Our extremism problem
Rashid Wali Janjua


Two passions as per Bertrand Russell threaten human reason and emotional stability like no other earthy passion. These include politics and religion. While politics has the temporal dimension that lends its debates a measure of human fallibility no such luck with the religious debates where the truth is immutable and the dissent an heresy. The farraginous blend that our polyglot religious beliefs present feature differing stances ranging from puritanism to syncretism. The ethos of Indus Valley Civilization is the substrate over which we have grafted the competing belief systems and despite its inclusive nature the sectarian outlook of our Middle East inspired beliefs begets a virulent strain of extremism that runs deep in our religious beliefs. The persecution complex of new converts from an old faith in India clashed with the hauteur and xenophobia of the old faith i.e Hinduism to develop a fortress mentality wherein any rational debate over religion was discouraged.

The conflation of religion and politics and shaping of political identity of the Muslims of sub-continent is a historical fact that raised religion to the top of the charts while nurturing a political ideology for the new nation. A pre-partition persecution complex is a vis a dominant Hindu majority metamorphosed into a fear psychosis of the nascent state vis a vis a Hindu majority big neighbour. Islamic ideology was touted to be the basic political ideology confronting the aggressive Indian irredentism and political coercion of Pakistan. The reliance on religion led to the glorification of the historical figures who had mostly carved out empires through military strength. Religion therefore emerged as the main catalyst of state as well as societal conduct in the realm of politics, diplomacy, and defence. The use of religion in the Afghan war gave official sanction to the employment of religion as an instrument of state policy. Under official patronage the notion of “Islamic Exceptionalism” found a resonance amongst a vast majority of religiously inspired population.

The respectability enjoyed by the religion attracted politicians as well as their followers amongst the public who started employing religion as a tool for political and social empowerment, in a social milieu riven by the income inequalities. The state and society thus reached a symbiotic convergence of outlook wherein religion was employed as a foil to confront foreign aggression and internal inequalities. The failure of the state and society to evolve an inclusive polity based on a secular political ideology gave rise to religious monopolists, who offered political empowerment to the socially and economically deprived segments of the population in return for their blind allegiance to the religious leaders. The growing poverty, lack of development, and an economy constantly on a life support resulted in availability of a steady stream of religious recruits who viewed their affiliation with the religious leaders in terms of political empowerment.

This religiously charged minority acted as a hard inner core of religious fanaticism around which other segments of population also coalesced reveling in their new found social elevation and political emancipation. The political and military governments relied mostly on short term expedient solutions while dealing with religious extremism. that kept growing sedulously unchallenged by any counter narrative by the state or society. The first warning shots were fired during anti-Ahmidia riots followed by anti-Bhutto Nizam-e-Mustafa PNA movement but the needs of the Afghan War put confrontation with extremism on the back burner until it raised its ugly head in full strength during the Musharraf era. The revolt of the extremist clerics of Lal Masjid should have been a wakeup call for the nation but the issue though dealt with force refused to usher in a reforms process to exorcise the demons of extremism unleashed upon itself by the state and the society.

Lack of interfaith harmony and pluralistic political ethos has resulted in a self- righteous mindset that equates dissent and diversity with heresy and sin

After a violent showdown the Lal Masjid clerics were duly rehabilitated by the judiciary and the PML N government, undoing all that was done to tackle the menace of extremism firmly. All this was done by a Chief Justice not for the love of the clerics but the hatred of Musharraf. The state that should have boldly countenanced the spectre of religious violence in the wake of Lal Majid incident caved instead, more in a fit of pique against the Musharraf than the merits of the case. Religious appeasement was equated with statesmanship while rehabilitating the clerics who had challenged the writ of the state so blatantly. Instead of prosecuting those who had took up arms against the state they were rehabilitated with a Madrassa rebuilt in the capital city of Islamabad for them. The state’s retreat was a signal for the extremists to fill in the vacuum with their hate message to garner political support of the gullible masses. The meteoric rise of the Barelvi militarism once known for its pacifism and tolerance was a result of the expedient policies of the political governments following Musharraf who deliberately refused to take the bull of religious extremism by the horns.

The story of religious appeasement that began with the Lal Masjid clerics continued with the likes of TLP which after its first baptism with fire during the Faizabad sit-in was mollycoddled into a ceasefire mode. Those dealing with the insidious phenomenon felt that they had averted a blood bath through their conflict resolution skills but those who were given the rope used the same to hang the state narrative of religious harmony and tolerance. It was a matter of time when the firebrand Maulvis were back on the streets challenging the writ of the state. A Fatwa was issued against the Chief Justice and the other judges on the bench and the Army officers urged to rebel against the CAOS. Now in any other state this should have been the last straw to break the back of religious appeasement. No such luck in the land of the pure however due to several reasons.

The first reason is the lack of preparation of the people to fight the extremists. Government has not prepared the nation to understand and tackle the virulence of religious extremism. In many ways the state has failed the people in terms of provision of public goods and human security. As a result the dissatisfied masses have found refuge in the lap of religious extremism venting their frustrations on the symbols of public and private affluence. There is an urgent need to forge a national consensus against extremism to counter this epistemic and physical violence against the state. PTI Government would do well to create a special division under ministry of interior to work in tandem with the Ministry of Religious Affairs for creation and dissemination of national narratives on counter extremism. All stakeholders in national governance i.e judiciary, Army, police, and legislature should pool their thoughts together to chalk out an action plan based on clear cut objectives to tackle all manifestations of religious extremism with zero tolerance.

It is time the state came out of denial mode to confront the homespun extremism that acts as the support base for terrorism. The PTI government has to understand that this extremism is not externally inspired and lurks right amongst us. For far too long it has been nurtured through foreign doles and internal fatalism. Lack of interfaith harmony and pluralistic political ethos has resulted in a self- righteous mindset that equates dissent and diversity with heresy and sin. It is time the state and society forged a consensus to attack the visible and invisible symbols of extremism like outdated Madaris, hate speeches, violent protests, and ritual obsessed religiosity. The government needs to initiate an awareness renaissance by co-opting moderate religious scholars and disseminating their message of religious inclusivism under state patronage.

Some of the clerics spawning a culture of violent religious extremism in the country are like the proverbial shiver that is ever ready to climb up any spine that is available. The government would do well to deny them its spine. It should not allow clerics to pass judgment or edicts on the faith of fellow Muslims. In Rose Macaulay’s book, “Told by An Idiot” there is an interesting line when a lady tells her six children, “Well, my dears, I have to tell you something. Papa has again lost his faith today”. It is time we stopped fellow Muslims from apostatizing each other and dealt with all overt and covert manifestations of extremism with zero tolerance.