IT was not just an isolated incident of religious prejudice, a backlash to Islamophobia in the West, or a display of socioeconomic pressures on the average person, when a mob set fire to several churches and looted Christian homes in Jaranwala, Faisalabad district. It is indicative of the society the power elite has shaped. The state institutions’ responses to this tragedy are as insincere as their pledges to root out extremism, given their lack of meaningful action.
Following each tragic incident, state institutions condemn the act and vow to take strict action against those responsible. However, after brief confrontations, the administration often capitulates to religious extremists. While the superior courts tend to rule in favour of the victims in such cases, their interventions seldom bring about lasting change. Many are aware of the outcome of the one-man commission set up to enforce a landmark Supreme Court ruling on minority rights, and how its recommendations were dismissed by both the executive branch and religious factions. Following the recent tragedy, Islamabad police set up a religious minorities protection force. However, this move seemingly underscores the state’s inability to safeguard its citizens of diverse faiths. Many are aware of the police’s often indifferent attitude towards marginalised citizens. Deploying such a force might only exacerbate the hardships faced by Pakistanis belonging to minority faiths.
Power elites strengthen radical religious groups by arming them with legal tools against religious minorities and those that the majority refuses to accept. When questioned about the state’s policy, institutions might produce numerous documents that have never been put into practice, with no display of genuine intent to do so. While they have drafted internal security policies, a National Action Plan (NAP), counter-violent extremism strategies, established CVE centres, and issued decrees like the state-endorsed fatwa Paigham-i-Pakistan, these efforts have consistently failed to manifest as effective state policy. They serve merely as a facade, masking the state’s and society’s more troubling aspects.
The PDM government tried to introduce another CVE measure through a bill. However, it was thwarted by a few brave parliamentarians who believed its motivations were politically driven. The government reviewed numerous documents in its last weeks, including the CVE policy. Ironically, the interior ministry and the so-called National Counter-Terrorism Authority refined a CVE policy that was never put into action. Similarly, Paigham-i-Pakistan has been unsuccessful in influencing the religious clergy.
A moderate image needs societal transformation, which in turn requires humanisation.
The challenge of extremism is not as simple as imagined. A moderate image cannot be manufactured; it needs societal transformation, which in turn requires a humanisation process. The dehumanisation of others cultivates the tendencies of extremism, and state- or society-run strategic communications or counter-narratives slowly impact these tendencies. Equal citizenship rights can cultivate humanisation tendencies in society.
State institutions are faced with the immediate challenge of bridging the discrepancies between declared policies and their actual implementation. However, beyond bridging these gaps, there is a pressing need for these institutions to adapt their strategies to address new and emerging threats. Rather than relying on general approaches like the NAP and CVE policies, Pakistan should formulate specific policies targeting extremist groups. This includes creating distinct strategies for groups like the TTP and TLP.
However, the state still believes religion can unite the nation and create a cohesive society. Religiously inspired actors often exploit this notion to promote their own goals and motives, largely embedded in their sectarian and religious ideologies. This is why such groups, including their political wings, have failed the state’s ideological project and undermined the common good of society. The common good is the well-being of the entire community, including its weakest and most vulnerable members. It is essential for the sustainability of society. Religious groups undermine the common good by exploiting the state’s ideological design. This is because they prioritise their interests over those of the wider community.
Instead of looking at the diversity of religious, cultural, and societal opinion in Pakistan as a sign of inclusiveness and plurality, power elites see it as a drawback. The state institutions do not have the orientation of how to manage diversity. This has significantly damaged the country’s social fabric, mainly its humanistic values such as empathy and compassion, safeguarding individuals and societies from hate and aggression.
The state’s insistence on using religious groups to achieve its purposes has also contributed to this dilemma. By outsourcing its national project to sectarian groups, the state has given them a platform to promote their agendas, which often conflict with the common good. In order to address this dilemma, the state needs to stop exploiting religious groups for its purposes. It also needs to create a more inclusive and secular society where all people, regardless of their religious beliefs, can have a voice.
Pakistan’s state institutions and power elites often compare the country’s situation to the rest of the world, particularly India. They attempt to suggest that religious persecution in Pakistan is not as severe as elsewhere. While such arguments might satisfy the elite, they do not alter the reality: Pakistan’s situation is as dire as that of India. Comparing the two does not absolve the power elites of their duty to protect citizens of all faiths. It is understood that transformation processes take time, but they need to begin in the first place.
Saudi Arabia is updating its textbooks, removing anti-Semitic and anti-Christian references, and moderating negative depictions of non-believers and polytheists. Can Pakistan take similar steps? Beyond textbooks, Pakistan faces a more intricate challenge. Religious scholarship institutions in the country often fail to meet even the basic standards of other Muslim societies with fewer religious institutions. Many imams who incite violence are the products of these institutions, and currently, the state shows little intent to reform them or their curricula.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2023