War of the words | Pakistan Today

War of the words

It’s a strange world out there

“…the stronger the narratives of insurgents or the host country, the greater are their winning chances in asymmetric warfare.”

We are living in interesting times. The battle field has gradually shifted towards the war of ideas, notions and narratives. In essence: the stronger the narratives of insurgents or the host country, the greater are their winning chances in asymmetric warfare. In fact, human society is based on human narratives. It is said that if there is no narrative, there is no history. Thus, narratives form an essential part of our socio-cultural milieu. The narratives are also associated with the religious phrases which are an elementary constituent of human memory, behaviour, rule and ethics. Due to the importance of the narratives in society, every intellectual and philosopher has given it due priority and importance. Aristotle, in his epic work poetics, indicates three essential features of narrative namely the narrator, the characters in the narrative and the primary audience of these ideas. In other words, a narrative is a well-structured framework of stories, having capacity for resolution of conflict(s) through creating, augmenting and relying on the available audience and their expectations through utilising different communication means.

It has rarely been observed that an ordinary person’s recount becomes a social or national narrative. Nonetheless, in todays’ technologically advanced environment, the electronic and print media can become an effective carrier of an ordinary anecdotal narration and becomes a tool for social change. In December 2010, the narrative of a local hawker in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, who had set himself on fire due to state repression, receives such acceptability among the masses that a movement started resulting into intense rioting thus forcing Ben Ali, the President of Tunisia, to leave the presidential office unceremoniously.

Abu Bakr Naji, in his book “Management of Savagery” has produced religious texts to legitimise the brutal actions of insurgents in Iraq.  He has also propounded the narrative of Caliphate to give authenticity to the mode of recruitment of Al Qaeda and other extremists in the Middle East.  Hence narratives can also give legal sanction to commit crime. In Pakistan, the terror narratives have been established on multi-dimensional fora. These include speedy justice promises, propagation of equality among all classes, professing to purge society of social ills and using electronic communication means to spread it in their areas of jurisdiction. The terror organisations have effectively used these narratives to legitimise violence and savagery. There are different levels of narratives in terms of its audience, distance and outreach. Hence, we can categorise them into global, regional, national and sub national types.

A state must have a strong narrative for dissemination among the masses so that the hearts and minds of population remain under its control. The inability of a state to construct a narrative will provide an edge to the insurgents or non-state actors in the country. A narrative can be nurtured and protected through different means. For example, highlighting the services of those who have rendered their lives for the protection of state is one way of protecting and communicating the narrative. Any laxity in such area shall be readily exploited by the insurgents to their advantage. Recently, the family of Aitzaz Hassan has received threatening letters from unknown militants. According to the brother of Aitzaz, a van came to their village and handed over a letter to a shop keeper requesting him to give it to the family members of the local hero who laid down his life by stopping a suicide attacker from entering into a school. The letter contained threats to the family members that their lives would be at risk if they did not stop talking to the media and eulogizing heroic act of Aitzaz.

Abdul Aziz, the prayer leader of the central mosque in Islamabad, has vowed to offer fateha in July 2017 for those killed in Lal Masjid Operation. Incidentally, the cleric has been issuing statements in favour of Islamic State (IS) and their brand of Sharia while criticising the role of state in perpetuating terror upon innocent students of his seminary. The cleric has developed a narrative based on his perception in which the state is an aggressor and one of the terror groups is hailed as the protector of Islamic ideology. The students and their teachers, fighting against the state machinery, have been celebrated as the heroes of the nation. All means of communication have been used for this purpose. Unfortunately, a counter narrative could not be developed against such vicious propaganda campaign to protect the integrity of state institutions. Now that the cleric has announced to hold a ceremony in memory of those killed in the operation, no response whatsoever has so far been observed from the other side. An elaborate story needs to be weaved intelligently so that people do not think that the story of the cleric is true.

“The prayer leader Abdul Aziz … has developed a narrative based on his perception in which the state is an aggressor and one of the terror groups is hailed as the protector of Islamic ideology.”

If we look at different extremist or terror groups such as Al Qaeda, Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Al Qaeda in Indian Sub-Continent (AQIS), Lashkar e Jhangvi al Almi (LeJA), Ghazi Force (GF) and Sub Nationalists then Al Qaeda, AQIS and TTP have employed multiple means for propagation of their narratives. These communication means include social media, short messaging service, audio messages, video messages, literature, pamphlets, books,  lectures etc.

Narratives are an essential feature of modern warfare. The claims and counter claims by state or an insurgent group after every terror action are usually made to neutralize the stories of each other. The population usually believe those narratives which are based on their cultural experiences, geographic location, religious interpretation, social standing, normative understanding and ethical values. The art of exploitation of these values will result into an effective and efficient anecdote which become an important weapon in an asymmetric war.