Commentary | July 01, 2011

EWI Board Member Ikram Sehgal examines why religious and political extremism have flourished in Pakistan—and what needs to be done to counter those trends.

Literally meaning the ‘land of the pure’, Pakistan has been in the grip of extremism of one sort or the other - ethnic, linguistic, sectarian and religious – almost since its birth. Six decades after independence, we continue to struggle with basic issues relating to identity, democracy and constitutionalism. Elections are always a saga of fraud and violence.  Student militias and weaponry were introduced into our universities under the garb of student unions in the 70s, the rampant murders of political opponents and deteriorating law and order situation transformed Pakistani society into a fertile ground for what has become one of our biggest headaches.  Contrary to popular perception, radicalization is not confined to religion alone. Anyone can be a radical i.e. a minister, a driver, an officer or a cleric - ignorance being the basic factor behind radicalization.

Pakistan today is perceived by the international community to be one of the most radicalized nations.  After driving the Soviets out, Mujahideen groups, which had poured from all over the world into Afghanistan to fight the infidels, indulged in years of infighting among themselves.  Forsaken by their own countries and with nowhere to go, many crossed over into Pakistan and settled in the border areas.  They have played a significant role over the years in radicalizing local groups.  To add to this, tribesmen in FATA have been influenced throughout history by events in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s history of political chaos, economic mismanagement and religious exploitation has spawned disillusionment among the masses. Without a robust political platform the youth were especially affected.  This situation was tailor-made for religious organizations, those with a radical bent, providing a platform leading young people in directions without sense of balance in their lives. Religious and political extremism has flourished like never before.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) are the most radicalized areas.  This malaise is afflicting us because of a weak and outdated system of governance, influence of the Islamist political parties, lack of public participation in political and governance process, etc. Other factors are lack of development and progress, widespread poverty, acute unemployment, inflation, food insecurity and absence of social justice for the people. Some structural causes related to the war on terror has resulted in resentment in the people and radicalism on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border, viz Taliban’s exclusion from the Afghan government, Pakistan’s policies as a key US ally are seen as being harmful to Pakistan, the government’s failure to halt US drone attacks, issue of Afghan refugees, etc.

Analysts and counterterrorism practitioners believe that if the extremism and terrorism threatening almost every country in the world is to be defeated, there is a need to go beyond security and intelligence measures. Pro-active measures must be taken to prevent vulnerable individuals from radicalizing and rehabilitating those who have already embraced extremism. De-radicalization is the process of changing an individual’s belief system, rejecting the extremist ideology, and embracing mainstream values. This concept is manifested in the counter and de-radicalization programmes to demobilize violent extremists and their supporters in many countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Most of these programmes have been influenced by work on de-radicalization and re-integration of former terrorists being carried out in Saudi Arabia.  The success of the Saudi strategy is composed of prevention, rehabilitation, and aftercare programmes.  Increasingly using unconventional and “soft” measures to combat violent extremism has borne some very positive results. Saudi authorities claim a rehabilitation success rate of 80 to 90%, only 35 individuals have been re-arrested for security offenses. Their rehabilitation campaign seeks to address the underlying factors that facilitate extremism and prevent further violent Islamism. Others in the region, including the United States in Iraq, have adopted a similar approach.

To its credit the Pakistan Army has started de-radicalization programmes on its own, one school has been set up in Swat Valley aimed at de-radicalizing young children who were either forcibly or voluntarily mixing with various militant groups operating in the country. Organizers of this first of its kind boarding school in Pakistan say it is providing a small but valuable window into the backgrounds of Pakistan's young fighters and the triggers that vault them into the hands of militants. The Center is called "Rastoon," meaning "Place of the Right Path." There are other Centers in the Swat Valley -- another one for men, one for women and one for adolescents. Officers at this school, aided by psychologists, have spent months researching whether and how Taliban helpers and sympathizers could be de-radicalized.

More resources need allocation because of the growing numbers of child fighters. As opposed to people in older groups, children are extremely vulnerable to the militant threat because of their youth and innocence, they can be manipulated and brainwashed by a group's ideology without much effort. In her article “Pakistan’s Child Fighters”, Kulsoom Lakhani makes a case for this Center, “as a pilot school, to apply best practices from successful programmes of rehabilitating child soldiers in other countries. For example, in Sri Lanka, the government established numerous transit centers as part of a complex programme to rehabilitate former child soldiers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The ICC alongwith the Sri Lankan Cricket Association and UNICEF have partnered a program using cricket to rehabilitate and engage these children”. Before he became Adjutant General of the Sri Lankan Army, my own Coursemate from 34th PMA Long Course, MajorGeneral Ananda Weerasekera, was the Head of the Rehabilitation Program for theJanatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP) hardcore who had surrendered at the end of a particularly tough and bitter counter-terrorism campaign in the early 80s.  Thanks to him and Coursemates late Maj Gen “Lucky” Vijayratna (killed in action) and Maj Gen Siri Peiris, who became Chief of General Staff Sri Lankan Army, I was lucky to have witnessed the program at first hand.

An excellent paper on “Counter-Recruitment Initiative” (CRI) was presented by Hans Giessmann of the Council of Counter-terrorism of the World Economic Forum (WEF), urging Global Leaders to promote the creation and dissemination of counter-terrorism initiatives within identity-based communities to separate terrorists from the larger groups, especially of ethnic or religious peers which terrorists take hostage for legitimising violence against innocent people and for propagating their case in communities they claim to protect. Promoting tolerance, dignity, respect and empathy, CRI proposes to preventing people from becoming attracted, radicalized and ultimately recruited, by addressing the grievances which make people susceptible to hate speech and the propaganda of terrorist networks.

To win the ideological battle the bane of poverty, one of the prime factors fuelling radicalism, must be addressed. The ranks of militants have flourished because of social and economic inequalities in our society, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the erosion of the middle class. That radical clerics are behind radicalism may be true but it is not the whole truth.  The Government must take pragmatic measures to empower the masses by broadening the country’s economic base and address the inequalities in society 

Gist of the paper prepared for the Seminar on “De-Radicalization” organized by the Pakistan Army in Mingora, Swat on July 4-7, 2011.