What Pakistan needs to fight extremism

By Luv Puri

Nearly a month after Punjab province’s controversial governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri at an Islamabad café, Pakistani authorities are no closer to taking any real steps to punish the assassin. Just this week a Pakistani court deferred a scheduled hearing into the case, and crowds have gathered outside of Qadri’s prison clamoring for his release. A YouTube video of Qadri reciting a poem in the praise of Prophet Mohammad, known as  Naat, has received over 69,000 views. The video was shot while Qadri was in police custody and it remains a mystery who helped shoot and disseminate the video.

The rapid spread of the video and the showering of Qadri with flower petals as he made his way to the courtroom demonstrate worrying trends in contemporary Pakistan. On one side of the spectrum rests Pakistan’s liberal elite, who expressed strong disapproval of the heinous crime and many of whom supported Taseer’s efforts to reform the present blasphemy law. Yet much of the analysis of Pakistan in the time since the assassination has focused on Pakistan’s burgeoning groups of extremists and hardliners.

However, developments in the region have often contradicted such binary categorization. Take for instance Sufi Islam, which many scholars have tried to depict as a counter weight to combat more hard-line Islamic practice. Sufi orders, with their often liberal and less literal interpretations of Islam, celebrating tolerance and love, appear to some an effective antidote to the extremist tendencies of Islam, which were traced to other rigid interpretations of Islam, such as those promulgated by Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith adherents, rather than the Barelvis, whose Sufi-inspired practice is seen as more moderate.

Qadri’s recitation of poetry in praise of the Prophet would be considered heretical by South Asian Islamic scholars belonging to the Ahl-e-Hadith and Deobandi schools of Islam. So how does one explain Qadri’s instinct to kill someone for merely defending reforms in the blasphemy law?

No single factor can explain the present-day realities in Pakistan, a country that has faced myriad challenges in the last six decades, challenges including the failure of Pakistan’s political elite to come up with a cohesive national ideology since its birth, regional tensions with India, and its frontier becoming a launching pad for the Afghan jihad in 1979 (and home to millions of refugees as a result).

However, the present failure of the political leadership to counter religious zealots is directly related to the prevailing political structure in the country and lack of middle class participation in Pakistan’s polity. The Pakistani political leadership, like that in many other developing countries, does not emanate from the middle class. Democracy theorists describe this state as political clientelism, which is marked by conditions of low productivity, high inequality, and starkly hierarchical social relations. The feudal lords and their allies constitute only five percent of Pakistani agricultural households, yet they own 64 per cent of the farmland. The rest of the 95 percent are thus the feudal lords’ political vote-bank. The urban realities are no different than those in the countryside.

The political parties depend upon feudal lords in the country to get votes, which has led to the development of a client-patron relationship, where the elite have a vested interest in continuing the status quo.

There is qualitative evidence from other parts of South Asia demonstrating how the ruling political class emanating from middle class can be instrumental in checking the ascendancy of radical movements. In the early 1990’s, India saw the emergence of one of the most divisive and militant forms of Hinduism witnessed in the 20th century, a movement that challenged the idea of India as a pluralistic and secular entity. However the force that confronted the rightist movement came from political leaders who came from the middle and even lower middle class. They rallied the masses to defend the principle of secularism. As a result, the rightist forces became impotent in asserting their radical nationalist agenda to a large extent in most of the Indian states, despite still playing a significant role in some state governments.

The creation of political leadership centered in Pakistan’s middle class will not take place overnight, and will require major overhauls of Pakistan’s mostly agrarian economy, as well as legal changes and improvements in providing land to the rural poor. Still, the immediate challenge of religious extremism can be met by the civil society and human rights activists with  strong middle class and lower middle class participation.

Pakistan certainly has all the societal ingredients from its middle class for fighting against religious zealotry; in the past, poets of progressive thought and humble background like Habib Jalib openly challenged the regressive ideology of dictators and asserted their right to express themselves freely. The masses identified with them, and they remain icons for ordinary Pakistanis. Even now, the elite Pakistani political leaders, such as the chief minister of Punjab Shahbaz Shariff, have to recite the work of poets like Habib Jalib to garner the support of the people in public rallies.

The growing importance of social media in Pakistan can be leveraged to engage with large but under-represented sections of society. There has been an accelerated growth in the number of internet users in the last two years. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority figures shows that there was an annual growth of 161 percent of internet users for the period ending in June,2010. And Pakistan has the highest mobile phone penetration in South Asian region with 64.2 percent by October 2010.

It is a safe bet that the main customer base of the internet users is the youth. According to a 2007 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimate, 65% of the Pakistan’s population is belowthe age of 25.

It is vital that the government ensure Pakistani middle class and youth participation as the country moves forward from the tragedy of Salman Taseer’s killing as well as the continued battle between the government and extremists, so that Pakistan can wage a social and political battle against obscurantism and medievalism with all its might.

Luv Puri is a political analyst, who has written two books on South Asian political and security issues. He recently published Across the Line of Control based on field work in Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.


Foreign Policy Magazine – Af-Pak Journal


~ by shemrez on February 4, 2011.

2 Responses to “What Pakistan needs to fight extremism”

  1. I think the world needs to allow Pakistan to collapse. There are nukes, so we could do what we could to keep it as safe as possible, but this suggestion is further along the lines of what is already happening. It is the height of folly to do more and more of the same thing that isn’t working and expect better results.

    Pakistan is turning into a seriously schizophrenic state, where leaders have no authority, the Army has its own agendas and is unnerved too and the people have been fed with so many lies that the more they see the west, the more they will cut their nose to spite their face. The mobs have always ruled, though never so blatantly as now. Mob justice has rarely been punished if at all. People acquited by courts are often lynched on the street.

    The death of the governor and the shower of petals on the killer is only the ‘coming out of the closet’ so to say. The usual logic doesn’t work with Pakistan. They are so conditioned to hate the west and India, that if you save their life, they will accuse of plotting their slow and painful death.

    There is no way to fix this externally and attempts will only provide a target for further radicalization and to blame every problem on and refuse to self-examine. The leadership itself is unable to deal with this as we see them making deals to save their skin rather than govern the country.

    This will fall a lot more and any aid to prevent it will only be like an enabler is to an alcoholic. And no matter when they fall, they will still be radical, they will still have nukes.

    The best solution would be to create a security buffer as far as possible and leave them to figure things out. If they can, this will be the best opportunity. The world tends to look at the nukes and support them, but they simply don’t have a country’s infrastructure to utilize assistance effectively. Even if the world can sponsor the country for an eternity, that still doesn’t change the collapsing situation.

    There are too many external influences. the perpetual fear of India, stubborn agenda in Afghanistan, Kashmir, influence of China and US…. in an already weak country. Its too much for them to cope, I think.

    • If Pakistan collapses, then nation-states in the Muslim world and in South Asia will follow suit in a matter of time because the diversity of Pakistani society shares many characteristics with a lot of communities and countries, despite the fact that Pakistan has suffered more than other countries when it comes to integrating with the international community and integrating with the ‘global village’. The nukes are not only a regional deterrent, but a source of international stability – but I’m sure you can’t see it that way from where you are sitting. If it is the height of a folly to do more and more, then don’t ask Pakistan to do more!

      If you define those things as symptoms of schizophrenia and not the natural adjustment of society to postmodern values and systems, then I think you need to look at many other states where the authority of leaders is routinely flouted, power vested in a few while the many suffer, national armies and private militias fight each other for political, military and economic power, etc. etc. The people have been given hope by the West, by their understanding and by their compassion. Of course, some imperialist and insensitive policies do continue to rouse hatred, but they are only used as fuel by a violent minority to further their agendas and brainwash the masses. Mobs rule throughout South Asia, whether it is Sialkot or Khanpurkalla (its in Uttar Pradesh, if you don’t know where it is). The real challenge is to educate them, socialize them, make them tolerant, and bring them into the mainstream. People must believe in the rule of law, and the courts must dispense justice and safeguard public interest. Otherwise everyone will have the right to lynch people on the streets.

      Did India also come out of the closet when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh guards? Was Blue Star, and the subsequent “When big tree falls, the earth around it shakes” the usual logic of South Asian societies that ought to be followed again? We don’t hate the West and we don’t hate India; we hate oppression and we hate the marginalization of Palestinian and Kashmiri peoples. If you stop oppressing them, and if they have the opportunity for a peaceful and progressive life like you and me, then we can forget all this hate and actually deal with those who manipulate people because of inequality and hatred.

      There is no eternal fix to anything, my dear friend; humanity is dynamic, therefore our solutions change and the systems to achieve those solutions need to be dynamic too. Yes, the Raymond Davis issue is one thing that added more fuel to the fire of radicalization and misrepresentation of true, pluralistic Islam, but the problem is not only being blamed on the US – local politicians, the law enforcement agencies, and even the judicial investigation agencies are coming under fire. So you can’t say that there are parts of Pakistan who are already self-examining and introspectively analyzing the situation. The leadership, the political class, the elite as well as the educated literati continuously fight these militants and their mindset every day that they live in a Pakistani city, among the checkposts and the mosques and madrassas. The country does need governance, but first it needs representation, mainstreaming and tolerance. There is no point giving the mullahs the ballot right away.

      Pakistan is not going to fall anytime soon, and our military and unconventional weapons are totally secure, like most of us are, because we refuse to be cowed down by fear and terror. Don’t underestimate us that easily. Pakistan has a lot of infrastructure and basic support, otherwise it would have fallen a long time ago, according to the perceptions and wishes of a lot of people.

      Before you talk about security buffers, try coming up with a regional solution to terrorism, extremism, poverty and friendship. You can’t be friends with Afghanistan while ignoring Pakistan – why not have a Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan? Oh no, you won’t, because of the Kashmir quagmire. So there are definite issues that have existed for a long long time which have caused so many problems in the first place. Oppression gave rise to extremism in the first place, and unless you see it that way, the terrorists will continue to win and the peaceful people of the world – Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, agnostics, atheists – will continue to lose.

      Pakistan does not fear India – Pakistan wants to be friends with India, just like it is friends with China, and to be honest, is trying to find an equitable friendship with the US as well. Afghanistan is a Muslim country, and a neighbour, and we share a common border and common culture and common heritage and ancestry, so you really can’t strut around saying that Pakistan has a stubborn agenda while India doesn’t.

      If you think we can’t cope, then instead of countering us and rubbing our face in the dirt, why don’t you propose some concrete, workable and practical solutions? Some examples from your own country perhaps?

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