THERE is empirical evidence to suggest that non-violent radicalism, or what some analysts call ‘virtual radicalism’, not only exists in Pakistani society to a considerable extent but is also on the rise. This compromises state efforts to counter terrorism and militancy.
The non-violent or ‘virtual’ radicals provide ideological support and a recruitment base for violent radicals. The transformation from the former to the latter is also very difficult to predict.
It was the prevalence of radical religious rhetoric, an expression of extreme feelings of anger and hatred instigated among the masses, that motivated a police guard to assassinate the then Punjab governor in January 2011 in Islamabad because of the latter’s criticism of the manmade blasphemy law.
These findings are revealed in a recently published book Radicalisation in Pakistan, co-authored by Muhammad Amir Rana and Safdar Sial who are associated with the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), Islamabad. Published by Narratives, the book offers an empirical analysis of the state and extent of radicalisation in Pakistan drawing heavily on research by PIPS. It examines the historical origins of extremism and radicalisation in Pakistan, explains why these phenomena have become so embedded and why the prevailing state of affairs in the country is not a coincidence.
It is argued in the book that politico-ideological factors drive the process of radicalisation in Pakistan, whereas socio-psychological and economic ones facilitate it. Although most people in Pakistan do not support acts of violence and terrorism, lack of education and critical thinking has led to confused views on violence and militancy among a majority of the population.
It is therefore important that the state transforms the ideological mindset by developing alternative narratives and challenging literal and extremist interpretations of Islam. Pakistan can learn a lot from soft approaches to de-radicalisation pursued by Muslim-majority and other countries to counter terrorism and militancy.
However, a note of caution must be struck. Any comparison between discrete human societies, whether across space or across time, and not least across both, is a comparison between extremely complex phenomena. This is not like determining whether a given entity can be classified in a certain category and then researched.
At least in theory, a relatively full description of a general type can be the basis of comparison with an individual, but comparisons between societies involve too many variables, so that it is very difficult to discover solid ground on which to stand on this score. Any conclusions from the comparison must therefore remain tentative.
In any case, whatever the dangers and merits of comparative options, in order to explain further the marked difference in the resulting portrayals of nonviolent radicalisation we cannot escape a discussion on bias.
It is a fact that most of what is written by academics about Islamism and by analogy about nonviolent radicalisation in Islamic societies, and about other religious movements for that matter, is the product of scholars with a more or less secular and liberal (or Western if you will) outlook on life. Yet all too rarely do the same scholars reflect on the possibility that this position may provide them with a certain negative bias towards the movements they are discussing.
For example, writers like David Bromley and Gilles Kepel, seem to carry a deep-seated aversion towards any role for religion in setting the framework for public life — an aversion that is allowed to cloud the researchers’ attention to the need for substantiated empirical evidence for their postulates. Islamism is assumed a priori, dispensing with the need for efforts to substantiate it with empirical evidence. Some efforts within fundamentalism studies at least partially differ from this gloomy picture.
In the seminal Fundamentalism Project the editors explicitly acknowledge the potential problem raised by the fact that none of the contributors consider themselves fundamentalists, and stress that authors have been asked to put their presuppositions in brackets in order to become aware of them and “do some compensating for them”, as the editors express it.
Quite possibly, this accounts for the fact that some of the essays about Islamism within the project are quite nuanced and provide insights into what the authors term the future-oriented nature of the movements. But then it is striking how these insights melt away when the editors pronounce on the general category of fundamentalism.
Perhaps this is the secular–liberal bias interfering, or perhaps it is just the straitjacket of the overall search for a fundamentalist essence which is at work. For instance, it is often repeated that Islamist movements are oppositional and reactive in nature, and exclusivist and literalist in their interpretation of religion.
These seem to be characteristics necessary for qualifying as truly fundamentalist. Sometimes this is even claimed within the same essay that gives evidence to the contrary: that Islamism could well be seen as a proactive and constructive movement, that the Islamists promote modernising change and engage in concrete social and economic work to change society for what they consider to be the better, and that they are committed to an effort of ijtihad to make religion relevant to modern society.
Perhaps it would seem that I am being unsympathetic to writers on fundamentalism and engaging in hair splitting. After all, Western philosophical thought in particular has contributed positively to the understanding of many aspects of the nonviolent radicalisation movements which are “oriented to the future rather than to the past”.
Despite the commendable efforts exerted by academics to prevent secularist preconceptions clouding the analysis, the secularist liberal bias is certainly alive and well elsewhere. That is why it is critical that studies like the PIPS research mentioned in this article be conducted more frequently to understand their very specific contexts without letting these be coloured by preconceived notions.
The writer is a security analyst.