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Religious Extremism and Terrorism in Pakistan

By Saqib Warraich

December 27, 2016

Pakistan was created in the name of religion but the aim was not to turn it into a theocratic state, since most of the founding members were secular and progressive in their approach.

The primary objective was to have a separate country where Muslims in the subcontinent could establish a social welfare state for economic and identity purposes. But in later years we have seen a gradual transformation towards a more radical and orthodox Islamic state.

The reasons for this shift were numerous ranging from instability of political institutions, economic chaos, military intervention, religion cum political entity power game in the national arena, international events and so on and so forth.

But the period of Zia’s military regime proved to be a vital phase for spreading, infusing and injecting religious extremism, radicalization, fundamentalism, sectarianism and intolerance into the Pakistani society. This has resulted in Pakistan being more concerned with internal security challenges rather than external, as extremism and terrorism take the monstrous shape of religious and sectarian militancy.

Extremist sanctuaries are present in every nook and cranny of the country in the form of ‘madrasas’. Extremist religious entities are playing a prominent role in national, political and social spheres. Though Pakistan’s government and the military establishment, which supported such groups before, are now taking certain steps to curtail terrorism. It has now become a very difficult task since the genie of extremism and terrorism is out of the bottle and requires great effort, patience and consistency to deal with.  

Pakistan is currently facing various kinds of terrorism which are unique, difficult and multifaceted and which have trapped her like an octopus traps its prey. One such form is ethnic terrorism, and Pakistan became a victim of it in its early years when East Pakistan felt alienated on the question of national language, which ultimately resulted in its dismemberment from the rest of Pakistan.

Nowadays various sub-nationalities are fighting with the federation over their identity, recognition and rights. They are frustrated by the permanent majority of one province in the centre and the exploitation of their natural resources as well as cultural and social identity.

Another form is sectarian terrorism which is at the top in present time. This form started to develop during Zia’s period whose regime supported and forced the Deobandi sect of Islam on the culturally and religiously diverse masses.

The Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979 was a major stimulus for sectarian terrorism.

Sectarian terrorism has affected all parts of the country but its sporadic strikes are mostly present in the northern and southern areas of Punjab, posing a real threat to the national security of the country.

The epicentre of this form was initially Afghanistan but spread towards Pakistan owing to its alliance and active support for the West in fighting a proxy war against the Soviet Union.

Later this form was used by the Pakistani military establishment on the Kashmir front. But now the monster has taken a hold over the whole country and converted it into a jungle, where everyone is fighting each other by adopting this name.

After 9/11 Pakistan’s government and military establishment took a U-turn in their policies towards the Taliban, by utilizing negotiations and military means to eradicate these groups.

Pakistan is also a hot bed of Islamic militancy with various militant organizations being fully operative and often resorting to violence in the name of Islam. Such organizations took root when Pakistan, during the Soviet War, started to support anti-modern, extremist and intolerant forces eventually losing control of them and having them erode law and order situation in addition to damaging the social fabric of the society.

Another form of terrorism is minority and separatist movements which are vividly showing their effects in Balochistan. Such separatists are clinching to violence based activities to have their voices heard. Almost all such terror activities and terrorists emerge from religious seminaries, which are in abundance throughout the country irrespective of urban or rural spheres.

The motive of all these forms of terrorism, it seems, is to enforce their beliefs on others and stop the way towards a progressive and modern country. For this very purpose they are crossing every limit and are posing serious danger to national security.

After the horrendous attack on the Twin Towers, the Bush administration took a rigid stance of “with us or against us” and Pakistan was left with no other option but to join hands with the US.

Though Pakistan joined the ‘War on Terror’ of the USA, the ‘war’ has become our own to fight. Before 9/11, Pakistan’s domestic environment was about to collapse owing to weak political and economic development caused by friction among modern and fundamentalist forces, regionalism and ethnic conflicts.

Pakistan’s economy was on the verge bankruptcy. Economic growth was very slow and foreign investment was almost non-existence in addition to international economic sanctions imposed due to Pakistan’s nuclear experiments in 1998.

Political and social spheres were depicting a gloomy picture. Democratically elected government had been taken over by a military coup. The bureaucracy was indulged in plundering public wealth; public representatives were openly engaging in nepotism and corruption, religious and sectarian strife was at peak and challenging the writ of the government.

Regionally Pakistan had a sour relationship with her neighbors: India was angry owing to the Kargil war adventure, China was unhappy owing to Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, Iran had concerns regarding the atrocities committed on Shia Muslims in Pakistan, Central Asian States had objections regarding the spread of Taliban and similar militant forces into their countries.

Globally, the image of Pakistan was distorted because of its nuclear policy, support for Taliban government and a lack of democratic credentials. After 9/11, Pakistan wisely decided to side with USA in its ‘War on Terror’ which turned a new stone in Pakistan’s history.

Pakistan came into limelight regionally and globally. US offered generous economic and social support to Pakistan in various sectors which supported the eroding economic situation. By shunning the extremist and militant forces and taking up the active role of a frontline state, international community started respecting and taking Pakistan as a responsible international entity.

In spite of these opportunities, Pakistan faced many challenges. One of the major ones was that after the fundamental strategic shift, Taliban and its alliances turned their guns towards Pakistan and infiltrated the country launching a full scale combat with security forces and law enforcing agencies.

The challenges for a strong Pakistan are a stable economy, social stability, and education reform, re-orientation of civil society and strong law and order. The cumulative result of past blunders is that the whole country is in the grip of violence. The country has been isolated internationally as foreign countries are blaming Pakistan for not making sincere efforts to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorist and extremist outfits in Pakistan.

Saqib Warraich is a PhD scholar at University of the Punjab