Children study in the rubble of a school demolished in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan as an outcome of the war against anti-Pakistan militants (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
Among the many threats that Pakistan faces as a state in the year 2017 is a rise in its oldest and most persistent challenge — that of extremism. In this regard, it would be simplistic to dismiss the entire state of Pakistan with all its magnificent diversity as an intolerant monolith. However, the extent of space that the Pakistani society has ceded to extremist sentiment over the years is alarming and recent events have shown that extremism may have already risen to such high proportions that if not addressed urgently it may become a challenge too insurmountable for the Pakistani state to successfully address in the future.
A prominent manner in which extremist sentiment manifests in Pakistan is in the shape of allegations of blasphemy. Such an example was recently seen in the case of Shaan Taseer — the son of slain Punjab Governor Salman Taseer — being charged with blasphemy by members of radical Islamist outfits such as the Sunni Tehreek. It would be worth noting that Governor Taseer was himself murdered by his extremist bodyguard for extending support to Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for charges of blasphemy. His son had dared to extend support to the same Christian woman, who many feel was unjustly accused and unfairly tried in the country's archaic legal system. Unfortunately, occurrences such as this are, in no way, rare in Pakistan. Most individuals who question the country's stringent blasphemy laws are frequently labeled by extremists as blasphemers themselves.
Recent outcry over blasphemy also led to supporters of the extremist organization Tehreek-e-Labbaik raising religiously charged slogans outside the Karachi Press Club — a symbol of the city's vibrant press — and calling for death to all those who 'disrespected' Islam. An extremist mob also defaced a wall of the same Press Club which honored female journalists and activists as the authorities watched helplessly without taking action. Similar reactions were seen throughout Pakistan's larger cities, including Lahore. Even a leader such as Imran Khan — chairman of the populist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party — had to recently apologize publicly for making a chance remark on Islam, which led to threats from extremist elements insinuating that he would be 'executed' by the faithful if he failed to do so.
While laws which enable Islamist extremism are yet to be rolled back or repealed, others which give some semblance of relief to Pakistan's oppressed minorities have become harder to enact and enforce. Recently, the Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill, 2015 came under criticism by extremist elements, many of whom had proven track records in inciting violence and, indeed, terrorism. One such leader who made his displeasure on the bill known was Hafiz Muhammad Saeed — a UN designated terrorist notorious for his involvement in the 2008 Mumbai Attacks in India. Saeed took to the streets in Sindh to garner support for his views, and thus seemed to overstep his domain as an instrument of the Pakistani state meant to be used primarily for anti-India activities. By the later half of December 2016 lawmakers in the Sindh province were already contemplating to 'amend' the bill which sought to protect minorities from forced religious conversions and premature marriages.
A number of other incidents point towards a rise of extremist sentiment in Pakistan and a full list of such recent events would be too voluminous to produce here. However, it is clear that the rise of extremism itself does not augur well for Pakistan's own national security. Perplexingly, the government's response to rising extremism has thus far been lackluster and the incumbent Nawaz Sharif administration appears to be attempting to appease the extremist elements without taking action against their activities. Also worrying is the fact that some extremist elements are viewed as acceptable — if not vital — assets of the Pakistani state by its own establishment.
In this regard, it is worth mentioning that the Pakistani state's policy of using Islamist extremists and, indeed, armed militants has a lengthy and complex history of its own dating back to 1947. However, the origins of the more recent outrages can be traced back to the tenure of the military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who administered the country from September 16, 1978 until his death in a plane crash on August 17, 1988. It was during Zia's rule that several blasphemy laws were passed and strictly imposed. The country itself embarked on armed jihad against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan with American support. Subsequent administrations tolerated or encouraged Islamist jihadis who would later fight in Afghanistan, India, Iran, Bosnia, Chechnya and even the Xinjiang region of China. Although overt support to most of the armed jihadist activity has subsided since the events of September 11, the Pakistani security establishment continues to harbor some extremist elements in order to pursue its objectives chiefly in Afghanistan and India.
This support for extremism manifested overtly at the highest levels recently when the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hailed Burhan Wani — the slain leader of the internationally banned terror organization Hizbul Mujahideen — 'as the symbol of the latest Kashmiri Intifada' during his official 2016 UN General Assembly address. Pakistan's Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan also courted controversy of his own when he hosted a group of Islamist leaders in October of last year, and promptly relaxed anti-terror measures against extremist Islamist organizations after the meeting. Also, in an interview to a private television channel, the former army chief and military dictator of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf confirmed that terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden and Hafiz Saeed were trained with the support of the Pakistani establishment and were considered heroes at one time.
Such complicity by the state only helps in creation of people and organizations which may not be in the long term interest of the state itself. Furthermore, although both civilian and military administrations in Pakistan have always shown some degree of tolerance towards extremist elements the incumbent Nawaz Sharif administration has demonstrated unprecedented levels of ineptitude and capitulation in its approach to limit the influence of these elements according to its own National Action Plan (NAP) on terrorism. In this regard, it would be important to note that an overbearing army is only partly to be blamed for Pakistan's current extremism woes. The malaise lies deeper and has seeped into the civilian administration, the education establishment, and the civil society.
Although the Pakistani state has traditionally been remarkably resistant to external pressures and internal dissent regarding its policy to harbor militancy in the past recent developments may contribute to creating an environment conducive for a change in policy. The country still has a small but vibrant segment of progressive media that supports moderation and liberal reforms. The existence of such a segment in the media allows concerned members of Pakistan's intelligentsia to spread awareness against the dangers of rising extremism. And it is this section of the media which has stepped up its efforts to curb the extremist tide in a manner that is not only unprecedented in the country's history but was unthinkable just a decade ago. Although small, the very fact that a progressive segment of intellectuals manages to openly disseminate information on the subject is a heartening sign that free press, and free thought, still finds space in Pakistan.
Also, the growing need to repair the national economy is deeply felt by the country's business class. Therefore, the existence of extremism is increasingly seen as an impediment to the country's economic well-being. The desire to attract high value infrastructure and economic projects may thus serve as an incentive for Pakistan's establishment to curb extremist groups. Furthermore, the external environment has changed drastically in the past few years and several South Asian countries — such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India — have been vocally condemning Pakistan's support of extremist groups and elements in a stronger tone than previous times. The election of Donald Trump — an open critic of Pakistan's extremist policies — has also sparked a debate on extremism and the future of the US-Pakistan relations.
Therefore, it would be safe to conclude that all is not lost in Pakistan's struggle against extremism. However, the struggle itself may continue well into the future, during which Pakistan's population — and that of its neighbors — may continue to feel the adverse effects of rising extremism in the country. Ultimately, in order to realize the vast potential of the people of Pakistan the Nawaz Sharif government would be well-advised to show resolve and put in place measures against extremism instead of pursuing politics of appeasement. Change has to come from within and not from outside to make the the war against extremism a much needed success for both Pakistan and its neighbors.
Manoj Saxena is the Editor of South Asia News Review.