Extremism is a state of mind where a person holds extreme and narrow-minded political and religious views of their own school of thought, leaving no room for dissent. Religious extremism has a connection with religious sensations, which is, of course, a global issue. But Pakistan, since long, has been considered a centre as well as a victim of religious extremism, since the country has seen a drastic rise in religious extremism and intolerance for many years.
If we look into our history, the religious extremism in Pakistan rose and took up arms during the Cold War period in the 1970s and got gradually solidified. When the USSR intervened in Afghanistan in December 1979, Pakistan favoured the United States against the Soviet Union. Siding with the US, Pakistan fought the Afghan war by the slogan of “Holy War” (Jihad) with cooperation of the US, UK, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and many Muslim and European countries. Pakistan together with all these countries extended her support to religious groups within the country in glorifying this war as a Jihad, exploiting the religious sentiments of the public. The Mujahideen mainly comprised of Pakistani tribals and locals who had backup from Pakistan. And from here, the warriors of the so-called Afghan Jihad started radicalising and brainwashing the people on this side of the border. Since then, incrementally, the public’s veins were injected and minds were filled with religious extremism by radical ideologues who were once displayed as heroes of the Afghan Jihad.
This radicalisation soon led to sectarian hatred and violence throughout the country. In fact, the seed that was sown 40 years ago is now a grown tree, still bearing fruit in the shape of horrifying instances of religious-themed violence, such as the Sialkot lynching. In the recent past, mob lynchings over alleged blasphemy cases have risen. These are episodes of ghastly violence which the radical and extremist religious leaders openly support and eulogise. Meanwhile, in a somewhat nasty surprise, the state seems feeble and impotent to deal with this weaponisation of faith. In fact, recently the government surrendered to the extremist group TLP after the followers thereof blindfolded by religious sentiment took to the streets, blocking roads and clashing with police violently to demand the release of their leader Saad Rizvi and the expulsion of French diplomats.
Incidents like Mardan University lynching, Sialkot lynching or setting a police station ablaze by an angry mob in Charsadda are an early show and a wake-up call for the public in general and the State in particular. They indicate how dangerous this hooliganism in camouflage of religion can be for whittling down the writ of state.
Now, it goes without saying that the extremism infused into people’s consciousness cannot be undone overnight. A comprehensive national strategy is indispensable to extricate the minds of public from this menace before it engulfs the remaining minds.
For a start, the state needs to stop using and playing the fabricated religious groups like the queen in game of chess to advance short-term political goals. In fact, playing this dangerous game could soon result in a checkmate for the state.
This nuisance can be better addressed by revisiting the state’s favourable policies towards these fundamentalist groups.
Above all, as long as the state doesn’t strengthen democratic practices in the country, the public will be attracted to dangerous non-state actors and fall prey to extremist entities that could subsequently bring us chaos and international disgrace. We have already seen some of the consequences, especially the inclusion of this already impoverished country in the FATF grey list.
For young minds, a distinction between the great traditions of Islam and blind fanaticism can be drawn, by introducing a novel field of study, perhaps titled, “Study of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony” in HEC study programmes. This could be further strengthened by the observance of an interfaith harmony week throughout the educational institutions of the country. Authorities will have to host seminars about “peace, tolerance and opposing violence” in schools, colleges, varsities and religious seminaries to influence young minds – perhaps in much the same systematic way as religious fanaticism was infused into pupils for decades.
Last but not least of the measures required: the regularisation of madrassas under the Ministry of Education is a requisite to curb the scourges of extremism and sectarian hatred.
Addressing the rising tide of religious extremism has now become a question of basic survival for this state and society. The gravity of this matter should not be ignored anymore, or else it will get out of hand – with devastating consequences.