Islamic extremism: a home-grown problem

Cyril Almeida

A decades-old policy of supporting jihadists in Afghanistan and Kashmir has come back to haunt Pakistan as the government struggles to halt terrorist attacks on its own soil and stem the rising tide of conservatism. 

Gujranwala, a city in central Punjab (an hour’s drive from the regional capital, Lahore) with a population of 2.5 million, has long been a conservative place. Women are virtually absent from public life, Islamist parties and leaders are influential local political players, and a conservative ethos permeates life in the city. But a creeping Islamism has given Gujranwala a menacing edge in recent years. 

In April 2011, mobs gathered in the heart of the city and attacked Christian properties. The pretext for the violence was a familiar one: a local preacher alleged that several Christians in the area had distributed letters containing blasphemous remarks and had also burned pages of the Quran. The allegations were patently false and a police investigation quickly exonerated the accused. But deep scars remain. Several families that had left their homes in the weeks after the violence had still not returned home in November. One of the accused who had remained behind, a Presbyterian preacher named Eric Isaac, narrated a grim tale of continuing threats and violence: his car had been fi red on and local authorities had warned him that he remained a target. 

As Isaac recounted how the local Muslim preacher, Irfan Shah, had used his mosque and pulpit to agitate against the small Christian community in a poor neighbourhood of Gujranwala city, he made a comment that is telling in the wider context of rising extremism in Pakistan: “He [Shah] has built a little madrasa [Islamic school]. There are rumours the money came from outside Pakistan. Afghan kids are being taught there,” Isaac said. 

Mixing categories in Pakistan is all too easy. Local tensions between religious communities that occasionally turn deadly pre-date the tide of Islamic extremism. Blasphemy is of particular concern to the followers of the Barelvi school of thought (a moderate strand of Islam that includes Sufi s) but less so to Deobandis, Salafists or Wahabbists, the more austere forms of Islamic thought to which many Muslims subscribe. 

Of the 20,000 madrasas in the country, which cater to an estimated 3.5 million students, the vast majority are providing simple religious training with little trace of extremist indoctrination. And the link between poverty and militancy is not as straightforward as commonly supposed – many militants actually come from relatively wealthy and educated backgrounds. 

However, while the hate-spewing preacher in Gujranwala and the ferocious Islamist militant groups fighting the state in the tribal areas may not be directly linked, they are both the product of a creeping conservatism in Pakistan over the last three decades. First sponsored and encouraged by the military regime of General Zia ul-Haq – a ruler with an explicit Islamisation agenda – the rise of militancy in Pakistan has stemmed from a young population raised on a diet of a multi-faceted Islamism that runs the gamut from non-violent extremism to radical militant violence. 

The results are damning – attempts to overthrow the state in parts of the Pashtun-dominated tribal areas and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa; a populace sympathetic to the notions of jihad in neighbouring Afghanistan and in Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan; and rising intolerance, most vividly witnessed in the wave of sympathy for the murderer of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, killed by a bodyguard in January 2011 for questioning the operation of the country’s blasphemy laws. 

The contradictions of a state trying to check the very forces it once helped create are apparent enough. For two-and-a-half decades, until the early 2000s, the state aggressively created an infrastructure of jihad, first to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and later to fight Indians in Afghanistan. Then, in a post-9/11 world in which overt support for militancy was sure to attract the ire of the international community, the Pakistani state withdrew most of its direct support for militant groups. 

But where the state failed most miserably was in developing a counter-narrative: to explain why jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan was good, but jihad against Americans in Afghanistan is not; to explain why an armed struggle in Kashmir was once a noble cause, but now the time has come to abandon violence; and, perhaps most importantly, to explain why it is wrong to fight the Pakistani state because of the choices it has made over the last ten years. 

The lack of a counter-narrative has deeply undermined the state’s efforts to push back against the tide of extremism. For the radicalised core, there is no message to peacefully decommission them. For the increasingly conservative, though not yet radicalised, majority of Pakistan, there is no message to explain why what they were encouraged to believe in the 1980s and 1990s has to be unlearned in the 21st century. 

So, despite the deaths of several thousand servicemen and law-enforcement personnel over the last decade, military operations in swathes of Pakistani territory and nearly 150,000 troops committed to counter-insurgency, the average Pakistani is still unsure why the state is fighting against forces acting in the name of Islam. 

Superimpose on that contradiction an army-led national security policy that is India-centric and wary of encirclement via Afghanistan, and the outcome is even more confused, and dangerous. The Pakistani state wants to eradicate militants opposed to itself, but still encourages – or at least tolerates – militants focused on Afghanistan and Kashmir/India. Though cross-pollination between the various groups has made it increasingly difficult to separate them. 

Perhaps some of these quintessentially Pakistani contradictions could have been mitigated had the USA made different choices in Afghanistan: from including the Taliban in the Bonn process in 2001 to avoiding the distraction of Iraq – which helped allow the Taliban to stage a comeback in the mid-2000s – to placating Pakistan over the influence of the India-friendly Northern Alliance, remnants of which dominate the Karzai government. If the USA had not intervened in the way it did, the army-led national security establishment in Pakistan may have avoided some of the worst contradictions of the Good Taliban/Bad Taliban distinction. 

However, three decades on from when Islamism was first pumped into the veins of Pakistani society, and a decade since Pakistan began to fight some Islamist militants while shielding others, the question has moved on from one of Pakistan simply developing the intention to fight extremism. Today, the question is, if in the event the Pakistani government does decide to combat extremism and radicalism, does a declining state have the capacity, policy wherewithal and intellectual firepower to fight a complex, decades-old threat that has seeped into every corner of the country?

About the author:

Cyril Almeida is an assistant editor and columnist with Dawn, Pakistan's largest English-language daily newspaper


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