Recognising Taliban narratives — by Gulmina Bilal Ahmad

The Taliban are very intelligently shaping the narrative and we are falling in line, so to speak. What is a Punjabi Taliban? Or for that matter a Pakhtun one? It is being turned into an ethnic fight based on narrow understandings and considerations of provincialism

Public relations officers have a rule that they live by. The rule is that if you cannot change the facts, change the glasses through which those facts are read and seen. The Pakistani Taliban are masters at this. After Rehman Baba’s mausoleum, they strike Data Darbar, which is home to individuals of all religions, creeds, sex and social strata. It is perhaps one of the few places where Pakistan’s deeply divided society comes and seeks solace alike. The Defence begum might find herself rubbing shoulders with her cleaning lady while an imam of a mosque might find himself next to a Christian fellow at the langar. If it was not for Data, the twain would have never met, given the religious, social and political divide of our society.

However, after last week’s attacks, for the first time in over 900 years the famous langar at the Data Darbar did not function. The federal and provincial governments have called for organising an All-Parties Conference (APC) on Terrorism and every analyst worth his/her salt is debating the pros and cons of launching a military operation in South Punjab. Media reports as well as a host of political leaders have been very vocally opposing the ‘Punjabi Taliban’. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government is also calling for urgently curtailing the activities of the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ as according to them they are hosting, as well as providing technical assistance to the Taliban elements in their province. There are demands of some senior provincial ministers to be absolved of their ministerial responsibilities accompanying demands for their ouster from their political party for their alleged links to militant outfits. The Punjab government is equally vocal in opposing ideas about launching military operations in the province. The controversy sometimes acquires partisan colours and at times provincial.

Amidst this entire din, I stand fascinated and mystified. Fascinated at the PR management skills of the Taliban and mystified at our reactions. We are being led. Our adversaries are shaping our thought processes and understanding of the challenges that we are confronted with. The Taliban are very intelligently shaping the narrative and we are falling in line, so to speak. What is a Punjabi Taliban? Or for that matter a Pakhtun one? It is being turned into an ethnic fight based on narrow understandings and considerations of provincialism. As a friend remarked recently, previously on hearing news about a terrorist attack, one would pray that a Pakistani did not do it. Now one prays that it should not be a Punjabi.

Narratives determine our understanding. They shape it. Narratives are what PR agents normally call the ‘spin’ on facts. Facts are indisputable; narratives are not since they are the explanation of what happened. The answer to what actually happened or who is responsible depends on who is answering the question. For reasons of understanding, it can also be said that a court trial is essentially a process of determining whose narrative wins. The successful narrative is labelled the truth. That is why it is said that history is determined by the person who is writing it. In 1857, for South Asians the war of independence occurred. For the British, it was the Indian Mutiny. Same fact, different narrative. Hence different reactions.

As writer Stephen Blitz in his online magazine, Forces of Geek, states, “Narrative is not a story but rather the way in which a story is told. Ask Ernest Hemingway and Wally Lamb to write a story about a pregnant woman dealing with the prospect of an abortion and you will emerge with two very different narratives, one that appears as hills like white elephants and other about a woman who has come undone.”

Narratives are the basis of our worldviews. A paranoid mindset, for instance, is the result of a negative narrative that is based on an external locus of control rather than an internal one. In other words, if one is constantly being excused on the pretext that s/he is not to be blamed but only circumstances determine actions, then one is merely reactive and not pro-active. Blaming Zionist, Indian or American policies conveniently absolves us of our responsibility. Declaring that our present challenges are only because of militant madrassas or a certain province is to play into the hands of those who seek to confuse the narrative. This is similar to believing the Taliban-generated narrative that most Taliban apologists in the political and media circles have adopted: the means are incorrect but the end of establishing a just state is commendable.

This narrative fails to consider that non-state actors cannot take the law into their own hands and dispense justice. We have the judicial process for this. If justice is not being served and strengthened by the judiciary of any country, it is for the citizens to build public pressure on it to perform better. Not to dispense justice by flogging individuals, parading them naked on the streets, enforcing self-understood versions of morality while all the time funding your organisation and activities through illegal means, including money laundering and drug trafficking.

Writing on the importance of narratives, Stephen beautifully states, “Life is a story. We are born, we grow up, and we die. The way we tell that story, however, is a choice.” The Taliban are influencing this choice by clouding the facts. It is a fact that militant groups and their splinter cells are now all over the country because of not only the military operations in Swat and South Waziristan but also because of the 2007 Lal Masjid Operation Silence as well as increased intelligence and coordination all over the country. To describe militants on the basis of their ethnicity and indulge in a fruitless blame game is dangerous since under the present circumstances we do not have the luxury of time to do so. The sooner we move beyond this, the better.

The writer is a freelance consultant. She can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 9 July 2010



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