Cultural roots of militancy

Analysis: Cultural roots of militancy —Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Daily Times, July 22, 2008

The cultural roots of militancy are spread throughout the country and we should not see them as exclusively tribal in nature, or as confined to the borderlands
The challenges we face today are too many, too complex and too threatening to be handled effectively by one political party. Let me broadly divide these challenges into three categories: militancy and violence; deteriorating economic situation; and poor governance.

Militancy and violence is the foremost of these issues.

The present stock of rulers may say that they have inherited many of these problems from the previous government, who is greatly responsible for what we face today. But this is no more convincing an argument than it was about four months ago. A period of one hundred days is more than enough to at least show that things that were bad have actually begun to change.

It is equally true that these problems are such that we cannot expect their resolution in a mere four months, and perhaps not even in a year or two.

But there are other measures of success or failure of a government even if it has inherited problems: have good policies at least been initiated; have worsening trends been arrested?

There is an emerging view that casts doubts on the leadership quality and political capacity of the elected government to understand the terrible nature of militancy. We know its roots, genealogy, extremity and its transnational entanglement with global Jihad.

The emergence of any group that is armed, organised and wants to run its own writ within a territory that it carves out is a direct challenge to national security and sovereignty.

The writ of the Pakistani state has been repeatedly challenged in the tribal regions. These regions are no longer isolated from the rest of Pakistan or even the world, because militant leaders use them as sanctuaries to plan attacks, raise volunteers for this purpose and inflict social harm. Sadly, the zone of extremist, violent activity has expanded in recent months to the settled districts where the Taliban and other groups have been enforcing their brand of law and order.

One reason religious militancy in Pakistan has still not been wiped out is the nature of debate on religious extremism in the country. While extremists operate in limited bands of groups, their social support base has alarmingly increased. For a vigilant society aware of the risk militant outfits pose to national security, even slight tolerance of such groups and individuals would be considered a moral, social and national offence.

Turn on any TV channel, attend any political seminar or engage with any social group with a religious orientation, and you will see open sympathy and support for militancy. The logic they present in support of the militancy is convoluted. What we hear often is this: ‘the state has failed to deliver security goods’, ‘there is unemployment’, and ‘what are Americans doing in Iraq and Afghanistan?’ This is confused and short-sighted argumentation at best and it shows that many do not understand what is in our best interest.

There are religious and political factions in the country with an irrational view of history and politics who think that Taliban-type governance is a better alternative to the semi-secular, post-colonial Pakistani state. Although some of them participate in open, democratic politics, they are not averse to capturing state power by violent means. I suspect that their portrayal of the Taliban militancy as legitimate has a strategic objective, that of increasing political space. In turn, the society at large is losing sight of the grave danger that militancy and intolerance pose to all of us.

There is a deeper cultural and historical issue that we cannot escape in our political debate on militancy and intolerance. We live in a very different age, a truly modern age defined by consumerism, the market economy and material desires. This is our objective world. But the subjective world of at least the majority of Muslims in Pakistan has still not changed. We continue to live in the cultural and historical world of conquerors, conquests, and invading hordes and heroes. Much of this subjective world has been shaped by celebratory historical narratives of Muslim invaders and the practice of asserting religious superiority over other religious categories.

The reason I am expounding on this theme is that the cultural roots of militancy are spread throughout the country and we should not see them as exclusively tribal in nature, or as confined to the borderlands alone. The larger objective of Islamising the state and society that religious political parties have pursued for decades using both the pulpit and open democratic space is yet another factor that has contributed to the increasing tolerance of religious intolerance and militancy.

Is there a way out? We have to work very hard to convince the world and ourselves that we really want democracy, constitution, rule of law and other modern forms of governance and can adapt them to our social setting. We also need to convince ourselves that doing so will not compromise our faith or religiosity. Generations of modernist intellectuals throughout the Muslim world and in the subcontinent have argued time and again that you can be a good Muslim in a modern state structure.

By nature, a modern nation state has secular institutions, and cannot and will never be religious. Only the militant groups that capture the state by force will coerce society to submit to their view of religion and rituals. The democratic route would moderate them, if they choose it, and if they don’t consider it a one-way ticket to power, the logic of democracy will force them to respect freedoms.

While we engage in a rational debate on our future and on how to address the problem of militancy, we need national consensus among political parties that this indeed is Problem Number One and that we must end it with whatever is required. Action needs to be taken urgently because of the real and potential spill-over effects of militancy to other countries. The world may not wait for us and, by choosing its own means and employing them inside our territory, could further create rifts that we may not be able to bridge.

Dr Rasul Baksh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at


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