Religious extremism and intolerance has spread widely in our society, especially among the younger generation. In the last two decades, extremism has gone from bad to worse. The government machinery has failed to combat and deter fanaticism.
The country has seen various violent attacks where innocent citizens, politicians, lawmakers and students were murdered by fanatics. Unfortunately, we live in a hapless country where a handful of fanatics decide whether you live or die. The recently conducted human development report indicates that almost half the young people didn’t want to have friendly relations with people from other religions.
The slaying of Mashal Khan by a mob of students in the premises of university, over allegations of posting blasphemous content on social media is where the misuse of our draconian blasphemy laws has led us.
We must remember that Mashal Khan is not the only victim of religious fanaticism; In December 2019, a 33-year-old professor Junaid Hafeez was arrested for defiling the name of Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h). After Hafeez was sentenced to death the prosecution lawyers handed out sweets, celebrating the decision as a religious triumph. This act was condemned by human rights groups.
The list of wrongly accused individuals is long and their stories are heart wrenching. There was also a student in Bahawalpur who stabbed his English professor to death. The student was angered by a farewell party that was organized by professor; the student believed it was an un-Islamic since women were also invited.
The emotional resonance that extremists generate in other Pakistanis has roots in narratives that were historically developed by the establishment of Pakistan. Our population of 180 million has been exposed to extremist narratives for six decades. Various actors have exploited this situation to present an extremist rhetorical vision that has become analogous to the country’s self-image.
The al-Qaeda Narrative
Al-Qaeda, the world’s most ambitious and arguably most successful Islamist extremist organization, has subsumed Pakistan’s narratives into its own. In doing so, it is has succeeded in making the country seem like an international poster child for extremism. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda’s narratives have begun to form Pakistanis’ international views.
As the reactions to the attack on Malala Yousufzai have illustrated, al-Qaeda no longer needs to promote its worldview or its vision for Pakistan. It has established already established a dynamic through clever narratives, and created an environment where other actors reinforce its narratives. A paradigm has developed as an extension of the ‘War against Islam’ narrative. Events are viewed through an ‘Us-versus-them’ lens, with Islam on one side and the West on the other. This auto classification by Pakistanis has become a powerful dynamic in the country. It creates tolerance of extremism on the streets. Counter extremists struggle to dispel this tolerance of extremism.
For example, schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai, and her cause female education—were both perceived to be on the Western side of this paradigm. On the other side, Muslim causes were portrayed as opposition to drone attacks and concern for terrorism suspects.
Why are we Unsuccessful in Combatting Extremism?
Despite the National Action plan (NAP), the country has failed to eliminate extremism. NAP was designed with the consent of all political parties and the blessings of both civil and military leadership, to curb terrorism and militancy. But ground realities and the unwillingness of people to accept inter faith harmony and pluralism have tampered with NAP.
The course of Pakistan in this regard remains unrealized, insufficient and incomplete. The recently approved rights for the Ahmadis is an issue that has outraged a fanatic debate in the country. It is indeed true that Ahmadis are treated ruthlessly and no one has showed mercy to them since the inception of Pakistan. They were persecuted and killed in the 1953 Lahore riots and the 1974 Ahmadiyya Riots.
This hatred and extremist ideology is so deeply ingrained in our minds that we are ever ready to wage a Jihad against these perceived ‘infidels’. This hatred is also a result of the textbooks that we are taught. The stories of Mahmud Ghaznavi destroying the temple of Somnath are presented in a biased manner. Our minds are easily indoctrinated, and in the blink of an eye, we impose decrees and brand someone as eldritch.
Furthermore, our state of deprivation has made people vulnerable to the militants promoting religious extremism. The lack of education, awareness, sense of deprivation and acute poverty has paved the way for religious extremism. People hailing from Balochistan, and Sindh are easily molded by Mullahs and Maulanas towards violence because of their lack of awareness and education. These tactics have radicalized rural areas and are now swiftly expanding to rural areas.
We must immediately rid Pakistan of religious extremism. We must embark on a comprehensive de-radicalization and mainstreaming program. And we must remember that our religion encourages pluralism and inter faith harmony.