The questions that set the parameters for discussion were: what is the current situation in Pakistan, and what, in their opinion, is violent extremism? And what is the solution to the problem of militancy and extremism?
The group mainly comprised Masters level students enrolled in the course on Approaches and Perspectives on Terrorism. The ethnic diversity in the group was also interesting, as almost all regions of Pakistan were represented except Baluchistan. Students from the main Swat area, from the tribal belt, from the interior Punjab province, from Islamabad, and from Sindh province took part in the discussion. The diversity was a good factor because it reflected the various viewpoints on the existing situation in Pakistan, on suicide bombing, on Jihad, on military operation and responsibility of the state and political parties. The diversity was a sign of hope as well, for it showed that the majority of the country’s population that comprises youth (18-25 years) is well aware of their surroundings and full of ideas about taking the country forward only if they are provided with some opportunity to express and implement their ideas.
It was also a pleasant surprise to see very concrete ideas and strong opinions among the female students as well as the way they justified their arguments against violent extremism.
The following is a brief analysis of the views expressed by the students on violent extremism in Pakistan:
Violent extremism as expressed by the students of NDU is the demonstration of unacceptable behavior using any means or medium to express views. It justifies or glorifies terrorist violence in furtherance of particular beliefs and seeks to provoke others to engage in terrorist activities, and to foster hatred which might lead to sectarian, political and communal violence. It was also stated that violent extremism is a mindset, thinking in absolute terms. It is fundamentally similar to the situation in other states but due to negligence and policies of denial, situation in Pakistan is now out of control.
Students believe that violent extremism is a term used to describe the actions and ideologies of individual or groups outside the perceived political center of a society who are otherwise claimed to violate common social policies.
The reasons for violent extremism in Pakistan are manifold; international and domestic policies as well as religious-cultural factors are responsible. The propagation of a narrative that Islam is an apolitical religion has changed the basic political culture of the Muslim societies such that they remain confused about politics and the role of they would like religion to play. The general consensus among the students was that it is the political Islam that has been promoted and propagated at a state level that led to the situation that we are in now.
Some students, especially those from Islamabad, believe that it is due to a lack of good governance and low literacy rates that Pakistan is facing problems of religious, sectarian and political violence in the form of suicide bombings and targeted killings.
It was a strong opinion of the students that violent extremism and militancy is no longer restricted to the tribal areas, Swat, or areas near Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Militancy has crept into the main cities and now Karachi, Lahore (recent attack on Data Darbar, the Sufi saint’s shrine) and Islamabad are as vulnerable as Pushtun areas.
The students also opined that the current situation in Pakistan is volatile; there is false sense of security at the state level which has contributed a lot to the current chaos. It was discussed that the government needs to be more active in positive ways. The most realistic view of the solution is to adopt a policy shift that would lead to a paradigm shift in our security policy which is in some ways responsible for the situation we are in.
Interestingly, some students believe that it is essential to avoid an “US” versus “Them” mentality while dealing with the militants; that the government needs to declare that those who give up anti-state, anti-people activities are given a chance to become part of the main stream society; that those who are adamant to continue militancy would be dealt with with an iron hand; and that closing all doors for dialogue would further complicate the situation. However, others from more rural areas and victims of militancy argued that military operations to eliminate the enemy are the first step, after which comes development, dialogue and reconstruction.
It was the opinion of the students that the government should develop a system in which the Pak-Afghan border area is properly monitored and there should be a fair verification system to identify Taliban and separate them from the Afghan refugees, who are still in Pakistan in millions. Besides Afghan refugees, the government should monitor madrassas (religious seminaries) and their funding. Charities should also be under close scrutiny of the security agencies as people in general continue to send their donations to various organizations under religious obligations.
Finally, the students reached a consensus that there is a need for open discourse on the real meaning of jihad, the difference between real Jihad (Prophet Mohammed PBUH gave priority to Jihad within oneself to become a better human and called Jihad-e-Akbar, the great Jihad where man is able to control his temptations and lead a clean life, and then Jihad-e-Asghar, the lesser Jihad, the fight against enemy only if you have to defend and no other way is available. The irony is that the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and all other extremist militant groups have taken up the lesser Jihad and made it their main objective) and militancy, criminal violence and political objectives.
Finally, it was expressed that Pakistanis now enjoy more than 60 privately owned channels on news, entertainment and discussions, which can play an important and positive role in making this issue an important part of political discourse in Pakistan.