Drivers of extremism

Published June 24, 2024
The writer teaches sociology at Lums
The writer teaches sociology at Lums

WHAT compels a mob to burn someone to death? What explains such amplified levels of anger that an accusation against some person from a marginalised group leads to a lynching?

What reasoning dictates why groups of people — including state functionaries — engage in the violent policing of a minority group, arresting its members and taking away their sacrificial animals from the private confines of their homes?

All three incidents took place recently. Last week, a man was burnt to death in Swat over the alleged desecration of a holy text. In May, a 72-year-old Christian man was lynched in Sargodha on a blasphemy-related accusation. And during Eid, several Ahmadis across Punjab — the number reportedly as high as 36 — were detained by the police on accusations of practising ‘Muslim rituals’ levelled by Barelvi extremist activists.

Much ink has been spilled trying to understand religious extremism and its outcomes, both in Pakistan and abroad. Existing research points out two sets of factors here — the societal organisation and drivers of extremism; and the role of the state.

On societal organisation, it is well documented that such indoctrination is carried out by clerics, not just through in-person contact in sermons and in madressahs, but also through highly localised WhatsApp and Facebook groups, as well as content on TikTok. They do it because they believe in it and because it sustains their social status within communities. People pay them respect, provide them with gifts, turn to them for advice and for dispute resolution.

There is a wider segment of people in every community who think the objectives of zealots are worthy.

Their words and actions help develop followers of various types. Their closest adherents are socialised into believing that certain events are an affront to religion. Such events require a coercive response. That the response must be immediate. And that it will help further some vague faith-inspired objective, protect the purity of religion, or help restore the natural order of society.

Beyond the immediate actions of violent activists, there is a wider segment of people in every community who think the objectives of these zealots are worthy. Perhaps they have not yet been socialised to such a great degree that they take matters into their own hands. However, they frequently appreciate those who do. These people are the ones who will stand on the side while someone is burnt, lynched, or attacked. Their passive support helps sustain this enterprise of violence.

Broadly speaking, this is the organisation of violent religious extremism at the community level. Every case of violence will reveal actors of these three types — the ideologue, the activist, and the passive supporter.

Let’s assume that ideologues exist everywhere. Extremist preachers who try to outdo each other by being more extreme are a reality in every society. It is less useful trying to understand why they exist. As long as beliefs and ideologies exist, violent interpretations will likely persist.

But what explains the level of support for their messaging? Here, research often turns to existing social and economic conditions. One popular interpretation is that poverty, material distress, and other forms of economic anxiety push people towards extremism.

In Pakistan, religious extremism seems to have an implicit class character. TLP’s street cadres, for example, are overwhelmingly young men from working-class backgrounds, many of whom are un/underemployed. It is likely that associating with a movement adds purpose to a listless existence. Sometimes it goes as far as to become a source of power, prestige, and status mobility in a supremely unequal society.

Class politics, however, is not just a preserve of the poor. Relatively better-off traders, merchants, contractors etc also offer support (financial and otherwise) for fundamentalist ideology. In my conversations with bazaar traders in Lahore, I found that these groups are motivated for both self-serving objectives — to gain local respect and status — as well as a way to push back against what they think is the hedonistic agenda of Westernised upper classes. There is thus a different type of class-based politics also at play here, one that pits un-Islamic elites against pious middling sorts.

The second set of factors concerns the role of the Pakistani state in creating fertile conditions for extremism. National identity and the concept of state authority are tied to Islam, which gives plenty of space to non-state actors to weigh in on how it should be interpreted.

School and even higher education curriculum content is devoted to the creation of ideal (Sunni) Muslim citizens, which casts minority sects and non-Muslims as deviants. Laws have been put in place that police religious practice and create punitive conditions for heterodoxy, which perpetuates vigilantism.

And governance failures and the expedient use of religious actors for political ends — such as geostrategic goals in neighbouring countries or taking down a popular government domestically — ensure that law and order responses to religious violence are either belated or entirely inadequate.

Combining both sets of factors — societal and state-specific — the future does not look optimistic:

On the societal front, there are no mass movements that can challenge religious extremism. Mainstream parties are either complicit or too risk-averse to take this issue on, especially when they are in government. Preachers who attempt more pacifist interpretations find themselves irrelevant or at risk of violence. Economic conditions are worsening, leaving more young people stuck in social stagnation and precarity.

As far as the state is concerned, it has not demonstrated any serious intent at reforming its protocols around religious extremism. Police responses are often belated, and biased against minority groups. Prosecution is largely absent. There is not even a modicum of intention to revisit laws that catalyse violent acts. And extremist groups remain valuable as a strategic asset, especially when needed to stifle democratic processes and teach some non-conforming party a lesson.

The writer teaches sociology at Lums.

X: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2024

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