The year 2017 has ended on a low note for Pakistan’s fight against extremism. Where once the concern was restricted to impoverished neighbourhoods and lack of education, today extremist thought is flourishing in the media, political spheres, elite circles and educational institutes.
Numerous professors in universities in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi show increased concern for radical and extremist thought that incite violence; a phenomenon previously associated with poverty, lack of education and/or limited to madressahs. Literature on latent radicalisation in college campuses across Pakistan helps to provide context to current trends; one need look no further than the brutal lynching of Mashal Khan at the Abdul Wali Khan University. The misuse of blasphemy laws, often for revenge or personal gain, can anger young students enough to resort to murder.
That is no surprise in a country that cedes space to the extremist ideology of radical clerics and allows them to bring the capital on lockdown for weeks. An open incitement to violence against minority communities, women, students and many more, is likely then to germinate in young minds already vulnerable to a myriad of regressive circumstances, eg Bacha Khan University in Charsadda recently banned mixed gatherings on its campus.
Military means alone won’t end terrorism.
Intolerance, however, is not limited to college campuses or to firebrand clerics. It is not uncommon for political leaders, eg our information minister, to resort to slurs demonising non-Muslims, in order to attack their political rivals or to further personal gain. All this in a country that faces a large youth population that is susceptible to extremism.
There is no scenario where Pakistan’s fight against terrorism can be won solely through military means. For a state in flux, even obvious observations require repetition.
According to the Global Terrorism Index, terrorism-related violence in Pakistan has decreased considerably since 2014, in part attributable to Operation Zarb-i-Azb. In fact, hundreds of terrorist plots were reportedly foiled in Pakistan in 2017.
While Pakistan’s security dimension has improved, extremism has been on the rise, despite tremendous chatter on the subject. Stamping out dissent in college campuses (amongst many other venues) and the dangerous political mainstreaming of intolerance against minorities create conducive environments that exacerbate factors generally accepted as increasing youth vulnerability towards violence.
Rise in extremism cannot be quantified. The greatest impediment in investing in counter-extremism programming is the inability to measure and evaluate progress.
How many fewer young men and women have engaged in acts of violence? How many vulnerable young people toying with the idea of violence have not been recruited either online or in-person?
Its latent nature is what makes it not only difficult to identify early warning signs but also present tangible results.
What is measurable though is the increase in safe spaces to voice dissent, public venues that encourage inclusive community engagement, or the existence of public goods specifically for young people such as public libraries and parks, amongst many more. In Pakistan’s case, the latter are either rapidly shrinking or are absent.
Further, investments in prevention, as urgent as they may be, yield long-term, generational results. For a nation obsessed with instant gratification, there is little political buy-in for such programming.
The country’s national counter-extremism policy has been devised through consultations with political leadership, religious leaders, scholars, academics, media, civil society organisations, and civil and military bureaucracy.
The policy, though well intentioned and all-encompassing, lacks cohesive political will to take it forward and not only implement its measures but sustain its successes.
Global debates and UN resolutions on preventing violent extremism, despite efforts to include civil society, remain state-centric with an overwhelming focus on building state capacity.
States are often unwilling to grapple with the ultimate internal causes of extremism, which frequently include their own policies. In some cases, authorities and leaders are themselves beholden to ideologies that legitimise violence and even propagate it among their own and other populations.
If states are truly looking to tackle violent extremism, they must address their own behaviour.
In Pakistan, alienation, exclusive politics and oppression are structural problems that extremists are trained and adept at exploiting and cultivating. Any conversation on the prevention of violent extremism must move beyond building state capacity and begin to address changing state behaviour.
Safeguarding and supporting Pakistan’s next generation requires a sustained effort and not vote-garnering, political statements.
In environments that are conducive to intolerance and violence, fault lines are increasingly fractured leaving the state dangerously dithering on its duty to create secure and inclusive spaces for young people to flourish.
The writer is a policy researcher.
Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2018