Ignoring the seeds of extremism

Updated September 22, 2019

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The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

THE way Hindu temples were vandalised and private properties destroyed recently in Sindh’s Ghotki district is yet another reminder that the challenge of religiously inspired violent extremism is bigger than we thought. Moving beyond a shallow condemnation, the government will certainly have to act to increase the cost of committing such violence, that too on spurious grounds.

Apart from the specific measure related to the Ghotki incident, two things must be done to protect all religious minorities in the country from violence. First, the groups and individuals using faith to gain political and religious influence should be strictly dealt with under the law. Secondly, the state should demonstrate zero tolerance towards hate narratives being disseminated online and in other ways by extremist religious groups, individuals and their supporters.

A clear, unequivocal message should be sent that the state alone is the custodian of the constitutional rights of all citizens, irrespective of their faith. The fear expressed by the majoritarian mindset that religious minorities could harm the sovereignty of Pakistan is simply baseless. For one, patriotism cannot be reduced to religion alone without declaring non-Muslims in Pakistan as non-citizens.

A general argument can be made that Pakistan’s power elites have been patronising religious, ethnic, cultural and racial disagreements to further their regime, instead of looking at the diversity of religious, cultural and societal opinion in Pakistan as a sign of inclusiveness and plurality. That has significantly damaged the country’s social fabric, mainly its humanistic values such as empathy and compassion, which safeguard individuals and societies from hate and aggression. Empathy is defined as one’s ability to feel other people’s emotions, mainly those stimulated by suffering, and to have a genuine desire to relieve that suffering.

Power elites are neither empathetic nor do they promote peace narratives to curb divisiveness.

Irrespective of its geographical location and its religious or secular tendencies, if a society possesses a sense of majoritarian supremacy or is hyper nationalistic or harbours a collective sense of hatred and aggression, then it lacks empathy and compassion. The absence of these two attributes could push society towards chaos and anarchy. Sympathy is not the alternative to these two values. Sympathy is a stream of emotions which provides relief from stress through ‘recognising’ the sufferings of others, but it does not incorporate ‘understanding’.

Unfortunately, often power elites are neither empathetic towards the people nor do they promote such a narrative. A dearth of narratives of empathy and compassion in the formal and informal systems of education can inflict even greater damage. In this regard, the work of an American scholar, Gregory H. Stanton, on the Srebrenica Genocide of 1995 is insightful. It describes 10 stages of genocide. He theorised that genocide is not committed by a small group of individuals, rather a large number of people and the state contribute to mass killings in one way or another. The first stage is classification, where society is divided on ethnic or religious lines. The next three stages nurture the conception of ‘otherness’, with symbolisation, discrimination and dehumanisation. At the fifth stage, plans for the extermination of the ‘other’, seen as the enemy, are drawn up.

The next stage is of polarisation through propaganda via the media and other forums to further dehumanise the ‘other’. The persecution of intellectuals and influential opponents follows. After that, extermination becomes easy and denial is used as a strategy to cover up criminal violence. Stanton includes triumphalism as the 11th stage where criminals involved in violence are respected as heroes. This may not appear in the same chronological order but the processes are similar.

There are symptoms of this in many places and South Asia is not immune. India might have reached an alarming stage but Pakistan too has the seeds as witnessed in the hate narratives being spouted, while the role of the state in denying criminal violence is often worrisome. The prime minister’s statement about the Ghotki incident, in which he smelled a conspiracy against his visit to the US and his forthcoming speech at the UN General Assembly reflects a state of denial. Vandalism against the Hindu community in Pakistan may not be as common as violent incidents in which other religious minorities are targeted, but such statements still provide refuge to the culprits.

The phenomenon of religious intolerance has its own dynamics but in recent years it has increased through its connectivity with larger extremist discourses fanned in cyberspaces. Social media platforms have increased the exposure and vulnerability of the youth to divisive and extremist ideologies. This exposure is making people sensitive about their identities. Such an identity crisis is beneficial to the radical groups. An individual needs emotional healing and anxiety caused by such exposure and tries to connect with the nearest group of like-minded people.

The small groups look towards bigger and better organised groups not only for ideological and political inspiration but also to learn organisational skills. Mian Mithu, a radical cleric from Ghotki, could be an example. He may act independently but is said to have been inspired by the Tehreek-i-Labbaik and encouraged by banned militant groups like Al Rehmat Trust, Jamaatud Dawa and charities associated with hard-line madressahs in Karachi.

These groups succeeded in building pressure on non-Muslim communities but the cleric has better cultural, religious and ethnic credentials to influe­nce local communities. With his influence, he is reg­arded as capable of triggering vandalism. The problem is that our state institutions do not consider the tendencies of non-violent extremism as a potent threat.

There is a need to adopt a framework or narrative, that treats all citizens, irrespective of their ethnicity, creed and geography, with equality. Introducing courses on citizenship in education curricula, extracted from the Constitution, are greatly needed.

To be precise, non-Muslims in Pakistan should be owned as an integral part of the country. Bracketing non-Muslims with India or Western countries is to contradict history; they are indigenous to the soil and their valuable contribution to this region is a chapter of Pakistan’s history.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2019