MANY counterterrorism and security experts believe that extremism and terrorism have a cause and effect relation. If this were true, it would be almost impossible for Pakistan to tackle the issues of terrorism and militancy without effectively responding to growing extremism and radicalism in the country.
Countering extremism and extremist ideologies is an important component of the current debate on internal security and counterterrorism. Though extremism has yet to be defined in Pakistan at least there is a consensus in the country that terrorism is a major issue and needs to be addressed on a priority basis.
On the other hand, the realm of extremism is very broad, and different segments of society hold diverse views regarding the phenomenon.
Let us first take a look at the different views on extremism that are prevalent in the country and then examine the question of breaking its links with terrorism.
Extremism is defined in Pakistan in a number of ways, and is used mainly in the political, religious, and social contexts. Political scientists consider it a political phenomenon, triggered by inequality, socio-economic injustices and state policies.
In 2008-9, the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based research group, consulted several experts in the fields of political science, international relations, faith studies, science, media and human rights.
Their opinion was sought through detailed discussions and a survey on issues of terrorism and extremism. Out of 16 experts, 11 agreed that extremism was a political phenomenon; only three looked at extremism in the light of an ideological struggle, whereas two experts linked extremism to the misinterpretation of religion.
The experts also differed on what they considered to be the reasons behind extremism. Most of the respondents pointed out political, social and economic disparities as the main causes of extremism.
A similar study that was conducted by the institute in 2009 to collect the views of teachers in madressahs showed that the majority of clerics and madressah teachers believed that extremism was a political issue. However, the respondents believed that regional and international political issues were more important.
A large number of madressah teachers also thought that extremism in the country could only be countered if Pakistan distanced itself from the US-led war on terror. Very few discussed the religious and ideological aspects of extremism. They considered Talibanisation to be an outcome of state polices, and the state’s failure to enforce Islamic law in the country. The teachers also expressed concern over the ‘Westernisation’ of Pakistani society.
Such narratives are also reflected in public opinion, and policymakers follow the same discourse. Even the debate in the right-wing media reflects the same approach.
The opinions of those that are among the first targets of extremism are of obvious significance. Public opinion is shaped by the media as well as by religious and political leaders. It ultimately influences the political trends that a society is witnessing. But signs of confusion are discernible in public opinion with regard to extremist and violent groups.
Another survey conducted by the institute to map the political behaviour of the masses revealed that though more than 56pc of Pakistanis acknowledge the services of religious scholars for Islam, over 53pc oppose a political role for the scholars. Public opinion considers the provision of justice and basic necessities as crucial to the exercise of countering extremism.
Interestingly, marginalised segments of society including religious, sectarian and cultural minorities, women and those associated with the creative arts appear to hold a different view of extremism.
According to the survey, they unanimously defined extremism as imbalanced ideological attitudes — attitudes that were conceived in a state of mind where an individual regards himself as superior to others and acts as an inquisitor. They classified the causes behind extremism as falling under three main categories: the misinterpretation of religion, political, economic and social inequalities and the lack of rational and logical behaviour.
Such divergent perceptions on extremism are not surprising as the Taliban in the tribal areas, the Malakand region and adjacent parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa first targeted women, confining them to their homes and banning their entry in markets.
Girls’ schools, Sufi shrines, cultural heritage sites and music shops have been torched and bombed. Violent activities and threats by the Taliban brought cultural activities and creative expressions, such as painting and poetry, to a halt in the affected areas.
Each segment of Pakistani society has its own viewpoint on extremism and on how to counter it. The prevalence of diverse and often conflicting viewpoints makes it almost impossible for society to generate a collective response to issues of extremism and terrorism.
Whereas the intellectuals lay more emphasis on ideological and empirical aspects when it comes to countering extremism, social experts and religious scholars vehemently assert that that is not an effective solution.
More comprehensive studies and analyses may yield a clearer answer, but can the state afford to prioritise any particular set of causes said to be responsible for extremism and terrorism? Can the rationalisation of certain ideological, political and socio-cultural thinking patterns provide a quick fix for terrorism? Especially when views on extremism and also terrorism are paradoxical?
At the same time, adjusting counter-extremism goals in the narrow operational framework of counterterrorism is an uphill task. Western counterterrorism frameworks cannot help Pakistan. In these frameworks, extremism and terrorism are not separated and a single policy is followed to deal with both challenges.
The reason is that the challenge of terrorism in the West mainly originates from parallel societies of immigrant communities there. Adopting such an approach here would be devastating, as terrorism is not a community-oriented phenomenon in Pakistan.
The government has to focus on countering terrorism to bring down the level of violence in the country. Until violence in the country is not reduced, both state and society will continue to suffer from the chicken and egg syndrome.
The writer is a security analyst.