The rising threat of extremism

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The Pakistani state, or more precisely the military rulers and the politicians guided by them, must show courage and constrain extremists within the limits of law without violating their fundamental rights What threatens Pakistan’s security today is religious extremism. General Pervez Musharraf made this confession at the passing-out parade of cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul. For many of us, this is neither chilling information nor jaw-dropping discovery. It is sadly true that religious and sectarian extremism has been on the rise in Pakistan. There has been some ebb and flow, but no sign of resolution of the problem. We have witnessed terrible acts of collective violence, assaults on religious congregations, bombings of mosques and now pitched battles and revenge killings between Sunni fanatics and Shiite militants. This conflict has grown horizontally and vertically, hurting more families in different areas of the country. With religious extremism and intolerance on the rise, communal identities have become stronger and more visible than they were about a quarter of a century back. People belonging to different sects have adopted distinctive attires, styles of mosque architecture and unique religious observances and celebrations. Gone are the days when members of different sectarian communities used to pray, and observe religious festivals together. Feelings of otherness and alienation have grown deeper and the arrival of the suicide-bomber has made anyone entering the mosque of another sect suspect. Sectarianism and religious extremism are interconnected: the former is a violent manifestation of the latter. We don’t need to go into definitional problems here but just to look at what has been and is happening around us. It is plain and simple: religious extremists of the two sects have been killing innocent people with impunity. They have been violating religious, civic and fundamental rights of citizens without any fear of God or the Government of Pakistan. What has really contributed to religious extremism and sectarianism? The answer to this involves political, religious and social categories. Politics is the master science of society. Therefore, if anything goes woefully wrong, as it clearly does in religious violence, we must look at the character of regimes, their legitimacy, political ends and manner of exercising power. The present military regime with a democratic civilian façade is greatly responsible for the rise of religious extremism. Despite the official vocabulary of ‘enlightened moderation’ and the government’s habit of blaming its present troubles on past rulers, it stands to reason that if you suppress the mainstream political parties, religious groups and parties will claim greater social space. Another related reason is that military regimes, even with a lot of show and selective exercise of coercion, are inherently weak: they appease, make compromises and cover the corruption and unlawful acts of their allies whom they need as intermediaries. This is not theoretical stuff. Just look at the inactivity, policy responses, negotiations and settlement patterns of elements that the present government would not hesitate in charactering as extremist. Where in the world would a civilised society tolerate vigilante justice, kidnapping of women right in the heart of the capital and announcement of a parallel court system? The bottom line is that illicit rule devoid of constitutionality promotes and encourages the kind of religious politics, extremism and creeping Talibanisation that we are witnessing. The religious set of reasons that we can ascribe to extremism is often ignored in the political and social discourse in Pakistan. Theological and doctrinal differences are normal in religious communities, but only where they and their clergy recognise the legitimacy of having differences and the rights of the individual to select a faith or sect and practise it in his or her own way. Unfortunately, conformity has replaced the traditional values of respect and tolerance for the beliefs of others. Neither intellectual nor official outfits have paid great attention to the sectarian mullah and the poison that he frequently spouts from his unholy pulpit. Some mullahs with brand names and notoriety specialise in demonising other faiths and sects. Cassettes, loudspeakers and printed sectarian material are still in use, but in recent decades they have added new technological weapons to their arsenal of hate: websites, computer disks and mass e-mailing. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right of every citizen, but must correspond with the obligation to respect other rights. Hate speech and materials, delivered from the platform of the mosque, theoretically a neutral, spiritual place open to worship for all Muslims, and from homes and workplaces must not be tolerated. They engender violence and create rifts in the society. Law, if there is any, and its execution has been ineffective in dealing with the sectarian mullah. Lastly, social reasons are no less important in encouraging religious extremism and sectarianism than the failure of government. The state is primarily responsible for maintaining law and order, protecting the citizens and bringing sectarian criminals to justice, but that doesn’t absolve the society altogether. Socially aware and active societies have soft power that they can use to ostracise, marginalise and openly condemn religious violence, hate and communalism. By growing religious in a wrong way, this society has not publicly denounced religious violence. Silence on sectarian-motivated violence and murders and now passive approval of Talibanisation provide us enough clues about how a non-activist, parochial and communalised society encourages extremism. Sectarian madrassas and mullahs challenging the writ of the state both in the rural, tribal periphery and the capital have been supported by the society. The urban middle class, with a conservative and sectarian mind-set, meets most of their material needs in return for expected spiritual rewards. This is an atrocious manifestation of religiosity. The danger is that allegiance to sect and faith may replace our fundamental commitment and obligation to state and nationhood. The mullahs, whose feeling for the Pakistani state as envisioned by its founders is extremely weak, continue to challenge this vision by insisting on transforming the country into a theocratic state, even if it requires use of force. The Pakistani state, or more precisely the military rulers and the politicians guided by them, must show courage and constrain extremists within the limits of law without violating their fundamental rights. But this would only be possible if we quickly return to constitutional legitimacy, genuine representation and rule of law. The society must raise its voice and protest against religious intolerance as well as against the politically expedient responses of the government. The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.