Understanding extremism

Published September 15, 2023
The writer is a retired IGP and former head of the National Counter Terrorism Authority.
The writer is a retired IGP and former head of the National Counter Terrorism Authority.

THE scenes are from a movie in a Third World, conflict-ridden state, when a mob descends upon a local church to set it ablaze, leaving behind a trail of destruction and despair.

The police are powerless. But it is not a movie; it is a real scene in Jaranwala in Pakistan, where chaos reigns supreme and it is a free-for-all situation, akin to what we see in perhaps the most underdeveloped states in the world. This is not religious zeal; this is extremism.

It reflects another facet of the problem: poor preparedness by state institutions to react to such issues, driven basically by the lack of any clear concept of what and where extremism in Pakistan is and how to tackle it.

This is not the first incident of its kind and will not be the last. Over the years, there have been several instances where religious minorities and their places of worship have been targeted by mobs, resulting in destruction and loss of life. The burning of churches and other religious institutions demonstrates a worrying pattern of intolerance that undermines the pluralistic fabric of the nation.

The rampant mob mentality which drives aggression has been a regular feature of our culture, but has it been recognised at the state level as a problem that requires more than a minimal response to each incident? A review of our national policies should be illuminating here.

The national counter-extremism guidelines, for instance, issued by the government in 2018, are a good read. The document is expansive in scope, and starts from the very concept of extremism. The document says “extremism is broadly identified as having absolute belief in one’s truth with an ingrained sense of self-righteousness. The entrenched sense of righteousness enables the holder of belief to grow [a] judgmental attitude towards other people’s beliefs followed [by] intolerance”.

Has the rampant mob mentality which drives aggression been recognised at the state level as a problem that requires more than a minimal response?

According to the national document, Pakistan recognises that “extremism is manifested in forms including sectarianism, religious persecution, distortion of religious injunctions, hate-speech and literature, sense of deprivation amongst provinces, left and right-wing political ideologies, smuggling, addictions, border control, and archaic traditions”. There is a conceptual realisation of extremism in Pakistan, at least on paper.

However, repeated incidents similar to Jaranwala tend to portray there is little policymaking around any domain to influence action. That’s not surprising, since as Pakistanis, we hardly even acknowledge that extremism of the rabid variety exists in our society, much less document it. In the entire national counter-extremism policy document, only the bare minimum statistics are mentioned, and these pertain to power shortfall, population boom, youth bulge and water scarcity.

In a policy document of such depth as it aspires to be, there should have been clearer indicators of extremism in Pakistan. If the national document does not state them, do they not exist? More worryingly, have they not been recognised and documented? The latter seems plausible, while the former is certainly not!

Pakistan has no shortage of extremist trends, and the aspirations expressed within the document convey that, but not much else. The need for some evidence beyond the anecdotal is essential because such documents are presumably the precursor to policy and strategy making, which cannot proceed in a vacuum or based on assumptions alone as expressed in the document. Where knowledge gaps exist, it would be extremely prudent to identify research as the foremost policy priority, outlining measures to have an evidence-oriented baseline with which to measure deviations from such policy. But, who will even identify, much less acknowledge, these tendencies?

Following on from that, there should be review measures in place that should be quantifiable, even with approximations. The document falls short of all these measures. The lack of statistics about the situation in Pakistan leads to observations that there were no studies or research co-opted to inform this policymaking process.

Policymaking in Pakistan is sometimes based on misconceptions, terms and clichés. Conjecture abounds as substitute for a critical understanding of issues. Much of the murkiness in Pakistan springs from the fact that Pakistanis tend to generalise the phenomenon in the context of what they have read in media reports or seen on television, which in turn tends to ‘rationalise’ things according to what they perceive as root causes.

It is common to see commentators on Pakistani media ascribing extremism to many factors, without giving any solid evidence to support these arguments. All this has also been reflected in the national counter-extremism policy document.

The whole truth may be much more than its individual components observable to the practitioner or analyst, and may require an inquiry across a variety of fields to uncover. Simplistic assertions like militants are illiterates or the impoverished or the ‘mob’ mentality abounds have been refuted in many theatres by sophisticated analyses, and thus any empirical assertions should be avoided which cannot be backed by credible data.

Such holistic inquiry in Pakistan has sadly been lacking. Beyond what has been stated at a conceptual level, which you can find in any mediocre book on extremism literature, there is nothing much. There are no firm policy guidelines based on indicators which should themselves be based on soundly analysed trends; there are no clearly stated guidelines or methodologies to tackle this issue.

All that is stated are ‘wish lists’ and lofty aspirations, which we are clearly unable to fulfil, while our reputation as a tolerant nation ebbs to even lower levels.

Without robust interventions based on firm policy indicators, any counter-extremism policy is not worth the paper it is written on.

The writer is a retired IGP and former head of the National Counter Terrorism Authority.
X (formerly Twitter): @Kkf50

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2023

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