On religious extremism

Historically, even in turbulent times, Sindh’s pluralistic culture has prevailed. In recent decades, however, religious extremism has been on the rise

Pakistani Hindu activists stage protest against forced religious conversions. — Photo Twitter @zalmayzia
Pakistani Hindu activists stage protest against forced religious conversions. — Photo Twitter @zalmayzia

Historically, Sindh has been a tolerant and peaceful, and religiously harmonious place. Sindh’s cultural ethos and acceptance of others have remained strong despite the communal and religious violence that has marked the region since the Partition. Even in turbulent times, Sindh’s pluralistic culture has prevailed in the face of bigotry, brutality and barbarism attributed to foreign invasion.

In recent decades, however, religious extremism has been on the rise in Sindh. The sponsored Islamisation process under Gen Zia and the call for Afghan Jihad created an extremist environment based on religious and sectarian divide in Sindh. Since Sindh had been a hub of progressive politics and anti-Zia agitation, the power elite sought to inject religion into Sindh’s politics. After decades of deadly conflicts in Karachi, Sindh’s capital, religious extremism has of late been penetrating into the rural areas of the province. Ironically, it was largely external shocks like 9/11 and the subsequent Afghan War and Pakistan’s role as a frontline state in War against Terrorism that brought violent religious extremism to Sindh. This was further aided by the floods in 2010 which sunk the entire right bank of Indus and left millions of internally displaced people (IDPs). For religious organisations, this proved a blessing in disguise. Along with rehabilitation and charity work, they spread their radical message, built seminaries, constructed local support base and recruited thousands of youths for their madrassas. Later on, a fair number of these youths were sent to Afghanistan for ‘jihad’. A majority of them returned radicalised to their hometowns and became local leaders of their own faction of religious groups. This also raised their political and socio-economic status. Yesterday’s ignorant youths, who had been exploited by chieftains and feudal lords, became key stakeholders in the local power matrix. All of a sudden, the people of Sindh saw the mushroom growth of seminaries across the province. This phenomenal growth of seminaries in Karachi, Hyderabad, Mirpur Khas, Sukkur and Larkanna divisions has changed the political and socio-economic dynamics of Sindh. Consequently, more people now align themselves along sectarian and religious lines rather than tribes, language and culture.

Sindh’s religious extremism problem is multi-pronged and highlights a lethal mix of political and socio-economic factors. Since 2001, Sindh has seen severe terrorist attacks including the high-profile kidnapping and killing of US journalist Denial Pearl, attack on the US consulate, the bomb attack against French naval engineers, the Karachi Airport and PNS Mehran Base attacks, the Safoora Goth bus carnage and suicide bomb attacks at sufi shrines of Abdullah Shah Ghazi and Lal Shehbaz Qalander as well as the attack on a Shikarpur imambargah. The forced conversions of Hindu girls in northern Sindh has emerged as an issue of great concern in recent years. Circulating videos of young Hindu girls reciting the kalima in front of influential clerics and pirs instigated fears and sense of insecurity in the largest minority of Pakistan. Recent examples show the complexity of the problem and how deeply violent extremism has been embedded in society — it seems that from highly sophisticated and trained security officials, to students from elite and public academic institutions, and madrassas are equally facing the brunt of the problem.

Noreen Leghari, a medical student from Hyderabad, for instance, was intercepted and caught in Lahore when she was on her way to Syria to join the ISIS. She was apparently radicalised through social media. The story of Saad Aziz, a young graduate of an elite business school in Karachi is just as shocking. He had been radicalised on campus. Later, he executed one of the most lethal terrorist attacks in the history of Karachi in which a tiny religious minority was targetted. The incident was later known as the Safoora Goth carnage. The Karachi Dockyards attackers were young radical Pakistan Navy recruits.

On the political front, the recent rise of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right religious organisation, and the way they clinched two provincial assembly seats, one from Layari — a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) stronghold and a secular town, has surprised key stakeholders. TLP’s grassroots support from Barelvis and close network of mosques in the province position them as a major player in future politics. The resurgence of Jamiat Ulama-i-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) in upper Sindh and their fierce electoral competition in 2018 election in Larkana - the JUI-F candidate polled around 50,000 votes against Bilawal Bhutto Zardari - clearly signaling the future likelihood of difficult electoral competition in 2023 general elections. Today, the overall political environment suits religio-political parties and they are aspiring for a major share in political power. This will impact Sindh’s religio-political problems as well. The mainstreaming of banned religious organisations and their entry into politics will further jeopardise the already volatile political environment in the province. It will also be a source of motivation for radical and extremist elements to further propagate their agenda.

The future does not look very different; with the much-talked debates around the Single National Curriculum (SNC), it is imperative to analyse the values of inclusivity and pluralism in the existing and proposed curriculum. The students of today will be the decision-makers tomorrow. They will set the course for our country. The existing practice is that every examination system follows its own curriculum — the O & A Level system, local secondary and intermediate boards, and Wifaqul Madaris-ul-Arabia. This hinders national coherence and creates further stratification.

Although with the legislative and administrative authority under the 18th Constitutional Amendment, Sindh has not accepted the federal Ministry of Education and Professional Training’s proposed Single National Curriculum (SNC), the province has also failed to regularise unregistered madrassas and the curriculum taught there. Ludicrous as it sounds, there is no monitoring unit in Education and Auqaf Departments.

In order to build a cohesive society, the curriculum for both — schools and madrassas — needs serious revisions. Most importantly, a strong monitoring and evaluation system is needed for non-regulated madrassahs and the super elite private schools – neither of which is registered with the local examination boards. The state appears to have inadequate control over the textbooks they teach from, the pedagogy they follow and the student learning outcomes they want to achieve.

To preserve Sindh’s pluralistic ethos and centuries-old cultural values, an all-inclusive discourse on what is being taught to its children is needed. So are schools for the ones who are not being educated at all.

Nadeem Hussain is the co-author of Agents of Change (Oxford University Press, 2021) and The Economy of Modern Sindh (Oxford University Press, 2019)

Imtiaz Ali teaches international relations at the University of Karachi

On religious extremism