INTRODUCTION: THE EPISTEMOLOGY OF EXTREMISM
In a rapidly evolving world, where the line between fact and opinion is blurred – if it exists at all – labels, ascriptions and attributions are used by humanity to save time and simplify associations. If one believes the notion that ‘all British are white’, one would presume every Caucasian and otherwise fair-skinned human to be British – but such a belief is erroneous for both variables: not all white persons are British, and not all British persons are white. Despite such glaring contradictions –unnecessary and unhelpful simplifications – the world and its inhabitants continue to peddle opinions and assertions as statements of fact. An additional fallacy contained therein is the element of subjectivity: an opinion – which may change from person to person, from circumstance to circumstance – does not necessarily represent objective reality, which will be similar – if not the same – to all those who perceive it. And even if all perceivers agree on the objectivity of a statement, the element of subjectivity necessitates that each perceiver assigns a unique degree of validity / veracity to that objective truth, and experiences a unique relationship or association to that truth. The implication is that is objective reality is framed as ‘all British are white’, then one may associate to it as ‘all British are white, but not as white as Americans, who are whiter’, whereas another may identify with it as ‘all British are white; more white than Americans, but less white than Norwegians’. These philosophical questions, and caveats, about being and reality are the quintessential starting point in the study of countering violent extremism, or CVE. Objective reality, as well as subjective associations, experiences and sentiments, all have a role to play in the discussion as well as manifestation of the phenomena of ‘extremism’. The intuitive sequence of formative inquiry therein is as follows: what is extremism? What is extremism characterised by? Who is an extremist: how is an extremist identified? Is extremism a choice – an act of volition and/or human agency – or is it a state of existence, of being, that overrides the human will and overrules psychological controls? Beyond the concept and definition, are there types, categories, classes and degrees of extremism? Can extremism exist in society without extremists? And finally, if extremism is bad for society, can it be resolved or cured, and how so?
THE CONCEPT OF EXTREMISM
Extremism, as a broad concept, is ‘extreme ideas and actions’ which are considered to be distant (or removed) from the ‘mainstream’, and/or from that which is ‘socially acceptable’. Extremism may be understood as an ‘attitude’ which does not conform to the standards of acceptability of mainstream society. By extension, an extremist is one who espouses, propagates and undertakes such extreme ideas and actions. Extremism is not used as a term by itself; since extremism is a description for an ideology, the context of that ideology is employed as a qualifier to elucidate the ‘type’ of extremism. For instance, extremism may be religious extremism , political extremism, fundamentalism, fanaticism, radicalism, and so forth. As conservatism and liberalism constitute the two ends of the political spectrum, they remain a part of mainstream politics and, therefore, are not extremism. Political extremism would be exhibited in cases of far-right politics (fascism), far-left politics (anarchism), and/or reactionary politics. In a similar vein, fundamentalism and fanaticism would constitute religious extremism. What becomes evident is that in modern usage, ‘extremism’ entails a very strong pejorative connotation when assigned to an individual or group or ideology. Centrism, or moderation, may be construed as the ‘opposites’ of extremism.
EXISTENCE AND MANIFESTATION OF EXTREMISM IN SOCIETY
The political economy of extremism, in its simplest explanation, is a study of the cause-and-effect relationship(s) and linkage(s) between individual identity, group ideology, and social condition(s). The interplay of these qualitative variables in reality – where a multitude of other indicators and variables also exist, and are not subject to any ‘ceteris paribus’ or ‘all else being equal’ conditionality – allows for the extrapolation of the ‘drivers’ of extremism. These drivers are bifurcated into micro- and macro-factors, in terms of their relevance to the individual and to society at large, respectively. Micro-factors are labeled ‘pull’ factors – as they pull the individual toward extremism – whereas macro-factors are characterised as ‘push’ factors – alluding to structural conditions which are, in turn, determined by socioeconomic, political, and cultural characteristics. Jessica Jones’ (2017) seminal article for the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) Global Programs provides a succinct and intuitively appealing preamble to the formal discussion of preventing / countering violent extremism (P/CVE).
In order for ‘push’ factors to have sufficient potency and to be able to directly influence any individual, ‘pull’ factors must exist. If an individual is not already exposed, or vulnerable, or prone to radical ideas / thoughts / actions, the prevalence of the latter in society – or even in the individual’s immediate environment – is found to not appeal to that individual as rational, or practicable, or simply, not something the individual could readily associate or identify with. The said individual feels marginalised in that environment, but would require further exploitation or grievance in order to acquire extremist ideology.
In most cases, radicalisation is an easier process to execute when presented with vulnerable individuals who suffer from identity disorder – not necessarily in the psychological or psychosomatic sense, but in terms of one’s ideals and principles and self-assurance / self-certainty – or are confused about which identity assumes greater credence or priority. Even if one does not doubt one’s own self, the simple act of sowing doubt and confusion – about an element of identity, which the subject can (or should) closely identify with – can lead to over-thinking and result in uncertainty; this exposure enhances the subject’s vulnerability to radicalisation and reception (as well as acceptance) of extremist ideas and actions.
However, it has been observed that if very meager ‘pull’ factors exist, and the ‘push’ factors are overwhelming – or appear to be overwhelming to a given individual – then the experience of ‘vulnerability’ is avoided altogether: when an individual self-radicalises and construes of one’s own self as a victim of circumstance, then the individual is more likely to adopt and ‘own’ the extremist ideas and principles that the ‘push’ factors have pushed toward.
EXTREMISM IN PAKISTAN: HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES
Pakistan’s modern experience of extremism and extremist tendencies in society can be ascribed to the Afghan Jihad era and the social policies of the Zia regime. Islam was “used” for the purpose of acquiring a legitimate character for a regime borne out of a military coup: the result was overall weakening of political as well as state institutions – except for the Armed Forces – while religio-political groups assumed greater roles and relevance in society. Some of these groups were radicalized (and militarized), after which they began espousing a distinctly sectarian and supremacist ideology. Groups such as LeJ, SSP, JeM, SMP, TeJ, TSNM, TNFJ, and others propagated a particular sectarian outlook, and targeted members of other sectarian groups in order to victimize them and exert their power and supremacy over them.
In addition to these groups and organizations, Pakistani society was devoid of social safety networks and systems which would identify, address and arrest negative phenomena as and when they manifested. The perpetuation of a quasi-colonial police force – which would oppress and enforce, rather than serve and protect – did not help in nation-building and citizen ownership of national identity. Moreover, three separate, parallel, and intuitively distinct societies were being created due to the existence of three discrete and differentiated educational systems: English medium, which would be the medium of instruction at costly private schools and ‘elite’ institutions; Urdu medium, which would be the general medium of public education up till secondary level; and seminary medium (or madrassah medium), where the curriculum would focus on sources of Islamic beliefs and practices, such as Scripture (Holy Qur’an), Tafsir, Hadith, and other components which were relevant and acknowledged as a pillar of religious knowledge, if not a tenet of faith.
All these societal anomalies and abnormalities only compounded the sense of frustration and the absence of avenues for grievance redressal. Apart from political extremism, religious extremism, and violent extremism, Pakistani society – over a period of three to four decades – became intrinsically aggravated and emotionally charged. The over-emphasis on Islamic religiosity and Islamic character of society, as adjudicated and enforced by the Zia regime, promoted conservative, conventional and conformist elements of society; liberalism, iconoclasm, and unorthodoxy were shunned as aberrations and unwanted (or even unacceptable) occurrences. As these trends and tendencies were societal in nature, the effects thereof were registered far and wide: all across Pakistani society, conservative dogmatism transcended divisions of age, class, religion, sex, education, background, endowment, or any other measure of differentiation whatsoever. The incidence of beards among men and veils among women increased manifold. The costs of violence multiplied and militancy festered.
In these circumstances, extremism in Pakistan was dependent upon the following factors, or ‘drivers’:
Macro-factors / “Push” factors
Structural transformation(s) across Pakistani society – as enforced by the state – embedded conservatism and traditionalism in almost every segment thereof. Society, social norms, customs, and even culture was affected: Arabic influences began to supersede Persian-inspired components of Pakistani culture(s). Gender disparities also became more ingrained, as gender segregation became the outdoors rule, and disproportionate privileges – separate and unequal facilities – were accorded to women in some cases, and men in others. Social pressures to conform to the Islamic character, as explicated by the government, asphyxiated individualism, discouraged freethinking and critical analysis, and even stifled innovative propensities in the economy and in the field of education.
Education and socialization, insofar as they are also structural factors, served to drive extremism into the hearts and minds of Pakistan’s budding generations. Rote-learning of archaic curricula continued unabated and unchecked, and no subject or curricular component provided any room for critical thinking or subjective analysis. Education failed to enrich the quality of life and experience of living. Socialization was strictly monitored and regulated, with the state forcibly preventing any intermingling of genders, or even of thoughts and ideas. While free as individual beings, Pakistanis became slaves to the system.
Compounding all of these structural factors – ‘drivers’ which “pushed” many Pakistanis toward extremism and intolerance – were economic conditions which also could not encourage freedoms and / or liberties. Divergences between the have’s and have-not’s became more pronounced, and the absence of basic freedoms and liberties led to poverty, unemployment, inflation and inequality registering sharper impacts on society.
Micro-factors / Pull factors
As “push” factors performed the role of driving extremism in the most effective manner possible, the “pull” factors determined the crucial difference between being exposed to extremism and being a part of it. Micro-factors or “pull” factors can be generally categorized as follows:
Grievances – whether social, or political, or economic – along with ideological principles / beliefs and ‘personal factors’ are the core drivers which relate to an individual’s identity, association(s) / affiliation(s) and choices. In general, social grievances existed across different classes for different reasons; gender-based grievances also persisted; the absence of any positive, productive, appealing or satisfying outlet in Pakistani society at large became the main driver for intolerance and extremism. Political grievances are bound to emerge when the political process is suspended and martial law is in place: such grievances also combined with economic injustices to generate inter-provincial frictions, divisions between urban and rural citizens, and unemployment played the role of the most important socioeconomic grievance – especially for youth who had acquired a higher education certification at a significant cost, but to no avail.
‘Personal factors’ can also be interpreted in terms of a powerful experience or a tragic event which forces a fundamental reconfiguration of identity, priority and purpose; they include– but are not limited to – denial or usurpation of legitimate human rights or civil liberties; being subjected to victimization through abuse of power or through abuse of state power; suffering intense humiliation; being affected by terrorism or war; suffering from exploitation, especially in a continuous manner; experiencing the untimely (and unnecessary) death of a close family member, relative or friend; and being subjected to extreme helplessness. In developing countries where the state is neither developed enough nor sensitive enough to the needs of citizens and constituents, deprivation and injustice at the individual level can perform the role of effective drivers of extremism. Another example pertinent to the case of Pakistan, and a few other Muslim countries, is the experience of being subjected to a missile strike launched from an unmanned ‘drone’ platform: many Pakistani tribesmen have needlessly lost their family members – and in some instances, entire families – because a technologically advanced power could not be subjected to the international laws of war since the ‘fog of war’ generated by terrorism is too great and strong. Such exposure to personal tragedy and deprivation / denial of rights, mixed with extreme helplessness, can sufficiently drive the lone survivor to madness if not extremism.
Ideological drivers which could propel extremism and intolerance – or emphasize moderation and tolerance – are also important ‘pull’ factors, especially in a country like Pakistan which identifies strongly with religion and culture. Religious codes and cultural strictures, especially those which are intense and compelling enough for an individual to identify persuasively and compellingly with, can be construed as an individual’s active ideology. ‘Pull’ factors which can drive extremism as an ideology, and which have been witnessed in Pakistan, are sectarianism, religious divisions (or religious differentiation, especially when linked to ‘apostasy’), puritanism, and conformism (particularly to accepted social norms, traditions, and cultural elements). Apart from these direct phenomena, ideological drivers of extremism can also be indirect and secondary: through socialization and indoctrination which exposes an individual to the ideology of a terrorist group or extremist organization, young and impressionable minds may be molded to adhere to a warped and twisted set of ideas and principles. Even if such secondary drivers are not promotional materials of terrorist organizations, there are student organizations or ‘federations’ which exist in Pakistani universities: they are arranged along ethnic, linguistic, racial, religious, provincial and other lines of division.
Economic gain, as a powerful motivation which binds human agency in a transactional relationship, can also drive an individual or group towards extremist actions. However, economic gain must be repetitive and cyclical in order for extremism to become a regular characteristic of the individual who experienced economic gain, and who is encouraged to become an extremist as a result of such gain.
Coercion is the final ‘pull’ driver which can explain an individual’s propensity toward extremism, intolerance and violence. However, the typology, quantum and potency of the coercion is directly proportional to the consequent manifestation of extremism – in the same manner as for economic gain, coercion has to be consistent in order to perpetuate the resultant extremism.
In addition to the above, the nuclear family unit of Pakistani society implies that one’s upbringing, and the values and principles one is ‘brought up’ with, also play an important part in terms of driving one’s tendency towards tolerance or towards extremism.
Ultimately, “pull” factors revolve around the individual’s identity and choices of volition – the “push” factors can serve to constrain tolerance or, conversely, promote extremism; but the existence of a strong “pull” factor is the most important determinant of whether one would actually become an extremism, or if one would merely espouse extremist ideas and intolerant thoughts without being motivated to act upon them.
MANIFESTATIONS OF EXTREMISM IN PAKISTAN
PAKISTAN’S EFFORTS TO COUNTER VIOLENT EXTREMISM
The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), Pakistan’s lead counterterrorism institution, has undertaken a slew of measures to augment the national counterterrorism effort, and has focused on the non-kinetic or ‘soft’ aspects of Pakistan’s fight against terrorism so as to address violent extremism and propensity for intolerance in Pakistani society:
RECOMMENDATIONS: TOWARDS AN INCLUSIVE & TOLERANT PAKISTAN
The prescriptive elements of this essay may appear to be a wish list, or an outline of daydreams witnessed with open eyes: naysayers, pessimists and detractors ought to remember that all great initiatives and wonderful achievements – even great nations – were once just ideas, just dreams…
Contributing Analyst - CPEC and China - South Asia Desk (Pakistan)