The menace of extremism has plagued Muslim societies especially in the recent decades. This is perhaps the most serious challenge the Muslim world is facing at present because most Muslim societies, with only a few exceptions notwithstanding, are marred by extremism. Passing through the stages of infecting thoughts and behaviours and plaguing speech and writing, to our misfortune, extremism has turned into practical manifestation in massacre, bloodshed and terrorism. In this write-up an attempt has been made to adumbrate the causes of the rise of this monster.
What is Extremism?
Extremism literally, means driving something to the limit or to the extreme or adopting extreme or violent course of action. Nowadays, this term is being increasingly used in religious and political context with reference to Islam. The Muslims who adopt violent means for enforcing or propagating their own version of Islam are termed extremists by the West. The term is applied to curse those Muslims who are against undue US-led Western interference in internal affairs of economically feeble Muslim states on the pretext of War on Terror.
Origin & Historical Background
The term ‘Extremism’ got prominence in international affairs especially after 9/11 attacks in the US. Muslims belonging to the militant group Al-Qaeda, which was led by Osama bin Laden, were accused of carrying out those attacks. Soon after that fateful incident, the then US president George W. Bush announced the War on Terror ‘to dismantle the terrorist groups accused of orchestrating 9/11 attacks.’ Then, the US in collaboration with some Western powers launched an all-out military campaign against Taliban government in Afghanistan for providing shelter and support to Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda affiliates. Eventually, Taliban government was toppled only to be replaced by US-backed government that was dominated by Northern Alliance. This whole exercise took only a few days. Thousands of Taliban were either killed or wounded and a large number of them were detained by the occupant forces. Although Taliban were removed from the government, yet their influence over the country could not be abolished. Even today, in order to bring durable peace and stability to the war-torn Afghanistan, the US, China and Pakistan are striving to initiate a meaningful dialogue process between pro-US Afghan government and the Taliban.
After removing Taliban government, the US alleged that some Taliban groups were having safe havens in Pakistan-Afghanistan bordering areas. So, the US started to carry out drone attacks in this belt. Although the US claimed success in eliminating high-value targets, there are widespread reports of losses of lives and material of innocent people in these attacks.
Since the launch of US-led military campaign in Afghanistan and the start of drone attacks in its tribal areas, Pakistan has been facing intermittent deadly terrorist attacks that have resulted in huge losses of life, property and infrastructure. These heinous acts of terror are claimed by certain extremist and terrorist groups on the pretext of taking revenge from US and its allies. Even innocent schoolchildren were not spared by the terrorists. After the inhumane massacre of APS Peshawar students on 16th December 2014, Pakistan Army launched Operation Zar-e-Azb in North Waziristan. On account of this successful military operation, the people of Pakistan have heaved a sigh of relief as this operation has broken the back of terrorist groups.
Causes for Rise of Extremism in Islamic World
1. Negative Role of the West
The first major cause for the rise of extremism and anti-West sentiments in the Islamic world is the dubious policies and double standards adopted by the Western powers, especially the US. In 1979, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan, the United States started a proxy war against the Russians through Afghan Mujahideen. Throughout the 1980s, Afghanistan was the battleground for a fight between pro-US Mujahideen and Russian troops. The US provided the Mujahideen with sophisticated weapons through Pakistan because at that time these fighters were being hailed as heroes by the US. Since Pakistan faced serious threats to its sovereignty from the USSR, it had no option but to become a US ally in this war.
The Afghan War had serious ramifications for Russian economy which forced the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan in 1989 ergo disintegration of USSR in 1991. So, it was the US that patronized extremist and militant elements in Afghanistan to achieve its vested interests. After collapse of the USSR, Afghanistan was left on the mercy of fate and of warring groups of Mujahideen as they took up arms against each other and ransacked their own country. Hence this civil war and turmoil created power vacuum in Afghanistan. In order to fill that vacuum, a new group Taliban emerged in 1994. The Taliban Mujahideen brought the entire Afghanistan under their sway within a few months. Though Taliban were hardliners and rigid in their policies, they brought peace and stability to the war-torn Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the same Taliban, who once were being hailed as Mujahideen, were declared terrorists and extremists after 9/11.
Middle East is another region that has witnessed surge in extremist and anti-US sentiments. Once again the dubious role and unjustified meddling of the US-dominated West in Arab states’ internal affairs is the fundamental cause for it. Since the establishment of Israel in the heart of Arabia in furtherance of the notorious Balfour Declaration of 1917, the West has protected this rogue state. Each aggression and violent act that Israel carries out against the neighbouring Arab States has a complete military and diplomatic backing of the West. This immoral patronage of Israel has generated genuine reservations among the Arabs.
After 9/11, the US intensified its meddling into the region’s affairs on the pretext of War against Terrorism. In Iraq, the West exterminated Saddam Hussein in a military action in tandem with some local groups to punish him for amassing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) — which were never found there. After Saddam’s removal and his subsequent hanging, Iraq still has precarious law and order situation on account of sectarian differences.
More recently, Syria has also plunged into sectarian strife which has resulted in enormous bloodshed and destruction. The West has failed to play a positive and constructive role in controlling internal differences in Iraq and Syria. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, central governments in certain Arab states have weakened and some countries like Yemen are confronted with bloody civil wars. These developments have led to the emergence of new violent and extremist groups in the region like Daesh or IS.
2. Lust for Power and Internal Differences within Muslim States
The rulers of some Muslim states do also share responsibility for the rise of extremism in the Muslim World. Decades-long rules of dictators in some Muslim countries ignited dissident tendencies which weakened economies of these states that, in turn, provided opportunities to the economically and technologically strong West to meddle in their internal affairs and to overwhelm them. Instead of curbing extremist groups, the power-hungry dictators patronized them to prolong their rule.
3. Negative Role of Muslim Clergy
The clergy of Muslims is also responsible for the rise of extremism in Muslim world. Instead of propagating the real Islamic tenets of peace, harmony, tolerance, peaceful co-existence and forbearance, they fan the flames of negative tendencies like sectarian differences.
How to Counter this Menace?
The Muslims need to realize that they cannot neutralize Western influence in their internal affairs by resorting to extremism. On the contrary, this will further deteriorate the state of affairs as is already manifest in the destruction of states like Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc. The Muslim world can counter West’s imperialistic designs only through education and unity, and not through militancy and extremism.
The West and the US should also revisit their policies of consolidating their economies and military prowess at the cost of killing and weakening Muslims. Otherwise the growing unrest among the Muslims may fuel the already burning flames of extremism and terrorism.
Islam Condemns Extremism
Peace and harmony are the very essence of Islam whereas extremism and intolerance are in sheer contrast to the Islamic teachings. The word Islam has been derived from Arabic word “Salam,” which means peace and Islam means entering into peace. Allah Almighty says in verse 256 of Surah Al-Baqara:
“There is no compulsion in religion.”
At a number of places in the Holy Quran, the Muslims have been directed in unequivocal terms to avoid creating mischief on earth. Furthermore, in verse 32 of Surah Al-Maidah, Allah Almighty declares slaying of one person as slaying of the whole humanity and saving the life of one person as saving the whole humanity.
The Holy Prophet (PBUH) propagated message of Islam through peace and never forced his opinion upon others. As a head of state, the Holy Prophet (PBUH) patronized principle of peaceful coexistence with other nations through steps like charter of Madina. On the occasion of the Conquest of Makkah, the Holy Prophet (PBUH) announced general amnesty for even those who had severely persecuted Muslims. He (PBUH) was even benign to prisoners of war and in all the battles fought during his lifetime, the Muslims were defenders, not the aggressors.
Once an Arab Bedouin came to the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and requested for only one prefect advice. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) said “Avoid anger” and repeated it again and again. He (PBUH) also said to the Muslims:
“Facilitate things to people and do not complicate things for them, give good tidings to the people and do not make them run away from Islam.”
Hence the need of the hour for Muslims is to shun tendencies of extremism, militancy and non-tolerance and to promote qualities like integrity, harmony, brotherhood, tolerance and peaceful coexistence with other communities.
“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” - Excerpt from Jinnah’s inaugural address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, August 11, 1947.
Perhaps the first fatal blow to Jinnah’s vision of a secular and progressive Pakistan was delivered in 1956, when - capitulating to the demands of religious hardliners - the country was officially declared an Islamic Republic. Some argue that the irreversible slide toward extremism truly began when Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto adopted measures in the 1973 constitution to formalise the role of religion in government. This included declaring Islam the state religion, banning un-Islamic activities (alcohol consumption, gambling, etc), and officially branding the minority Ahmadiyya sect as non-Muslims – paving the way for state sanctioned discrimination against minorities.
Yet others squarely lay the blame on General Zia Ul Haq, who launched an aggressive campaign to promote a Wahabi-inspired strain of Islam in Pakistan by establishing an extensive network of madrassas, introducing Sharia-inspired laws, and injecting religious ideology into virtually every aspect of public life. At this point in Pakistan’s existence, assigning blame is irrelevant. Those responsible for laying the foundation are long gone, what remains is a legacy of rabid extremism, intolerance, and bigotry that has rapidly spread through Pakistani society like a cancer.
This is not to suggest that average Pakistanis actively embrace or advocate violent extremism. However, average Pakistanis do often relate to, justify, and refuse to unconditionally condemn the ideologies driving violent extremism – even when it directly impacts their lives in the form of suicide bombings or militant attacks. This accommodation of the extremist mindset creates political space and a favourable environment for radical groups to thrive in.
Consider the issue of domestic terrorism for example. Most Pakistani’s are convinced that the root cause of terrorism in their country is the US occupation of Afghanistan. Devastating militant attacks are routinely blamed on ‘foreign powers’ trying to destabilise the country – despite the fact that homegrown militants, such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, brazenly claim responsibility for these attacks. Yet, in public discourse few commentators are willing to unconditionally condemn extremism or accept the fact that militant groups are a direct result of decades of state policy, which tolerated and in some cases cultivated the establishment and proliferation of such groups.
Also swept aside are controversial issues such as the need to regulate madrassas – many of which are affiliated with extremist groups and produce an endless supply of foot soldiers – or to abolish the draconian blasphemy laws, which are often used to persecute minorities. There seems to be no appetite to tackle ground realities that allow extremism and militancy to flourish in the country, either in government or among the general population. Instead, each new terrorist attack brings a fresh round of reactionary rhetoric blaming ‘outside forces’ and stirring up increasingly outrageous conspiracy theories.
The Malala Yousafzai incident was somewhat of an exception. However, the familiar pattern of deflecting blame and accommodating extremists emerged even after this barbaric crime. While many Pakistani’s expressed outrage over the heinous attack, a number of major political parties, such as Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and Imran Khan’s PTI joined hands with religious hardliners and tried to link Malala’s shooting to the issue of US drone strikes. Predictably, a number of convoluted conspiracy theories materialized as well, claiming that the incident was orchestrated by foreign powers to push Pakistan into launching a military operation in North Waziristan.
By tolerating and often succumbing to fanatics, Pakistan has unwittingly allowed extremist ideologies to become publicly acceptable, to the point where religion can be used to justify the most heinous acts, with little or no consequences. The fact that the state has repeatedly relied on militant groups as proxies has further strengthened their influence and position in the country.
The assassination of Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, in January 2011 is a case in point. Taseer was shot by one of his police guards for speaking out against the blasphemy laws and standing up for a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death on blasphemy charges. He was the only high profile politician to speak out so forcefully on the issue and he paid for it with his life.
Public reaction and the series of events following Taseer’s assassination were disturbing to say the least. Prominent media anchors questioned whether the slain governor had crossed a line by criticizing the blasphemy laws, an issue deemed ‘sensitive’ by millions of Pakistanis. Many clerics and hardliners accused Taseer of being a heretic, heaped praise on his assassin, and instructed observant Muslims not to offer funeral prayers for him. When the governor’s killer was produced in court, hundreds of people including lawyers and religious party workers showed up in his support and showered him with rose petals. Dozens of lawyers also offered to defend the assassin for free.
Hardly any politicians, including those from the ruling PPP (the party Taseer belonged to), dared to forcefully condemn the killer or speak out against the assassination in any meaningful way. Further highlighting Taseer’s isolation, President Asif Zardari – a close friend – did not attend the funeral due to security concerns.
Sadly, incidents of violent extremism and the distorted ideologies that drive them have continued to flourish following the governor’s assassination. Persecution of minorities under the blasphemy laws, cold-blooded executions of Shia Muslims, desecration of Ahmadiyya mosques, and gruesome attacks at public venues have literally become an everyday occurrence in Pakistan.
Another case that illustrates the extent of depravity that has become acceptable in the name of religion is that of Rimsha Masih. Rimsha, a minor Christian girl with Down’s syndrome was arrested in August after a neighbor accused her of burning Islamic texts. Following her arrest, the police station that she was held in was surrounded by an angry mob, which demanded that Rimsha be handed over to them. Reportedly, the mob wanted justice by setting her on fire. While the charges against Rimsha were recently dropped, her family remains in hiding due to safety concerns and it’s unlikely that they will be able to resume a normal life in Pakistan.
Just a few weeks later, an enraged mob attacked and ransacked a girls’ school in Lahore – Pakistan’s second largest city – because a teacher had allegedly included blasphemous content in a homework assignment. While the accused teacher fled and went into hiding, the school’s principal was arrested on blasphemy charges. As outrageous as this incident seems, the list of similar occurrences unfortunately goes on and on.
Some might argue that the above mentioned examples do not reflect the beliefs and actions of average Pakistanis; instead they are simply the work of fanatics representing a fringe minority. While this might be partly true, I’ll point back to my previous assertion and the crux of this article: while most Pakistani’s do not actively embrace violent extremism, they do act as enablers by tolerating, accepting, and sometimes supporting increasingly radical ideologies.
The Pakistani state and public both play their respective roles in creating an environment where extremists can freely operate and thrive. By bowing down every time a radical group or individual uses Islam to justify a barbaric act, or deflecting blame to some obscure foreign power, Pakistanis send a clear message to extremists: there is no accountability for even the most outrageous acts carried out under the guise of religion.
The consequences of this acquiescence are not limited to Pakistan; they have serious implications for the international community as well – particularly the US-led alliance in Afghanistan. Faced with widespread anti-US sentiment and deeply-entrenched extremist narratives, it is increasingly difficult for the Pakistani government to cooperate with America on crucial issues. Doing so ensures being labeled an ‘American puppet’ in the court of public opinion and serves to further strengthen extremists.
Perhaps even more worrying is the fact that the Pakistan army, which generally steers foreign policy and dominates national security issues, is also bound by these emerging red lines. Once seen as the only unassailable institution in the country, the army’s reputation has been badly bruised by domestic terror attacks and US operations on Pakistani soil.
Further complicating the situation is the growing resentment and ideological influence among junior officers and enlisted soldiers, many of who believe that their leaders have sold out to the West. This of course puts the army’s top brass in a precarious situation, where they can’t be seen as collaborating too closely with the West or being too harsh on radical elements. Of course, volumes can be written about the army’s role in creating this mess in the first place.
There are no simple solutions for stemming the growth and proliferation of extremism in Pakistan. Sweeping economic, social, and education reforms would be needed to root out the deeply entrenched radical mindset that afflicts large chunks of the population. It would take decades of persistent, well-crafted policies to achieve this goal. Unfortunately, the kind of strong, visionary leadership that would be needed to carry out such change is nowhere to be seen in Pakistan’s political landscape. For now, it seems that the drift toward extremism will continue unabated.
The writer is a communications consultant based in Washington DC. He can be reached by email at email@example.com
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.