In the Name of Faith: Extremism’s grip on Pakistani Society

Having read Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s speech: “You are free; You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan”, he’d be enraged at what we have done to his tolerant, equal opportunity vision/ mission given the current state of affairs.

In recent years, the rise of extremism in Pakistan has become an increasingly pressing concern, posing a significant threat to the country’s stability and social fabric. This issue has manifested itself in various forms, from violent demonstrations to the recruitment of university students by Islamist groups. The drivers of this phenomenon are multifaceted, stemming from socio-political, economic, and religious factors. Notably, the unequal treatment of different religious sects by the state has contributed to the exacerbation of extremism in the country. The proliferation of violence is recognized as one of the deep-rooted and existing phenomena in the country, with political, religious, and ethnic divisions manipulating violence as democratic and legal instruments to materialize personal goals.

The prevalent group mentality fueling aggression has been a consistent aspect of our society. Has the state officially acknowledged it as a significant issue that necessitates more than a superficial response to each instance? A thorough evaluation of our national policies would provide valuable insight. Having read Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s speech: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan”, he’d be enraged at what we have done to his tolerant, equal opportunity vision/ mission given the current state of affairs.

Consider the situation of minority communities in our troubled yet cherished nation. Christians have been targeted, harmed, and even killed with impunity, often based on unfounded reasons, many of which are fabricated. Their homes and places of worship have been destroyed through bombings and arson. We have remained apathetic as young Hindu girls are abducted, forcibly converted, and married to their captors. The pleas of the victims and their families have been ignored, showcasing a lack of empathy and action on our part.

The blasphemy law has been misused and is enforced by violent mobs rather than by the police or the judiciary. A mere accusation is sufficient for groups with certain ideologies to take matters into their own hands and assume the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. When the state interferes in matters of faith, interest groups seize the opportunity to dictate the interpretation of religious beliefs. Furthermore, enforcing their own interpretation of the law (essentially mob rule) becomes the norm.

The state bears responsibility on multiple levels. It has utilized faith as a tool to amplify its influence, particularly in addressing external threats – essentially engaging in wars that did not benefit the nation but instead enriched those in power. For instance, the authorities are often criticized for promoting extremism to advance their foreign policy objectives, which they justify as ‘national security imperatives’. It is up to the public to assess the benefits that national security has reaped from these policies.

The 20-point National Action Plan (NAP), endorsed by both parliament and military leadership, remains largely inactive while terrorism continues to claim the lives of civilians and young soldiers.

A society that prioritizes majority rule, displays extreme nationalism, or harbors collective animosity and aggression tends to lack empathy and compassion. The absence of these qualities can lead a society towards disorder and anarchy.

In this context, the research by American academic Gregory H. Stanton concerning the Srebrenica Genocide of 1995 provides valuable insights. Stanton outlines 10 stages of genocide, suggesting that genocide is not perpetrated by a small group of individuals but involves the participation of a significant number of people and the state in carrying out mass killings to some extent.

The initial stage involves classification, where society is segmented along ethnic or religious lines. Following this, the subsequent three stages cultivate the perception of ‘otherness’ through symbolization, discrimination, and dehumanization. The fifth stage entails the formulation of plans for the extermination of the ‘other’, identified as the enemy.

The subsequent stage involves polarization through the dissemination of propaganda via various media channels and platforms to further dehumanize the ‘other’. This is followed by the persecution of intellectuals and influential dissenters. Subsequently, extermination becomes more feasible, and denial is utilized as a tactic to conceal the atrocities committed. Stanton includes triumphalism as the 11th stage, where individuals involved in violent acts are glorified as heroes. While these stages may not always occur in a strictly linear fashion, the overall processes exhibit similar characteristics.

A common belief is that poverty, financial struggles, and various economic pressures drive individuals towards extremist ideologies.

In Pakistan, religious extremism appears to have a distinct class dimension. For instance, the street activists of TLP largely consist of young men from working-class backgrounds, many of whom are unemployed or underemployed. Joining such movements may provide a sense of purpose in an otherwise directionless life and, in some cases, can offer power, prestige, and upward social mobility in a society marked by significant inequality.

Class dynamics are not exclusive to the economically disadvantaged. Affluent groups like traders, merchants, and contractors also extend support, both financially and otherwise, to fundamentalist beliefs. Their motivations range from personal gain, such as local recognition and status, to resistance against what they perceive as the Westernized elite’s hedonistic agenda. This creates a different form of class-based politics, pitting irreligious elites against devout middle-class individuals.

Another set of factors involves the role of the Pakistani state in fostering an environment conducive to extremism. The national identity and state authority are closely linked to Islam, allowing non-state actors to influence its interpretation significantly. Educational curricula, from schools to higher education, are tailored to mold ideal Sunni Muslim citizens, often portraying minority sects and non-Muslims as outliers. Legal frameworks regulate religious practices and impose penalties for heterodoxy, fostering a culture of vigilantism.

Taking into account both societal and state-related factors, the outlook for the future appears bleak; Regarding the state’s actions, there is a lack of genuine commitment to reforming policies concerning religious extremism. Police reactions are typically delayed and discriminatory against minority communities. Legal enforcement and prosecution is absent. There is not a modicum of any inclination to review laws that fuel violent behaviors. Furthermore, extremist organizations continue to be viewed as useful strategic tools, particularly for suppressing democratic activities and disciplining dissenting parties.

The declarations made are merely idealistic hopes and ambitious goals that we clearly lack the capacity to achieve, as our image as a tolerant society deteriorates even further.

As a nation possessing nuclear capabilities, we have frequently expressed aspirations to emerge as a prominent economic force within the region in the coming years. However, we must not deceive ourselves. Extremism is progressively eroding the foundation of our society. If we fail to confront this issue decisively, we risk facing a fate similar to that of other basket cases around the world.

Rameen Siddiqui
Rameen Siddiqui
A thought leader and youth activist with main focus areas being Sustainable Development, Political Economy, Development Justice and Advocacy. A member of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY). Also a Youth Member of United Nations Association of Pakistan (UNAP).