THERE is growing realisation in Pakistan that extremism is becoming a major challenge for the country. Apart from its consequences on matters of law and order and security, which the country has been facing for over a decade, it has also penetrated the public discourse and policy formulation.
Intolerance has a stranglehold on society and the space for free and open dialogue has shrunk, even in intellectual circles. Now parliament is feeling the heat and seems reluctant to prepare a framework for foreign policy in the face of a direct warning from the radicals. The political leadership is trying to adjust to the new phenomena and has failed to formulate a clear policy on the issues of terrorism, extremism and of violent actors across the country.
However, the mere realisation of the issue is not enough; a comprehensive response is unavoidable and can only come through proper understanding of the phenomenon. Not only the religious forces, the establishment and the political elite too are equal shareholders in the problem, not least because the extremists also seek to push through their agenda using political means.
The causes of extremism are usually a combination of factors, rather than any one single feature, which pushes mainly young people into the embrace of radical groups. Many studies suggest that both distinct and identical factors of extremism may influence certain individuals and groups belonging to various segments of society. It is clear today that politico-ideological factors drive the process of extremism in Pakistan whereas socio-psychological ones facilitate it.
Radical ideologies in Pakistan have not inspired, at least so far, a huge number of individuals who would have otherwise become the basis of a mass revolutionary movement.
Individuals radicalised under the influence of various factors join the ranks of whatever radical groups they find operating around them.
Pakistan’s political culture, which is an undemocratic one, is essentially a factor for extremism in society. Although constitutionally and legally all citizens are guaranteed equal political opportunities, the reality is different.
Some social strata find that they have no political rights and no stake in the system. This sense of political deprivation and exclusion is so entrenched in some groups and regions that it has prompted the people to resort to violent means to alleviate their political deprivation. This asymmetric political culture is hence a direct cause of extremism among the deprived.
Balochistan, in particular, and the tribal areas, to some extent, are just two examples of that. Various factors have promoted a political culture of conflict and dissension in Pakistan.
The withering away of state-society relations and people’s disillusionment with the state and its institutions provide space to non-state actors, including radical ones, to operate parallel systems of justice, service delivery and security. The radicals exploit the people’s unfulfilled desires to their advantage and get public support and recruit people. The state-led efforts of Islamisation, or the politics of Islam, have also confused people’s priorities between the Sharia and the constitution. Religious extremists and radicals, whose political ideology prioritises Islam and Sharia over Pakistan and its constitution, respectively, have strong appeal for many in the country.
This crises-ridden political culture of Pakistan has played havoc with peaceful and harmonious political and social values among communities. The people largely lack trust in the political leadership and institutions. In this situation, any call for a resort to radical means carries greater attraction. Such a scenario provides fertile ground for radicalism to flourish.
Oppression, lack of justice and politico-economic inequalities are strong contributing factors towards extremism and militancy in the country.
Pakistani state and society have failed to address various forms of inequality which have fuelled alienation and resentment among those on the margins of society.
Repeated demands for expeditious justice and widespread complaints about the decay in the judicial system contributed to circumstances where the government capitulated to the Taliban’s demand for the Nizam-i-Adl Regulation in Swat. The armed campaign by the Taliban also played a role.
Victims of chronic inequality — economic, social, political, legal or in any other form — eventually start viewing the sociopolitical, economic and legal systems as flawed and as favouring one section of society over other sections. It makes them think about rebelling against the system, at times in the form of militancy. Peaceful societies are peaceful largely because they have achieved political, legal and civic equality.
A sense of humiliation, political grievances and breakdown of the existing culture or political structures are behind extremism in developing countries including Pakistan. Radicalism and terrorism are strategic choices of radicals and terrorists to correct perceived grievances or injustices. Radicalism — use of force for political ends — is a way to compensate for powerlessness, exclusion, alienation and despair. It improves the status of radicals. The ingredients of such status are power, privilege and prestige.
By default, design or misplaced intentions, the ruling political leadership in Pakistan has led the nation on Islamist trajectories. The politics of Islamisation has also supported the larger religious discourse that demands enforcement of the Sharia advocated by militant groups as an ideological tactic to get support for their political goals.
With regard to their concern in promoting Islamic nationalism, Pakistani society has undoubtedly become more conservative in terms of public practice of social and cultural mores over the last three decades. Although this societal shift presaged growing intolerance of any but the strictest interpretations of religion as practised by a particular sect, it did not, for the most part, manifest itself in violence.
The political leadership has always made lofty claims of national progress and political parties have promised to take the nation to unparalleled heights if voted in. But once elected they have forgotten the promises.
It has been the same story with military dictators ruling the country. They too have not been averse to promising the people the moon, only to prolong their rule. The people have always been let down. This has bred a perception of exclusion and deprivation among certain groups. The frustration caused by that perception has apparently contributed to extremism in Pakistan.
The writer is editor quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.