COUNTERING extremism is not an easy job, but the state’s lack of resolve makes it even more complex and challenging. The resolve to stand up to extremism should draw its strength from the Constitution and the socio-ideological constructs of state and society. Mere rhetoric or a statement — such as the one issued by Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday — cannot manufacture that much-needed and much-awaited resolve unless the state is willing to review the social contract.
Recent state-led and independent policy discourses on countering extremism have emphasised addressing the key question of religion, which is integral to the issue of identity in Pakistan. The state has outsourced both religious and national identity narratives to different religious actors, who use them to expand their influence in society.
The state believes that religion can unite the nation and can create a cohesive society. However, religious actors exploit this notion to promote their own goals and motives, which are largely embedded in their sectarian and religious strands. That is why religiously motivated outfits, including their political wings, have not only failed the state’s ideological project but have also undermined the common good of society. The common good stands for a community’s sustainability — for the good of all, including its weakest and most vulnerable members.
More than religious groups’ exploitation of the ideological design of the state, it was the state’s insistence to keep using them to achieve its different purposes that has created this dilemma. In the process, the state outsourced this national project even to sectarian groups, with their own lethal hate agendas. This attitude expanded the threshold of tolerance for hardliner religious groups among almost all institutions, from political parties to security institutions.
State appeasement only provides oxygen to extremist groups, increasing their bargaining power.
This is the main reason for Pakistan’s higher level of tolerance for extremism and extremists compared with other Muslim countries, ranging from Indonesia, Bangladesh and Central Asian states to Turkey. In these countries, religious groups cannot hold the system hostage or control the national narrative. These states invest in religious scholarship, and do not promote certain religious groups.
Pakistan is also caught up in the fallacy that it can manage and control extremist groups, despite the bitter experiences of the past. Extremism cannot be managed to keep it at a certain level, not by any means.
There is historical evidence to suggest that the appeasing attitude of the state only provides oxygen to extremist groups and increases their bargaining power to increase their influence. The banned sectarian group Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan can be taken as an example; at times it enjoyed the state’s appeasement because of the changing sectarian outlook of the region and internal political designs of the establishment. The group had political ambitions, too, and remained part of the provincial government in Punjab in the early 1990s. A single vote of the SSP head helped Gen Musharraf instal a regime-backed government in 2002. The SSP founders were famous for their furious sectarian speeches. It later gave birth to many violent groups, including the deadliest sectarian terrorist group, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, which is still a big security challenge for the country.
The rise of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan has many similarities with the SSP. For one, both capitalised on the mosques and madressahs of their sects, and their leaderships brought sectarian narratives and slogans into the public domain and generated broader appeals for their agendas.
Apart from many other similarities in their strategies and tactics, the TLP has taken a more sensitive issue to exploit, and touched upon new heights of hatred against state institutions. The SSP’s angry elements had outlets available in the 1990s for followers to join, such as in the form of militant organisations in Afghanistan and Kashmir. But this isn’t the case for the TLP’s young, emotionally charged cadre, which can increase the risk of them causing social unrest and indulging in mob violence in the country.
At the inception phase of the TLP, a few commentators and analysts had projected the group as an antidote to the SSP and other radical groups belonging to the Deobandi school of thought. Though the TLP is a product of multiple factors — including the Barelvis’ exclusion from the state’s jihad project and their so-called moderate image during the war against terrorism — if there was ever any design behind promoting the group to counter other radical forces, then it has proven counterproductive. It could have even more severe implications for the country’s security.
One threat cannot be countered by creating another; studies show extremism is a process, which is easy to start but difficult to end. The participation of the TLP and other radical groups in the 2018 general election gave them more confidence; it was evident that, after a certain period, such groups would start asserting themselves.
The government has to adopt a clear policy against all hatemongering and extremist groups in the country, and take legal and administrative measures to restrict their activities. The government can consult all the policy documents on countering violent extremism that have been produced during the last few years. The previous government was reluctant to implement these policies, but the changing nature of the threat requires immediate action.
Pakistan has developed its credentials as a Muslim nation in the world and is not facing any major identity issue. All state institutions have to realise that extremist religious groups cannot add anything new to the relationship between state and society. Pakistan already has a comprehensive social contract in the form of its Constitution, which needs to be made functional in all state and social affairs. Most importantly, the state should strengthen scholarship on religion rather than supporting and strengthening certain extremist religious groups.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2018