Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

Soft and hard terrorism, Daily Times, 1 Feb 2014

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In a country where the learned judges, wearing the robes of justice, are unable to appreciate this simple fact, legislators do not feel the urge to modernise the blasphemy laws and opinion makers practice self-censorship, why should we then single out the Taliban as fanatics and barbarians?


“Sir, it was raining and the ground was so slippery that I would take one step forward and would slip back two steps,” answered a child when asked why he had arrived late. Like a seasoned interrogator, the teacher questioned how then he had managed to reach school at all. “Sir, I started walking backwards,” innocently replied the student. 

Nawaz Sharif sounded no less innocent when he announced yet another negotiations attempt. Some are jubilant while others feel dejected. Our liberal friends mention Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers while the doves of peace find the Irish Republican Army (IRA) a cosy example to win the debate. Unfortunately, both miss an important difference. Neither in Sri Lanka nor in Ireland did the state use the discourse of militants. The separatists were identifiable groups who could be fought against or negotiated with. In Pakistan, that is not the case. The Taliban, to a varying degree, are present everywhere. From political parties to uniformed organisations, from educational institutions to media outlets, you can find Taliban ideologists. When it comes to dealing with dissenting views, is our society any different from the Taliban? Are girls not killed day and night over honour killing charges and are women not traded through tribal jirgas (courts) to settle family feuds? Is our military not using the same jihadi doctrine and slogans to motivate its personnel? Like a science fiction horror movie, the Taliban are the monstrous shadows of our own selves. 

I may be wrong in making such a tall claim but, if I am wrong, why would I read stories like that of Muhammad Asghar, a 70-year-old Briton in Pakistan who was last week handed down the death penalty by a court in Rawalpindi over charges alleging that he wrote letters claiming to be a prophet? The accused man’s family repeatedly says that the old man is a patient of paranoid schizophrenia and that he was hospitalised for that ailment in the past. Even if no such claim had been made, the mere fact that in the 21st century someone claims to be a prophet should itself suffice as evidence that the claimant is mentally ill. Using human messengers for communication purpose was a norm in ancient times due to technological constraints. Legend has it that the Greek soldier Pheidippides ran from the Battle of Marathon against Persia to Athens to just tell the senators, “We have won” and then he collapsed and died. Great empire builders like Alexander and Chengez Khan had a network of human messengers as a part of their elaborate intelligence system. Technology has moved on since then and today we can communicate with relatives, friends and complete strangers in real time thanks to smart phones and the social media. Why should God, the fountain of all knowledge, remain frozen in time and use the communication method of Sumerian, Babylonian and medieval times in this Facebook and Twitter age? In a country where the learned judges, wearing the robes of justice, are unable to appreciate this simple fact, legislators do not feel the urge to modernise the blasphemy laws and opinion makers practice self-censorship, why should we then single out the Taliban as fanatics and barbarians? 

From historical origins to exhaustive analysis of root causes, we come across many writings on the issue of terrorism in the national media. I would like to make a further contribution by suggesting that terrorism evidences itself in two forms: soft and hard versions. We are well aware of the hard form, which we associate with bomb blasts and target killings. If we scrutinise the data, we can see that more people die in road accidents or from dysentery than because of terrorist incidents. Why then has terrorism becomes such a scary and attention grabbing issue? The answer lies in the fact that militants, whatever their belief system might be, share some common tenets of strategy. They use terrorism for two policy targets: one, to achieve instant attention, which anarchists used to call ‘propaganda of the deed’, and, two, to demoralise the law enforcement institutions and thereby weaken the state. A bomb blast, in addition to loss of life, generates feelings of shock, helplessness and despondency. Terrorism therefore cannot simply be measured in terms of deaths and injuries figures, which our analysts often do. It is the reduction in capability of planning and executing terrorist attacks by organised militant gangs that should serve as an indicator of effectiveness of law enforcement agencies rather than mere reduction in casualty figures for a given period. 

Our constitution provides full authority to the legislature to change any law whenever it feels like it. While the whole constitution was overhauled by the 18th amendment, the legislature did not rationalise the blasphemy and Hudood laws of Ziaul Haq despite their sheer inconsistency with the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution and universally accepted human rights. We can neither introduce the domestic violence bill nor bring decency to our legal framework, which all democratic countries of the world belonging to various beliefs systems have accomplished in the last 50 years. Terrorism, therefore, does not necessarily originate from the barrel of a gun. Society at times can terrorise itself on its own. Soft terrorism is a more pervasive form of this malaise and becomes a breeding ground for would-be hard terrorists. If we want a genuine end to terrorism, we need to eradicate this form of terrorism as well while we focus on militant extremists. 

Author: Dr. Haider Shah

Academic, Researcher and Writer

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