Pakistan's Extremism Problem: Why Does Imran Khan Always Get It Wrong?

Pakistan's Extremism Problem: Why Does Imran Khan Always Get It Wrong?
Prime Minister Imran Khan recently stated that force will not eliminate extremism. Instead, he said that unfiltered content on phones contributes to extremism, that the youth need to be taught ethics and morality, and that there was an urgent need for a Single National Curriculum (SNC). All of this shows that the prime minister is out to lunch again.

Let’s visit each of these claims. First, it is true that terrorism is addressed by tackling the root cause of the perceived grievance. In cases like Kashmir or Palestine, the root cause of the grievance is the denial of self-determination of a disenfranchised population or the human rights violation of a subjugated minority. The resolution of their issues lies in addressing their human rights.

However, this does not apply to either the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), both of which do not arise from minority backgrounds. They emerge from majoritarian backgrounds and wish to foist their way of life on others. They target vulnerable minorities and have not even spared children in their thirst for blood.

Such groups cannot be reasoned with; they have forfeited their humanity through a warped medieval narrative. Such groups are addressed by putting forth a united front to excise them and their putrid ideology from society. That is how the khawarij (outsiders) were dealt with by the early Muslims. The solution here is not dialogue but an expulsion or amputation from the Muslim body. Pakistan can learn from the U.A.E. on how they expel mullahs whose narrative runs counter to the state interest.

Is Unfiltered Cell Phone Content the Root of Evil?

Second, it is true that unfiltered cell phone content allows youth access to nefarious online groups along with the usual pornographic content. The former, however, is more dangerous than the latter. As author C.S. Lewis wrote: “The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred.”

This is also true in Islamic folklore. As evident from the story of Zahra, in which a sex worker was absolved but a pious gossip monger was condemned.

The solution is not banning online content. The youth will always find ways to access such content. Additionally, the more something is restricted, the more attractive it becomes.

The solution is not recourse to religious morality either. After all, many of the heinous crimes perpetrated by the TTP and TLP are rationalized through a warped religious narrative. Such groups have perfected the art of narrative building, for they can easily marshal ancient texts to justify their course of action. The state does not have the capacity to counter their putrid narrative. Religious scholars affiliated with the state are often seen as stooges, as in the case of scholars like Bin Bayyah and Hamza Yusuf with the U.A.E., who sanctioned the state’s deal with Israel, and turned a blind eye to its atrocities committed in Yemen.

What is needed is imparting universal ethics or insaniyat (humanity). In the words of the late Abdul Sattar Edhi, “There is no religion higher than humanity”. The state should focus less on the memorization of texts and more on imparting values of ajazi (humility), sabr (patience), shukr (gratitude) and khidmat (service).

There are plenty of Urdu writers who have explored these themes. Dr Arfa Syeda Zehra, my old Urdu teacher, comes to mind. In her interviews, she has focused on the ills of riya-kari (showing off) and mada-parasti (materialism); Pakistanis are bent on conspicuous consumption instead of being content with sadghi (simple living).

If we try to showcase tolerance and respect from the life of the Prophet, TLP and TTP supporters will come up with narratives that show the massacre of the Banu Qurayza, and the extra judicial murder of those who insulted the Prophet. All attention would then focus on a munazara (debate) of competing narratives, where men compete with one another on what is “true” Islam.

What is needed is a shift from commodification and self-entitlement to humility and service. And this is best done through the wisdom of progressive Pakistani writers like Dr. Arfa Syeda Zehra and the life examples of people like the late Abdul Sattar Edhi.

Can the SNC deliver?

The intention behind the SNC is a reduction in inequality in society. Students from various socio-economic backgrounds are meant to follow the same curriculum. This is a lofty goal, and this is precisely why it should not be rushed. Instead it should be democratically vetted by a large group of stakeholders.

The issue is not just about the content but how we teach that content, a point aptly raised by my former teacher, Dr Faisal Bari. If the issue is to impart all education in Urdu, in the same way that the French and German teach their youth, then the question is whether those studying hayatiyat (biology), tabiyat (physics) and kimiyat (chemistry) have a stronger grasp of these subjects than those schooled in English? After all, rote learning is as pervasive in Urdu medium schools as it is in English medium schools.

What is required is that we encourage students to think for themselves and to ask questions, a task in which many of our educators miserably fail themselves. Additionally, this is something that the state does not want, as it tries to control independent thinking on the Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies narrative. In short, the state wants to create minions instead of independent thinking youth, who can freely question and make decisions on their own.

In essence, the prime minister does not understand how extremism is curtailed, how youth concerns are addressed, and how an SNC must be democratically vetted instead of being urgently foisted.

People like Imran Khan are aptly described by Nadeem Farooq Paracha (NFP) in his latest column. His comment on Pakistanis, who are inspired more by postmodernism than either democratic or Islamic values, and who make for strange bedfellows with political Islamists deserve to be highlighted: “Many Muslim academics in the US adopt ‘postmodernist’ and ‘post-secular’ ideas … academics were wagging their fingers at secularism, liberalism and what they saw as ‘enforced modernity.’ These were not Islamic modernists of yore who would try to demonstrate that things such as democracy and secularism were inherent in Islam … This fascinated their Western patrons but, at the same time, Islamists gleefully adopted such narratives as well … It can also lead to rationalizing the ways in which Islamist violence is used, not only by apocalyptic groups, but also by common Muslims – to exercise everyday power.”

In essence, Imran Khan comes from this cadre of people for whom Islam is a reaction to the West as defined by post 9/11 politics instead of being a universal call for radical inclusion. Imam Ali is usually quoted for saying “People are either your brothers in faith or in humanity”. This is like the phrase from the Upanishads, vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family). There was a time in which Imran Khan brought people together by winning the World Cup in 1992 and by establishing the Shaukat Khanum Hospital. But as a politician, he has become an embarrassment.