Paigham-e-Pakistan Religious extremism: Beginning of the end ? | By Dr Imran Khalid


Paigham-e-Pakistan Religious extremism: Beginning of the end ?

LAST Sunday, thousands of local residents in Wana — the headquarters of South Waziristan tribal district – took to the streets against the recent wave of terrorism in the region, demanding civil administration fulfil its responsibilities to restore peace in the area.

The key demands of protestors included a ban on armed groups in the district, tackling the rise of terrorism, getting rid of kidnappings for ransom and emphatic security for the general public and business community.

The huge gathering titled “peace march” was organised by Wana Siyasi Ittihad (WSI}, and very interestingly, the demonstration was also attended by members of the PTI, Jamaat-e-Islami, PML-N and other political parties.

This is not the first time that people from all walks of life, regardless of their political belongings, have been the part of such demonstrations against religious extremism.

Ever since the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other extremist groups, after the fall of Kabul in August last year, have started penetrating this part of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, there has been a simmering uprising against these extremist elements in the region.

This is a totally new phenomenon in the region that has seriously surprised the TTP leadership as well as other religio-political leaders.

This region, for various reasons including the poor literacy rate, widespread network of religious Madaris and deep sectarian divide, was always considered to be the fertile ground for extremism.

That’s why the TTP and its allies always try to make it the base-camp of their operations in Pakistan.

But things seem to be quite different for them, as evident by the new wave of massive joint protests and demonstrations by the local residents in the last few months.

Such a reaction from the locals, who are generously considered to be staunch pro-religious in their approach, is certainly the most positive development for a country that has been experiencing the gradual rise of religious extremism for the last four decades.

The most encouraging part of these demonstrations is the participation of a Jamaat-e-Islami and some other religious parties.

The participation of the religious political parties, having the similar sectarian identity as the TTP, is certainly an indicator of the fact that religious extremism is now entering into a declining phase in Pakistan – may be the beginning of the end, to be more optimistic.

The reaction of the general public including businessmen, teachers, laborers, fruit-sellers, lawyers, shopkeepers and even imams of local mosques is heralding the emergence of anti-extremism mindset in the country.

Religious extremism has both forms – benign and violent. However, the current form of violent religious extremism in Pakistan is solely linked to the Afghan war and its remnants in the form of a huge network of extremist organizations taking shelter in selected Madaris as their base camps.

Although most of the Madaris in Pakistan have direct connections with religious political parties, reports and surveys conducted by local and international media suggest that only 10-15 per cent of Madaris are found to have any direct or indirect links with the religious extremists groups.

Over the last four decades, however, some Madaris have increasingly played a role contrary to their original intent.

Founded as centres of learning for the next generation of Islamic scholars and clerics, some of these schools have built extremely close ties with radical militant groups and play a critical role in sustaining the terrorist networks – particularly during the Afghan war, the Americans blatantly funded these Madaris to work as the nurseries of mercenaries to support the Afghan Mujahideen.

The Americans very tactfully changed the purpose of these religious institutions to prepare the new lots of Islamic fighters to resist Russian influence by waging a jihad against the foreign occupation forces.

Since then, despite all sincere efforts by the successive governments in Pakistan to “disinfect’” and “cleanse” these Madaris and revert them back to the original role of imparting religious teaching only, the violent religious extremism is continuously on rise in Pakistan.

Dozens of studies and transformational plans, with financial support from international community, have been launched to transform the madrassa school system and entice them to assimilate with mainstream education system.

Some of these plans, on paper, appeared to be very effective to achieve this objective, but all such efforts have so far been unable to deliver anything tangible.

Yes, there has been reasonable success in collecting data about all religious Madaris and their geo-tagging.

The fact is that the religio-political leadership, which is the main beneficiary of this madrassa system, is not ready to allow any madrassa reforms that entails the government intervention to transform these Madaris at all.

This is perhaps the major stumbling block in the way of any madrassa reforms. The second National Internal Security Policy document (NISP 2018-2023) is perhaps a comprehensive document, if implemented in letter and spirit, has all the potential to bring about major changes in the outlook of these Madaris and muffle the prospects of religious violent extremism in this country.

A new national narrative is part of this document that advocates “a tolerant, inclusive and democratic society” thriving on cultural and religious diversity.

As per the NISP document, plurality, diversity and tolerant teachings of Islam will be prepared and disseminated through curricula of schools and Madaris.

There is no doubt that radicalization and militancy is not just limited to Madaris or its students, and people from affluent backgrounds, with modern educational qualifications, are also vulnerable targets of the radical narratives and notions.

The NISP document is a very comprehensive action plan that covers all aspects of this major transformation of the centuries old madrassa system into the mainstream education system without compromising its original intent.

But the leadership of Madaris and some religio-political parties, because of their ‘corporate’ motives, are not ready to support the NISP action plan.

However, the demonstrations and protests in South Waziristan and Swat valley are reflective of the new thinking against religious extremism and radicalism – a pre-requisite for any national action plan to succeed against violent extremism.

This is the first set-back to the TTP and other extremist terrorist groups. This may prove to be a tipping point for the country completely exhausted by the decades of religious extremism and violent radicalism.

—The writer is political analyst, based in Karachi.


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