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In search of a counter-narrative

By Imtiaz Gul

The Express Tribune, February 14, 2010

The West is seized with how to contain the spiral of terrorism. The Muslim East, led by the affluent Arabs, is still seized with the Palestinian issue and wants a differentiation between terrorism and freedom struggle. The West is looking for a counterterrorism narrative rooted in Democratic Values and the Universal Charter of Human Rights. The Muslims, Arabs in particular, are mostly ruled by undemocratic rulers in an extremely patriarchal social milieu, and thus take exception to the western love for democracy and human rights.

Arabs are fighting among themselves over definitions of jihad and taghoot (satan). Some consider al Qaeda and its followers as taghooti forces bent upon creating disorder and instability through acts of violence. Others call for looking at the root causes of violence and use Palestine as the primary reference, thereby implying that there is no harm in talking to some of the extremist forces across the Muslim world.

Most Arabs also insist that a distinction is needed between Islamic jihad and the Arab jihad, though such debates often degenerate into trivial and inconclusive disagreements, which also underline the deep divisions and confusion within the Arab and non-Arab  Muslim societies. The East-West disagreements, as well as the intra-Muslim social and political divisions, make it easier for al Qaeda and its auxiliaries to exploit these divisions.

These notional differences also resonated during an international counter-terror conference, hosted by the Naif Arab University for Security Sciences, Riyadh. Co-sponsored by the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and the German foreign ministry to discuss the use of the ‘internet’ in countering religious extremism, the conference drew experts, academics and officials from over two dozen countries to see as to whether they could agree on a common counter-extremist narrative.

Although it sounded strange that the countries, who had helped raise Islamist jihadist forces to defeat the Soviet union three decades ago, are brainstorming for ways to counter the consequences of that jihad — al Qaeda-led extremists threatening the US-led western civilisation — yet the search for effective counter-narratives makes sense.

The explosive situations in Tunisia and Egypt, with probable impact on the countries surrounding these two countries, provided a good context for the participants of the conference in Riyadh (held under the Chatham house rules) to underscore the need for counter-narratives which are based on justice, governance and respect for human dignity. The underlying causes of unrest and dissatisfaction with the current ruling structures must be addressed. For the Muslim world, issues such as Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan call for urgent mitigating measures. For the western participants, better governance, justice and inclusive democracy constituted the core of any narrative meant to blunt the extremists.

One could also discern a state-of-denial in the positions that most Arab representatives took during the conference. One Yemeni scholar, for instance, attributed the change in Tunisia to the internet. The “internet was responsible for changes in Tunisia,” said the scholar, advising it would not be a bad idea to manage, if not control, the use of the internet.

It was January 26, a day after the Egyptians had begun converging on the Tahrir Square to press for Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. His government, in fact, had been cracking down on bloggers for quite some time. As far back as early 2009, an article by the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in 2009, had reported “the arrest of  a 28-year-old Egyptian blogger Hani Nazeer to intimidate others.” The idea is not to silence every blogger, but rather to instil just enough fear in society so that people censor themselves. The Egyptian telecom body has threatened legal action against those who text ‘inappropriate words.’ But in the end it was bloggers, most active in the Arab world, that brought down Mubarak’s 30 year rule.

As a whole, the Riyadh conference entailed agreements for the need to develop a strong and comprehensive narrative, embedded in the Holy Quran, democracy and the rule of law. Without this, no counter-narrative would be able to stop the extremist from enlisting more support.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk