National and International Issues

Combating Extremism

The state is engaged in crucial talks with ‘Islamic’ militants to bring an end to rampant terrorism eating into its very entrails. Negotiations with the TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) are still very tenuous and at an incipient state. No one is sure they will bear fruit or not. Whatever the outcome, in the end analysis, the Pakistani state and society will have to grapple with the endemic causes of extremism and intolerance afflicting it. With the passage of time however, alarming trends promoting extremism are becoming more pronounced. Of course, the immediate objective of talks with the TTP is to bring the spiral of violence to a closure. Nevertheless having a grip on religious extremism should be the end objective of any anti-terrorism policy. Absence of such a strategy will be tantamount to missing the wood for the trees. Making Pakistan a free, open and tolerant Muslim nation should be our ultimate goal. Right now we are far from achieving it.

On the contrary recent trends point out towards a disturbingly rising trend of extremism and intolerance in society and our body politic. Unfortunately absence of a vision and the political will to combat the menace is becoming more pronounced. Take the case of religious minorities. Incidents of violence against them threatening their very life, property and livelihood are becoming more and more common.

Not only non-Muslim minorities are being targeted with impunity, sectarian violence is also on the rise. Shia and Hazara Muslims are continuously, and increasingly, on the receiving end of the militants' wrath. The question is: what is the state doing to combat this alarmist situation? Mere lip service is paid to the teachings of the founding fathers as a source of inspiration for our policy makers. There is no long-term policy framework to combat the menace. Take the case of performance of the Council for Islamic Ideology (CII). The advisory body composed of clerics and scholars should be a contributory factor in providing the nation with an enlightened vision of Islam. However, its recent edicts mostly against women have generated nothing but controversy. The council headed by a cleric who also happens to be a member of the parliament, recently generated unnecessary controversy by making the fantastic claim that marriage of even minors can be solemnized, but with consent of the guardians.

When a lady member of the parliament belonging to the ruling party moved a private bill against child marriages, the CII chairman opposed it on the grounds that it was unislamic. To add insult to injury, the parliamentarian did not get any support for the proposed bill from her own party. A large swath of opinion believes that an elected parliament representing the will of the people is the perfect forum for interpreting Islam in the light of modern times. Going a step further, the Sindh Assembly through a resolution has demanded the disbanding of the CII. Misplaced priorities and lack of courage or conviction of our policy makers has promoted extremist trends in the society at large. On a macro level, budget outlays as a percentage of the GDP on the sectors like health, education and providing a social safety network for the poor and the downtrodden, are dismally low.

A mixture of increasing poverty and high rate of population growth, coupled with a dismal economic performance is a recipe for disaster. Lack of income generating opportunities and an absence of a level playing field for the underprivileged has given rise to the Madrassa culture. As a result, a large number of such institutions have become breeding grounds for extremism. Many of the seminaries impart religious education. But others, in the name of imparting religious education, are actually producing extremists to become a willing tool of terrorist outfits. The National Assembly recently adopted an opposition resolution demanding that the government take steps to improve and regulate education in seminaries. Such efforts in the past have come to naught owing to opposition from the religious right. Hopefully they will be brought on board and made to realize the urgency to reform and regulate. Unless urgent measures are taken to combat this alarming trend, the hydra headed monster of extremism will simply devour the state as envisaged by Allama Iqbal and the Quaid-i-Azam. It is not coincidental that implementation of Sharia much beyond the scope of the 1973 Constitution has been demanded off and on by the TTP and its affiliates.

Over the years, a general perception has set in that Pakistani society, as a whole, has become more conservative. In the backdrop of the prevalent trend in the Isalmic world, this may be true to a certain extent. However, to confuse conservatism with extremism is erroneous. Even the Secretary General of the OIC (Organisation of Isalmic Countries) Iyad Amin Madni, in his recent address had to admit that extremist voices and groups have hijacked Islam and misappropriated the right to speak on its behalf.

Pakistani society and the military have shown a tremendous resilience in the face of rampant terrorism and growing extremism. The nation has adequately risen to the challenge posed by the terrorists. There are various tales of bravery and valour in resisting the gauntlet thrown by the extremists. The spirit shown by the people of Swat in flushing out the TTP is exemplary. The resilience shown by Malala Yousafzai despite being targeted by the terrorists for standing up for girls' education has become a legend now. Similarly military personnel have resisted terrorism bravely even at the expense of laying down their lives.

Another very important element of the complicated matrix of combating extremism is the role of the media. A number of media persons who have been outspoken against the extremist mindset have been intimidated and threatened with dire consequences by terrorist outfits. Some have even been brutally attacked. And few have even lost their lives at the hands of the terrorists for their courage of conviction. But on the other hand a large swath of the media is also responsible for promoting the extremist agenda. The extremist agenda has been lent too much space and airtime on the print and electronic media.

There is an obvious reluctance to properly accommodate the alternative agenda of the enlightened strata of the society, partly perhaps owing to the fear of retribution. Law enforcing agencies, by being unable to provide adequate security to journalists, has exacerbated the malaise. It is obvious that converting Pakistan into a tolerant society is an uphill task. Without developing a consensual and enlightened narrative, war against extremism cannot be won in the long run. The power that be, perhaps lacks vision and the political will to develop such an agenda that promotes tolerance and respect for opposing views. In doing so without further delay lies our salvation as a nation.

The writer is a former Federal Minister for Information & Broadcasting. He is an eminent personality of electronic and print media. He is also the Editor of an English Daily.

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