Dangerous majoritarianism

Published June 23, 2024
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

PAKISTAN is unable to follow the path of Saudi Arabia or Indonesia, which are progressing slowly and steadily with religious reforms. Both countries present contrasting visions of religious reform but are ultimately opening up their respective societies, enhancing governance, and improving their international image.

In both countries, the leadership promotes religious reforms. In Saudi Arabia, the reform process is slower than the one in Indonesia, primarily because Indonesian civil society supports the state’s efforts in this direction.

In contrast, the Pakistani leadership needs to be more aware of the importance of religious reforms in navigating a changing world. Instead, it aligns itself with extremist forces, gaining ideological and political power while empowering these groups to use violence against communal and sectarian minorities.

The nexus between the power or ruling elite and the establishment in Pakistan is not new. It has been studied extensively by local and international scholars. However, what remains constant is the elite’s appeasement of extremists and their inclination to use them for political purposes. While social factors have contributed to the extremist mindset in Pakistan, the power elite’s actions are often criminal, eroding the societal fabric.

Incidents like the one in Madyan, Swat, lynchings in Punjab, and vandalism against the Ahmadi community during Eid indicate that extremism in society is reaching dangerous levels. Taking the law into one’s own hands has become standard practice for charged mobs and activists of radical religious groups. The administration hardly attempts to restrain them, and simply registers cases against the suspects. People with clout then come forward and help the suspects and their families financially and with legal aid. Once they are released, they become heroes in their communities. This has become the norm after every blasphemy-related tragedy that involves lynchings and mob violence.

The system is paralysed when it encounters the challenge of religiously motivated mob violence.

A majoritarian mindset is at play, with the state a mere spectator. In Punjab and urban Sindh, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan is fanning the flames of extremism. Although other religiously motivated actors have acted in a similar fashion in the past, the TLP’s rhetoric is now so powerful that they cannot compete.

The TLP has transformed itself into an extensive phenomenon, reflecting a mindset shared by perhaps most of society. This majority is religiously and politically disillusioned, falling into the trap of political populism and growing increasingly resentful of the power elites. Paradoxically, state institutions endorse this majority mindset and side with the extremists when issues of religious sentiment arise.

The common man cannot fully comprehend the dichotomy of the state, and his anger against the latter is increasing. However, the TLP and other religious parties have their constituencies in the semi-urban areas, and among low-income groups, while a significant portion of the middle class, too, exhibits the same mindset. While the middle class tends to avoid direct involvement in violence, they fully support the actions of the fanatics. These radical religious groups draw their core strength from middle-class youth, who serve as keyboard warriors, developing political strategies and evolving organisational tactics.

The power elites do not feel much threat from the core leadership of extremist groups because they maintain open communication channels and often interact with them. They are more concerned about the keyboard warriors and seek to regulate virtual spaces. They have similar fears about social media activists from populist political parties and nationalist political parties in the peripheries.

The power elites believe that more control over social media, building firewalls, and tightening legal regulations will eliminate dissent in all forms. Social media is merely a medium, but despite reviewing its policies and practices vis-à-vis extremism and extremist parties, the establishment is more interested in controlling it. Apart from controlling social media spaces, the state has taken cosmetic policy measures to deal with extremism. Until the power elites do not end their appeasement approach and address the core issue and encourage religious reforms as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia are doing, extremism will continue to shape an ugly majoritarian mindset.

The whole system seems paralysed once it encounters the challenge of religiously motivated mob violence. The federal and provincial governments avoid even commenting on such incidents and leave it to the establishment and local administrations to deal with such cases on their own. The governments are scared that their involvement in such cases would divert the public’s anger towards them. This attitude encourages the extremists.

The police and lower judiciary deal with such cases carelessly and, in many cases, leave loopholes in their decisions that ultimately benefit the culprits. The higher judiciary has taken such issues more seriously, but its reviews and decisions have failed to trigger any major change in society.

The state institutions need to break the support system of the extremists. Apart from the power elites’ appeasement policy and the system’s flaws in dealing with the menace, two major sources of support are encouraging the people to take the law into their own hands.

First is the influential class. Mostly, they are local businessmen and lawyers who provide financial and legal aid to the criminals on behalf of the rest of the community. Second are the mosque imams, who are directly or indirectly affiliated with the extremist groups; once such incidents happen, they invite these groups for their help. The extremist groups take this as an opportunity to increase their influence and take command of matters ranging from negotiating with the administration to dealing with legal matters. The extremist groups have lawyers’ wings, influencing the courts during the proceedings.

In such a society, where the state and society nurture and protect an infrastructure of extremism, who can hope for change? Religious reforms in Pakistan will remain a dream for a long time.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2024

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