Extremism and Malala

Swat daughters lead anti-Taliban movement

By Babar Ayaz

The daughters of Swat have galvanised the resolve of the Pakistanis to fight against religious extremism. In 2009, a girl was publicly whipped by Taliban’s moral force; the nation reacted sharply against this action. The government which had earlier acquiesced to Taliban demands and agreed to implement a parallel Shariat system in Swat had to stand up. A successful military operation was launched forcing Mullah Fazlullah and his bunch of zealots to run away across the border.

In 2012 the Taliban struck back and this time they targeted Malala and her friends for defying the Taliban edict, and bravely leading the girls to continue their education. Again the whole nation is disgusted and angry against religious extremism and its champions–the Taliban.

The government and the military seem to be once again encouraged that the people will back any action taken against the ruthless religious extremists. But the issue is that there is little debate on why religious extremism is violent. Some of the questions that should be debated and explored by the social scientists are:

1. Is religious extremism a new phenomenon or it was embedded in the Pakistan movement in the un-divided India?
2. Is religious extremism expanding and strengthening in Pakistan?
3. Or, it appears to be expanding because religious extremists are using terrorist tactics to achieve their ideological goals?
4. What extraneous and internal factors have sharpened the contradiction between the religious extremists and modernist?
5. And is religious extremism and modernity contradiction specific to the Muslim societies, or other major religions are also affected by this trend?

For lack of space let’s try to answer these questions briefly for the purpose of initiating a debate. First, religious extremism was hidden in the propaganda of the Pakistan movement as it was based on religious nationalism seeking emancipation from the Hindu majority that was to rule India in the post-colonial set up. This propaganda gave the extremists enough space after independence to demand for an “Islamic State” and Shari’a-based public and private laws. Israel is another state that was set up as a Jew homeland. It is also facing religious extremism because the religious extremists want the law in accordance with ‘halakha’ (Judaism equivalent to Shari’a). This is the dialectics of religious nationalism. Mr. Jinnah’s 11th August speech couldn’t have changed the course of religious narrative built during the Pakistan movement. The government gave in and introduced the Objectives Resolution. This was followed by the anti-Ahmadi movement launched by the extremists in 1953–many people were killed.

Second, is religious extremism expanding and strengthening? No. People may appear more religious but they are not attracted to extremism. Good indicators: the people have always condemned acts of terrorism by the religious terrorists; the way of life which these extremist want to impose on the people is impractical in our society hence while people may not contest the extremists stance in public, in action they do; there are more girls going for education and work now than they were when the extremists started forcing their agenda on the people; there are more liberal television channels plays, programmes opposing extremist values (Religious channels are an exception); Bollywood movies are more popular today and are easily accessible than when the extremists started burning DVD shops and attacking singers; there are more fashion shows now than there were when the extremists started calling women fashion un-Islamic; there is a bigger interest based economy today than it was when the extremists godfather General Ziaul Haq tried to Islamise the economy; and the very fact that religious extremists are using terrorist activities to gain media space for their fascist objectives shows that their argument is weak and losing. It is only the losers who try to push their cause through violent means.

Third, yes, the religious extremists have become more prominent because they are using terrorist activities to attract attention. Terrorism gets more space in the media, creates uncertainty and fear among the people. This does not mean that more people are becoming supporters of the extremists’ narrative. The religious extremists know that the majority of Pakistanis are not going to vote them to power. Even moderate religious parties never got more than 10% vote in the past, that’s why they want to establish their cherished ‘Islamic Khilafat’ through the barrel of the gun.

Fourth, the US-led war in Afghanistan, Iraq and unabashed support to the Israeli government has turned many (not most) against the US and its allies. But this support is for getting the US and NATO forces out of the region, it is not for the militant religious groups which are involved in terrorist activities in Pakistan. Internally dangerous policies of the establishment first nurtured these militant religious extremists into thinking that they would be an asset against Afghanistan and India. These people were armed and trained to fight across the border, but now many among them think that those who stop them from continuing Jihad are renegades of the Islamic revolution. At the same time Pakistani society has become deeply weaponised because the so-called Afghan Mujahidin sold a bulk of the arms and ammunition to the people in Pakistan. Each Jihadi group, big landlord and tribal chief has its own private army.

Lastly, it is wrong to think that religious extremism is a peculiar problem of only Muslims. Israel is going through one of the worst phases of extremism where the extremists resist the policy of withdrawal of Israeli forces to pre-1967 position and want to force women to wear long sleeves and skirts. In Christianity there are some small violent groups in Assam and the US. A Christian extremist killed 151 people in Norway. Ireland suffered a long sectarian war. In Hinduism the extremists are working under the banner of Hindutva and RSS, which takes part in anti-Muslim and anti-Christian riots. Among the Buddhists we have violent extremists who killed many Rohingya just a couple of months back.

Yes there is one major difference between the Muslim extremists and extremists of other religions i.e. the Muslim terrorists are more in number; they are spread all over the world, are more organised and more violent. Unlike others who have local issues, the Muslim extremists have the Al Qaeda manifesto to establish the Islamic supremacy over the world. That makes them more dangerous. Thus, MQM’s Haider Abbas was right when he suggested at the SAFMA seminar that the country needs a clear ‘National Counter Extremism/Terrorism Policy’. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

  1. #1 by Lalit Surjan on October 22, 2012 - 12:33 pm

    Sharing this thoughtful, logical and balanced article with my e-friends.

  2. #2 by Falcon on October 26, 2012 - 4:24 am

    Babar Sahab – I stumbled across this article from somewhere else. A very reasonable attempt to delve into the issue. I think you have good grasp of the global snapshot of the issue across religions. However, you would benefit from doing more research on why extremism develops in societies and why Muslims in general and Pakistanis in specific are more prone to it (putting the whole blame on establishment might not be the scholarly answer). Lastly, if possible, also try talking to conservatives to get their view point (this will provide you insight into the psychology of extremism and how is it tied to social / economic / political context).

  3. #3 by Babar Ayaz on December 20, 2012 - 12:17 pm

    Thanks for your comment. I do talk to all kinds of people very religious and secular. Nobody wants to admit that he/she is religious extremist. There are various level of support to the extremists’ cause, but most of the time it is qualified that though they do not support violence, the violence is in retaliation of the US and Pakistani establishment’s role in Muslim countries.

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