The assassination attempt on Ahsan Iqbal, former federal minister for interior, shook the country. It laid bare the vulnerability of our society to violent extremists. Moreover, it reminded us that there is a pressing need to come up with novel ways to address the menace of violent extremism in Pakistan.
In this regard, the National Internal Security Policy (NISP) 2018, which Ahsan Iqbal launched after he survived the attempt on his life, provides a beacon of hope. Violent extremism is a complex phenomenon that needs to be understood in the broader socioeconomic backdrop. It cannot be reduced to the determinant as this would be a reductionist and essentialist approach. It is an amalgam of multiple factors, which are dialectically related to one another. We must remember that violent extremism is overdetermined by ideological, religious, geopolitical, social and economic factors.
Unfortunately, there is a tendency among policy circles to adopt a reductionist and essentialist approach. As a result, policymakers tend to focus on a single aspect without realising the dialectical relationship among multiple determinants. But the NISP 2018 marks a major departure from orthodoxy by incorporating the dialectical approach in its methodology. This is the second NISP policy and marks a major improvement from the previous policy.
Social scientists have identified inequities and deprivation as important aspects in understanding violent conflicts in developing countries. Horizontal inequalities that exist between groups provide fertile ground for violent extremism. Similarly, the breach of the ‘social contract’ between the state and citizens perpetuates violent extremism. That is, when the state is unable to fulfil its promise of providing basic public goods to its citizens.
If we examine the data in terms of horizontal inequalities in Pakistan, it shows that a large segment of population is unable to accrue benefits from economic growth. Income inequality in Pakistan has increased since neoliberal economic reforms, and the flow of capital has been moving in the direction of few large urban centres while ignoring small towns and countryside. As a consequence, regional inequality at the inter-provincial and intra-provincial levels has worsened over the last three decades.
At the same time, the postcolonial state is failing to fulfil its own promises. One of the primary responsibilities of the state is to provide access to elementary education for every child, irrespective of their class background, gender, faith or location. But in Pakistan, massive inequities exist across regions. For example, the literacy rate in Fata and Balochistan are below the average in Pakistan. Similarly, providing basic healthcare is a core responsibility of the state. However, Fata and Balochistan do much worse than the rest of Pakistan in terms of health indicators.
It can be argued that socio-spatial inequalities are prevalent in many countries of the world, but they don’t have to deal with the problem of religious extremism like Pakistan does. The caveat here is that I am not suggesting a causal link between the lack of education/healthcare facilities and the higher proportion of violence in Fata and Balochistan. We must be aware of the fact that socioeconomic inequalities cannot be treated as the cause of religious extremism. Instead, they provide conditions of existence for religious extremism to flourish.
In addition to material conditions, there are ideological factors that lead to violent extremism and need to be addressed as well. There is a dialectical relationship between material and ideological factors. Spatial and social inequalities further reinforce and strengthen the ideology of religious extremism. As a result, regional and social disparities need to substantially go down in order to achieve sustainable peace and prosperity.
The NISP 2018 recognises these complex dialectical relationships and acknowledges the fact that the battle against religious extremism/terrorism needs to be fought on ideological fronts in addition to the battle on the ground. The narrative of a pluralistic and inclusive society needs to be incorporated into the curriculum from the early stages of education. But there is another problem: a large number of children are not even enrolled in school.
As a consequence, pseudo-religious organisations have penetrated spatially and socially discriminated segments of Pakistani society. In the name of free ‘religious’ education, they sell hate and bigotry to young students who become potential recruits for extremist organisations. The NISP 2018 acknowledges this vicious cycle and recommends the re-hauling of Pakistan’s education system.
Similarly, the NISP 2018 acknowledges the need for major reforms in healthcare services to ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of every citizen. The current expenditure on healthcare is not sufficient to provide decent healthcare facilities to working class families.
Given the growing size of the working age population, large-scale employment opportunities have to be created to engage the youth productively. Therefore, government spending needs to increase to generate multiplier effects in the economy.
In order to materialise these reforms, the economic elite need to pay their fair share of taxes. In other words, the redistribution of economic resources is necessary. The redistribution of economic resources has been highlighted in the NISP 2018 as fundamental to ensure peace and prosperity in Pakistan. This is the most progressive aspect of the policy.
A highly fractured and polarised society like Pakistan cannot expect to achieve peace and prosperity without a major overhaul of the broader socioeconomic structures within it. Those who are serious about rebuilding the crumbling fabric of Pakistani society must demand a new social contract between the state and citizens. This new social contract should guarantee that no Pakistan shall be discriminated on the basis of his/her faith, ethnicity, locality, gender or class.
The NISP 2018 implicitly talks about this new social contract by highlighting the immediate need to reorient the state apparatus, redistribute resources and reimagine our society. Now the challenge is to translate it into material reality, which requires us to resolve the problem of collective action among society and the state.
The writer is a doctoral candidate at University of Massachusetts-Amherst.