Some of My Best Friends are Extremists

By Anjum Altaf

Could it be argued that there are good and bad extremists just as there are good and bad Muslims? If so, the proposal to identify extremists in universities might be misplaced.

Extremism has become conflated with violence and terrorism which is a partial interpretation. The dictionary defines extremism as “belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable” which widens the scope for a more nuanced understanding.

Put that neutral definition together with the observation of Bertrand Russell that “the tyranny of the majority is a very real danger” and that “it is mistake to think that the majority is necessarily right” and one can argue that almost all human progress has been due to extremists who have challenged the moribund ideas of majorities. Think of Galileo  or of the injunction to learn even if it required traveling to China.

It is possible, of course, that extremism could lead to poor judgement with negative consequences. Mr. Jinnah’s position in Dhaka that Urdu would be the sole national language of Pakistan was arguably extremist and one that contributed to subsequent problems. However, no one would accuse Mr. Jinnah of evil intentions. Mitigating errors of judgement calls for inclusive decision-making not surveillance by intelligence agencies.

The example above should remind us that extremism is often not an individual attribute but is contextually determined – the position regarding Urdu could have been mainstream opinion in one part of the country but a fringe one in the other. Consider another example, the position on Creation where the mainstream view in Pakistan accords with the story of Adam and Eve. If a mainstream Pakistani migrated to Europe he would become there the holder of a relatively extreme position. Would it be warranted for European intelligence agencies to interrogate his “extremism” when nothing else changed in his personality?

Increasing globalization has exacerbated this problem of contextual extremism. In the West beards and turbans have become symbols of extremism while bikinis and bars are considered likewise in other parts of the world. The clash of civilizations reflects in part the harmless divergence among different mainstream opinions.

In the face of these arguments many discussants concede the point that private views, however extreme, are not problematic per se. In their view the problem emerges when some individuals try to impose their extreme views on others. This suggests that the problem is not extremism of one’s views but intolerance of those of others.

This is a serious concern if true because the entire ethos of the educational system in Pakistan is built around bolstering the conviction that we are right and those who disagree with us are wrong. Every unsanctioned opinion is liable to severe punishment. The State also propagates the extremist sentiment that every citizen should be prepared to die for the nation and destroy its enemy. An apocryphal story of a teenager apprehended crossing the border in 1965 to annihilate infidels is telling in this regard. Asked to identify the source of his extreme views he ascribed them all to watching PTV. Hannah Arendt had warned that such “commitment can easily carry you to a point where you no longer think.” Only a heavy dose of self-reflection of the type exemplified by Bulleh Shah and Kabir can reverse the trend towards mindlessness.

This lethal problem of intolerance cannot be solved by surveillance of students but by a renewed examination of State commitments and the realization that many agents of the State are themselves extremely intolerant. It is ironic for a set of agents fostering intolerance to start combing campuses for the victims of their efforts.

A different perspective on extremism holds that it is worrisome only when it engenders violence. This prompts two reflections. First, that those holding extreme views rarely resort to mass violence in their individual capacity. Individuals act in politically motivated ways more when they are part of groups espousing violent aims — no surprise that violent actions are immediately claimed by groups like ISIS or TTP. Putting an end to such violence requires proscribing the groups and not pursuing individual extremists which is an impossible task with a huge margin for error. When a State leaves such groups alone allowing them to morph under various guises while claiming to ferret out individuals, it loses the claim to credibility.    

Second, one must confront another conundrum obscured by the blanket castigation of violent extremism. Recall the phrase that characterized the 1964 US presidential campaign of Senator Goldwater: “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice.” Clearly, Goldwater did not consider extremism to be an unambiguously negative phenomenon nor was he averse to violence if warranted by the situation. Many others would recall that both Begin and Mandela started as individuals with “extremist” views, joined groups with “violent” aims, and propagated “terrorism.” Yet, both went on to lead their countries and were honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize.

One can reconcile with such extremism only if the focus on groups with violent aims includes States that use violence to oppress their own or foreign citizens. It is hard to justify passivity against the depredations of such states — “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” was the second half of Goldwater’s pronouncement. The glaring case at present is the ethnic cleansing in Burma. Unless there are global mechanisms to prevent such state-sanctioned atrocities, non-state groups will cite the precedence of Begin and Mandela to resist and the world will be in no moral position to criticise their violent extremism.

The bottom line of this reflection is that intolerance not extremism is the major threat to  society; that intolerance is the inevitable outcome of State-sponsored indoctrination in education; that this indoctrination can only be countered by a tradition of self-reflection that includes within its ambit one’s most cherished beliefs; that effectively restoring social harmony requires proscribing groups that espouse violent aims and these can include States themselves. The surveillance of individuals by the State, here or elsewhere, is the wrong prescription.

The writer is the former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. This opinion was published in Dawn on September 29, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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