The complexity of religious extremism in Pakistan is unparalleled in comparison to any other Muslim country. While several contributing factors exist, a primary reason is the presence of a variety of hard-line religious narratives and the proliferation of violent and non-violent movements and groups aligned with them. These groups and movements have not only evolved into a substantial challenge for the state, but have also undermined the influence and authority of the mainstream religious tradition and its institutions. The silence and lack of response from mainstream community is boosting the appeal of extremist groups among the public.
In general, religious movements and organizations in Pakistan, irrespective of their stated slogans and manifestos, share a common trait of leaning towards the ideology of political Islam. Even if they appear to be proponents of democracy outwardly, they actually harbor a lack of trust in the state, its political system, and its core values. The influential elements of political Islam in Pakistan have been active from the early days, but up until the 1970s, they primarily functioned as a pressure group. During this period, traditional interpretations of religion were prevalent at a broader societal level, with madrasahs serving as the main proponents of these traditional interpretations. Comparatively, the leadership of madrasahs and the institutions themselves held more sway than religious originations and movements. However, a gradual shift has occurred since the 1970s. It appears that the entirety of our religious structure has embraced the interpretation of religion through the lens of political Islam. Religion is now understood and studied within this framework, while the moral and humanitarian aspects of religion have largely receded from focus, which used to be a hallmark of mainstream religious circle in the past.
The ascent of social media has enabled greater interaction between madrasah students and extremist organizations. Students find this appealing because these groups offer the only exciting extracurricular activities outside of their regular educational routine. Apparently, the mainstream religious circle in the country has surrendered to the extremist religious groups, even when these groups openly oppose the state. The mainstream religious community finds it easier to disregard the state than to challenge radical or religiously motivated terrorist groups. Although it outwardly shows support for the state, in practice, it has been trying to provide space for groups with extremist views, treating them as if they were immature children.
It appears that the entirety of our religious structure has embraced the interpretation of religion through the lens of political Islam. Religion is now understood and studied within this framework, while the moral and humanitarian aspects of religion have largely receded from focus, which used to be a hallmark of mainstream religious circle in the past.
For example, for almost a decade, the mainstream religious community has depicted militants as a political opponent, opposing military operations against them and advocating for dialogue instead. This perspective remains their priority even today. Militants themselves perceive their attacks as political activities, which in their view, makes them legitimate. Philosophers Jacques Derrida and Jurgen Habermas have both raised the point that if terrorists manage to cultivate the perception of themselves as political opponents, it becomes difficult to categorize their activities as criminal.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has inflicted severe and lasting damage on Pakistan and the state has designated this organization as a terrorist entity. In recent years, there have been occasions, when the state called upon the ulema to denounce attacks against the state or disapprove of the concept of private jihad, they complied with statements. However, Pakistan's mainstream religious leadership, particularly from the Deobandi school of thought, (to which the TTP also belongs), has never issued a fatwa or published any literature as a collective and organized effort to counter the TTP's narrative on behalf of their sect or madrasah board. The Paigham-e-Pakistan was issued under the state's directive, but it was never regarded seriously within religious institutions. Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai's single fatwa from 2001, which sparked a new wave of terrorism, has proven to be more effective and powerful than the Paigham-e-Pakistan document, signed by more than eighteen hundred ulema. Several scholars who individually tried to speak out against terrorist organizations were tragically killed.
When terrorist groups distort or exploit religious interpretations to advance their agendas, it naturally leads to questions about the role and responsibility of Pakistan's mainstream religious community in isolating these groups, countering their narratives, and mitigating their impact on society within Pakistan. Despite the country grappling with this crisis for a long time, there is a scarcity of religious literature on this subject. While ulema extensively talk about issues like blasphemy and obscenity in their speeches and Friday sermons, terrorism is seldom addressed.
Preserving Pakistan's mainstream religious institutions from falling completely prey to extremist organizations is imperative. If not addressed; the influence of anti-state and anti-democratic ideologies on religious institutions or their passive acquiescence to organizations espousing these ideologies will lead to further harm.
During the 1980s and 1990s, violent sectarian groups drew upon fatwas issued by mainstream religious institutions, and contemporary militant groups similarly rely on some fatwas issued by these institutions in the past. Consequently, it becomes imperative for the mainstream religious community to openly address these issues, provide answers, and distance themselves from the ideological underpinnings of the extremist groups.
Preserving Pakistan's mainstream religious institutions from falling completely prey to extremist organizations is imperative. If not addressed; the influence of anti-state and anti-democratic ideologies on religious institutions or their passive acquiescence to organizations espousing these ideologies will lead to further harm. Reforms in religious education are indispensable, with a firm rejection of anti-state and militant ideologies on religious grounds. However, this endeavor is expected to be formidable, given that religious groups have historically regarded government initiatives with suspicion and perceived them as influenced by Western interests. They have opposed government involvement in madrasahs and alterations to the curriculum. Nevertheless, it's essential for the state to grasp that there's no alternative option but to pursue these changes.
In the majority of Muslim countries, religious education is under the control of the state. However, in Pakistan, religious authorities assert their autonomy and resist state intervention in the education system. It is unclear what progress has been made on this issue, however, in 2021, the Pakistani military reached out to Sheikh Al-Azhar for assistance in training imams at military mosques, particularly emphasizing countering terrorist ideologies. Egypt's approach in this regard is widely regarded as effective. During his presidency, Asif Ali Zardari expressed a desire to emulate the Turkish model of religious education, which is entirely under state supervision. Unfortunately, discussions on this issue came to a halt when madrasah boards strongly opposed the move.
After the tragic APS attack, Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri compiled a curriculum called the 'Islamic Curriculum on Peace and Counter-Terrorism.' This curriculum was designed to combat terrorism at its root, focusing on ideological aspects. He also proposed the implementation of an operation akin to 'Zarb-e-Azab' within the country, which he referred to as 'Operation Zarb-e-Ilm.' This comprehensive approach represents a genuine formula that the state should consider adopting, with a particular emphasis on involving the mainstream religious institutions. Otherwise, if the mainstream religious circle becomes more influenced by extremist organizations over time, the challenges will intensify.