Can civil society tame Pakistan’s violent extremism?


Tackling extremism is a political minefield in Pakistan where politicians openly consort with leaders of banned militant groups and sympathy exists within the security forces and civil administration for perpetrators of crimes committed in the name of religion. As a result, many remain skeptical of the state’s ability to put an end to the militant violence that kills hundreds of Pakistani civilians each year, Associated Press reports:

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, the group that claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday bombing, has roots in the tribal region and has declared its sympathy with the Islamic State group. According to Michael Kugelman, Senior Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, it shares many views in common with the scores of other militant groups operating in Pakistan.

“If there is one thing that can be said about all Pakistan-based terror groups, it is that they are all cut from the same cloth,” Kugelman wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “They all share the same violent extremist views, and many of them retain strong links to al-Qaida. And though they focus on different targets — some target Pakistan, others India, others Afghanistan —there are many examples of operational collaborations across the board. In effect, the terrorist landscape in Punjab — and beyond — is essentially one large, overlapping network.”

“In reality, the fundamental cause of mayhem on Pakistani streets is not a malicious foreign power or inept civilians, but blowback from the military’s own long history of using jihad as an instrument of national security,” Aqil Shah [a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy] wrote in Foreign Affairs.

But in a positive trend, local people acting within civil society groups are responding to violent religious extremism in unprecedented ways, notes Anita Weiss, a professor in the University of Oregon’s Department of International Studies. Many have lost faith in a state that, by and large, has abrogated its responsibility to provide for the safety and security of its citizens, she writes in the latest issue of Current History:

Their experiences have produced a deep resolve to change things and end the violence. Individuals, local community groups, and community-based nongovernmental organizations are increasingly organizing themselves to counter violent extremism with inventive, diverse approaches that are completely separate from the actions of the state, the military, or foreign donors. According to the civil society organization Khudi, “Arguably the most powerful—and ultimately the most credible—response has come from ordinary citizens.”

Khudi activists endeavor to engage Pakistani youth in a debate they urgently believe must be held on the fundamental direction of the country and the choice between democracy and dictatorship. They contend: “Years of inefficiency and corruption by elected governments have left many Pakistanis disenchanted with the whole idea of democracy . . . we’ve lurched back and forth for over sixty years, never committing to democracy or cutting loose from autocratic rule.” The group promotes a “democratic culture,” but cautions that “a national consensus in support of this can only be achieved through civil society initiatives.”

The activities of civil society groups like Khudi [an offshoot of the UK-based Quilliam counter-extremist group], the Bacha Khan Educational Foundation, and the Rural Support Programs Network (RSPN) “are showing Pakistan a viable way to counter violent extremism and helping to fill the vacuum left by weak or ineffectual governance that allows such extremism to fester,” adds Weiss, author of Interpreting Islam, Modernity, and Women’s Rights in Pakistan (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014):

Workshops, discussion groups, community organizing, and educational alternatives that foster critical thinking and cultural integrity provide environments where dysfunctional dynamics can be fixed. People gain self-confidence from knowing that their actions can make a difference in their own lives and their communities’ futures. Operating on the ground with no agenda other than collaborating with and empowering local communities, civil society groups set a strong counterexample to the politics of selfishness that permeates public life in Pakistan. Through their own ideas and strategies, these groups are making progress against violence and extremism. They are effectively mobilizing local people to join them in spite of the actions or ideology of the state.

“A key lesson for the country’s elites is that short-term military action and executions, important as they are, are no substitute for structural reforms, especially of school curricula and religious institutions that breed intolerance and Islamic nationalism,” argues Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi (left).

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