Countering Violent Extremism in Pakistan
Photo Credit: AP
By Abdul Basit

Countering Violent Extremism in Pakistan

Apr. 18, 2017  |     |  0 comments

Overcoming the twin threats of violent extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, reclaiming the ideological terrain, and winning the war of narratives will be as significant as regaining the physical space from the militants. Terrorist networks can recover from territorial setbacks, infrastructural damage, and manpower losses, but ideological de-legitimization neutralizes their popular appeal. For lasting results, the Pakistani government must challenge the militants not just in physical space but in the realm of ideas as well. 


From the social constructivist perspective, since the idea of war is constructed in the minds of people, so the seeds of peace-building must also be sowed in the mental terrain. Likewise, the seeds of extremist worldviews, sectarian discord, and the clash of civilizations are cultivated in the mind, so challenging the extremist mindset necessitates countering the narratives and ideologies of religious extremism.


Since 1947, Islamic ideology has been a key factor in shaping Pakistan’s national identity, narrative, and concept of nationalism. So, ideology can be a useful policy tool to reverse the tide of violent extremism. Alarmingly, extremist groups have used the same ideology to promote their narratives. Unfortunately, the dearth of credible ideological responses against terrorism and extremism has kept public opinion in Pakistan confused.


Pakistan is a traditional religious society where Islamic teachings and values have great sway in the public and private spheres. Within the framework of traditional religious societies like Pakistan, faith-based peace-building, conflict resolution and management have a greater success ratio. In contrast, external interventions to counter violent extremism are interpreted as attempts at Westernization, forced modernization, or the secularization of the country. Therefore, developing indigenous frameworks and tailor-made models to counter violent extremism, which are contextual and free from external interference, are critical for successful outcomes.


Similarly, in Pakistan, state-owned initiatives also lack legitimacy for a number of reasons: deliberate promotion of Jihadi culture during the 1980s, the dichotomy of good vs. bad terrorists, and a poor record of governance. Against this backdrop, religion and culture can be two powerful tools to create an effective counter-narrative against religious extremism.


Four elements are critical for the success of any counter-narrative campaign: the credibility of the messenger, the clarity and coherence of the message, mass outreach, the pervasiveness of the medium, as well as knowledge about the nature and composition of the target audience. Individuals and communities process events around narratives that resonate with them emotionally. Therefore, the narratives, expectations, and requirements which are consistent with the aspirations of the masses have higher chances of success. 

Kinetic responses constitute only 20 percent of the overall counter-terrorism efforts, while the remaining 80 percent pertains to the creation of counter-narratives, the promotion of moderation, and the strengthening the state-society bond.

Given the religious and social heterogeneity of Pakistan, forging political consensus at the national level to challenge the extremist narrative is an uphill task. On the contrary, at the sub-national levels, same policy goals can be pursued using instruments of culture and religion. Unlike state policies, social- and religiously-driven initiatives have better traction with the masses. Therefore, anything packaged through the mediums of culture and religion will have immediate results with long-term effects, if they are developed and implemented with seriousness and consistency.


The grassroots outreach and connections of religious and community organizations make them ideal partners to work with. They enjoy a fair amount of trust in the eyes of the public. Moreover, not only they are aware of the prevalent extremist narratives in the society but they are also in a better position to come up with appropriate responses. Using community and religious organizations is cost effective as well. These organizations are spread out throughout the country and can speak to diverse social and religious communities in different geographical locales in their own languages in a nuanced and coherent manner. This method also ensures mass dissemination of the message. If utilized intelligently, optimal results can be achieved with minimal effort. 


During a recent visit to Jammia Naeemia, the renowned religious seminary in Lahore, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urged Islamic scholars to reject all decrees that incite violence and to instead promote Islam’s message of peace, tolerance and inter-faith harmony. This evinced mixed responses from Pakistani religious scholars.


Many welcomed the statements as an encouraging step. Others, like the chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, questioned the motive of such a statement and maintained that religious scholars have already rejected the extremist narrative. Another distinguished religious scholar, Mufti Munibur Rehman, pointed out that in October2015, ateam of reputed religious scholars, after consultations with the government and other important stakeholders (the military, intelligence agencies, and the National Counter Terrorism Authority), had already given a national counter extremist narrative to the government but no one implemented or took it seriously.


Undoubtedly, religious scholars in Pakistan have not been very forthcoming to play a meaningful role in countering violent extremism. However, in the past, moderate religious scholars who openly spoke out against terrorists, such as Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi, Maulana Hassan Jan, and Dr. Muhammad Farooq, were assassinated, while others like Javed Ahmed Ghamidi were compelled to leave the country. The government will have to provide security and resources to religious scholars if it expects them to play this role.


At the same time, the government’s non-serious attitude, piecemeal approach, and lack of urgency has also not been helpful. Coupled with that, the government’s own failure to reform the criminal-justice system under the National Action Plan, and relying instead on the ad-hoc policy of extending the tenure of military courts for another two years does not inspire any confidence.


Kinetic responses constitute only 20 percent of the overall counter-terrorism efforts, while the remaining 80 percent pertains to the creation of counter-narratives, the promotion of moderation, and the strengthening the state-society bond. Pakistan will only achieve a temporary respite from terrorist violence at the cost of long-term peace unless the Pakistani state and society combine their efforts to counter extremism and terrorism.

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