Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Who will tackle religious extremism in Pakistan

A veneer of religion By Kamila Hyat
The News, January 24, 2008

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

The extremism that has swept over the country in the past few years, and is now moving ahead faster than ever before, has raised very real questions about the kind of future Pakistan can look forward to.

The threat from those preaching messages of hatred is now terrifyingly real. The uncovering of a plot to not only bomb an ashura procession in Karachi, but also, according to police, to lace the water to be used by those taking part in it with cyanide is only the latest example of the kind of medieval madness into which we have descended.

Because it now exists in so many places and affects so many lives, there is a need to understand better the nature of the militant menace. Somewhere beneath the veneer of religion cited as their motive by those staging terrorist attacks, lies the far bigger issue of severe socio-economic deprivation and the growing sense of frustration that comes with it.

Certainly, people who see little opportunity in life and no possibility of escape from the hardship in which they lead it are most vulnerable to falling into the clutches of extremist groups. It is significant that many of the thousands of CDs, VCDs and tapes available in the market, in Pushto, in Urdu, in Waziri and no doubt in other languages, contain fiery addresses that often begin with the recital of a few Quranic verses or a prayer, but then talk chiefly about the issues of poverty and the need to seek 'revenge' against those responsible for such oppression. Couched in different rhetoric and stripped of their extensive religious imagery, the speeches would broadly match addresses made by leftist leaders in many countries. The fact that no mainstream political party today aligns itself with philosophies that advocate a greater welfare role for the state, or, still more crucially with the land reform that is essential to ending the cycle of poverty seen everywhere, is one factor that explains why the extreme religious right has, in many places, so effectively been able to fill the vacuum. They have been able to plug directly into the hearts of people -- the coating of religiously inspired zeal building on the sentiments that the vast majority of people grow up with anywhere and which can give greater force to their call.

Indeed, there is mounting evidence to suggest that at least some of those carrying out terrorist attacks are themselves victims of militancy and extremism. The reports that the suicide bomber who killed at least ten people at an Imambargah in Peshawar last week may have been no older than 15 or 16 years are deeply saddening. Just a day before that bombing, a boy aged between 12 to 14 years old had blown himself up at the town of Ghailani in the Mohmand Agency, during what appeared to be an attempt to stage a suicide attack at a military check post. And, this weekend, another teenaged boy has been arrested and is alleged to have been involved in the Benazir Bhutto murder plot. Other bombers too have turned out to be mere children.

Move a few steps backwards along the trail and it seems obvious these young men have been nurtured and trained at seminary schools. The boy held in Dera Ismail Khan, who has apparently stated he was the 'back-up' bomber in the Benazir assassination, has maintained he was recruited by a cleric in Karachi and then sent to South Waziristan for training. The reality of our society today is that seminary schools are the only alternative for parents unable to pay even public school fees but eager to give their children some learning. The food and shelter offered by the seminaries too draws the most impoverished families to them. Their belief that a religious education offers many benefits underscores the fact that those who have so little in life are often sustained by a strong faith that the hereafter will bring rewards in compensation for their suffering. A child at a seminary is seen as one way of guaranteeing this future.

In a situation where unemployment is soaring, the extremist groups also make the only recruitment offers. People who frequent mosques in Lahore, or even more so, towns such as Gujranwala, say that persons who seem to specialize in picking out the most vulnerable often seem to hone in on young men who may take their bait. It is obvious that the sense of desperation faced by these men, many jobless for years, is one factor in the decisions some of them make to link up with militant outfits.

Extremism then, to a significant extent, is a by-product of the times in which we live. The rage beneath the surface threatens much of life. The mobs that burned cars or buildings in the violent aftermath of Benazir Bhutto's murder appeared to be expressing hidden feelings that went beyond the assassination itself. Like the earlier riots, triggered by the appearance in a Danish newspaper of blasphemous cartoons, that broke out in Lahore in February 2006 it seems any event can act as a catalyst for unleashing barely buried feelings. It is also immensely significant that, on both these very different occasions, the gangs of young men that took to the roads targeted primarily the banks, the shops, the restaurants and the vehicles that symbolize the rich in society. Perhaps they also remind the people who with such vigour smashed them down of all that they do not have in life, and will never possess.

Whereas a 'society of equals' dreamed about by philosophers has never existed, the fact is that the gap between rich and poor, and most of all perhaps the lack of opportunity, is today greater in Pakistan than at any previous time in its history. The decline in public sector healthcare, social sector services and most of all education, means that even the glimmer of chance once available has largely ebbed away. What this situation leaves behind for many is desperation, despondency and anger that so often leads to violence.

It is important then to see extremism in its true colours -- as a scourge bred by the conditions of life for so many in the country, and not as an independent, unconnected phenomenon. It is no coincidence that its deepest roots have been planted in areas where deprivation is the most acute -- the tribal areas of the NWFP. The literacy rate in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) is just over 17 percent, compared to 44 percent for Pakistan and 35 percent for the rest of the NWFP. Female literacy stands at around three percent -- the lowest anywhere in the world. For the rest of the NWFP it is 19 percent, for Pakistan 32 percent. There is one doctor for every 7,670 of the 3.2 million people in FATA. For the rest of the country this ratio is one doctor for every 1,341 people in Pakistan and one for every 1,594 people in the NWFP. The Asian Development Bank (ADP) states FATA is the most impoverished area in Pakistan, with 60 percent of households falling below the poverty line. Agriculture, the main occupation for nearly 100 percent of the population, barely meets subsistence needs. Past geo-political realities and policies have combined with these factors to give rise to militancy in this criminally deprived region.

A way out can be found only by addressing the socio-economic causes that lie at the heart of extremism. Pakistan's decision makers must ask how much it has in the past done to rescue people from the situation in which they live, and why so many are so acutely deprived. The links between such hardship and the embracing of extremist causes need to be studied and understood, so that the problem can be effectively tackled -- and this is an issue towards which both the country's rulers and their allies in the West must direct urgent attention.

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