An Inconsistent Message

Another seminar addressed by the Chief of Army Staff; another mixed bag of positive statements interspersed with troubling ones. Speaking at an event titled ‘Human resource development — opportunities and challenges’ in Quetta on Thursday, Qamar Javed Bajwa gave scathing – and much warranted – criticism on the prevalent seminary education system, correctly identifying the flawed religious education as the prime reason the graduates from these institutes are often attracted towards extremist and violent ideologies.

This, along with other statements on Balochistan, makes for constructive and useful seminar. However, like many military men in the recent past, the COAS strayed once more into the domain of the civilian government – giving advice on how to run institutions and making statements that can only be categorized as political in nature. Given its disappointing role in the Faizabad fiasco, the COAS should be acutely aware how each inflection of his dialogue is being interpreted nationwide.

The institutional advice on such a public forum is an obvious no-go and has been objected to by both the government and commentators alike. But saying that the army believes in “democracy and even more so in the democratic values of selfless service and supremacy of moral authority” is especially problematic. “Moral authority” as opposed to democratic and legal authority is the notion solely used by pressure groups seeking to de-seat the government by force. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s entire electoral campaign and its vociferous demands for the Prime Minister’s resignation were based on notions of “moral authority”. The hardline religious groups at Faizabad also touted their superior moral authority, and perhaps most crucial of all, every previous military coup against democracy has been carried out on some version of “moral authority”.

The COAS has been consistent in his defence of the democratic system, but paying homage to the defunct ideology of moral authority while lecturing the government on how to do its job sends a mixed message to say the least.

A similar problem of inconsistency plagues the message on seminaries. While the identification of the problem is spot on, the military hasn’t been exemplary in converting that message into action. The policy of “mainstreaming” hardline groups has inevitably led to the support of seminary networks, meanwhile the military failed to pressure the seminary boards into cooperation with the government when it previously attempted seminary reform after the passing of the National Action Plan. Its lenient attitude towards the products of these seminaries – such as the protestors at Faizabad – also undercuts the positive statements made.

The positive intentions of the COAS are undeniable, but his selection of particular words and phrases leave much to be desired.


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