A few days ago, Pakistani newspapers published results of a PEW opinion poll for 2013 and 2014 indicating a large percentage of Pakistanis being perturbed with violent extremism in the country. According to the report of this American survey, about 60 per cent of people in Pakistan did not support the above-mentioned phenomenon and close to 59 per cent people indicated a dislike for the Taliban. In some ways, the PEW survey figures by default legitimise the military operation, since it can now be claimed that since the majority of Pakistanis are worried about violent extremism, something should be done to allay their fears.
The issue with quantitative research methods such as this survey, which is conducted by a foreign organisation, is that results can often reflect the bias of the host institution. A lot depends on what kind of access is provided and what kind of people were questioned.
Referring to the PEW survey results, is it fair to deduct that majority of these people, who expressed anxiety vis-a-vis extremism, are people with progressive thinking that will help in turning the country around towards peace and stability? The survey clearly did not fathom the ideological bias of the respondents. In any case, for a lot of people expressing opinion about such issues, violent extremism is not a reflection of their own thinking and behaviour. In fact, many of us make the mistake of thinking of violence and terrorism as external to our social behaviour.
Allowed to look closely, we can see that violent extremism is actually a reflection of our radical thinking and attitudes. Over the years, people have evolved a certain mindset that feeds into creating extremism. The way we think about our community, the kind of belief system we have, what is our perception of different minority groups and similar issues would indicate that we have, indeed, turned into a society that will support extremism.
The issue of blasphemy is a reflection of our thinking. There is not a day that we do not hear of someone being killed or accused of this heinous crime. Many of those who might have expressed concern about extremists may also be the people that would happily become part of a lynching mob. One of the problems right now is that blasphemy is linked with mob justice. You accuse a person and set the mob on him or her to do the job. If the accused is lucky, he or she will land in a police lock-up or a jail, otherwise death is instantly guaranteed.
Consider another issue of sectarian bias and related hatred (which is more profound in Salafi Wahhabi and Deobandi sections of Pakistani society). It is not something that is exported from the outside but is a byproduct of how we think about other communities around us on the basis of our belief system. Start talking to people and you will soon find out how extremism is sown inside us. We are, however, made to believe that our attitudes and the way we think about things is not connected with the overall drift of the society. Our general understanding, for example, is that extremism is something which is confined to poor areas. Violent extremism is driven by poverty and illiteracy. While lack of financial resources and education may be a contributory factor, it is not necessarily a driver.
In Pakistan, we have gradually evolved into a society with a latent-radical mindset. This means that we nurture a perspective which tends to differentiate between people on the basis of faith. Myths are then built around this bias to deepen the divide. The other day, for example, I was talking to a perfectly educated and fairly affluent gent. We were discussing local and international politics until he inadvertently and unconsciously made a remark that reflected his ingrained perception. His remark had a deep sectarian bias and he was certainly not a person who would otherwise be accused of joining some militant organisation and killing people of the other sect. He was probably not even conscious that his inner bias would ultimately influence how he reacted to violence. Not surprisingly, when educated bureaucrats and police officers in Punjab and other places say that ‘we don’t have terrorism, but sectarian violence’ it speaks of latent-radicalism, which is not limited to the uneducated and the poor.
Again, over the years, violence against women has increased. The number of cases in which women making their own choices and then are killed by family members has increased. It is not simply a matter of the media reporting such cases more than before. Our behaviour is a reflection of our attitude and mindset, which, in turn, denotes the knowledge we have acquired both formally or informally. The increase in the aforementioned cases is not because of proliferation of media outlets but because today, religion and religious bias is much more ingrained in our thinking. The citizen of 30 years ago had lesser access to modern interpretation of religious ideology. Surely people had faith but their perceptions were not programmed in a certain way. Honour was always a critical issue but today, family and individual honour has acquired a lethal tone because now it is laced with a particular interpretation of the religion.
More than ever, it is time that we considered our own attitudes and see how we, at an individual level, are contributing to extremism around us. The poor will get manipulated and driven to violence because of their material needs (at least, so we believe) but the militant infrastructure draws its inspiration, support and legitimacy from those that have a better social status. The source of funding for many militant outfits comes from the upwardly socially mobile middle class and upper-middle class who finance these outfits due to a desire for atonement of sins or because they believe that jihad is a religious duty. Since they do not have the capacity to participate themselves, they happily finance someone else to undertake it. In short, it’s our own radicalism that produces violence. Unless we locate the problem where we should, it will remain unsolvable and wouldn’t get resolved only through military operations.