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Religious Extremism and Terrorism Have a Cause-Effect Relationship in Pakistan: Radical groups such as Hizb ut Tahrir and Al Huda are active in indoctrinating the population

By Muhammad Amir Rana

May 31st, 2015

THE alleged involvement of educated youths in Karachi’s Safoora Goth massacre has once again ignited the debate on growing extremism among educated and higher-income groups.

As expected, the media stirred the debate and commentators tended to focus on different aspects of extremism including its root causes. Some tried to explain the problem in religious and others in political and educational terms.

On the whole, these debates suggested that we are still in the phase of understanding the phenomenon.

Even commentators and opinion leaders do not bother to consult available research on the subject. The real challenge, thus, is to break the existing perceptions and myths that only poverty, inequality, and economic deprivation contribute to extremism. Extremist tendencies are common in all segments of society, irrespective of their socio-economic status.

These perceptions also have serious security implications. For one, law enforcement agencies put all their resources into countering conventional threats and ignore some critical areas, which terrorists are clever enough to exploit.

Most definitions describe extremism as a process in which an individual or a group regards their ideas and objectives as noble and superior to those of others. The desire to realise such objectives at any cost, as well as reactions to perceived threats to such ideas and objectives, may lead to the use of violence.

Extremism in Pakistan is driven by multiple factors and occurs on three levels. Firstly, among lower-income groups, mainly in poorly governed areas including the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and nearby districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as well as parts of southern Punjab and interior Sindh, where poverty, inequality, and loose administrative structures spur extremism and terrorism.

Madrasas and networks of militant and sectarian organisations in these areas act as catalysts, exploiting these factors to further their extremist agendas, leading to extremism and sectarian violence. It is not surprising that sectarian outfits such as Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Tehreek-i-Jafria and small sectarian groups of the Ahle Hadith and Barelvi sects, have managed to establish and sustain strongholds in these areas. In the tribal areas, these factors can further contribute to the ongoing militant insurgency.

Secondly, the level and trends of extremism are different in the middle-income group. The drivers of extremism in urban or semi-urban areas including central and north Punjab, Karachi and Hyderabad in Sindh, the settled districts of KP and Kashmir, are mainly political. These trends are influenced by both internal and external political developments and promotion of an extremist narrative by groups as well as the media.

Militant organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-i-Mohammad, Hizb-i-Islami and Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist cells rely mainly on the promotion of extremist tendencies to find recruits. Extremism is not specific to a community in these parts, although madrasa students and the more religiously inclined communities are usually considered more receptive or vulnerable to absorbing violent tendencies. A closer look at the cadre of militant organisations involved in Kashmir and Afghanistan mainly finds youths educated at formal educational institutions.

Student wings of religious political parties as well as sectarian, charitable, radical and militant organisations remain active in colleges and universities. Other wings of such organisations seek to influence specific segments of society.

Almost every religious organisation — whether its ambitions are political, sectarian or militant — maintains wings with a particular focus on women, traders, lawyers, doctors, and teachers, among others. These wings have a key role in promoting extremism among middle-income groups and have an array of tools at their disposal to increase their influence. They consistently rely on radical literature and publications and disseminate the message not only through the printed word but also through CDs, DVDs and the internet.

Militant organisations in Pakistan increasingly use the internet to promote extremism and spur recruitment, with the youth from middle-income groups as their specific target. International terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda and the self-styled Islamic State have also benefited from this level of extremism, in the form of generating financial and human resources, as well as a favourable perception among the population in some parts of the country.

Thirdly, growing alienation from society is the major driver of extremism among the upper-middle class and the so-called elite of the country. Radical groups such as Hizb ut Tahrir and Al Huda are apparently active in indoctrinating this segment of the population. Both organisations brand themselves as agents of change although both focus on different target groups. Al Huda mainly focuses on women, with the stated objective of “bringing them back to their religious roots”; Hizb ut Tahrir has been striving to create a niche among the influential elite as part of its top-down approach to realising its objective of establishing a caliphate.

Extremism and terrorism have a cause-effect relationship in Pakistan. The challenge of terrorism cannot be overcome without weakening this bond. But moving beyond assumptions and gaining an empirical understanding of the phenomenon of extremism has to be the first step.

Many empirical studies suggest that political activism on campuses can help in two ways. First, it can absorb the emotional energy of the youth and provide them a positive direction. Second, it can minimise the spaces for extremist and militant organisations in educational institutions.

The government has to re-examine seriously why it should not allow student unions to function both in private- and public-sector colleges and universities. Expansion of student unions to big madrasas could be even more effective.

Political institutionalisation is key to countering extremism in Pakistan, which will benefit and enrich the existing political discourse. T

The fear that political parties and student groups will disturb the atmosphere at campuses is based on certain myopic perceptions. Most of the studies on the subject recommend that the long-term effectiveness of student unions should not be undermined by the excuse of short-lived tensions on campuses. At the same time, one should realise that it is the responsibility of the state to provide security to its people. The state should ensure security instead of letting its unfounded fears weaken the socio-political discourse in the country.

Muhammad Amir Rana is a security analyst. He is the Director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), Islamabad, Pakistan.