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Religious extremism in Pakistan

Religious extremism is not a new phenomenon; it is a global reality that has taken roots in various forms across different regions, from Afghanistan and Iran to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and beyond. This alarming trend is characterized by an extreme interpretation of religious ideologies, often accompanied by a willingness to resort to violence to achieve its objectives. It is vital to acknowledge that religious extremism can manifest diversely across countries and is not limited to a predefined list. This article examines the multifaceted manifestations of religious extremism and its corrosive effects, particularly focusing on Pakistan as a case study.
At its core, religious extremism encompasses radical interpretations of religious tenets that often translate into actions fueled by intolerance, discrimination, and violence against those who hold differing beliefs. This distorted ideology rejects pluralism, advocates coercive imposition of religious beliefs, and shows disregard for individual rights and freedoms. It is important to distinguish that not all individuals with strong religious convictions are extremists; religious extremism represents a fringe perspective within most faith traditions and is associated with a minority willing to employ violence or extremism under the guise of religion.
The inception of Pakistan, guided by the visionary Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was rooted in the principle that religion and state affairs should remain distinct. The nation made remarkable strides in its early years, embracing pluralism and progress. However, a pivotal shift occurred in the 1980s, when Pakistan, in alliance with USA, orchestrated an international Jihad organization to counter the Soviet Union. This marked the genesis of a trajectory leading to extremism. General Ziaul Haq’s era catalyzed this transformation, as Islamisation took center stage and radical ideologies burgeoned under the banner of Jihad. The echoes of this period still reverberate today, with the tendrils of radicalization deeply ingrained in society.
Radical forces within society disdain the rule of law, seeking to perpetuate their existence through extremist beliefs. The notorious Asia Bibi case in November 2010 serves as a poignant reminder. Accused of blasphemy but unproven guilty in court, the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) took to the streets, orchestrating vandalism and chaos to coerce the court into overturning the decision.
The landscape of extremism in Pakistan is further complicated by the role of religious organizations (ROs), which wield socio-economic influence. These ROs extend welfare programs, offering free education, lodging, and even organizing weddings and burials for the underprivileged under the guise of religious trusts. This symbiotic relationship between ROs and the marginalized is a pivotal aspect of Pakistani politics. The International Crisis Group’s report on Islamic parties in Pakistan elucidates that these ROs possess disproportionate domestic influence, often exerting pressure through street power and violence. This has led to governments conceding to their demands, thereby furthering Islamist agendas. This state of affairs traces its roots back to the British Raj’s attempt in 1984 to limit the work of Islamic charities and bring the waqf (religious endowments) under the control of the central government. So policymakers should provide welfare to the poor, thereby cutting off support for extremist religious groups.
Tragically, Pakistan stands as one of the victims of this extremist surge. Since the events of September 11, 2001, more than 35,000 lives have been lost in Pakistan due to extremism. The rise of fanaticism within the country threatens its unity, security, and global image. Pakistan was envisioned as a sanctuary for minorities, with its founder, Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, asserting the separation of religion from state affairs. However, the nation’s journey has taken a tumultuous turn. Instances like the lynching of Mashal Khan and a man in police custody in Nankana Sahib, Punjab, reveals the tragic distortion of the nation’s initial vision.
These incidents culminate in a broader narrative of intolerance, as exemplified by the horrific attack on a Sri Lankan manager in Sialkot in December 2021, stemming from apparent blasphemy accusations. A Christian couple was lynched, and their remains were burned in a kiln in Punjab in 2014 after being falsely accused of desecrating the Holy Quran. Such incidents exploit accusations of blasphemy to settle personal vendettas, disproportionately targeting religious minorities. The National Commission of Justice and Peace reports a staggering 774 Muslims and 760 members of minority religious groups accused of blasphemy over the past two decades.
Extremism’s origins can be traced to deeply entrench ideological divides and socio-political-economic disparities, exacerbated by global power struggles and conflicting interests. Pakistan grapples with an array of societal issues, including poverty, gender discrimination, lack of education, and corruption. Among these, religious extremism emerges as the most sinister threat to internal security. Economically, the repercussions of extremism are equally alarming. Attracting global investors is an arduous task in a competitive world. Investors seek stability, predictability, and a conducive environment, factors that Pakistan struggles to provide amidst extremism-induced uncertainty.
Solving the crisis necessitates eradicating biases perpetuated through the educational system. Pakistan’s educational curriculum cultivates an “us versus them” mentality, portraying religious norms under constant threat. Addressing extremism means revisiting educational content to foster inclusivity, tolerance, and open-mindedness. The need to neutralize extremist religious groups’ influence and foster unity among various stakeholders is paramount. Religious extremism’s dire implications extend beyond Pakistan’s borders, affecting regional stability and security. Pakistan’s strategic location and nuclear capabilities heighten the risk of regional conflict. The presence of extremist groups magnifies the potential for violence and instability. Global cooperation is indispensable in curbing this threat and promoting peace in South Asia.
In conclusion, religious extremism represents a menacing force with far-reaching consequences. Pakistan’s journey from its inception as a nation of diverse faiths to its current state highlights the urgency of addressing extremism’s roots. Economic recovery, educational reform, and concerted efforts to neutralize extremist influences are key steps towards restoring stability and fostering a prosperous future. It is a challenging path ahead, but with unity, perseverance, and comprehensive measures, Pakistan can navigate through the storm of extremism and emerge stronger on the other side.

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