Media under siege
An attack on City 42 television channel’s office in Lahore the other day by unidentified armed men has further panicked journalists, who are already living under the shadow of fear due to constant threats from the terrorists. Fortunately, the employees remained safe in the gunshot attack. So far the police are clueless about the perpetrators of the attack. City 42 only streams local Lahore news that has nothing to do with the broad national and international spectrum. In the wake of similar attacks on media offices and personnel in Lahore, Faisalabad and Karachi, this emerging onslaught on the media is becoming more common, with the obvious aim of further stifling its freedom. It seems part of a broader agenda to put the mainstream media under siege. The journalist community and political parties’ leaders have condemned the attack and demanded the arrest of the culprits as soon as possible.
The attack prompted the lawmakers of the Punjab Assembly to move a joint resolution while the journalist community staged a protest demonstration to press for their demands to be provided security. The profession of journalism has always been a challenging job in Pakistan. Nowadays, media houses are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It is the state’s responsibility to provide protection to journalists inside and outside their workplaces. The gunshot attack on City 42 should serve as a reminder for the security agencies that they should not sit idle and make efforts to pre-empt such attacks. There is a need to hold a thorough probe into the incident so that the attackers could be brought to justice. Pakistan has already become notorious for increasing incidents of killings of journalists and is considered one of the most dangerous places for media persons in the world. Not only the government but media managements should also take stringent measures as the scale of the threat is very large and the personnel of the law enforcement agencies by themselves cannot ensure the security of all media outlets. Coordinated efforts by the authorities and managements may be the best way forward for the security of media offices and journalists. Stronger preventive measures and protection must be undertaken while reviewing existing security protocols for possible loopholes. In an environment of fear, the media cannot play its due role, which is critical in countering the terrorists’ narrative. If such attacks go on unchecked, it will weaken the battle for hearts, minds and perceptions, thereby giving more space to the terrorist menace.
The concept of Islamic finance finds great appeal in Pakistani society as religiously inclined people gravitate towards this form of apparently Shariah-compliant investment in lieu of conventional interest-based corporate finance schemes. However, a fraud case worth Rs 30 billion has shown the potential downside of this mostly informal and unregulated finance system as more than 35,000 individuals find themselves unsuspecting victims of a massive Ponzi scheme. For some years the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has been investigating a certain Elixir Group of Companies in this fraud case — a case whose scale has kept on increasing as more facts get uncovered. The scam’s ringleaders are described as prominent Islamic scholars whose reputations and characters were considered unimpeachable; as such a majority of the scam’s victims were also members of the same religious circles, in the form of prayer leaders, madrassa managers and their relatives, friends and neighbours. Complicating the investigation, masterminds of the scam are said to be dual nationals and are settled in foreign countries.
A Ponzi scheme operates on the basis of promising investors extremely high, even unrealistic, returns on their capital. Since there are few legitimate projects offering these kinds of returns, the scheme sustains itself by initially paying off investors from the money being brought into the scheme via a continuous stream of eager new investors. Soon, however, the scammers disappear and run off with the investors’ money, leaving thousands of victims behind. In this case we see the same patterns repeat themselves but with an “Islamic” twist, as the system being exploited here is known as Mudarabah, where there is an entrepreneur who only provides “management experience” and an investor who provides the capital, with the expected profits divided in a mutually agreed upon ratio. Thus the Elixir Group presented itself as the ‘entrepreneurs’ of the equation and eager investors paid millions with the promise of a profit of Rs 5,500 per month for every Rs 100,000 invested. For two years, the investors were paid the agreed upon money before the payments stopped altogether. The facts of the case show how easy it is for crooks and hypocritical religious leaders to take advantage of the masses in Pakistan who hold them in the highest esteem. The hype around ‘Islamic finance’ is fertile ground for such greedy criminals who trade on their image for a quick buck. Therefore this case takes on an immense degree of importance, for an example must be made of such charlatans who are duping the public on a regular basis. Regardless of the inherent difficulties of investigating this case, the prosecutors must explore every option, including looking into existing extradition treaties and issuing international warrants for the leaders of this scam who are hiding in foreign countries.
Bilawal at USIP
During his ongoing visit to the US, Chairman of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari addressed an event organised in Washington by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The USIP is an independent body set up and funded by the US government, which works towards the peaceful resolution of conflict around the world. Bilawal took great pains to emphasise the threat posed by the ideology of extremism, stating however that while post-9/11 the global discourse has centred on Islamic fundamentalism, there are many other manifestations of extremism that are present throughout the world including the US. These non-Islamic manifestations are equally dangerous and need to be countered. He said that while the fanatical quasi-religious narrative appeared senseless, it could not be dismissed as inconsequential due to its widespread influence. Therefore it needs to be directly confronted while acknowledging that it is impossible to sustain a “counter-terrorism effort without a counter-extremism effort”. He went on to exalt democracy as the only system capable of challenging radicalism. Bilawal recalled the contributions of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to democracy while his enemies promoted Islamisation in the country, and also of Benazir Bhutto, who forged a roadmap to tackle extremism, was consistently targeted, and later assassinated by extremist forces. He critiqued the current government’s “path of inaction” at length, claiming that the National Action Plan (NAP), while it is a comprehensive strategy on paper, was not having much effect in reality. He clarified by drawing attention to the lack of efforts to tackle extremist ideologies outside the battlefield. He denounced the government’s misuse of its powers to suppress political dissent under the guise of anti-terrorism laws, and cited the banning of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM’s) leader’s speeches, as well as political cases against MQM and PPP. He drew attention to the PPP’s efforts to dismantle criminal outfits in Karachi, especially Lyari, and stated that while successes had been gained, there was still a long way to go.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s speech was predominantly sound in principle, and should be lauded as an excellent attempt at framing the issues as they stand. The emphasis he placed on the need to fathom the complexities of extremist ideology is a direly needed addition to the discourse on the matter. He crucially highlighted that all religions are susceptible to extremism, due to their inevitable link to politics. Strains of extremism are also found in Christianity, Hinduism (currently manifested in the Hindutva ideology) and even Buddhism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, an ideological vacuum opened up as the overwhelming adoption of the neoliberal paradigm and capitalist values did not take into account those who suffered the brunt of the ensuing disparity. This vacuum was filled by the religious-extremist narrative. Another accurate assertion is that democracy is the only system that can fend off the evils of fanaticism. However, democracy is not an ideology in and of itself; it is a political representation system within which all manner of ideologies can contend. It must also be pointed out that the speaker eluded intellectual honesty on some points. Many governments, including the previous PPP government, had operated under the illusion that those leading this campaign of extremism could be conciliated through dialogue. It was the violent massacres by the militants that shattered this fantasy, with the military forcing the politicians’ hand towards a forceful response. Moreover, while Benazir Bhutto is rightfully revered for giving her life for her principles, it is nevertheless important to remember that in 1994 the Taliban were launched during her tenure. Most significantly, Bilawal highlighted the fact that military action is insufficient; there is a need to counter fanaticism at its core and roots. To do this, there is a need for a counter-narrative, which is currently non-existent. The NAP has so far not had the total effect intended due to a lack of concerted, centralised effort that has left gaps the terrorists have so far been taking advantage of. Similarly, unless a powerful counter-narrative is developed, such pernicious ideologies will continue to be reborn within the womb of society.