It is hard to argue against the notion that Pakistan is a fertile ground for extremist Islam, its causes and conflicts. Pakistan’s status as an ideological state has resulted in the proliferation of Islamic political groups of all kinds. The country’s constitution states that it is an Islamic state, religion is a way of life and that indoctrination, and no other competing ideology, is allowed. Moreover, national policies pursued since Pakistan’s creation have set the country’s trajectory away from the tolerant, syncretic and peaceful strands of Islam, and towards a harsh, literalist and limited version of Islamic values. Extremism is also driven by a pernicious mix of cultural and religious factors — the labyrinthine working through shame-honour/power-challenge codes, Islamic fatalism and the notion of violent jihad. It is a synthesis of radical nihilism, moral vigilantism, violence and power, with few linkages to more mainstream Islamic political and renewal movements globally. The pervasive jihadi mentality is firmly imbedded in Pakistani society, with the extensive and deep-pocketed network of extremist madrassas (seminaries) and mosques churning out new recruits at an alarming rate.
Extremists with different strategies flourish in Pakistan, while the writ of the state continues to weaken. Extremists can argue that because Pakistan is an Islamic state, actions aimed at imposing Islamic sharia across the country, even by force of arms, are consistent with the writ of the state. This line of thinking resonates with significant players in the political class, society and the media, who bat for the extremists. Operating under the umbrella of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), several extremist groups have received state patronage or at least tolerance at one time or another. Others have operated independently or with the support of fellow Islamist groups outside the country. Their primary mission is to fast-track their acquisition of national power. Extremist groups can quite easily dictate their ideology and terms of reference for ‘armed resistance’ or talks. With limited access to education and lacking a critical media, ordinary people can hardly be faulted when they increasingly question why the state is fighting the Taliban. Few people see anything inherently wrong with the extremist’s policies against women and religious minorities or Shia Muslims. The Islamists, who in the past repeatedly failed to win votes and could only influence the state without fully controlling it, have been replaced by armed extremists who see themselves as legitimate claimants to power.
Pakistani leaders publically flaunt their own piety and support the deeper Islamisation of institutions and society. The Pakistani state’s approach to militant Islamism is a combination of a state of denial, lack of clarity and intransigence in accepting past ‘strategic’ mistakes; a specious distinction between good and bad Taliban is still made in official circles, politicians are often part of expedient political alignments with Islamist groups and the media amplifies Islamist views, including conspiracy theories to overpower counter-arguments against extremist beliefs. The spurious argument that the Taliban have been driven to extremism “because of the US’s policies” and that all will be well when “the US leaves the region” is regularly spouted.
It is somewhat pointless, therefore, to keep harping on about the existential threat to Pakistan from extremist violence and terrorism if society itself has stopped viewing the grip of extremism as ultimately self-destructive. Sadly, trends do point to the Pakistani state and society continuing in a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, with all that implies for a horrible and troubled future. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see how the Pakistani state and society can disengage itself from the suffocating embrace of extremism. Generally, it would require that society abandon grievance and victimhood, settle its differences and join its talents, energies and resources in a common endeavour to combat extremism for its own sake and by its own choice.
Politically, it will entail that the ruling elite stop manipulating the sentimental attachment of Pakistanis to Islam and de-emphasise the use of religion in the national discourse and narrative. The state has to stop projecting Pakistan as a citadel of Islam, and must curtail the freedom of organisation, funding and movement of extremists. The political will has to be found to firmly push back against the religious groups who are demanding the establishment of a theocratic state. Another step should be to rally the public behind the broader rollback of religious legislation that strengthens religious absolutism and obscurantism, at the expense of individual rights, freedom and liberty. Tactically, a vigorous programme to rein in the madrassas has to be implemented, despite the expected backlash from powerful conservative and religious groups. Moreover, cutting the umbilical cord between certain entities of the Pakistani state and extremist organisations and stopping the calibrated support for armed jihad focused on fighting battles outside Pakistan is needed. The formulation of a viable counter-extremist and counterterrorism policy, incorporating the use of overwhelming force if necessary, is also crucial. There is no guarantee that it will work but, looking at the fundamental trend lines in Pakistan, it is hard to be optimistic if things continue the way they are now.
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