Pakistan living in a state of denial of its extremist problem is old news. Religious extremists who are in the ascendancy hold the country by the jugular. They are allowed freedom to dictate their regressive agenda and demonise the most vulnerable in society on the back of black laws. This state of affairs seems evident to everyone, but to Pakistanis themselves.
The reaction of the state to extremist provocations now follows a predictable pattern. Initially with fierce rhetoric on ensuring the writ of the state, then meek surrender to extremist demands. We saw this absurd approach during the recent standoff on the Aasia Bibi acquittal. The state, through its defeatist response, essentially rewarded the extremists for their belligerence and intransigence.
The highly inflammatory, anti-army and anti-judiciary statements from radical clerics that incited the people to violence — uttered by anyone else — would have invited the full wrath of the state. Calling for the removal of the army chief and threats to judges of the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister are treasonable offenses. The army brass and intelligence apparatus are very tough with persons who question state policies. Non-Punjabi nationalist politicians, members of the press and civil society have found this out to their cost.
The coddling of religious extremists is an insane policy. It has plagued Pakistan from very early in its creation. The country has already paid a high price for using extremists as assets and proxies. The army, but also desperate politicians are guilty of this self-serving and myopic policy. It has contributed to a general lack of respect for law and order, domestic terrorism and poor relations with neighbours.
The extremists are adept at exploiting the divide between state and society. Their simple solution to complex social, economic and political problems is music to many. An effective extremist tactic is to accuse state institutions and individuals to religious and moral corruption. They demand the purification of Islam from corrupt western practices adopted by the ruling elite. And harping on about foreign conspiracies and agendas is part of their strategy.
Overall, Islamist political parties continue to perform moderately in elections, most recently in 2018, garnering around 10 percent of the national vote. However, the radical Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) — led by clerics of the Barelvi sect — emerged as the top fifth religious party by vote bank in Sind and Punjab. The TLP is prominent in confronting the state on multiple occasions to further their extremist agenda.
The nexus of religion and politics has picked up a quick pace in Pakistan. The Islamist lobby is imposing their hard line views on religious freedoms and civil liberties. As a result, we can see the curtailing of personal freedoms and subordination of the role of women and minorities.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has also impacted the nature of politics in the country. Pakistan is being transformed into a hard-line Sunni Muslim state. Left on its own, the country’s small but vibrant civil society, active media, and established political parties are unable to halt the extremist advance on their own.
A chilling fact is that extremist ranks include young people from all social, economic and educational backgrounds. Endemic corruption and oligarchic control of the public sphere drives those disadvantaged by this system to look to Islam for salvation. The youth is particularly affected as the public debate is far removed from rationality and justice and more to the acceptance of a linear ideology.
It is too easy to equate the worldwide phenomenon of extremism to the rise of extremism in Pakistan. Firstly, Pakistani extremism has enjoyed state connivance to grow into a Frankenstein monster it is today. Secondly, unlike most stable democracies, the country’s constitutional and democratic institutions are arguably not strong enough to withstand the extremist onslaught. Thirdly, the extremists want to capture state power, which will have dire consequences.
Pakistan is losing the battle to balance religious tradition with the social, economic and political demands of the modern world. There is little support for a separation between religion and the state. Even fewer people see value in the idea that religion is and should be strictly a private matter.
Every country is entitled to create its favoured methods of governance. But Pakistan should allow its young people the opportunity to study the merits of liberal democracy and secularism. Just harking back for solutions from the golden age of Islam isn’t enough for a well-rounded education.
Perhaps the best antidote to extremism is to encourage free thinking and open inquiry. This progression seems the only way forward to pull Pakistanis out of the powerful grip of religious extremism.
It isn’t clear whether the generals and the civilian apparatus will ever find the will to turn back the extremist wave. They are perhaps afraid that dealing harshly with religious extremists could engulf the country as a whole. But to do nothing and stay a state in denial could mean the end of Pakistan itself.