Pakistan’s Struggle With Religious Extremism

Religious extremism is a problem that Pakistan has been battling for several decades now. The rise of extremist groups, fuelled by a mix of political, social, and economic factors, has had a profound impact on the country’s society and politics. These extremist ideologies are often characterised by a narrow and intolerant interpretation of Islam, which seeks to impose its views on others through violent means. The rise of religious extremism in Pakistan has led to a range of negative consequences, including sectarian violence, terrorist attacks, and the persecution of religious minorities. The activities of these groups have led to a wave of intolerance and violence that has threatened to tear apart the social fabric of the country. This article will explore the rise of religious extremism in Pakistan, evaluate the National Action Plan, its shortcomings, and the need for a new framework to combat extremism, as well as the societal consequences of extremist activities.

In the early years of Pakistan, religious extremism was not a major issue. The country was governed by a secular government, and there were no major Islamist political parties. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Pakistani state began to use religion as a tool to legitimise its rule. This led to the gradual Islamisation of the state as religious parties gained political influence.. However, this changed in the 1970s, when the country’s political landscape began to shift towards Islamism. The 1977 military coup, led by General Zia-ul-Haq, marked a turning point in Pakistan’s history. Zia-ul-Haq’s regime promoted an Islamist agenda, introducing Sharia law and supporting Islamist groups. These groups espoused a radical form of Islam, which rejected modernity and Western values. The 1980s saw a major escalation in the activities of extremist groups in Pakistan, as the country became a frontline state in the Cold War. The  1990s saw a period of relative stability in Pakistan, as the military took control of the government and cracked down on extremist groups. However, the events of 9/11 changed the equation once again. Pakistan became a key ally of the United States in the “war on terror,” and the government of General Pervez Musharraf began to crack down on extremist groups once again. However, these efforts were half-hearted, and the extremist groups were never completely dismantled. Today, Pakistan is still struggling with the problem of religious extremism. The activities of extremist groups have led to a wave of violence and intolerance that has had a profound impact on the country’s society and politics. The Taliban, which was thought to have been defeated in 2001, is once again on the rise, and has taken control of several areas in the tribal regions of Pakistan.

To counter the rise of religious extremism, the Pakistani government has taken a number of steps, including the establishment of a National Action Plan to counter terrorism, and the creation of a counter-terrorism force. The National Action Plan (NAP) of Pakistan is a extensive strategy that was launched in 2014 to counter terrorism and extremism in the country.  The NAP calls for the regulation of religious seminaries to ensure that they do not promote extremist ideologies. This includes registering and monitoring seminaries, and promoting a curriculum that emphasises tolerance and respect for diversity. The NAP asserts on a complete crackdown on extremist groups including the freezing of their assets, the arrest of their members, and the disruption of their all activities. It also calls for the strengthening of law enforcement agencies to ensure that they have the resources and training needed to combat terrorism and extremism which includes improving intelligence gathering, and providing better equipment and training to law enforcement personnel. However, these efforts have been hampered by a lack of political will and a fear of reprisals from extremist groups.

One of the main reasons for the failure of the NAP was the lack of political will to implement it fully. The plan was launched with much fanfare but the political leadership failed to follow through on its commitments. It involved multiple stakeholders, including law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, and provincial governments. However, there was a lack of coordination and cooperation among these stakeholders, which undermined the effectiveness of the plan.  The weak judicial system in Pakistan was another significant obstacle in the implementation of the NAP. The lack of capacity and resources in the judiciary meant that cases against terrorists and extremists were not dealt with efficiently, leading to delays and acquittals.  The lack of public support for the NAP was another significant factor in its failure. The plan was viewed with skepticism by many Pakistanis, who saw it as a tool to suppress political dissent rather than a genuine effort to counter extremism. The NAP required significant resources to be implemented effectively, including financial, human, and technological resources. However, the government failed to allocate sufficient resources to the plan, which hindered its effectiveness.

In my opinion, the NAP did not adequately address the socio-economic and political factors that contribute to extremism, such as poverty, inequality, and sectarianism. As a result, the underlying drivers of extremism remained unaddressed and extremist groups were able to continue to recruit and radicalise vulnerable populations. the NAP faced opposition from some political parties, civil society organisations, and human rights groups, who criticised some of the measures introduced under the plan, such as the establishment of military courts, as being unconstitutional and a threat to civil liberties and the creation of the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA) ultimately failed to achieve its objectives.

In, the light of the failure of the NAP to counter extremism and terrorism in Pakistan highlights the need for a new framework. Pakistan needs a new framework to counter extremism and terrorism that takes into account the lessons learned from the failure of the National Action Plan (NAP). The new framework should be based on a extensive approach which must be backed  by strong political will at the highest levels of government. The political leadership must be committed to implementing the framework and providing the necessary resources and support. It should include a comprehensive counter extremism strategy that includes measures to prevent extremism, counter extremist narratives, and promote tolerance. There must be better coordination and cooperation among all stakeholders involved in the fight against extremism and terrorism including law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, and provincial governments. Sufficient resources must be allocated to the new framework, including financial, human, and technological resources.

Countering extremism in Pakistan at  every level demands a multi-dimensional approach that addresses the root causes of extremism and includes measures to prevent radicalisation and promote pluralism. Education is a key factor in countering extremism at every level. The government and civil society organisations should focus on providing quality education that promotes critical thinking, tolerance, and respect for diversity. Education should also focus on providing skills and opportunities for economic empowerment, which can help prevent vulnerable populations from falling prey to extremist groups. Education can help to foster positive values which are essential for building a peaceful and just society. By promoting positive values, education can help to counter the negative influence of extremist ideologies and promote a culture of peace and tolerance. Education can help to raise awareness about the dangers of religious extremism and the importance of countering it. By educating individuals about the risks and consequences of extremism, education can help to build public support for efforts to combat extremism and promote peace.

Pakistan’s history is agitated with religious extremism that has deeply affected its society and political landscape. Pakistan is a diverse nation with a rich cultural heritage, and the promotion of extremist ideologies runs counter to the values of tolerance and inclusivity that are essential for building a strong and cohesive society. By promoting interfaith harmony, and investing in education and economic opportunities, Pakistan can create a more tolerant and inclusive society. By working together, the government, civil society, and the public can help to build a more peaceful and prosperous nation where all citizens can thrive. With a renewed focus on combating extremism, Pakistan can overcome the challenges of the past and build a brighter future for all its people.

Isha Noor
The author is a student of BS Peace and Conflict studies at National Defence University, Islamabad.
Latest news
Related news