Tuesday October 03, 2023

Radicalisation in Pakistan

December 26, 2021

The term ‘extremism’ suffers from a variety of meanings which hinder comprehension, since it is often used in a negative sense. Nobody consents to being labeled extremist, no matter how radical their worldview is, and thus the term lacks ownership. Simply taken, it refers to any political theory, or behaviors by an individual or a group of individuals favouring immoderate uncompromising policies. Again, another layer of complexity is added by the fact that since extremism is supposed to be outside the perceived political centre of a society, Pakistan's moderate centrist position needs to be defined. This broaches the question: what kind of behaviour is moderate in Pakistan, and by analogy what would be immoderate and thus worthy of being branded extremist?

Extremism is the link in the chain which terminates in violence, though extremism does not necessarily have to overtly manifest itself; an extremist thought process by itself contributes to the radicalisation of society. It is arguably even more dangerous than express manifestations of radicalisation, since it insidiously finds its way into the mind of the citizen.

Mob brutality is just one example of manifestations of extremism in Pakistan, since it's not just an overtly expressed set of behaviours, but a thought process as well which can translate into action. Though this may not necessarily happen in the case of many citizens of Pakistan exposed to this phenomenon, the potential for instilling extremist ideals which may translate into action cannot be ignored, as seen in the mob execution of a Sri Lankan national recently.

The threat from extremism labelled radicalisation is also usually defined as a process whereby an originally moderate individual or group of individuals becomes progressively more extreme in their thinking, and possibly their behaviour. This would seem to hold true from the Taliban insurgency to militant organisations to individuals which wish to join a mob burning a man alive without actually getting into the depth of why the person was being executed.

Why is radicalisation dangerous? This can be explained by observing ideologues and instigators of extremist movements, who tend to rely on all-or-none thinking to direct the radicalisation process. A divide of social perceptions is created between elements supportive of extremism and the 'others' – people outside one’s one social and ideological group or ‘in-group’. Violence towards the 'out' group can thus be facilitated by thinking of its members as being justifiably excluded from the moral considerations one would impact upon members of one’s own group, making violence morally sanctionable. This can also be done by resorting to a higher legal sanction than mere law, which can bring divine sanction and ideology into play. The perception that a shunned social category is outside the boundaries of the in group's sphere of morality can free individuals to become morally disengaged in their behavioral interactions with members of that shunned social category.

Notwithstanding the attention paid to radicalisation as a precursor to terrorism or even a ‘root cause’ of terrorism and socio-political violence, it is widely agreed that, although radicalisation predisposes to such violence, it does not necessarily have to necessitate it. Simply put, radicalisation cannot be a sufficient cause of terrorism because most radicals are not terrorists, but the entrenchment of radicalisation processes within terrorists indicates its associations with terrorism. This may be why the term 'violent radicalisation' is often encountered in discourse on terrorism, since radicalisation by itself is insufficient to explain the trajectories of terrorism.

Instead of trying to purview radicalisation as some kind of inherent flaw within a particular people, religion, culture or belief system, it is more advisable to examine the trajectories of a political economy of radicalisation, so that some variables can be identified. When there is a conducive environment which induces a sense of emasculation or despair, ideology can provide not only a source of solace, but an impetus for action for populations undergoing stresses.

Radicalisation does not affect all classes homogeneously but has a more observable effect on Pakistan's youth. This youth bulge of Pakistan’s population between ages 15-24 is estimated at 36 million, while a staggeringly high number of 58 million individuals are below the age of 15. Together, these statistics are nearly 60 percent of Pakistan’s total population, with the added variable of Pakistan having a male cohort that is larger than its female counterpart. This is particularly relevant in the sense that the literature on youth radicalisation is focused almost solely on males. Even though fertility rates in the country have decreased modestly, a current rate of 3.8 births per woman will carry Pakistan’s youth bulge well beyond 2025, giving a projected estimate of Pakistan’s population under the age of 24 to be 51.4 percent of the total in 2030.

This demographic trajectory allows young Pakistanis to be swayed towards radicalisation, particularly when there is high unemployment and income disparity. Since poorer households in Pakistan tend to have a higher number of children on average, especially in rural areas, this implies that an exceptionally large number of young men and women are being forced to live below or around the poverty line. Furthermore, at least one-tenth of the rural communities do not even have access to basic facilities, which adds incremental stress to an already overburdened economy. The children who come from these families are the ultra-poor whose children seem destined to have a grim future. The high level of underemployment for the young from lower socio-economic classes causes an escalating strain. This alienates the poor segment of the youth bulge.

Radicalisation is one of the ways that the poor and the dispossessed find voice, since the path to radicalisation demands action to challenge the status quo – often in the form of violent actions. Thus, presuming radicalisation to be a process and also assuming certain Pakistani demographic segments to be more vulnerable to it than others, one can draw up empirical frameworks of how individuals in Pakistan tend to get radicalised, and then start working on models of de-radicalising them.

The writer is a retired inspector general of police and ex-head of Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority. He tweets @Kkf50