Posts Tagged ‘Extremism’

Some of My Best Friends are Extremists

October 12, 2017

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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Pakistanization of India?

December 7, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

India lags Pakistan in religious extremism but it seems both are headed for the same destination although by varying paths and with possibly different outcomes.

Much attention has been drawn to the rising injection of religion into politics in India spurring a number of debates in the media. Is India being Pakistanized? Is Modi India’s Zia? What accounts for the phenomenon? Where will it end? These are some of the frequently heard questions.

The dynamics of the phenomenon in the two countries appear similar but are actually different although there is an invisible underlying similarity that propels them in the same direction. A bedrock of religious prejudice exists in both countries available to be mined. In Pakistan, it has entered politics via concession and coercion while in India the drivers are manipulation and stealth. The paths in the two countries along which the phenomenon is evolving also present different constraints that shape its trajectory and growth. This premise bears some elaboration.

The Islamization we see in Pakistan today began not with Zia but with Bhutto. To extract himself from a self-created political crisis towards the end of his reign in 1977, Bhutto made some cynical concessions aimed at diffusing his opposition – the Friday holiday, prohibition on consumption of alcohol, declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims, etc. Had he survived, he might have contained the fall-out, but he didn’t.

Bhutto was replaced by Zia, the military dictator, who found riding this wave a ready means of legitimizing his rule. His equally cynical moves were not Islamization via grudging concession but through proactive coercion. Zia more or less mandated a whole host of measures – the covering of heads by female TV anchors, the use of Allah Hafiz by air hostesses and radio announcers, mandatory Friday prayers for bureaucrats, adding Islamic studies to the school and college curricula, testing religious knowledge in public service examinations, public flogging for criminals, stoning for adultery, etc., etc. Adding momentum to all this was the coincidence of Zia’s accession in 1979 with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamic revolution in Iran. These quite accidental events greatly reinforced the primacy of religion in politics.

India, on the other hand, has had no Bhutto or Zia; nor was Indian society impacted in the same way by the Russian invasion or the Iranian revolution. The primary push to inject religion into politics continues to be India’s electoral particularity, the presence of a fairly significant religious minority tagged with much historical baggage, a situation very different from that of Pakistan. The negatives of this distribution are exacerbated by the choice of the first-past-the-post modality to elect political representatives which creates incentives to divide and splinter coalitions, something to which fanning religious antagonisms readily lends itself in the Indian political landscape. While, there have been some secondary examples of concession and coercion in India – the Shah Bano case being an example of the first; banning the consumption of beef and attempting to alter history books of the second – the primary driver of religious extremism remains manipulation in the pursuit of political power.

Such manipulation reveals itself during the course of most elections in India. It was quite obvious earlier with the issue of the Babri mosque and the BJP electoral strategy in Gujarat. If it was not equally clear in the last national elections, particularly in UP and Bihar, the recently concluded state elections in Bihar removed any doubts. As the election progressed and the electoral outcome appeared shifting away from the BJP, its narrative moved in parallel from the high talk of development for all to rank communalism with the Prime Minister himself party to barely coded divisive messages about the relative rankings of the various communities included in the all.

This brings us to Narendra Modi and the element of stealth. It seems quite clear that while Modi prefers to occupy the high ground on religious tolerance, he has sanctioned a regime in which lower level functionaries, including minsters, can freely exploit or exacerbate religious differences for political or ideological ends. This is the current stealth mode of injecting religion into politics and society in India.

Where India and Pakistan are similar is that they continue to retain huge reservoirs of people for whom religion remains a very salient dimension of identity. This can remain subservient to other dimensions for prolonged periods but is among the ones that can be provoked most readily and with the greatest of ease.

Where India and Pakistan have been different is that while Pakistan has been proactively stoking religious prejudices and invoking religious nationalism for political purposes, India has been, by and large, resisting the temptations. That is till we get to Narendra Modi and the BJPs latest mandate with a dominant majority in parliament. Hence the recent spike in incidents of religious intolerance in India.

These differences between the two countries stem from the fact that while Pakistan is an authoritarian state with virtually no effective checks and balances, India is a democratic polity with a fair amount of space for dissent. Coercion can work in Pakistan while stealth is called for in India.

And this is what lends, contrary to Pakistan, considerable uncertainty regarding the likely outcome in India. The democratic space has engendered a much stronger civil society compared to Pakistan where protest under military dictatorships is far too risky and even under nominally democratic dispensations civil rights of citizens remain in abeyance. The emergence of the kind of protest by intellectuals, artists, and celebrities seen in India, of which the outpouring of awards returned was one example, is impossible to imagine in Pakistan. Even the return of one award would be a surprise; the possibility of a coordinated movement is inconceivable. How Indian civil society faces up to rising extremism and where things stand by the time the next elections come around would determine whether the recent spate of events would ebb or lead to a flood.

The lava of religious prejudice lies very close to the surface in both countries and the future rests very much on how it is managed by the interaction of political leadership and elements of civil society. Pakistani leadership lulled the population into thinking it was pursuing a low-cost strategy that was safely oriented outwards with religious nationalism targeted towards India and religious grievances towards the West. The blow-back of this short-sightedness has finally engulfed the country. Indian leadership, on the other hand, is engaged in a very high-risk strategy of fanning extremism in its domestic space, the risk heightened by the fact that its instrumentality is now tinged with elements of genuine belief in the merits of Hinduization.

In Pakistan, the battle is lost, at least for the near future. In India, the outcome remains to be determined with a lot resting on the strength of the resistance in the next few years.

Related Reading:

Electoral Choices
Pakistan-India Relations
India’s Pakistan Policy?
What Kind of Revolution Do We Need in South Asia?

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Gandhi, bin Laden and the Global Chessboard

May 12, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The thought of any connection between Osama bin Laden and Gandhi would not have occurred to me were it not for a remark in the much talked about biography of the latter by Joseph Lelyveld. At one point in the book, I am told, Lelyveld writes that “it would be simply wrong, not to say grotesque, to set up Gandhi as any kind of precursor to bin Laden.”  The remark piqued my curiosity especially given the fact that it was written before the recent discovery and elimination of Osama. Clearly, Lelyveld was not cashing in on a coincidence. So what was it that provoked the comparison even if it were to be dismissed?

Let me state my conclusion at the outset: the personalities bear no comparison but the contextual similarities highlight major political issues that bear exploration and attention. (more…)

Good Muslims: A Material Theory of Culture?

March 11, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

I attended a talk by Professor Vali Nasr where he presented the central argument of his new book Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What it Will Mean for Our World. Professor Nasr is an influential voice as senior advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the special Representative of the US for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which makes it relevant to summarize his views and to identify some areas of agreement and disagreement.

Professor Nasr’s underlying hypothesis was quite straightforward: the middle class transformed the modern West and it can transform the Muslim world as well. The rise of trade, capitalism and merchant life is the most important trend at work and one that shapes the contours of culture and delimits the uses of religious belief. From this vantage point the prescription follows logically: if Islamic countries are integrated into the global economy, this trend would shape the cultural landscape of the Muslim world. (more…)