The world has reacted in horror to the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, just as it did to the slaughter of children in Peshawar. But Peshawar is already shrinking from public memory and, so far, Pakistan has stuck with its usual approach to terrorism, suppressing the domestic variety and supporting the international brand. Despite the immensely powerful media of the West, Paris will also recede from public consciousness unless the dynamic that underpins extremism and terrorism is understood and neutralised. Even 9/11, where 2,996 persons were killed in the most powerful country in the world, has been harnessed to old and ill-conceived patterns of thought, creating spaces across the world for the resurgence of terrorism.
Terrorism does not arise in a vacuum. It is the product of years, even decades, of ideological mobilisation, of radicalisation, and of a transformation of the cultural context of religious, social and political discourse. In my book, Punjab: The Knights of Falsehood, I had documented the progressive perversion of faith, the gradual radicalisation of elements within the Sikh community over nearly 60 years before Khalistani terrorism suppurated in Punjab. Terrorism was comprehensively defeated in Punjab by 1993, but the undercurrents of extremism persist and are becoming more audible in the political discourse today.
For years now, extremists of different faiths and ideologies have exercised an increasing veto over any critical assessment of their ideas and actions. This arises not so much from their own strength, but rather from the tyranny of political correctness that has suppressed all contestation of ideas put forward in the garb of “religion”, for fear of “giving offence”, and often from the political mischief of various constituencies across the world. Much of the West today shows signs of extraordinary radicalisation, in spite of the prosperity, stability and quality of life it offers citizens, including those with extremist propensities.
The problem has emerged gradually, over decades during which radicalisation was ignored, even encouraged, in these countries under the shroud of political correctness. Europe, the US and Canada, in particular, became safe havens for extremist ideologues and terror coordinators from across the world, and when victim countries, including India, protested, the human rights industry rose as a phalanx in their defence.
It would be a mistake to believe that this is a thing of the past and that the Charlie Hebdo incident will universalise the revulsion against and rejection of terrorism. Discordant voices are already in evidence. One Indian notable has blamed American responses after 9/11 for Islamist terrorism across the world — as if Islamist terrorism did not exist before that date. He has argued further that France is paying in blood for having suppressed the freedom of Muslim women to wear the hijab. That Muslim women are suppressed by being forced into hijabs is, of course, a point of view that must never be expressed, because the feelings of some “believers” would be hurt. Another lunatic in the anarchy that is Uttar Pradesh has announced a reward of Rs 51 crore for the perpetrators of the Paris atrocity. Other murmurs of justification are already audible from across the world.
The pattern of argument is consistent. Assertions regarding the intrinsic worth of a particular faith are a ritual prelude to oblique or direct justifications of extremist and terrorist actions. Thus, it is argued, that Islam is a religion of peace, but Muslims are humiliated and oppressed, and that is why terrorism arises. Hinduism is the most tolerant religion in the world but if you criticise regressive practices or represent deities in a manner not acceptable to the most narrow-minded, thugs will come into your homes and places of work to deliver a brusque reminder of the essence of their faith. Sikhism is the most noble and generous of faiths but, even though Sikhs were the most prosperous and respected community in India when extremists within their fold were advocating and eventually engaging in acts of extreme violence and terrorism, “injustice” drove them to the slaughter of innocents.
Of course, there may be nothing essentially wrong with these religions, but there is certainly something wrong with the religious cultures that produce these cults of violence and murder. It is interesting, moreover, that fundamentalists and extremists of different faiths invariably fail to recognise how much they have in common with their hated rivals; all extremist ideologies share the same fundamental values and differ only in the mythologies that are exploited to justify these.
This culture and this discourse must be challenged openly, frontally. It is the creeping abdication of the liberal democratic constituency that has allowed fundamentalism and the slide into extremism and terrorism. The courage and irreverence that Charlie Hebdo reflected must become the touchstone of our approach to extremist assertions. The tentativeness about and fear of causing offence to those who wear their hypersensitivity on their sleeves must be rejected.
It is necessary, moreover, to recognise the troubled history of collusion and mischief that most countries and societies have been guilty of at some point or the other, including the victim-countries of mass terrorism. Only after this has been acknowledged can we put it behind us and look towards a more coherent approach to address what is, clearly, a global threat. Crucially, in dealing with terrorism, there can be no half-measures, no expedient shifts of policy midway. Terrorism must be confronted till it is unequivocally defeated. It is a blunder to look through different and discriminatory lenses at what is happening in Iraq and Syria, in Peshawar, in Paris, in Borno and in Kashmir. It all stems from the same complex, the same mindset, the same murderous ideologies.
Even the most oblique and unspoken rationalisations undermine the global will to fight terrorism and become instruments in the hands of those who constitute, support and sponsor this monstrosity. Terrorism must be delinked from all movements and causes, however justified these may be. Just as there can be no justification for genocide, there must be none for terrorism. No antecedent history or injustice can be accepted as justification for the slaughter of innocents, and any “cause” that seeks to exploit terrorism to promote itself should, by this very act, be delegitimised in the eyes of the world.
This is the precondition to an effective “war on terrorism”. As long as political and social equivocation persists, intelligence and enforcement agencies across the world will find that the defeat of this scourge remains elusive.
The writer is president, Institute for Conflict Management, and publisher, ‘South Asia Intelligence Review’