The writer is a lecturer at Keene State College, New Hampshire, USA.
In the aftermath of the harrowing attack in Lahore and the occupation of Islamabad by religious bigots, the same old catchphrases are repeated on the air waves by the influential segments of state and society, to counter terrorism and religious extremism.
The manner in which the state and society of Pakistan is handling religious extremism is an extraordinary story. Despite the recurring losses of precious lives in heinous terrorist attacks, the state and society are still unwilling to reorient their priorities to tackle this Frankenstein’s monster of bigotry, hatred and killings. So far, the state and society have limited their repertoire to either ‘negotiating’ with terrorists/extremists or ‘strong’ military action against them. Both these approaches are only meant to cure the symptoms of the underlying problem without getting to its core. These policies could have been justified if these were the rare events in Pakistan. But given that the people of Pakistan have been constantly under attack from religious extremists/terrorists for over a decade now, this naivety on the part of state is intolerable.
Religious extremism is a complex phenomenon, which needs to be framed in a broader sociocultural and socioeconomic backdrop. Terrorist attacks are the ultimate manifestation of the ideology of religious extremism. In other words, the ideology of religious extremism and religious terrorism mutually constitute each other. Both need to be annihilated to get rid of the problem.
But the current policies of the state are focused solely on countering terrorism and not the extremist ideology that provides a lifeline to the terrorists. To win this fight, it is essential to win the battle of ideas. And before an ideological fight can be launched, it is paramount to know where the opponent is coming from.
Development economist Frances Stewart argues that the most violent conflicts in developing countries are results of the following two factors: First, ‘horizontal inequalities’ in society: inequalities between groups culturally defined by social, political and economic factors. Second, the ‘breach of the social contract’ between the state and the citizens, when the state is unable to fulfil its promise of providing basic public goods and a secure environment to its citizens.
If we analyse the contemporary situation of Pakistan in the context of Stewart’s framework, we can better conceptualise the dynamics of religious extremism. The intent is not to claim that socioeconomic inequalities are the causes of religious extremism. The claim is much more modest – ie they provide fertile ground for religious extremism to flourish. The objective of this exercise is to bring forth points that have been ignored in the mainstream discussions so far. More importantly, the hope is to draw some novel insights that can help us craft better policies to tackle this insurmountable problem.
If we look at the data in terms of horizontal inequalities in Pakistan, it is obvious that the overwhelming majority of the poor are excluded from the benefits of economic growth. Income inequality in Pakistan has increased since 2001. The main beneficiaries of the boom of the early 2000s were the upper middle classes of the urban areas. Moreover, since neoliberal reforms, the flow of capital has been moving in the direction of large urban centres. As a consequence, regional inequality at the inter-provincial and intra-provincial levels has worsened in the last two decades.
At the same time, the state is failing to fulfil its own promises. One of the primary responsibilities of the state is to provide access to elementary education to every citizen, irrespective of their income, gender, faith or location. According to the most recent census, the literacy rate in Fata is only 17 percent, whereas the average literacy rate for Pakistan is 44 percent. Similarly, providing basic healthcare is a core responsibility of a state. On this account, we also see sharpening levels of inequality across spatial and social dimensions in Pakistan. For example, the average population per doctor in Pakistan is 1226, but in Fata it is as high as 7,670.
I am not suggesting a causal link between the lack of education and healthcare facilities and the higher proportion of violence in Fata. But this correlation cannot be overlooked simply. In fact, I believe that in order to curb the ideology of religious extremism these number must improve.
Similarly, within Punjab, it is reported that religious extremists are disproportionately located in the southern districts. Interestingly, poverty is also much higher in the southern districts as compared to the rest of Punjab. For example, the percentage of the population below the poverty line in the southern districts of Punjab is 40-56, whereas in the northern and central districts of Punjab, the percentage of the population below the poverty line is 11-26.
One can argue that these spatial inequalities are prevalent in many countries of the global, but they don’t have the problem of religious extremism like Pakistan. I acknowledge that there is not a one-way causal mechanism here, rather, I am arguing that these spatial and social inequalities further reinforce and strengthen the ideology of religious extremism.
As the aforementioned data shows, the state has failed to abide by its own social contract. As a consequence, religious organisations have penetrated these spatially and socially discriminated segments of Pakistani society. They provide free religious education to the children of poor households in madressahs. The minds of young children are filled with bigotry, hatred and extremism from the very beginning. Moreover, these religious organisations develop a system of patronage with their students and they later become the rank and file of these extremist organisations. Historically, the state has turned a blind eye to this. In fact, the state used these extremist organisation for its own geostrategic purposes.
The contemporary neoliberal model of economic growth in Pakistan is not creating enough jobs with decent wages for unskilled workers. Moreover, the agrarian economy is marked by highly skewed distribution of land in favour of large landowners. More than 50 percent of all rural households have no access to land. In such dire socioeconomic conditions, it should not come as a surprise that marginalised groups of people are attracted towards a ‘luring’ fictional ideology wrapped in religious overtones.
What needs to be done now? There is no simple answer. The battle against religious extremism/terrorism needs to be fought on ideological fronts, in addition to the battle on the ground. The narrative of pluralistic and rational Islam needs to be incorporated into curriculums from the early stages of education. But there is another problem: a huge number of children are not even enrolled in school. Thus, without reforming the existing public education system, it is highly improbable to achieve the desired results. Therefore, the public school system needs to be rejuvenated. Higher shares of federal and provincial budgets need to be allocated to education. Similarly, reforms are required in healthcare services. The current expenditure on healthcare is not sufficient to provide decent health care to everyone in the system. Similarly, large-scale employment opportunities have to be created to engage these marginalised segments of society in a more productive manner. The private sector is not sufficient to generate new employment opportunities at such a massive scale. Therefore, government spending needs to increase to generate employment.
But these reforms require the economic elites and the urban middle classes of Pakistan to pay their fair share of taxes. In other words, the redistribution of income is necessary to win this fight.
A highly fractured and polarised society like Pakistan cannot expect to achieve peace and prosperity without a major overhaul of the socioeconomic structure. The challenge can only be met through the collective action of state and society. Those who are serious about rebuilding the crumbling social fabric of Pakistan must unite and demand a new social contract between the state and the citizens. And the new social contract should guarantee that an individual will not be discriminated against based on his/her faith, ethnicity, locality, gender or income.