The Perils of Extremism

Published on April 27, 2007 in the Dawn

WHY is it hard to fight extremism in Pakistan? Because we are all guilty at least by association. Extremism essentially reflects our long but unsuccessful struggle to find a national purpose and identity and an open and stable political process that promotes tolerance and liberal habits of the mind and supports justice for all, not only for the citizenry but also for the minorities and smaller provinces.

This failure has caused an understandable sense of despair especially among the weak and the vulnerable, a mindset most conducive to falling prey to illusions and emotions and to searching for transcendental solutions. No wonder the extremists, specially the religious kind, are having a field day. They have a constituency.

The state has made its own contribution. Successive governments have pandered and provided political space, to the Islamists, both the pacific type seeking an electoral route to power and willing to work within the system and the extremists.

The boundaries of extremism touch the established Islamist parties on one end and militancy on the other. This whole pantheon provides the ideological underpinnings of a security-dominated nationalism and regressive social order in Pakistan where religion, politics, the social order, national security and foreign policy are rolled into one. Extremism has had a constituency not just among the ordinary people.

The country has been further caught up in the crosscurrent of sectarian, ethno-linguistic and other domestic tensions. Such institutions as exist to mediate the differences either lack integrity or autonomy being subservient to the centres of power. No wonder there is an inclination to resort to militancy and extremism as instruments of redressing the imbalances and wrongs. Once force becomes an acceptable way of settling differences it turns on itself and breeds its own imbalances and injustices. Thus, extremism thrives.

Various strands of extremism lend strength to each other. But let us focus on religious extremism. The fact is our domestic order is not the sole contributor; regional dynamics, big power interests, and the ethics of international relations have played no small part.

India has been part of the problem in fomenting our extremist responses; and so has Afghanistan. In fact, both Pakistan and Afghanistan have played havoc with each other becoming in the end tributaries and confluences of extremist influences that have radiated well beyond the region.

Other Muslim countries and the West have exploited our extremist infrastructure to further their own political and strategic agendas. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has triggered and continues to fuel sectarian tensions in Pakistan. Along with it has come a lot of money. Money also came with the American-led jihad of the 1980s.

Both left in their trail much stronger forces of militancy. Not only that, they bred a whole crop of adventurers, political opportunists and religious fanatics including ISI .alumni. who are trying to harness these forces of extremism in pursuit of their ambitions for power but in the name of Islam. The war on terrorism has given a big boost to their dangerous agenda.

By conducting the campaign against terrorism as a war of ideas between the West and Islam, and by denigrating Muslim societies as failing or failed and needing help from the West, the latter is forcing Muslims to defend their religion and what it stands for. So people are looking up to someone who can pay back the West in its own coin, and naturally they turn to the extremists to fight their cause. Religious extremism has thus found wider sponsorship and causes bigger than India and Kashmir.

As mentioned, the boundaries of extremism overlap on one end with the traditional Islamist parties and on the other with the militants. This broadens their agenda and reach to almost all segments of society. Their influence has become expansive.

Their nationalist and anti-American rhetoric appeals to some even with a secular outlook. And then there are others among the educated and the moderate who yearn for a soft Islamic revolution whose ideas intersect, however thinly, at some point with those of the radicals even without their knowing it.

Many young minds also are opening up to extremist thoughts specially those getting their first dose of religion being administered not by scholars but by those who have mixed their social or political agenda with the message of Islam. This enhances the appeal of their message even though it distorts the religion. Through this kind of religion the young are seeking expression of their anger, fear and hopes. Religion ends up serving as an idiom of protest and idealism.

Muslims believe what they like to believe, and the West for its own reasons refuses to give credence to a moderate and true interpretation of Islam as it would weaken the rationale for the war on terrorism which is much more than a campaign against terrorism. The West has its own political agenda. So Islam gets distorted not only by us but also by the West.

The problem is that our religious extremism is no longer dependent on state patronage for survival; state power, therefore, will not be sufficient to fight it, the present government.s intentions to take up the challenge notwithstanding. Not only do we lack national consensus on the issue, we are confused and disoriented. In some cases we even lack moral clarity.

We think we are not supporting extremism and demonstrate it by holding rallies and making speeches and writing articles. But we are hosting political opinions, moral attitudes and public policies that reflect as well as affect extremism. Let me explain.

We condemn sectarian killings but will not back away from Kashmir, jihad or from defending Muslim honour against Hindu India. People may not like the Taliban but many admire Osama bin Laden. They do not realise that by supporting one they are supporting the other. We are horrified by the encroaching on our liberal values and the subordination and confinement of women that Talibanisation threatens, but we applaud when the same extremists go and burn the US flag.

Even our response to attacks on churches and the beheading of Americans remains muted. Killing of innocent civilians is not sanctioned by our religion and we cannot condone it just because President Bush is doing the same. There is no moral equivalence here. Instead of justifying one act of violence because of another we should condemn both.

The government is also in conflict. It would not like the Talibanisation of Pakistan but would not mind if Afghanistan came under Taliban control. Enlightened moderation is a good thing but we have to realise that moderation is more than cultural liberalisation.

Only political liberalisation will help strengthen liberal and secular forces that can be allies in defeating religious extremism. Otherwise, cultural openness could backfire and give further ammunition to the extremists thus provoking cultural wars that could get entangled with class conflicts. This is what these attacks on video shops in Islamabad are about.

Whether we are part of the government or the people, we cannot fight and support extremism at the same time. To begin the fight let us debate our relations with India and Afghanistan. Why are we so obsessed with being treated by the international community on a par with India? With this complex that our national identity is superior to India.s and that our strength is equivalent because of the nuclear capability we continue to place ideology and honour at the centre of our self-image and national priorities.

This will not help us wean ourselves away from the conservative hard-line attitude which is sustaining extremism. And we also need to do something about the madressahs and the related problem of Saudi Iranian rivalry which has made us a hotbed of their proxy conflict.

Finally, people should shed this obsession with America.s conduct that continues to incite attitudes that make us vulnerable to extremist influences. Bush is not America. He is an aberration whose time is up. He is responding to the events of 9/11 in an extraordinary way. It was a response in anger, in revenge marked by the arrogance of power. But criticism of the US is not going to change American policies.

Big powers do not adapt their policies to suit the interests of small countries. Even if that happens it might take years or even decades. Can Muslims wait till then to set their own house in order? They are weak. Whatever the consequences for the West it is strong enough to absorb the effects of bad policies but can Muslims afford to continue with their self-limiting behaviour?

In advising that we lessen our focus on western policies, I am not condoning them. We should, of course, resist policies that diminish our sovereignty and national interest. The same way we should accept American help where it suits us, especially in our reform effort and the fight against extremism. What one is concerned about is that with this excessive preoccupation with America.s behaviour we are playing into the hands of the extremists. It is also taking our attention away from owning up to our own mistakes as we look for the causes of our failure outside ourselves. One cannot change what one denies.

If the Muslim world wants to challenge the unjust international system it can do so only by acquiring knowledge and effecting social reform and political liberalisation, by embracing, not shirking modernisation and by taking a strong moral position against extremists, however, seductive their nationalistic and populist rhetoric. The Muslim world needs to search for its own strength rather than define itself in opposition to the West.

The writer is adjunct professor at Georgetown University, US