Illustration by Leea contractor
Illustration by Leea contractor

Violence is not unique to Islam. Almost all religions have violent strands though there are no recent historical parallels to the violence being perpetrated in the name of Islam. Similar is the case with seminaries which are part of all religions but, since 9/11, only Islamic madrasas have been branded as nurseries of terrorists.

There are several reasons for the current prevalence of violence in Islam. These include the actual or perceived historical injustices in places like Kashmir and Palestine, and even the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate a hundred years ago. These developments have generated a sense of marginalisation and frustration – and consequently extremist tendencies – among Muslims.

Yet, we must acknowledge that the rise of violent Islam is a relatively recent phenomenon. None of the many militant organisations that sprang up in Europe after World War II were Islamic. Even in the 1980s, only two out of 64 militant groups operating in different parts of the world had religious motivations. This changed only in the 1990s when 26 out of 56 militant organisations operating worldwide were religiously motivated. A majority of them claimed Islam to be their guiding force.

Rise of Islamic militancy can be attributed to the flourishing of the Persian Gulf’s Sunni economies, particularly that in Saudi Arabia, in the 1970s and an Islamic revolution in Shia Iran in 1979. Together, the two developments resulted in proxy sectarian wars in places such as Pakistan. The taking over of government in Islamabad by a religious zealot and military dictator, General Ziaul Haq, in 1977, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 only added to the mêlée.

Military rulers and right wing politicians in Pakistan have continued to patronise militant activities of extremist Islamic organisations since then. Even liberal political parties looked the other way as foreign powers and Pakistan’s security establishment used these militants as proxies in regional and global conflicts. In due course, nationalist and subnationalist militant organisations also emerged in the country owing, partly if not entirely, to the deteriorating security situation.

In recent times, Pakistan has proscribed some militant organisations and their members under pressure from global powers and international regulatory authorities. Proscription, though, has had little impact on the activities of these organisations. This is mainly because the laws enacted – including the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997 – and the initiatives taken – such as the National Action Plan formulated in December 2014 – for curbing their activities have never been implemented in letter and spirit.

Over the last few years, though, there has been a growing realisation among the ruling class that the policy of nurturing, patronising and appeasing religious militant organisations was flawed and would not work any longer. But reversing these decades-long covert and, at times, overt policies overnight is neither feasible nor desirable.

There are always apprehensions that militant organisations could react with violence if and when a strict action is taken against them. These misgivings are certainly not misplaced though recent history has proved that these could be exaggerated in Pakistan’s case. Recent crackdowns against the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, an anti-blasphemy extremist organisation, and the lack of any reaction from its supposedly ‘huge support base’ is a case in point.

Considered an uncontrollable monster at one point, its cadres have simply withered away even though its leaders have now spent months in detention. Recent proscription of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation and the crackdown on Jaish-e-Muhammad have been, similarly, met with a whimper.

While the state must guard against disproportionate actions against militant and proscribed organisations, legal instruments – such as the provisions of ATA – must be implemented as a first step to curtail their presence and activities. A careful reading of ATA would reveal that it is a very comprehensive piece of legislation. Problem, though, is the huge gap between the intent of the law and its application on the ground — something that the Financial Action Task Force, a global watchdog on money laundering and terrorism financing, has all along been lamenting about. ATA has always been used in crimes of usual nature.

Often, it has been also deployed for the victimisation of political opponents but it has never been invoked against militant organisations because, for most of our recent past, we needed these entities for political purposes — for utilising their vote bank or for deploying them as proxies. Sympathisers of these organisations, including some members of the state apparatus, have been giving them the benefit of doubt for these very reasons. Many people rather have eulogised their social, charitable and welfare activities but, in the process, have missed the bigger picture altogether.

We must bear in mind that we need to take action against militant organisations not just under global pressures or for meeting requirements of the international regulatory authorities but for the sake of Pakistan’s own survival. It must also be clear to all of us that the problems created by militant entities can only be resolved through legal means.

Attempts at deradicalising the members of these organisations, being carried out or sponsored by the security establishment, are certainly being done in good faith but they remain half-baked in their conception and fruitless in their implementation. Opening and running occasional deradicalisation centres will not prevent or counter radicalisation in the society.

Evidence from other parts of the world suggests that the tendency to use shortcuts never allows deradicalisation efforts to be significantly successful. This is as true in places such as Egypt – which has a long history of violent Islamic extremism – as it is in states like the United Kingdom which, in recent years, has run many deradicalisation programmes to little avail.

As a starting point, we must identify the nature and causes of radicalisation in Pakistan. To do that, we need research carried out by genuine researchers and think tanks, and not by security or intelligence agencies. Research teams specifically selected for the purpose should be given free access to all stakeholders, particularly to terrorists and militants. Once their findings are received, we could start plugging the holes identified by them.

Mainstreaming militant organisations should be the next step. It is not a novel idea. A number of countries have mainstreamed militant organisations of various ideologies. The most successful example in this regard is the Irish Republican Army, a separatist group once fighting against the British rule over Northern Ireland. It has transformed itself into a political party over the last decade and a half.

Nepal’s former Maoist guerilla fighters are also now a part of the government after having won votes to reach the country’s parliament. Many warring factions in Cambodia’s civil war, similarly, have become electoral contenders. Most recently, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – or FARC – have forsworn violence and decided to take part in democratic politics.

We, however, must understand that mainstreaming is the process of reorienting a terrorist or militant organisation through negotiations and talks. The process involves convincing them to change their behavioural patterns and organisational outlook. Such convincing only works if it is followed by a formal peace accord or some kind of a charter of reconciliation involving all stakeholders.

This accord or charter should include terms and conditions for decommissioning the members of militant organisations, and provide for a legal and judicial amnesty for their past activists in exchange for a commitment to stay away from all types of violence.

This process also requires the state to allow militant organisations some space to operate before they could transform themselves. They will definitely take time before reorienting themselves into welfare/social entities or political parties. Throughout this time, though, the state must remain conscious of the formation of splinter groups that could likely continue as militant entities.

Most importantly, the process of mainstreaming must not start without Parliament’s involvement. Parliament, in fact, must take ownership of it. After an open debate, the legislature should devise a consensus strategy applicable to all militant organisations. Political environment will be further damaged if the process is carried out selectively and without a parliamentary oversight.

If the state clearly defines its policy, it has multiple instruments of power at its disposal – including different law enforcing agencies, legal and judicial institutions, and constitutional authority – to enforce that policy. And if it spells out its goals publicly, majority of the population will back its efforts. In the ongoing counterterrorism efforts, the state has already proved that there is nothing that it cannot achieve if it uses its powers judiciously.

We must not forget that extremism and radicalisation cannot be countered through kinetic – read security – measures alone. The process also requires soft interventions in the form of legislation and policies. Most importantly, there has to be sustained implementation of laws and policies that inform the state’s actions which, in turn, should not only be transparent and fair under the law of the land but also must be verifiable and sustainable. Certain state institutions may encounter capacity issues in implementing and sustaining counter militancy policies but their capacity could be enhanced easily through training, and by seeking help and support of international partners.

Time certainly is right for initiating measures to rid Pakistan of religious militancy and violent extremism. People are highly weary of terrorism in the country. We, therefore, must embark on a comprehensive deradicalisation and mainstreaming programme — not because the world wants us to start one but because it is a necessary condition for our country’s survival as a place at peace with itself and others.

This article was originally published in the Herald's March 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.