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July 4, 2009

Defeating the Taliban: one joke at a time

Seriously!

WHILE THERE were many reasons for the Republican Party’s loss in the 2008 US presidential election, one reason was the ridicule poured on former President George W Bush. Whether by Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show or Will Ferrell impersonations, few could see Bush in any serious light. He had become a comic figure, even tragic, such that a journalist in Iraq could consider throwing his shoe at him. The story of “most powerful person on the planet” had been transformed into “inept leader.”

Far, far away from Washington in another land, the opposite is occurring. It is the Pakistan government that is mocked, and President Asif Zardari still seen by many as “Mr 10 percent” and by most as a lackey of the Americans, Barack Hussain Obama notwithstanding.

Pakistanis do not wish to fight their own; they especially do not wish to fight fellow Muslims. The Taliban, many believe, are pure, virtuous, fighting the good fight. And when evidence to the contrary is given, most Pakistanis assume the ubiquitous foreign hand theory. It must be the Indians. We are innocent, they seek to destabilise us. The basic tenet of social science —correlation is not causation—is forgotten; perhaps never even learned.

Creating change in a cynical population will not just result from financial promises, since that is what citizens believe governments do to placate them—promise money. And if the money—schools, roads and water projects—is delivered, more money continues to create a feudal dependency relationship, instead of feudal lord it is now the Islamabad government a classic child-parent bonding pattern.

Fighting and defeating the Taliban militarily is unlikely as well. They are not trained in classical war with the goal of holding territory. Rather, their training is in guerilla tactics. Moreover, along with al-Qaeda, they excel in organisational innovation. Their organisational structure is more viral and mobile then fixed. By being peer-to-peer focused with some degree of command and control they can quickly change shape. They also have ideology on their side, and believe they are destined to win. Finally, they are fighting in their own territory. What hope then does NATO have of defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan or in Pakistan?

This is what they used to say about General Zia-ul Haq, that he would rule forever. Yet there was one writer, Syed Abidi, who argued that one way to judge if a regime is about to fall is to listen and observe how the masses talk about their leaders. He argued that ridicule was one indicator that a regime was on its way out. Before General Zia’s death in a mysterious plane crash, Abidi in his field work recounts the following jokes.

President Zia is in Paris for a conference where he sees a Pakistani women dressed in Parisian attire. He asks one of his men to tell her that the President wants to see her. At the hotel, the President invites her to his room where he chastises her for wearing foreign clothes. He tells her to take off her French coat.  She does. “As a Muslim woman, how dare you wear a skirt. Take it off,” he says.  She does. “Don’t you know about Islamization in Pakistan, how you dare wear such frilly underclothes. Take them off.” She does and stands there naked in front of the President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. “Now come embrace Islam,” he says with his arms outstretched.

Clearly the alleged purity of General Zia was being questioned. The citizenry understood that he was buttressing the Islamic right wing so that he could stay in power.

Now, everyone knew General Zia’s Islam was sham, a strategy. Not so with the Taliban. They appear to be above mockery. Perhaps it is time to use humour to dislodge their claim to purity and their claim to be God’s warriors.

Richard Holbrooke, Washington’s special envoy to the region, commented in early May that beyond killing there was an important battle of communication. As he says: “The Taliban have unrestricted, unchallenged access to the radio which is the main means of communication in an area where literacy is around 10 percent for men and less than five percent for women.

Mr Holbrooke has wisely asked for funding to counter Taliban communication supremacy. But what should be broadcast?

The answer to this comes from Steven Levitt and Stephen J Dubner in their Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side to everything. Messrs Levitt and Dubner demonstrate how mockery became the decisive tool in defeating the rise of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) after World War II. Intending to defeat bigotry, one citizen, Stetson Kennedy, decided that he could de-legitimise the KKK. Stetson infiltrated the Klan and learned their success. Once Stetson had figured out the culture of the Klan—code-words, rules, acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, he embarked on a mission to expose them. He first tried to expose their financial base. Then he would tip off leaders of Klan activities. When these didn’t work too well, Stetson “felt as if these were merely throwing pebbles at a giant.” Finally a new idea came to him, he chanced upon the Superman radio show. He passed on all his secret information (on handshakes, what they called the Klan Bible—the Kloran, interestingly enough) to the producers, who had Superman take on the Klan. Mr Levitt writes:

One Klan member coming home from a meeting saw his young kids playing in the street. When he asked them what they were doing, he said they were playing a new type of game, like cops and robbers but called, Superman against the Klan. He said: they knew all our secret passwords and everything… I never felt so ridiculous in all my life. Historians now consider the work of Kennedy as the “single most important factor in preventing a post-war revival of the KKK in the North.

Along with protecting those who stand up to the Taliban, creating an understanding of social science, creating economic equity and productivity, the way forward must include reframing the debate within the terms of syncretic Islam. Mockery and humour must be a central tenet of any long term information and communication strategy against the Taliban.

Being mocked is what the Taliban are deathly afraid of (not death). As religious warriors they wish to be respected, seen as strong and as virtuous, brave in the face of every obstacle. They are not. A new story has to be told.


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