Extremism and Fundamentalism: Linkages to Terrorism Pakistan’s Perspective


Extremism, Fundamentalism and Literalism

Extremist is a label used for those individuals or groups, who generally resort to violence in order to impose their beliefs, ideology or moral values on others. The term implies to those factions and individuals who have become radicalized or fundamentalist in some way, both the terms have negative connotations in present day situation. The term radical or fundamental mean to going to the essentials and basics. Radical is not normally regarded as derogatory—except perhaps in the United States of America—and, unlike extremist, is sometimes used by groups in self description.Fundamentalism however is commonly used as a pejorative term, particularly when combined with other epithets (as in the phrase “Muslim fundamentalists”1 and “right-wing/left-wing fundamentalists”). Richard Dawkins has used the term to characterize religious advocates as clinging to a stubborn, entrenched position that defies reasoned argument or contradictory evidence. Others in turn, such as Christian theologian Alistair McGrath, have used the term fundamentalism to characterize atheism as dogmatic.

Extremist or fundamentalist religious groups are found in many religions such as Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Religious organisations of these religions now and historically use tactics to encourage fear-based obedience to doctrines, such as fear-mongering tactics, immediate and intense unscientifically-based opposition to the physical realities, and intentional concealment and distortion of the real message to enforce obedience to religion. They strongly discourage rational, reason and logic. They are also called literalist. The term can be traced to Biblical literalism (also called Biblicism or Biblical fundamentalism) is the interpretation or translation of the explicit and primary sense of words in the Bible. A literal, Biblical interpretation is associated with the fundamentalist and evangelical hermeneutical approach to Scripture, and is used by most conservative Christians today. Steve Falkenberg, professor of religious psychology at Eastern Kentucky University, says, “I’ve never met anyone who actually believes the Bible is literally true. I know a bunch of people who say they believe the Bible is literally true but nobody is actually a literalist.

Taken literally, the Bible says the earth is flat and setting on pillars and cannot move (Ps 93:1, Ps 96:10, 1 Sam 2:8, and Job 9:6). It says that great sea monsters are set to guard the edge of the sea (Job 41, Ps 104:26)…”

Qur’anic literalism is also on the rise, the belief that the verses of the Qur’an should be taken at their apparent meaning, rather than employing any sort of interpretation. This is generally explained by the concept of ―bi-la kaifa‖8, the claim that the literal meanings should be accepted without asking how or why. Literalism has been a source of disagreement within the Muslim community for centuries, with the debate over it continuing today. In the past many prominent Islamic scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah and Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab were proponents of it, in addition to modern day scholars such as Abd-al-Aziz ibn Abd-Allah ibn Baaz. It has been a primary area of contention between Shi’as and many Sunnis, especially proponents of Salafism. Those whom suggest that the Qur’an is entirely literal would make void the following verse:

“He it is who has revealed the Book to thee; some of its verses are decisive — they are the basis for the Book — and others are allegorical. Then those in whose hearts is perversity follow that part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead, and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. And none knows its interpretation save Allah, and those firmly rooted in knowledge… (Qur’an 3:7)

Today’s dilemma is to understand how fundamentalism got linked to extremism and terrorism. The fact is that all terrorists may not be fundamentalist, but given the need and opportunity, fundamentalist and extremist will opt for terrorism, if they think it will help them in achieving their ultimate objective. What probably links fundamentalism and extremism to terrorism is their pursuit for power and control. Fundamentalism and tolerance for decent and dissidents do not mix well.

When extremist and fundamentalists are in power (Islamic or Not) they will kill opponents without any regard to international laws and norms, and thus push spectators and potential dissidents into silent acquiescence. And when they are in pursuit of power or clout, they will use violence against government establishments and the public to instill fear and show the incompetency of those in power.

Islamic extremism and allied terrorist activities are linked to this particular trajectory of fundamentalism. The perception may be wrong but it continues to exist and thrive. The phenomenon with its present day connotation resurfaced in its ugliest form in the 21st century in the form of religious extremism now becoming synonymous with Islamic extremism. Especially After the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, USA. Extremism unfortunately became synonymous with Islam, Muslims in Islamic and Non Islamic Countries, already struggling with internal disputes and fighting abject poverty in their societies. They included Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, Palestine, Algeria, Somalia, Indonesia, and some Middle Eastern countries, were also labeled as the potential terrorists.

It should be noted that the term extremism is generally applied to the opponents rather someone labels himself or themselves as extremists. Since the US-led war on terror began, over night almost all the non-state operators in the Islamic world, who struggled for political goals that did not suit the West, were branded extremists. Talibans in Afghanistan, the Kashmiri fighters, Palestinians freedom fighters, Chechens in Russia and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines are a few examples of it. This probably was the biggest dis service the proponents of 9/11 did to the Muslims. All of these movements have suffered serious setbacks largely because the Afghanistan war by late nineties had become the world’s most destructive war and threatened to fuel conflicts in Russia, China, Central Asian States and Iran.

This was so because various forms of nationalism (Muslims and Others) are at odds with their respective governments. This was perceived as a direct consequence of the establishment of Islamic (Literalist, Extremist) government of Taliban in Afghanistan in 1997. It imposed upon its people the Literalist interpretation of Islamic law. Beating flogging and Arab tribal forms of execution were an everyday practice. Women were forced to wear head to toe covering and restricted to remain indoor. Their independent mobility, economic viability, decision making and right to education was curtailed to a point of elimination. Men were forced to grow beards and punished for not coming to mosque five times a day. Television, radio, cinema, singing dancing was all considered against the norms and teaching of Islam. The list of repressive policies was endless and the methodology of implementation was fear based obedience drawing its legitimacy through the literal interpretation of Islam.

Afghanistan had the deadly mix of open ended conflict, unabated poverty, Islamic extremism and literalism, which resulted in Afghanistan becoming a base for worldwide terrorist operations. The US attacks post 9/11 only temporarily disrupted the extremist tendencies there. However it ripped away the legitimacy of all the genuine movements especially of those that involved Islamic actors.

A cursory look at the groups labeled as extremists clearly shows that they are those who could not win support from the West for their legitimate political struggle and were fighting governments supported by the West. Yet one thing is common among that that almost all of these groups take pride in their Islamic identity—hence the term modifies as “Islamic Extremism”. Islamic actors are active participants in seven of the world’s eleven wars in progress. Thus the religious face of the struggle is always more prominent in fact the political dimension becomes secondary to it. This allows analysts and observers of the conflict to focus on the religious dimension and link it to terrorism completely ignoring or neglecting issues of political, economic and social deprivation that have to be addressed to curtail this menace.

There may be a lot of Islamist movements but all of them are not violent, the religion is broad and diverse. The Islamists groups do advocate bashing government and society on Islamic laws, they also have a political face and some work through charities for example in Jordan Islamic parties won the largest seats in parliament without violence. The in famous nineties also saw the rise of Islamic parties in a fiercely secular state of Turkey and a former Islamist leader has been prime minister since 2003. In several Muslim countries Islamist reject western oriented secular states in favor of governments that have Islamic orientation this is basically a reflection of long standing anti western sentiment against their colonizers who were Christians. Their nationalism is expressed through religious channels. In the Middle Eastern countries under authoritarian regimes the religious institutions and movements are the only viable avenue for political opposition therefore religion emerges as a venue for opposing the power of status qua in both politics and culture.

Historically, extremism has been a great challenge towards stabilising a society. In fact struggle against extremism, particularly religious fanaticism, is a constant war between the good and the evil. Since ages, there remained no dearth of the agents of bigotry, who tactfully exploited the poor people’s sentiments to channel their frustration against targets suited to their vested interests and politicians also use it to their advantage by offering a Utopia in future. Same is the situation in the present-day crisis across the globe, where extremist forces seek to justify anything and everything in the name of religion. The failure, incompetence and corruption of secular government in Muslim states have also contributed to these phenomena. The Palestinian Liberation Organizations (PLO) inefficiency and corruption in the governmental ranks led to the rise of “Hamas”.

The governmental vacuum and “War Lordism” in Afghanistan led to the rise of the Taliban in 1980s and Karzai’s government corruption and incompetence is a huge contributing factor to Taliban’s’ expanding influence across Afghanistan where they control 33 out of the country’s 34 provinces toady as admitted by a senior North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intelligence official.

Source: Joshua S. Goldstein and Jon C. Pevehouse International Relations 2008-09 Brief Fourth Edition, New York

The US blunder of neglecting Afghanistan and taking the war to Iraq also strengthen the Taliban having its implication for Pakistan. The ongoing directionless efforts of President Obama’s administration of curtailing Taliban in Afghanistan have made them so powerful that they are not only a threat to the ongoing operation in Pakistan but may resort to global terrorism. Afghanistan was dubbed Obama’s war after it was revealed that as many American soldiers have died in the conflict during his presidency as during George Bush’s entire time in office. This is indicative of Taliban’s rising strength and the US and its allied forces losing ground to them.

Extremism in Pakistan

Zeroing in on Pakistan religious extremism has emerged as the biggest challenge to Pakistan’s internal security and may be even to its survival. Pakistan has a chequered political history, where security has always been a misunderstood and misused concept. Those at the helm of affairs have always followed short term policy objectives of Survival and legitimacy and not sustainable developments led security models.

Political governments always had issues of survival whereby military regimes seek legitimacy. General Ziaul Haq and General Musharraf were both seeking international recognition when they decided to fight America’s war in Afghanistan.

A parallel factor has been an Indian centric foreign policy. The threat perception that emanated from living next to a large aggressive neighbor who wanted to remove Pakistan from the map of the world has been a part of Pakistan’s existential reality. This motivated the policy makers of Pakistan to pursue policies like Strategic depth and Bleed India. Both these policies have the non-state actor as the main protagonist and proxy wars on each other’s land main tool. This also contributed to promoting extremist tendencies in Pakistan. The non-state actors were recruited in the name of Jihad and Islam. It is true that the United States also used it against the Soviet Union but it is also true that Pakistan was not ready let go of this new found strength and wanted to use it against its own enemies. All of this led to human security and development being neglected to appoint that it also become a contributing factor in promoting extremism in Pakistan. The entire Madrassah culture (Religious Seminaries), Jihadi Mindset, Literalist approach to religion and rejection of progress and modernity are its offshoots.

Overall peoples’ faith in the state institutions dwindled. The obvious manifestation of it was the rise of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lal Masjid’s Ghazi Force, Waziristan’s Baitullah Mehsud’s Tribe and the list goes on. They gained popular support because they filled the vacuum of welfare, justice, sense of order, equality and promised a wonderful life in the hereafter. The state of Pakistan chose to ignore their rising power viewing it as an asset rather than liability till came a point that these forces started challenging the writ of Pakistani state anywhere and everywhere.

The things have deteriorated to such a proportion, that the terrorists carry out suicide bombing in the federal capital or anywhere in the country.

The central problem lies in the Pakistan Army’s threat perception with respect to India. It’s well known that Pakistan Army has a large stake in the state’s affairs including foreign policy and economy. Pakistan army looks towards radical Islamist groups to further its regional objectives. Throughout the war on terror it has continued its policy of supporting the Taliban and prosecuting the Al-Qaeda. The recent onslaughts against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Swat and South Waziristan were mainly focused on the Mehsud and other enemy tribes. The Haqqani network remains untouched as the Pakistan army seeks to broker a deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. This however begs the question of who are the Haqqanis. Is Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, (the organization Haqqanis are associated with) a peace loving organization? Jalaluddin Haqqani and Sirajuddin Haqqani have proven record of association with the terrorist organizations working inside and outside Pakistan. Moreover they are also associated with the banned sectarian outfits in Pakistan such as The Sipah-e-Sahiba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jangwi (LeJ) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). This relationship between the Pakistan army and certain sections of Taliban raises concerns about Islamization within the ranks of Pakistan’s premier institution.

This strategy of handpicking pro and anti factions in the Taliban has dangerous implications on the war against terror inside Pakistan. Recent scholarship and research has proved that a loose alliance does exist between the Mehsuds, Haqqanis (a major player in Afghanistan) and Al-Qaeda and other terrorist/sectarian organizations. This alliance is the main reason why various onslaughts against the Taliban have shriveled. In case of an imminent operation the Taliban retreat into safe heavens like the North Waziristan and come back to attack when they are stronger.

Pakistan army does not launch a full scale operation against the Taliban because it fears it will upset its regional assets like Haqqanis which happen to be in the same region. Thus the army’s regional objectives prevent it from pursuing the war against terror in its full capacity. From a scholarly perspective it’s impossible to make a distinction between Afghan-Taliban, TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan), Al-Qaeda and other organizations with respect to their use of militant Islam. The difference exists in their domain and mode of operation but it cannot be denied that all of these forces lean on radical Islam to justify their terrorist activities.

Militant Threat

In the present times, there is a consensus among the ruling elite of Pakistan, that the real threat to the country does not come from outside rather it emanates from inside. The domestic and internal security threats come to the fore mainly in the name of sectarianism, which acts as the first step towards religious extremism and exclusivity. The present wave of sectarian violence in Pakistan can be traced back to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and rising Shiites influence in the region leading to Iranian-Saudi rivalry unfolding on Pakistan’s land. The war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan further aggravated the situation in Pakistan. A large number of Islamist groups and Madrassahs popped up inside Pakistan with the basic aim to produce recruits for the “Jihad”. As described above, the government at that time failed to realize the consequences of this trend. In fact it encouraged it, again seeing them as supportive of their aim in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The disenfranchisement of Ahmedis and criminalization of their religious practices can be seen as an attempt to commit Pakistan to an exclusive religious identity. It meant that only a Muslim is entitled to full rights of Pakistani citizenship. The implementation of Sunni taxes and purging the curriculum of text books in the Zia era can also be seen as an attempt to carve a narrower definition of a Muslim, and thus a Pakistani.

These developments did not sit well with the Shia minority in Pakistan which looks towards Iran for leadership. This insecurity on part of minorities gives rise to militancy and counter militancy. As of today sectarian militancy is a commonplace practice in the Pakistani society. As enrollment to these Madrassahs—headed by clerics—increased because of their charitable façade, the clout of their administrators also increased manifold. Once the teachers became leaders of the society, the element of money and arms also got involved. Hence with the power of the barrel and dominance of the psyche of the masses in the name of the religion few could hold on to sanity. This trend also allowed external forces to interact with the locals at the grassroots level. As a result, various acts of sectarian violence—caused by both the external and internal influences—increased noticeably.Each act of sectarian killing provoked a cycle of revenge killings and the civilian governments failed to curb this menace. And their failure in turn allowed the religious militants to flourish and grow in strength.

Role of Public Education

Public education is the most ubiquitous form education in Pakistan. More than 60 percent of the children receive public education.15 Unfortunately the public education in Pakistan is the real agent for youth radicalization in Pakistan. As of today the curriculum of public text books are laden with the Islamic injunctions from the Zia era. Today the curriculum of public text books equates the ideology of Pakistan with Islam, is sexist, filled with historical falsehoods, insensitive to the religious diversity of Pakistan and glorifies Jihad.16 Before 1970 the curricula was not blatantly Islamic; for example the subject of History contained chapters of Moen Jo Daro, Harrapa and Gandhara civilizations and Hindu mythologies of Mahabharat and Ramayan were extensively covered. After the 1970 the subsequent governments Islamized the subcontinent’s history by removing chapters that covered the pre-Islamic civilizations.

Afterwards the subjects of History and Geography were replaced by Pakistan Studies. This move was meant to further Islamizes by equating a Pakistani with a Muslim. Moreover historical fallacies such as asserting Islam as the ideology of Pakistan and projection of Muhammad Ali Jinnah as a pious Muslim were introduced into the curricula. As of today the public education curricula is laden with these historical fallacies and distortions aimed to Islamize the education system. Subsequent Pakistani regimes promise education reform but are afraid to take on the Islamic establishment which perceives every effort to modernize the education as a secularizing agenda.

The spread of militancy is destabilizing not only Pakistan, but also Afghanistan and the whole region at large. The so-called Jihadi elements are described as the main culprits but again successive previous regimes are to blame for their rise in the society. Jihadist groups have been trained, funded, and harbored for decades in Pakistan, primarily engaging in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Increasingly, this expanding network, including affiliations with al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, has turned its sights on Pakistan itself. A vacuum of governance and security in the tribal regions has fueled their proliferation, allowing them to control territory in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and other parts of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) now (Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa), and launching attacks on political, civilian, and military targets throughout Pakistan.

Extremism and America

The debate on extremism and terrorism both in the thinking circles of Pakistan and o the street is incomplete without a reference to USA both factions hold US responsible for the present day situation in Pakistan. The US image in Pakistan is at its lowest ebb. The rightist religious parties and also some main stream parties constantly indulge in American bashing to gain political capital.

The use of American hardware in the border areas and an anti Pakistan sentiment in the American media, which is regularly picked up by the local media and discussed in reference how America is using and abusing Pakistan at the same time does not help the situation. The ambiguity exercised by the Pakistani government vis-à-vis its military collaboration with United States further aggravates the situation. Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world where America’s image has not improved since the war on terror. Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 23 per cent Pakistanis viewed America favorably, according to the global attitude survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre Pew. The survey released on July 23, 2009, showed that America’s image went down to 10 per cent in 2002, 13 per cent in 2003, but went up to 23 per cent in 2005 and to 27 per cent in 2006. But it dipped to 15 per cent in 2007.It improved slightly to 19 per cent in 2007 but dipped again to 16 per cent in 2009.

In Pakistan, President Obama is viewed more favorably than his predecessor George W Bush, although his favorable ratings are not very high. In 2008, only 7 per cent Pakistanis believed that President Bush would do right things in world affairs. However, 13 per cent Pakistanis, surveyed this year, believed President Obama was capable of doing right things. The survey also revealed that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had a better image in Pakistan than both Presidents Bush and Obama. The survey result gives a very clear message that the people of Pakistan are not satisfied with the policies of America, for the region as well as rest of the Islamic world. This is the main reason, when someone tries to rise against the US; he automatically gains public support, which can easily be exploited for cheap political gains. For example, the people are quite sentimental about the Palestinian issue. And America’s backing of Israel is a reality bigger than America itself. On the domestic front, the US has always been happy with the dictators and their relation with democratic leadership has remained lukewarm.

The recent attempts made by the Obama administration to build bridges with the people of Pakistan are still in early stages where both the people and the leaders of Pakistan doubt American intensions. There is a major trust deficit. A large section of the population is actually convinced that a lot of problems that Pakistan faces including Extremism and Terrorism are because of American policies in the region. The recent Afghan Policy which has Pakistan as a major player is also viewed as flawed and inefficient making unnecessary demands on Pakistan which may actually go against Pakistan’s own interest.

Source: Joshua S. Goldstein and Jon C. Pevehouse International Relations 2008-09 Brief Fourth Edition, New York

Conclusion and Suggestions

Overall, Pakistan is a moderate and accommodating society which rejects extremism. They do not like extremism among their ranks and files; however at the same time do not want anyone thrusting their philosophy of freedom upon them. For long their march towards progress and prosperity had been impeded by the vested interests of the super powers. To remedy the situation, a mix of political and social reform process is needed. The present crisis of confidence of the sitting government is a major issue. The government has shown commitment and ownership of the war on terror but its overall performance is dismal. The issue of societal security remains neglected. The government continues to suffer from the crisis of performance and crisis of survival. The lack of trust between the political bureaucracy and military establishment of Pakistan is also an impediment.

The way forward is a complete understanding at all levels in Pakistan that investing in the politics of proxy wars and non-state actors has not paid off. Pakistan has to revert to being a developmental state. The shift from a developmental state to a security state has made Pakistan more insecure and most importantly the thinking circles of Pakistan must think about separation of State and Religion.

Dr. Huma Baqai
Associate Professor,
Director Public Affairs and Communication
of Social Sciences, IBA Karachi.