Pakistan is one of the most volatile regions in the world today and the situation in that country threatens the world peace. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who masterminded the September 11, 2001 terrorist strike in New York, was arrested in Pakistan; the London bombings of July 7, 2005 were carried out by Pakistani-origin terrorists; and the Mumbai attacks in 2008 was the handiwork of Pakistani based terrorist outfits. The use of military power is only a short-term solution to the problem of terrorist penetration in some sections of country’s society and it requires imaginative thinking to arrest the growth of religious extremism at the grassroots.
The United States is seen as a short-term maximizer when it comes to its policies towards Pakistan and that is why it is most unpopular among average Pakistani citizen including the intelligentsia. American leadership has tried to partially correct its shortsighted approach recently when it approved the $ 10 billion assistance to Pakistan in the form of Kerry-Lugar bill as it tried to formulate a plan to strengthen the civilian government in Pakistan. Pakistan is also among those selected Muslim nations where the US Agency for International Development is building 13 new partnerships to advance entrepreneurship and economic growth. However, to better address the problem of religious extremism in Pakistan the United States should tactfully use its influence over the influential players in Pakistan to bring about a grassroots democracy consolidation in that country. America can use its soft power rather than just relying on hard power with an aim to empower the societal and political institutions to tackle religious extremism in Pakistan.
One of the first elements of this strategy is to help the Pakistani state to craft pragmatic solution to the country’s problems in managing country’s ethnic problems and accommodate its diversities in a democratic manner. Empowering progressive ethnic leadership will go a long way in curbing the growth of religious extremism in that country. Besides having distinct ethnic majorities in four of its provinces, each Pakistani province has substantial sets of ethnic minorities which are majorities in their own sub-regions. Seraki speaking south western part of Punjab province, a bastion of Deobandi movement in that region, is ethnically different from the rest of Punjab province. Baluchistan has substantial population of Pashtuns and its myriad of Baluch tribes makes the issue more complex. Karachi, the capital of Sind province, is one of the most cosmopolitan cities of South Asia and it is infamous for ethnic tension. Recently, Pakistani government renamed Pashtun majority North West Frontier Province as Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa and this triggered off protests in Hindku speaking Hazara district, which is linguistically and ethnically closer to Rawalpindi district of Punjab province and Muzaffarabad district of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. People in Hazara have started a movement for the creation of separate, an assertion of their distinct ethnic identity quite different from the rest of Frontier province.
The U.S. with its rich corpus of leading political scientists with expertise on federalism and devolution of powers can provide the Pakistani state and its intelligentsia some guidance to structure a decentralized polity so that political , economic and social powers are decentralized from the federal to provincial level and further devolution to various sub-regions within it. Of course, the solution needs to be worked out within the realities of South Asia and its societal make-up. A proper decentralized structure from the state to the provinces and province to sub-regions can go a long way in empowering the regional and ethnic parties who are critical in the fight against religious based terrorism. In fact resistance to devolve powers horizontally is a South Asian malaise and that is the root cause of many problems for various conflicts in the region.
In addition to it, the political parties in Pakistan should be encouraged to promote inner-party democracy so that they reflect the societal and economic pool of the country. Democratizing the political parties in that country will include creating equitable economic structures in the rural areas. For this purpose, the state needs to usher in land reforms to empower the landless people in the rural areas. This will enable the political parties to get rid of the clientalist model where the parties bank on the feudalistic structure to garner votes. The capacity building of the political parties to combat the religious parties is directly related to its ability to widen the societal base of the groups. In addition to it, the political parties need to acquire a national political and social agenda to forge a feeling of national unity among the people of Pakistan. A party with a strong grassroots network can neutralize the growth of religious groups that depend on marginalized sections of society for street power. In sharp contrast to the rural areas, Pakistan already has a resilient middle-class in the urban areas that was demonstrated in the lawyer movement in 2008 against the removal of chief justice.
Pakistan’s literacy rate is 43.5% which is considerably low compared to the neighbouring countries like India and Sri Lanka that have increased their literacy levels to 92 percent and 62 percent respectively.1 A literate base is essential for democratic consolidation in any country. The low educational base in the country provides a breeding ground for religious extremism as they can recruit and brainwash the illiterate. The religious schools cater to less than one percent of the school-going population and the total seminaries are estimated to be around 10,000 with 1.7 million students.2 Some of the seminaries did contribute to the growth of religious extremists. During the late 1970s, for example, Deobandi seminaries in the Pashtun belt received state patronage. According to a World Bank report, enrollment in Deobandi seminaries increased after 1979, coinciding with the start of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. 3In 2001, an analyst for the US-based Brookings Institution wrote that there were around 45,000 seminaries in Pakistan, though that number is contested by many Pakistani experts. In August 2001, the government of Pakistan likewise created a Madrassa Education Board, and asked all seminaries to register with the government in return for financial benefits. Either way, of these the Pakistani government recently stated that it had been able to register less than 15,900, and admitted that some seminaries continued to function without registration.4 A militaristic approach to the problem will only result in result in backlash and further inflame religious passions. Instead of increased security crackdowns, the solutions would be to democratically engage Islamic scholars with the social, economic and political issues of the times so that the educational reform process is not seen as an imposition by the state and does not hit a roadblock. The availability of modern education to all the classes is critical for the success of democracy.
The rise of religious extremism in Pakistan is a symptom of the failure of democracy consolidation in that country. The US should address each element of the problem which includes the expansion of public infrastructure for modern education, decentralizing the polity and land reforms. Each of these factors is to be addressed so that the country’s political institutions garner the political will to combat religious extremism. The US approach should also be based on addressing the endemic social and political problems of the second-largest Muslim country of the world. The fight against terrorism is also battle of ideas, and for this, democratic consolidation is a prerequisite in Pakistan.
Luv Puri is a Fulbright fellow at New York University. AP Photo.