Five Years on from Mumbai
Hiding in the dark barricaded room we’d rushed into to escape the gunfire echoing behind us, the terrifying realization sank in that I might soon share the same fate as those shot and killed before my eyes just moments ago. This was the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, in late 2008, where terrorists stormed 12 locations and opened fire indiscriminately. I was fortunate; I managed to escape. But 166 others didn’t.
The recent Nairobi Westgate attack brought back uneasy memories of that day. In Norway, in July 2011, Anders Breivik had shown that similarly hideous acts could be carried out closer to home by indigenous actors motivated by grievances sounding eerily familiar in tone, sentiment and twisted logic to those of terrorists elsewhere. And with an estimated 5,000 foreign fighters having joined the Syrian civil war, 100 of them from France and over 300 from the UK, it’s clear there are plenty of people willing to take up arms for politically and religiously inspired causes.
What these incidents have in common is how, in each case, powerful emotive symbolism was drawn on, to present a threatening worldview that would legitimize such actions. These are the extremist narratives designed to make radical and violent ideologies accessible.
Breivik drew on the cultural symbolism of a long-gone romanticized Europe, while Al Qaeda in Pakistan used narratives around that country’s birth and partition from India. In both cases powerful pre-existing narratives were leveraged to form the perception of an existential threat to their communities and cultures—a recurrent theme across many extremist narratives. Amongst radicalized Muslims, that threat translates into conspiracies about foreign nations plotting to destroy the very fabric of Islam using not just force, but developmental tools like education and foreign aid. Unsurprisingly, a state of war in Muslim countries fuels these ideas massively. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a growing far right fears an Islamic demographic war or ‘stealth Jihad’ to ‘Islamize’ the West and take over their civilization.
Five years since the Mumbai attacks, these narratives continue to fuel the flame of extremism. Whilst President Obama has claimed repeatedly that Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat, violent extremism remains very much alive because the narratives that legitimize such action remain strong. And although the vilest of these extremist narratives may be diluted by using restrictive measures like online content filtering, website takedowns and censorship, these ideas need to be challenged head on.
We need ‘counter-narratives’ that use similar religious, historic and cultural symbolism to create more positive worldviews that those susceptible to extremism can relate to. For example, South Asia’s traditional Islamic poetry and devotional Sufi music, the ‘Qawwali’, evokes strong religious sentiment, but is also a powerful untapped counterweight to extremist ideology and narratives.
We also need the symbols, role models and champions of that narrative, like Malala Yusufzai, herself a victim of Taliban extremism, who won the EU’s Sakharov human rights prize award for her work for women’s rights in Pakistan.
Thought leaders—moderate intellectual, civil society and religious leaders—must give weight to those narratives. Organizations like Radical Middle Way have held interactive events with reputable Islamic clerics in Pakistan, a platform that showed how religious scripture can offer a credible, authentic, yet moderate understanding of Islam. And programmes like the Washington DC based International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD)’s Madrasa Enhancement Program, which trains Pakistani Madrasa leaders on critical thinking skills, human rights and religious tolerance, are helping to address some of the systemic factors allowing such narratives to gain traction at the grassroots in Pakistan.
Wider civil society and mass media must also give life to these narratives, through initiatives like Dosti, an upcoming cross-border business plan competition connecting Indian and Pakistani entrepreneurs and facilitating cross-border investment and collaboration. The series will be aired on Pakistan’s largest TV Station, GEO, and is a step towards reframing the narrative of the ‘other’.
Strong positive narratives are needed not just for the Islamic world, but to address a more global shift towards extreme ideologies and narratives. Within the EU, in the midst of an economic crisis we witnessed the rise of far-right political parties like the Golden Dawn in Greece, and of social and political movements that attempt to dehumanize minority groups. Europe too needs its counter-narratives.
Five years since Mumbai, the sentiment that legitimized those attacks in the eyes of the perpetrators is still alive and well. Extremist ideologues have used the Internet, satellite TV and grassroots engagement to devastating effect and much still needs to be done to counter this. By creating coherent counter-narratives supported by the right symbolism, outreach and advocates, we would be taking a concrete step towards winning this crucial battle of ideas.
Sajjad Karim is a Member of the European Parliament for England North West, and founder and chairman of the European Parliament Friends of Pakistan Group.
Copyright © 2013 Le Monde diplomatique -- distributed by Agence Global