Extremism and mainstream Pakistan
“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” - Excerpt from Jinnah’s inaugural address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, August 11, 1947.
Perhaps the first fatal blow to Jinnah’s vision of a secular and progressive Pakistan was delivered in 1956, when – capitulating to the demands of religious hardliners – the country was officially declared an Islamic Republic. Some argue that the irreversible slide toward extremism truly began when Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto adopted measures in the 1973 constitution to formalise the role of religion in government. This included declaring Islam the state religion, banning un-Islamic activities (alcohol consumption, gambling, etc), and officially branding the minority Ahmadiyya sect as non-Muslims – paving the way for state sanctioned discrimination against minorities.
Yet others squarely lay the blame on General Zia Ul Haq, who launched an aggressive campaign to promote a Wahabi-inspired strain of Islam in Pakistan by establishing an extensive network of madrassas, introducing Sharia-inspired laws, and injecting religious ideology into virtually every aspect of public life. At this point in Pakistan’s existence, assigning blame is irrelevant. Those responsible for laying the foundation are long gone, what remains is a legacy of rabid extremism, intolerance, and bigotry that has rapidly spread through Pakistani society like a cancer.
This is not to suggest that average Pakistanis actively embrace or advocate violent extremism. However, average Pakistanis do often relate to, justify, and refuse to unconditionally condemn the ideologies driving violent extremism – even when it directly impacts their lives in the form of suicide bombings or militant attacks. This accommodation of the extremist mindset creates political space and a favourable environment for radical groups to thrive in.
Consider the issue of domestic terrorism for example. Most Pakistani’s are convinced that the root cause of terrorism in their country is the US occupation of Afghanistan. Devastating militant attacks are routinely blamed on ‘foreign powers’ trying to destabilise the country – despite the fact that homegrown militants, such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, brazenly claim responsibility for these attacks. Yet, in public discourse few commentators are willing to unconditionally condemn extremism or accept the fact that militant groups are a direct result of decades of state policy, which tolerated and in some cases cultivated the establishment and proliferation of such groups.
Also swept aside are controversial issues such as the need to regulate madrassas – many of which are affiliated with extremist groups and produce an endless supply of foot soldiers – or to abolish the draconian blasphemy laws, which are often used to persecute minorities. There seems to be no appetite to tackle ground realities that allow extremism and militancy to flourish in the country, either in government or among the general population. Instead, each new terrorist attack brings a fresh round of reactionary rhetoric blaming ‘outside forces’ and stirring up increasingly outrageous conspiracy theories.
The Malala Yousafzai incident was somewhat of an exception. However, the familiar pattern of deflecting blame and accommodating extremists emerged even after this barbaric crime. While many Pakistani’s expressed outrage over the heinous attack, a number of major political parties, such as Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and Imran Khan’s PTI joined hands with religious hardliners and tried to link Malala’s shooting to the issue of US drone strikes. Predictably, a number of convoluted conspiracy theories materialized as well, claiming that the incident was orchestrated by foreign powers to push Pakistan into launching a military operation in North Waziristan.
By tolerating and often succumbing to fanatics, Pakistan has unwittingly allowed extremist ideologies to become publicly acceptable, to the point where religion can be used to justify the most heinous acts, with little or no consequences. The fact that the state has repeatedly relied on militant groups as proxies has further strengthened their influence and position in the country.
The assassination of Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, in January 2011 is a case in point. Taseer was shot by one of his police guards for speaking out against the blasphemy laws and standing up for a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death on blasphemy charges. He was the only high profile politician to speak out so forcefully on the issue and he paid for it with his life.
Public reaction and the series of events following Taseer’s assassination were disturbing to say the least. Prominent media anchors questioned whether the slain governor had crossed a line by criticizing the blasphemy laws, an issue deemed ‘sensitive’ by millions of Pakistanis. Many clerics and hardliners accused Taseer of being a heretic, heaped praise on his assassin, and instructed observant Muslims not to offer funeral prayers for him. When the governor’s killer was produced in court, hundreds of people including lawyers and religious party workers showed up in his support and showered him with rose petals. Dozens of lawyers also offered to defend the assassin for free.
Hardly any politicians, including those from the ruling PPP (the party Taseer belonged to), dared to forcefully condemn the killer or speak out against the assassination in any meaningful way. Further highlighting Taseer’s isolation, President Asif Zardari – a close friend – did not attend the funeral due to security concerns.
Sadly, incidents of violent extremism and the distorted ideologies that drive them have continued to flourish following the governor’s assassination. Persecution of minorities under the blasphemy laws, cold-blooded executions of Shia Muslims, desecration of Ahmadiyya mosques, and gruesome attacks at public venues have literally become an everyday occurrence in Pakistan.
Another case that illustrates the extent of depravity that has become acceptable in the name of religion is that of Rimsha Masih. Rimsha, a minor Christian girl with Down’s syndrome was arrested in August after a neighbor accused her of burning Islamic texts. Following her arrest, the police station that she was held in was surrounded by an angry mob, which demanded that Rimsha be handed over to them. Reportedly, the mob wanted justice by setting her on fire. While the charges against Rimsha were recently dropped, her family remains in hiding due to safety concerns and it’s unlikely that they will be able to resume a normal life in Pakistan.
Just a few weeks later, an enraged mob attacked and ransacked a girls’ school in Lahore – Pakistan’s second largest city – because a teacher had allegedly included blasphemous content in a homework assignment. While the accused teacher fled and went into hiding, the school’s principal was arrested on blasphemy charges. As outrageous as this incident seems, the list of similar occurrences unfortunately goes on and on.
Some might argue that the above mentioned examples do not reflect the beliefs and actions of average Pakistanis; instead they are simply the work of fanatics representing a fringe minority. While this might be partly true, I’ll point back to my previous assertion and the crux of this article: while most Pakistani’s do not actively embrace violent extremism, they do act as enablers by tolerating, accepting, and sometimes supporting increasingly radical ideologies.
The Pakistani state and public both play their respective roles in creating an environment where extremists can freely operate and thrive. By bowing down every time a radical group or individual uses Islam to justify a barbaric act, or deflecting blame to some obscure foreign power, Pakistanis send a clear message to extremists: there is no accountability for even the most outrageous acts carried out under the guise of religion.
The consequences of this acquiescence are not limited to Pakistan; they have serious implications for the international community as well – particularly the US-led alliance in Afghanistan. Faced with widespread anti-US sentiment and deeply-entrenched extremist narratives, it is increasingly difficult for the Pakistani government to cooperate with America on crucial issues. Doing so ensures being labeled an ‘American puppet’ in the court of public opinion and serves to further strengthen extremists.
Perhaps even more worrying is the fact that the Pakistan army, which generally steers foreign policy and dominates national security issues, is also bound by these emerging red lines. Once seen as the only unassailable institution in the country, the army’s reputation has been badly bruised by domestic terror attacks and US operations on Pakistani soil.
Further complicating the situation is the growing resentment and ideological influence among junior officers and enlisted soldiers, many of who believe that their leaders have sold out to the West. This of course puts the army’s top brass in a precarious situation, where they can’t be seen as collaborating too closely with the West or being too harsh on radical elements. Of course, volumes can be written about the army’s role in creating this mess in the first place.
There are no simple solutions for stemming the growth and proliferation of extremism in Pakistan. Sweeping economic, social, and education reforms would be needed to root out the deeply entrenched radical mindset that afflicts large chunks of the population. It would take decades of persistent, well-crafted policies to achieve this goal. Unfortunately, the kind of strong, visionary leadership that would be needed to carry out such change is nowhere to be seen in Pakistan’s political landscape. For now, it seems that the drift toward extremism will continue unabated.
The writer is a communications consultant based in Washington DC. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.