An independent think-tank

Radicalisation in Pakistani context

Seven years have passed after the incident of 9/11. international players, led by the US, have been issuing statements as well as making misdirected attempts to address the phenomenon of radicalization in Pakistan and other parts of the world, but, the reality is that the situation ha worsened further. In the beginning, the Pakistani state did face a direct challenge to its writ as such. Now the genie has come out of the bottle completely. The government’s acts and actions, even the military operations have failed to quell the radical insurgency. All this points out that the phenomenon is yet misunderstood. To help us understand the concept at the core of many of Pakistan’s problems, PIPS held a workshop on defining radicalization on September 9, 2008, with two distinguished speakers, Dr. Mumtaz Ahmed and Zafrulla Khan. Mumtaz Ahmad has been serving at Hampton University, Brookings Institution. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ “Fundamentalism Project.” Presently he is the Executive Director, Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue, International Islamic University, Islamabad. He is a leading authority on the subject. Zafrulla Khan is a senior media person and intellectual.

Mr. Mohammad Azam, PIPS’ Research Analyst, introduced the topic. The most common definition of Islamic radicalism has been put forth by Olivier Roy, which defines Islamic radicalism as a combination of two elements, (a) “a call or the return of all Muslims to the true tenets of Islam (or what is perceived as such)…; (b) “a political militancy … against the foes of Islam, who could include existing Muslim rulers.”

Beside others, following questions were addressed in the session. What is Radicalism? Which groups are radical and which are moderate? Do Pakistani scholars and media persons require their own definition of Radicalism? What elements should be included in the definition?

Dr. Mumtaz Ahmad started the discussion by pointing out that there can be no consensual definition of radicalization as is the case with most of the other concepts in social sciences. The concept is itself defined by political context. For instance, in the 1950s and 1960s Islamic radicals were the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who since the late 1990s have been described as ‘moderates’. In the 1980s, Afghanistan’s Anti-soviet Mujahideen were described as ‘moderates’, contrasted with ‘radical’ Iranian revolutionaries.

In reality, Dr. Ahmad argued, it is difficult to create distinct categories of groups between ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’. Plotting groups along an ideological continuum, based on firm criteria, is a better way of understanding the ideological diversity of groups that use political violence.

Equally, placing groups along a continuum will help understand the shifts and ideological transformations groups undergo. Roy’s definition that radicalism consists of “A call or the return of all Muslims to the tenets of Islam” is not perfectly applicable to the Pakistani case, argued the distinguished scholar. There are dozens of groups who adopt a fundamentalist approach to Islam, yet remain non-violent. Yet it is the second part of Roy’s definition that is much more important “a political militancy”.

In Dr. Ahmad’s view, what is needed in Pakistani discourse is a definition of radicalism that identifies 3 or 4 elements of religio-political parties or organizations that use force. Dr. Ahmad concluded by pointing out that it is important to create a uniquely Pakistani definition of the phenomenon. Definitions given from the western perspective not only reflect different values, but will often be disregarded because they are from outsiders.

Mr. Zafrulla Khan began his discussion with a provocative question: Why do we need to use the term radicalization? The word extremism is, in his opinion, is sufficient to describe the range of violent nonstate actors in Pakistan. Radicalism in leftist discourse is a positive term, describing those groups that seek to instigate rapid change in the short term from an unjust status quo to a more equitable one.

The situation that exists in Pakistan, where you see non-state actors taking up arms against the state and other non-state actors is a symptom of a deeper problem. In large parts of the country there is no effective form of governance. The presence of gaps in the system and widespread injustice lead to radical or extreme solutions, most notably in the FATA.

Examining the constitution is instructive. Pakistan is caught between Western assumptions of the best form of governance and state structures, and what has been interpreted as Islamic conceptions of a state. The malleability of the constitution, which has been repeatedly amended over the past 61 years, suggests that we lack a point of reference for declaring groups to be divergent from those norms.

If most Pakistani’s cannot agree on the basics of what Pakistan ‘is’ in our constitution, it opens the door for extremist views, seeking to transform those basic assumptions.

A brief question and answer period followed as participants debated the use of the term radical, its benefits and drawbacks. The relationship between terrorism and radicalism was also discussed. The consensus being that while not all radicals become terrorists, some do, underscores the need for further research and examination of the topic.