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RFE/RL's Khattak Examines Extremism In Pakistan For 'The AfPak Channel'

Radio Mashaal correspondent Daud Khattak, writing for "Foreign Policy" magazine's online "AfPak Channel" project, explores the West's extremist image of Pakistani society, even while the majority of Pakistanis disapprove of terrorism and believe in political dialogue as a resolution to issues both inside and outside the country.

Pakistan's Radical Reputation

By Daud Khattak | AfPak Channel / Foreign Policy
October 28, 2011

Intolerant, fundamentalist and extremist. This is the general impression of Pakistani society in the world outside Pakistan, though a deeper look would lead the observer to discover another layer - altogether different than the one visible from Europe and America. Following the Urdu-language Pakistani media, one is easily brought to the conclusion that there exists widespread radicalism and fundamentalism among Pakistanis. The television anchors and their repetition of ‘national interests' aside, the key question is: Is the Pakistani society really extremist? A cursory look at the events of the past few years can tell the answer.

Following the highly-rigged general elections in 2002 in favor of the now defunct religious alliance, Muttahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), Pakistan's religious parties looked poised to assert their newfound power in the country. But just six years later, in the February 2008 general election, Pakistanis overwhelmingly supported secular political parties such as the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP), while the religious parties managed to retain only seven seats in the country's National Assembly. The religious parties and their affiliates also failed on several occasions to start a political movement by using issues such as the jailing of Pakistani doctor Aafia Siddiqui, the US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal northwest, the Raymond Davis episode, or the U.S. Special Forces raid in Abbottabad and killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan's security establishment also contributes to the West's fundamentalist and extremist image of Pakistani society. Over the years, the Pakistani state has supported the armies of Kashmir-focused jihadists in order to gain leverage over its more powerful and several-times-larger rival India, as well maintain a Pakistan-friendly government in neighboring Afghanistan. To achieve these goals, the establishment willfully encouraged a number of elements within its own borders, ranging from pro-jihadist religious parties to extremist literature in schools, colleges and universities, in order to generate support for the jihadist cause.

Within Pakistan, the armed forces are often presented as heroes and the true custodians of Pakistan's ideological and geographical frontiers, while the liberal political forces are labeled (albeit with some truth) as vested interests, too corrupt and inefficient to run the country and ensure its defense. Pakistani youth are flooded with hardliner propaganda and find attraction in extremist views because of the stance of the esteemed military, the jihadist literature in classrooms, government-controlled electronic media, and a state policy of encouraging certain jihadist organizations.

This policy approach, although it dates back to the creation of Pakistan, was institutionalized during the 10 years of military rule under the dictator General Zia ul-Haq, who championed jihad and the Islamization of society. The majority of the secular leaders at that time were either won over one way or another, forced to keep silent, or pushed into exile, thus leaving room for the fundamentalists to come forward and "purify" the society by holding mass gatherings in cities, speaking on the official electronic media, becoming involved in educational institutions and spreading jihadist literature. Zia and his rightist support base thus maneuvered hard, and the ultimate result was the emergence of a hardliner approach among the upper layer of the Pakistani society to Muslim causes - be it Kashmir, Afghanistan, Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo or any other place in the world. The support for extremists and jihadists did not end with the death of Gen. Zia. Elements in The state security apparatus continued the same policies, eventually resulting in the emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan who converted areas of the country into a safe haven for extremists and jihadists all over the world.

However, this is only one side of the picture. A few thousand miscreants fighting in the tribal areas, or some baton-wielding madressa students marching a street in Punjab, in no way represent the majority of the 180 million-strong Pakistani populace, who disapprove of the Taliban's terrorism and vandalism. Today, the tribal areas are being presented to the world as a tinderbox where everyone is a radical fighter or suicide bomber, only to convince the western world to shower more money on the Pakistani elites in order to avert this purported threat to global peace. In fact, this is a well-orchestrated plan in which the tribal people are the real victims. Victims in the sense that they are presented to the world as the trouble-maker while in fact, they are hostages at the hands of the Pakistani security agencies (and the militant groups), who over the years have supported or ignored the presence of jihadist and terrorist groups on Pakistani soil.

To understand the state's approach to the tribal areas, one must look at a few simple but thought-provoking questions: Why have the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) been discriminated against over the past 60 years? Why are they being run under the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) laws, and why were political parties banned from the area until very recently? How many schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, roads, canals, dams, power projects, and agriculture projects have been launched in FATA over the years? There are many other such unanswered questions, and the motive is clear: Keep FATA residents in the dark and mold their image as and when needed.

Despite all of this, a vast majority of FATA residents are still in favor of education, development, political reforms and (no doubt) peace. We are hearing more and more accounts of tribal Pakistanis spending their hard-earned money to send their sons and daughters to colleges and universities to become doctors, engineers, teachers and scholars. Would a person sending his son or daughter to university support the Taliban's jihadist agenda?

In Pakistan's cities meanwhile, despite the fact that the secular political leadership is often rendered useless by criminal elements and their supporters, the vast majority of people disapprove of militancy and extremism. The once popular religious political parties are usually not able to gather more than a few hundred people at rallies, even for flashpoint issues such as price hikes, power outages, fuel shortages or foreigners' alleged disrespect of Islam. Anti-Americanism exists in many countries and Pakistan is no exception. But being anti-American does not necessarily mean being a jihadist or a Talib. Protests in the United States and around the world against the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are non-violent examples of this sentiment.

Now is the time for the western world to understand the situation by looking deep into Pakistani society instead of judging things on the basis of protest demonstrations by a few hundred bearded young men, or some gun-wielding men in videos from FATA. The key point to understand is that the real Pakistani society lies under the superficial layer of radicalism being presented as a serious threat to Pakistan and the peace of the world at large.

We need to know that despite security threats, hundreds of thousands of students are attending schools, colleges and universities; new private sector educational institutions are being opened; new think-tanks are being launched; the NGO network is spreading; and music, art and culture are flourishing. These developments are even occurring in areas presented as the most conservative to the outside world. It is high time for the world to look beyond the surface and see the vast majority of Pakistanis, who have been taken hostage by the few armed thugs who are propped up by the state to achieve the foreign policy goals.

Extremism is without a doubt a serious issue confronting the state of Pakistan and the region. But the approach should be to take it head on with the support of the bulk of Pakistanis who disapprove of terrorism and believe in political dialogue as a resolution to issues both inside and outside the country.

Daud Khattak is a journalist currently working for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Pashto-language station Radio Mashaal.