…In the past few years, Pakistan has witnessed an exceptionally high level of tolerance for extremism among the middle class, which staffs Urdu media and provides intellectual direction to public opinion. Urdu newspapers glorify militant groups as the agents of local and global “Jihad” and are steeped in the Jihadist discourse that emanated from Pakistan’s concerted alliance with the USA in the 1980s to nurture the mujahideen and later efforts to seek “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and “fix” India via proactive Jihadism.
Little has changed in the past three decades except the fact that a grander version of Urdu press now exists in the shape of electronic media. The latter, barring few exceptions, has also overtly and covertly supported soft Islamism as a natural policy option for an Islamic Republic endowed with nuclear weapons.
However, this worldview did not come into being in a few years. Pakistan’s history and its issues of identity have haunted the state right from its inception. From the 1949 Objectives Resolution to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Islamisation efforts, most notably getting the Parliament to declare one sect as “non-Muslim” in 1974, Islamism has been a strong narrative, though with little electoral basis or mass appeal.
However, Zia-ul-Haq used the well-organised Jamaat-e-islami and powerful mullahs from other Islamist groups to engineer “intellectual” support for a long dictatorship in the name of Islam. His rule also supported sectarian organisations, especially those propagating a Saudi-Wahabi version of Islam with ample financing from West Asia that continues to date.
By the late 1980s, “defeat” of India and “control” over Afghanistan were seen as legitimate goals of Pakistan’s Jihad industry. During the 1980s, the education system also reflected these goals: there is credible evidence now cited in various papers and books which demonstrates how the central ministry of education was tasked to indoctrinate young minds in public schools and train a crop of Jihadis through a specially financed and protected madrassa network outside the formal schooling system. Three generations have been fed with this ideological diet and, therefore, an eager audience for Islamist discourses exists in Pakistan.
The civil-military bureaucracy recruits its officers from the Pakistani middle class (whichever way one defines it). A large number of fresh entrants to the “system”, therefore, come with an education that is conducive to the continuation of militarism and Jihadism in pursuit of Pakistan’s destiny as a nuclear Islamic fortress beset by foreign conspiracies.
The so-called “non-state” actors or sections of civil society, which provide justification to military ascendancy, reinforce this “mindset”. In particular, the unilateral and narrow interpretation of Jihad thus becomes a “truth” in itself, thereby allowing the justifications or even support for militant groups for the attainment of Pakistan’s global “importance”. Whilst we are seriously short of empirical evidence of civil servants’ attitudes, the retired officers who write and speak in the public domain testify to this unfortunate trend.
For instance, former chiefs of the inter-Services intelligence openly argue how important the militant groups are for Pakistan’s strategic leverage and ability to bargain with the United States and the west. The retired ambassadors, save a few exceptions, regurgitate the unimaginative India policy and indirectly (sometimes more directly) justify how militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba are important to our policy goals.
A new crop of TV anchors, reporters and producers, also educated in Pakistani schools and colleges, allow for this space to grow; and the handful of naysayers or “independent” thinkers are either not given space or drowned in the shrillness of apologia for terrorism.
Another cultivated opinion on the Pashtuns’ affinity for militant groups has been busted by the survey mentioned above. There is very little support among Pakhtuns for the militias. For years, the mainstream media and rogue analysts were citing the US presence in Afghanistan and the emergence of Pashtun nationalism as the reasons for the romantic anti-US struggle through militant groups operating under the banner of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. It was only when terrorism spread beyond Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that Punjab and Balochistan came into the media spotlight. The seminaries operating in the Punjab have grown in size, strength, resources and outreach.
A recent report entitled Madrassahs Fanning Radicalism was reportedly forwarded by the Punjab home department to the Punjab inspector general of police and other senior police officers, including divisional commissioners, urging regulation of mainstream madrassas “to ensure protection of civil society from radicalization and sectarian polarization”. Therefore, the rise of extremism is no longer a localised issue.
The obvious inability of the Punjab government to take on the militant organisations also reflects how the state may be becoming weaker in confronting these outfits. Most certainly, the support for militancy in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is, therefore, not the root cause for the rise of radical seminaries. The deep involvement of the state and its policy of allowing extremist ideologies to flourish and accept Gulf funding may be the actual issues of concern. Any counter-terrorism strategy ignoring these vital links is likely to fail.
The only way Pakistan can begin to alter the discourse on militancy, Jihad and the rising tide of Islamism is through a consensus among the stakeholders of the democratic system. Despite several initiatives such a consensus is lacking. A common agreement among the civilian stakeholders will be essential to move towards a strategy to address militancy…
Finally, the international community especially the United States should revise its agenda for Pakistan’s “development”, which currently is a strategic extension of the war on terror. Poverty reduction ought to be the overarching goal but more needs to be done with the education system, madrassa reform and media regulation. Pakistan needs to undertake more research and update its sources of data on militancy for effective policy- making and for providing the right direction to international aid. Otherwise, we may end up once again on our past trajectory of getting too much aid with little or no results.
Excerpted from the essay “Myth and Reality of Extremism”, from The Fractious Path: Pakistan's Democratic Transition, Raza Rumi, HarperCollins India.