious lines and international isolation.
This is more or less a similar challenge Sir Syed Ahmed Khan faced when he tried to introduce modern education and rational thinking among Muslims following the demise of Mughal Empire in the subcontinent in the 19th century. This was the challenge which Sir Allama Muhammad Iqbal had to confront when he wrote "The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam" and tried to mobilize and rejuvenate Muslims through his splendid Urdu and Persian poetry. And this was the monumental task Quaid-i-Azam found at hand when he was tirelessly leading the struggle for an Independent homeland to ensure the political and economic rights of the South Asian Muslims.
All these icons of our freedom struggle were rejected, ridiculed, attacked and even branded "infidels" by the small bands of fundamentalists, who remained opposed to the very idea of Pakistan. But the Muslim masses rejected this fundamentalist minority and followed the modern and moderate Muslim leaders of their times.
Unfortunately today again in the sacred name of Islam, heirs of the same dark anti-Pakistan forces are trying to shake the foundations of the world's lone nuclear-armed Muslim state. Ideologically, this internal enemy is no different than what the founding fathers of this nation were pitted against. It is the proverbial tussle - tolerance versus intolerance, moderation versus extremism, order versus disorder, progress versus regression and true Islam versus the narrow-minded religious beliefs flaunted by the misguided ones.
Leaders of the Pakistan Movement overcame this challenge with flying colours. The mark of their achievement is Pakistan itself. Now it is up to this generation to keep our crescent and star studded flag fluttering high when it is being attacked by the similar internal, but a more lethal enemy.
A small, fringe minority of Al Qaeda-infected extremists have imposed a deadly war on Pakistan, its key state institutions, including the armed forces, and the people. To justify all their barbaric killings and cowardly acts of terrorism, they present a hotchpotch ideology which is an amalgamation of a highly flawed interpretation of Islam, a confrontationist worldview and regional and global political ambitions presented in the garb of religion. The bitter fact is that these forces are incompatible with the modern age and times.
Some of the fundamentalist and rightwing parties that historically fared poorly in electoral politics and represent the same forces opposed to the creation of Pakistan have emerged as their main apologist and cheer-leaders.
They are trying to confuse the issue of terrorism and extremist violence in Pakistan by linking it to the US/NATO presence in Afghanistan and opposing the legitimate efforts by the state to establish writ on its territory. The heart of the conflict remains that militants and their supporters are trying to undermine the state and its institutions, establish a state within state, impose a controversial ideology that has few takers in the country and use our territory for global terrorism.
Can any modern state allow this? The answer is a firm 'no.'
The state institutions have the national duty and international responsibility to ensure that Pakistani territory is not being used by any group of non-state actors to foment terrorism within the country or across the globe. Let there be no ambiguity on this count.
One silver-lining in this tussle remains that all the extremist forces and their supporters, even if put together, do not represent the real Pakistan and the aspirations and dreams of majority of Pakistanis, who want peace, education, economic development, order and rule of the law.
A close scrutiny of these violent and radical religious forces shows that they are not a cohesive and integrated ideological force as they might appear or want us to believe. They suffer from inherent contradictions in their narrative, unbridgeable theological differences and remain divided because of their narrow vested interests. This means that they may have the near to mid-term ability to continue/carry on their deadly acts in the absence of a decisive action against them, but can never emerge as a force that can bring down the state, let alone ambitions to fulfil their pipe-dream of creating a new system for better or for worse.
After the withdrawal of the former Soviet Union's forces from Afghanistan, the Afghan insurgents brandishing more or less similar ideology resorted to infighting as they miserably failed to create a system for peace and stability in their war-ravaged country. They could not raise themselves above the level of mere proxies against the backdrop of complex great game being played among the regional and global forces to emerge as a unifying force in their country. The few years of the Afghan Taliban rule (1996-2001) was mainly at the back of foreign support, but it too failed to bring unity and peace in Afghanistan.
Luckily, Pakistan, despite its set of some grave problem and challenges, is not Afghanistan. As a state, Pakistan's socio-economic structure and strong institutions - in which the armed forces remain the mainstay - are far more advanced and strong than its landlocked neighbour. The drag of the archaic feudal and tribal pockets gets offset by Pakistan's large urban-base, vibrant trade, commerce and industry, mid-level farmers and strong educated middle and lower middle classes.
Whatever the prophets of doom might say, we as a nation have the capacity and ability to overcome the challenge posed by the violent extremist forces. Whenever our armed forces have been called into action against militants - responsible for more than 50,000 deaths of our civilians and security personnel - over the last 12 years or so, they have managed to contain and put them on the ropes.
Then what is the reason that this challenge continue to stay as a festering wound?
One main reason is the absence of a holistic approach, especially since 2008, in confronting these terrorist organisations and smashing their infrastructure.
The first and foremost task remains creating a political and ideological narrative that squeezes space for the extremist mindset on which terrorists thrive, breed and multiply. Unfortunately this is one important front where the country is found lacking the most. The onus of producing such a counter-narrative - which celebrates and advances moderation, modernity, tolerance, writ of the state, pluralism of our society and the constitution - lies collectively on the mainstream political parties and the civilian leadership.
They have to show the vision and take initiative in the battle of ideas and create space in which the armed forces can do their job. They need not to reinvent the wheel. The ethos of Pakistani society, our freedom struggle, the values and dreams of the country's founding fathers provide its basis. Our leadership only has to articulate, restate and reassert this vision in clear-cut terms and align it with the modern-day challenges and realities.
This vision of a modern, strong and forward-looking Pakistan has no space for religious bigotry, intolerance and sectarian hatred in line with the golden humanitarian tenets of Islam. It rejects any discrimination on the basis of sex, sect and religious or ethnic identity. It calls for universal education. It guarantees to protect the life, honour, liberty and property to each and every citizen of Pakistan. It envisions pro-people governance and the rule of law.
Blowing up of schools, hunting down polio vaccinators, killing civilians, bombing markets and places of worship and targeting the armed forces and sensitive defence installations have no justification in the religious or any other ideological narrative. The policy of appeasing terrorists and violent non-state actors has not worked in the past. It is not going to lead us anywhere now. It is time to be a little self-critical. It is time to explore where we have been lacking so far in countering the twin ghost of terrorism and religious extremism. It is time to come on the front-foot and concentrate on winning the battle of ideas first in which the civilian leadership, the civil society and the media all have to play their role and assist the armed forces so that they combat the extremists effectively and decisively.
Tied to this battle of ideas are the tasks of reforming the education system, including seminaries, promoting literacy and working for the social and economic uplift of the poor.
The administrative measures such as drying up the funding resources of terrorist groups and rehabilitation programmes for their militants also need to go hand-in-hand in a more comprehensive manner and of course at a larger scale. Effective prosecution of the accused and lifting of the moratorium on death penalty, which is only benefiting convicts involved in heinous crimes and acts of terror, also remain an important aspect in fighting terrorism and extremist mindset.
These are some of the vital measures which the leadership needs to support and initiate. The operational aspect of containing and fighting militants is the job of the security forces in which the Pakistan Army remains the vanguard. The security institutions know their job. It is the civilian leaders who need to create conducive atmosphere in which our soldiers can perform their national duty in an effective manner. And the first step to eliminate this internal threat starts with the presence of political will. The will to transform Pakistan according to the dream envisioned by Pakistan's founding fathers. The gauntlet is there. Someone has to accept this challenge
The writer is an eminent journalist who regularly contributes for media and is Editor of a national daily. [email protected]
(Courtesy Hilal Magazine)