Jan 31, 2011

Project terrorism

You convert the worldview of a religious fringe into that of the state and thus you kindle the yearning for reviving a golden age that never existed
By Rashid Mahmood Langrial

As suicide bombers kill our children and blow the graves of our patron saints; as the fundamentalists not only dictate our thoughts and actions but also punish us for non-compliance; and as the insurgents challenge our sovereignty and choose for us our friends and foes, we must not forget how hard we have worked to bring this fate to ourselves and what an almost implausible set of follies we have committed to create that unique combination of permissive and precipitant factors without which a project as self-immolating as project terrorism could never hit the ground.

Project terrorism required three necessary conditions to be satisfied before it could start off: a deep sense of grievance amongst the population; societal approval of or neutrality towards violence as a legitimate instrument of grievance-settlement; and organizational structures with proven ability to overcome the problems of collective action. Absence of any of the three would render the other too inconsequential for the project to succeed. These three necessary conditions, however, needed to be underwritten by another sufficiency condition of perceived state failure in terms of rule of law and functionality of institutions.

Imagine you were the most powerful and most ambitious man in Pakistan in the year of our lord 1979 and someone from Mars promised you perpetual power and pelf provided you agreed to manage Project Terrorism under the overall direction of the Martian Headquarters. Assume that you believed that the Martians were reliable partners who commanded infinite resources and technology and were willing to do what it took to successfully undertake the project. I bet on your sanity that you would refuse to manage a project with such slim odds of success. But those were eccentric times: world was neatly divided between yin and yang and gods of ambition often nosed out those of sanity. As the fate would have it, you undertook to manage the project.

Before we go into the extraordinary story of manufacturing of the permissive trio of grievances, violence-legitimizing norms and appropriate organizational structures that prepared the soil for the growth of the ogre of terrorism, let’s recall that Pakistan of the 1970s was no different from most of the third world societies: poor, predominantly rural, with low physical and human capital base and struggling with its political institutions. While Islam was the religion of the masses and its emotional appeal was awesome, its role in most part of the country (except Zhob Division in Balochistan and southern districts of NWFP) was largely limited to the rites of birth, marriage and death.

Village imam, dependent on share of harvest of the farmers for his livelihood as he was, was seldom consulted on issues concerning the village ‘commons’. Secular power was the arbiter in the matters of the public square and shrines were the relevant players in the religious marketplace; labour and students’ unions were largely leftist-leaning; political parties, though underdeveloped due to episodic democratic history, were still well on their way to develop ideologically defined cadres and party paraphernalia with all the necessary emblems of distinct sense of mission, well-articulated agenda and rudimentary roadmaps for political action.

In such a world of terrestrial towns and lay villages, how would you go about to create such deep sense of grievance that engenders a siege mentality where one thinks of one’s world under threat from without, necessitating immediate extreme action?

You need to ensure that social sector expenditures remain low, sustaining a near-permanent state of social insecurity in terms of education, health and rule of law. Faced with relative deprivation in terms of social security, people would seek collective action to change their lot; you must ensure that there are few available political opportunities coupled with a sinister propaganda that politicians are selfish or corrupt or incompetent or three-in-one. For this purpose, political parties could be banned, politicians exiled, or imprisoned or preferably hanged; political corruption unearthed in full glare of the cameras and political workers either imprisoned or publicly beaten for deviating from the norms to be notified by the bureau of public morals and manners.

In case you cannot ban the political process altogether, you must ensure intense competition amongst the existing political elite over whatsoever little of the cake you decide to leave in the political arena and make difficult for others to enter the arena by creating entry barriers. Note of caution: the latter scenario is an inferior solution and you must avoid as long as you can.

One final step is to blame the ills on someone else’s hostility. You must rewrite the textbooks, teaching appropriate history, you must promote stories and plays that eulogise glorious past of a splendid nation, hurt in its blissful journey through a conspiracy of infidels from without and minority sects from within. You convert the worldview of a religious fringe into that of the state and thus you kindle the yearning for reviving a golden age that never existed.

Yearning for a golden age could then be used to blur the contours and colors of the world to invoke the images of a collective imminent humiliation whereby one’s culture, religion and the motherland were all in danger of sacrilege; immediate collective action was the need of the hour, both at home and in near abroad, to save one’s culture, religion and motherland. Until and unless you do that, you cannot make a nation of hundred million acquiesce to an error of judgment as great as needed for the project terrorism to find its feet on the ground.

Unfortunately, you still have just the recipe for an extremist political movement, not terrorism. You still need to justify indiscriminate violence to create a pool of sympathisers who would a) provide recruits b) bankroll the logistics and c) venerate those who fall in the path of terrorism. This requires sanction either from culture or religion.

While the Martians provide ready cash, friends from the desert offer a well-tested set of religious ideas; therefore, you decide to import a bellicose brand of religious interpretation, oil it with Martian money and start legitimising violence as a preferred tool of expressing narcissistic rage that has been carefully cultivated. Billions of US$ are invested into the propagation of the imported religious interpretation and thousands of students are taught the virtues of holy war; men of religion carve careers out of it and you, in turn, have the powerful clerks declaring use of indiscriminate violence a religious duty against a country with almost 100 percent Muslim population. The Project Terrorism has met another of its necessary conditions.

Once you have a set of grievances that justify collective duty as against individual obligation and facilitative societal norms for violence in place, you just need to build organisational structures that can enlist required human resource for the project terrorism. Market mechanisms can easily be used to build, sustain and operate the project. Initially, master trainers are needed but, thereafter, sufficient in-house capacity would be built for various tools and techniques of terrorism. The project’s implementation could be outsourced to not-for-profit organisations and business of violence, otherwise monopoly of the state could be conducted in such franchised mode at a surprisingly low cost.

While self-propelled nature of the project will bear huge payoff in terms of cost-cutting in the beginning and some of earliest milestones would be achieved well in time, this very nature would also pose serious risk in the long run. Project would eventually not only assume a life of its own, it would also select its own objectives, milestones and performance indicators.

When such a time comes, be advised to be away from the scene because the Frankenstein that you would have created does not differentiate between its parents and its parents’ enemies. Martians and their friends from the desert would go back to their respective planets but you would be condemned to live with devil in your midst. Eventually, the Frankenstein would reach the Martians and they would be drawn back to your backyard and while it would be in your interest to clear your backyard of the demons of terrorism, be wary of the webs that the Martians might weave to eliminate this first-generation Frankenstein and in the process give rise to a second-generation Frankenstein.

Tailpiece: the article draws on ex-post analysis of the phenomenon of terrorism in various disciplines of social sciences and social scientists admit that the phenomenon is only partially studied, much less agreed upon and that the findings are both tentative as well as empirically weak.

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