Extremists get their power from being unchallenged
“It’s women like you who should be killed!”
The scream of Muslim Khan fills the airwaves. It was a live show, one of Pakistan’s most-watched programs at the time, and the spokesmen of the Pakistan Taliban just threatened my anchor.
It was 2008, before the ban on interviewing militant spokesmen. To be clear, he had called us unscheduled and unplanned, right in the middle of the program, which was on the Swat Taliban. It seemed that the content of the program had upset him so much that he couldn’t have waited till the end of the program to ‘set the record straight’.
His hostile response was completely unexpected.
Perhaps he had not been too happy with my anchor’s take on the Swat Taliban. She had spent the last few months skewering them repeatedly on her show. Perhaps Muslim Khan wasn’t happy with the critical statements made by the two senators present during the show. Or perhaps he just wanted to make an example out of my anchor, as a message to her, and the rest of the media that had been critical of the Swat occupation.
“It’s women like you who should be killed!”
My anchor fell dead silent, shell-shocked by his statement. And the show was live, so we couldn’t cut it off.
The next words were just as unexpected:
“Muslim Khan! I will rip your tongue out!”
“How dare you threaten a woman on air! Have you no shame?”
“You and the Taliban are nothing but bloodthirsty animals!”
Now it was Muslim Khan’s turn to be shell-shocked. Perhaps he had been hoping that the journalist would say something back. Or perhaps he had thought he would be able to continue uninterrupted till we cut the line.
He definitely wasn’t expecting a rebuke from two senior politicians, who spent the next few minutes screaming at him, humiliating him for his attempt to silence and intimidate.
And in a demonstration of his true colours, he didn’t stay for the fight. He just hung up.
There was silence in the panel room. We could not believe what had just happened.
Years later, my anchor and I still sometimes talk about that day. We ask ourselves if taking him on-air had been the right thing to do. Had we inadvertently given oxygen to the views of a terrorist? Had we unintentionally humanized him or given credence to his cause?
For journalists, there are always these concerns. We never want to be in a position where we give space to extremists, to just propagate their views. But at the same time, we don’t want to censor them altogether, or pretend that these voices don’t exist. If anything, it makes the problem worse, because by ignoring them, you don’t acknowledge the problem, and if left unaddressed, it gives them even more power. Extremism unchallenged leaves extremism invulnerable. It also creates an ugly precedent in which censoring views leads to blanket blackouts to suppress all kinds of dissent. We have been there before.
Make no mistake: Blocking these narratives doesn’t mean they are being deprived of power. Extremist rhetoric has power whether you acknowledge it or not. Do we really want to resign ourselves to the irrelevance of a proverbial ostrich?
So how do we deal with extremists? Do we give them free airtime? Or do we block them out completely?
In truth, we do neither. If extremism’s power comes from it being unchallenged, then there is a need to make it vulnerable. And history tells us that the best way to break through that armor is to not avoid the extremists, but to let them expose themselves, their hypocrisy and mutilated ideologies for the world to see.
Consider Muslim Khan. He said what he did to intimidate and threaten. But in doing so he also unveiled the ugliness of the Swat Taliban. They claimed to be working for the cause of Islam, for swift justice, for a more egalitarian society. But Muslim Khan did what mega PR campaigns couldn’t: he showed the true face of the militants, and paved the way for a galvanized public reaction against them. He showed the gulf between the sanctimonious nature of his ‘cause’, and the true intentions of the TTP.
That is why the vitriol of those remarks did not stay unaddressed on that program. Parliamentarians rarely show how they are on the same page with the public, but on that day, those two senators said what we were all thinking.
And it wasn’t the first time. The whole narrative against the TTP changed when Sufi Mohammad, fresh from negotiating the peace settlement with the government, openly declared that Islam does not recognize democracy or elections or the Pakistan parliament and judiciary. Those statements did more to undermine the Taliban regime than anything else, because it showed the public that they weren’t holy warriors, but insurgents who had conquest and rebellion on their mind rather than ‘swift justice’.
Had those remarks been censored, would it really have made people understand why the TTP needed to be eliminated?
The same happened with Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz. His own refusal to condemn the attackers who slaughtered 141 children in cold blood destroyed his standing as a religious cleric, and bared him as a propagandist and terrorism apologist, something that even a military operation couldn’t achieve.
It works even better in situations where the public is either confused about the issue, or holds some degree of sympathy for the cause. The TLP is a classic case in point. Using blasphemy as its one-point agenda, it launched rallies of thousands, and garnered votes in the hundreds of thousands, altering the political landscape of the 2018 elections. Such support cannot be bought—it exists through populist rhetoric.
But the credibility of the TLP was not shattered by keeping them off air. They shot themselves in the foot when their leaders began declaring death threats against heads of state institutions. The clips went mainstream and public backlash and the government response was imminent.
That’s the problem with extremists. They may be shrewd, they may know how to make the public empathize with their cause, and they may know how to portray themselves as victims but at the end of the day, they are still extremists.
They can’t help using draconian tactics to silence, intimidate and threaten those who speak out against them, or who disagree with them. They can’t help but lash out against those who challenge them, whether it is an anchor demanding the truth of the Swat militancy, or hundreds of women with placards and posters demanding equality in a system that has wronged them for far too long.
We can call someone wrong all day and go blue in the face, and it won’t make a difference. The only thing that works is to let the extremists destroy their own credibility.
Don’t ban them. Give them space to expose themselves for who they really are. Contextualise their words and actions with the hatred these individuals stand for. Put them in a situation where their views are uncovered, to make the public understand the difference between what they say and what they do, between the sanctity of their cause, and the cruelty of their actions.
Some of us may think that it isn’t necessary to take this position editorially, because it’s so obvious. Except that it is not. There are many people who are still on the fence. And the longer we ignore the confused, and the longer we leave the extremists unchallenged, the worse it is for us.
Because if there’s one thing the extremists do better than us, it is capitalizing on unchallenged ignorance.
We can’t afford that anymore.
Usman Zafar is a freelance journalist and academic based in Islamabad.