The PML-N government is blundering towards talks with the TTP once again. After eight long months, it finally announced the team that is to talk to the TTP last week. Given the shoddy way it is handling the business of talking to terrorists, these talks are unlikely to have any positive outcome. The recent government initiative could only provide breathing space to TTP groups and an opportunity for them to replenish their ranks and resources. The military would then be called in for a much larger operation than what is required at present. Haven’t we seen all that before?

The Pakistan military could be trusted to take the militants on, even after they catch their breath and regroup. It has proven its capacity to reclaim territory from these elements each time it has confronted them. But, at the end of the day, the military could only be expected to do its job of waging war, and, without a complimentary political response, a military response would never be enough. Reclaiming territory is not all there is to this war with these mercenary-guerrilla groups who come dressed as the flag-bearers of Islam—they run, hide and resurface elsewhere. Besides, citizens in areas targeted for a military operation are caught in the crossfire as a rule and displaced from their homes. An effective political response to deal with these challenges is crucial but not in sight.

Unfortunately, after talking about talks for eight months, open-ended talks is all the present government is willing to offer on that count. It has chosen not to define its red-lines or a time-line. The team of negotiators it has chosen has been widely met with skepticism with at least one of them going so far as to put the constitution on the discussion table. So much about establishing the writ of the state! An impression has been created that the TTP had the veto power over the composition of the government team and the TTP’s seriousness could be gauged by its response; naming mainstream Pakistani politicians as its team first and later naming an uncompromising hardliner to head its negotiators.

What kind of breakthrough could one hope for in such a situation? More importantly, does the political response of the government to militant extremism boil down to talking to the terrorists holed up in the tribal areas? What is it doing about the strengthening of extremism in the rest of the country that provides a support base and an enabling environment for the activities of hardcore terrorists? Does it have a policy to deal with groups promoting violence against other communities? Does it have the will to tackle the mainstream religious parties that support the militants through ambivalent statements? Has the government given any thought to reclaiming Islam from the clutches of those who would like to use it to incite hatred and violence against law-abiding citizens?

Actually, it is not only the government but the entire spectrum of our political leadership which has failed to respond to the challenge posed by the ideological mask of the militants and their undeclared associates fanning extremism in our social space. As if it is a side-issue, mainstream political leadership has allowed the clergy and religious parties to monopolise the discourse on Islam and what it means in present-day Pakistan. We, the Muslim majority of Pakistan, have been pushed to the sidelines while paid clerics and militants have been allowed to construct a barbaric structure around the teachings of our Prophet (PBUH), to perpetrate their crimes against humanity in the name of Islam, quoting fragments from the Quran to justify them, and digging up and inventing divisive doctrines and symbols to promote their nefarious paid-for goals.

Other than superficial rejection of their tactics, the political leadership has chosen to stay mum on the ideology the militants, as well as their undeclared associates in our midst, espouse. A plethora of religious groups, organizations and seminaries are being funded from abroad, yet our political leaders in government and the opposition have failed to address the issue. Haven’t they noticed the intolerance and militancy woven in the rigid sectarian ideologies being promoted by the Middle Eastern monarchies and Iran through these sponsored organisations? Is it not their responsibility to save us from the proxy war being waged on our soil by our so-called friends?

The counter-terrorism discourse goes around in circles within the meaningless framework of talks-no talks, our war-their war. All this while the paid clergy and sponsored religious groups broaden the scope of their divisive mayhem and get bolder in their violent words and actions. No new laws are needed to check the incitement to hatred and violence that is spreading across the land in the name of various sects. Has the government, or even the political opposition for that matter, come up with a political response to that? Or are they content with outsourcing this crucial national task to clerics and religious leaders who thrive on dividing people and use Islam for worldly gains?

Most of the people I talk to are sick and tired of the sectarian spin our so-called religious leaders put on everything Islamic, and the superstitions and politics they espouse in the name of Islam. People in general are not interested in coercing others to believe as they do and are clear that each soul is to be made accountable for his or her deeds. At the same time, they feel vulnerable speaking out against those who have claimed for themselves the exclusive authority to speak about matters of faith. It will not be incorrect to say that, generally, people are terrorised by these self-appointed and paid guardians of faith.

A political response that reclaims Islam, and rescues it from the tight grasp of these professional and sponsored Muslims, is the need of the hour. It will unleash the strongest bulwark against terrorism in the country, the majority of Muslims whose understanding of their religion makes them better human beings, not self-righteous barbarians. We await a leader with the political will to take this bull by the horns.

The writer is a freelance columnist.