PAKISTAN seems to be in the grip of extremism often fuelled and expressed by those violently reacting to any accusation of blasphemy.

The recent, and as yet unproven, allegations of desecration of the Holy Quran in Hyderabad could have resulted in lethal consequences when mob fury erupted. However, quick action by the police thankfully has helped contain, at least for the time being, an explosive situation. The resolute decision taken by the police in Hyderabad to disperse the protesters helped avert violence.

Editorial: Pakistan’s ways on blasphemy accusations can only be changed by enforcing the state’s writ

A question often asked is whether the responsibility of countering violent extremism and growing intolerance in Pakistan lies with civil society and educational institutions or whether it is the responsibility of the law-enforcement agencies and the military.

One assertion has been that our civil society needs to work on social and behavioural change to address intolerance and social and ideological conflicts when they permeate a community, without harming individual freedoms and while respecting the right to dissent. However, the responsibility should shift to law enforcement as soon as the situation becomes potentially violent. Dealing with violence and terrorism should rest with the government apparatus trained to handle them.

Since 2011, countering and preventing violent extremism has gained popularity as a means to stem the tide of violence around the world. In Pakistan, government measures and civil society organisations have both pursued the countering violent extremism (CVE) agenda. But is it working? Have we identified the problem correctly, made practical recommendations and plans, and framed the issues wisely?

Pakistan’s efforts to combat violent extremism are closer to the idea of CVE as a means of preventing those most at risk of being radicalised from becoming terrorists. In other words, CVE falls in the realm of policy, programmes and interventions designed to prevent individuals from engaging in violence linked to radical political, social, cultural and religiously inspired ideologies and groups.

Many associate CVE with a ‘foreign agenda’ and see it as disparaging of local target communities.

Many associate CVE with a ‘foreign agenda’ and see it as disparaging of local target communities. The reason is that funding agencies and implementing organisations see these communities as being on the verge of violent extremism if not already supporting extremist groups. That becomes a hurdle in the attempts to build trust with local communities. In fact, acting on CVE without considering the context does not help the goal of local communities themselves taking ownership of the initiative.

Read: Roots of extremism

According to popular CVE theory, religious ideology, particularly in the context of its radical interpretation, plays a crucial role in this process, which is identifiable at different stages. Hence, ideology can be interpreted through constructive and corrective interventions. That’s how the notion of working with people ‘at risk of violent extremism’ and ‘vulnerable youth’ or even ‘vulnerable communities’ emerged and grew in the CVE domain. For some analysts, the role of extremist religious ideology is something like a ‘conveyor belt’ automatically pushing an individual towards terrorism.

This approach overemphasises individual belief and downplays social and political circumstances that give rise to political violence. That is to say ideology in itself is not a core fundamental reason for radicalisation. Instead, there is a complex combination of social, political, economic, structural, identity, tribal and psychological factors at play; these make some individuals more susceptible to extremist ideas than others.

The overwhelming majority of CVE projects in Pakistan are founded on the basis of producing alternative narratives or ‘relevant’ interpretations of faith to discredit extremist ideology. However, the implications of these actions — such as governments or CVE experts assuming the authority to shape religious thought per their needs and wishes — are mostly overlooked in the enthusiasm of creating new narratives.

In some ways, it is said, “governments are taking on the role of ‘de facto theologians’, implicitly adopting an official interpretation” of religion. Critics say this approach undermines secular principles of neutrality and non-intervention in faith.

There is an urgent need for a detailed, formal scrutiny of international and intergovernmental decision-making in the field of CVE. The absence of critical debates on the impact, legitimacy and effectiveness of CVE policies gives rise to more problems than solutions.

How can we understand the susceptibility of the young generations to extremist ideas and invoke the narratives that answer their quest for an identity and a sense of being rooted in their historically perceived traditions? In other words, how can we move to create constructive intervention and positive engagement with local communities, particularly the younger generations in specific settings in Pakistan?

Editorial: Anti-extremism policy

Though divided along sectarian lines, Pakistani Muslims are emotionally attached to Islam which constitutes their core identity. They can gather for any religious cause or issue. Though they usually do not vote for religious political parties, they can exert considerable political pressure to influence public policies.

Violent extremism can only be challenged by inclusive and effective multidisciplinary and multi-agency approaches. “Attempts to combat the totalitarian and intolerant nature of violent extremist groups require a holistic understanding of local sectarian grievances and structural issues such as energy, access to water, housing, quality of education” unemployment, healthcare services, and gender justice.

It is imperative to recognise the people’s attachment to their belief systems. Building a coherent and open society that nurtures a culture of respect for differences must consider constructive and long-term engagement with local communities in a frank and sustained dialogue.

Trust building between governments and communities is crucial to developing and implementing a comprehensive national CVE strategy. Any success in CVE programming at the local level will hinge upon stronger relationships with teachers, youth, sports clubs, etc., and on integrating religious youths and imams with the broader communities.

Pakistan’s efforts to counter online propaganda and coordination among terrorist entities must be taken seriously with adequate funding for research. While counter-narratives and counter-messaging are necessary tools, they should not be considered the only methods of reducing violent extremism.

The writer is a consultant and researcher working on social issues, including building resilience and cohesion in stressed communities.

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2022

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