Countering violent extremism in Pakistan

Countering violent extremism in Pakistan

In the wake of a major terrorist attack on a Sufi shrine in Pakistan earlier this year, Zahid Shahab Ahmed discusses the way ahead for countering violent religious extremism in the country

Acts of terrorism in Pakistan have decreased significantly in the past couple of years, but the rise in violent extremism is alarming. The government’s response to the attacks and the interconnected challenges they represent has been reactionary, more so since the beginning of 2017.

Sufism has a strong base in Pakistan. Religious fundamentalists and extremists, especially those influenced by Wahhabism, perceive Sufism as un-Islamic and its followers as heretics. This perception is widespread and it is a major cause of frequent attacks on Sufi shrines.

Attack on shrine

The attack on the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif, province of Sindh, in February 2017 is a stark reminder of the extremist threat to Sufism. ISIS claimed responsibility for this attack that killed 75 and injured 200.

Pakistan’s armed forces immediately launched Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad in response. It follows the earlier initiative in 2014, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, also launched against a backdrop of rising terrorism.

Radd-ul-Fasaad specifically targets the terrorist groups Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, TTP, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, all supporters of ISIS in Pakistan. In its first week of operation, it led to the death of over 100 militants.

While government measures its success against terrorism in the declining number of terrorism-related casualties, it has largely been ineffective in countering the influence of home-grown extremist organisations. Many local scholars claim that intolerance and extremism are on the rise in Pakistan—something that deserves greater attention.

The international focus on countering violent extremism since the ‘War on Terror’ began in 2001, has led to a growth in peace education intervention inside Pakistan madaris, the Islamic seminaries. In recent years, many of these CVE interventions have involved teachers and students in public and private schools as well.

Although CVE/peacebuilding programs have been concentrated on the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, violent extremism is a serious problem in other regions across Pakistan.

CVE becomes more difficult as it becomes at the same time more urgent. We need to listen to the opinion of local peacebuilders on the attack and its implications.

Perspective from Pakistan

Pakistan peace scholar, Saeed Ahmed Rid, has described the attack in Sehwan Sharif as further proof that extremism and terrorism are on the rise in rural Sindh. Sanam Noor, Sindh-based peace activist, blames the attack on government security agencies not taking the threat seriously, not beefing-up security during ceremonies like Urs when thousands of devotees visit shrines.

The threat to Sufi shrines is nothing new.

‘CVE in Pakistan will remain elusive unless it is owned by the people of Pakistan and propelled by the state,’ says Shabana Fayyaz. The attack was a ‘well planned terrorist act … CVE needs to target the multi-layered structure of extremism embraced by terrorist organisations,’ says Muhammad Feyyaz.

Deadly attacks on Sufi shrines in Pakistan, such as Data Darbar and Abdullah Shah Ghazi in 2010 and Shah Norani in 2016, have been a regular occurrence since 2005. It represents an enormous challenge to peacebuilding.

Pakistanis are now in general no longer shocked by these brutal attacks. The response of Raheel Sharoon (Diocese of Raiwind, Church of Pakistan) to Sehwan Sharif is typical. He has been engaged in interfaith dialogues for many years and was saddened but not shocked. ‘There has been feeding and nurturing our populace this narrative of hatred and violence in the name of religion for almost 35 years, so when we experience this hatred in action, unfortunately, it does not “shock and awe” me anymore.’

Rising violent extremism in Pakistan poses a direct challenge to CVE initiatives. For Pakistani scholar, Abdul Basit, the assaults in Sehwan Sharif and on other shrines in Khuzdar ‘clearly indicate that the extremist worldview of ISIS not only ex-communicates Shias but it also apostatises other Sunni groups which do not subscribe to its extremism ideology.’

A deliberate assault by ISIS on sectarian and communal fault-lines will have a negative impact on CVE.

Since Pakistan was created in 1947, Pakistani society has been divided on ethnic, religious, and sectarian lines, dynamics that can be exploited by internal and external terrorist factions. And yet, although social division makes peacebuilding more difficult as ISIS increases its presence, social division can on the other hand create opportunities for building a counter narrative to extremist ideologies.

Sufism is a counter-force to extremist ideologies

The violent extremist narrative is antithetical to Sufi teachings. The attack on the Sehwan Sharif shrine was an attack on peace-loving people because, says Sidra Rafique of Mashal-e-Rah. ‘Sufi Islam not only preaches love but also practices a message of spiritual devotion and love for all, regardless of their creed, caste, gender or religion.’

Sufism is a counter-force to extremist ideologies.

Across the board, Pakistani peace scholars, CVE experts and peacebuilders have condemned acts of terrorism against Sufi shrines.

Way forward

Acts of violent extremism amply justify the need for CVE programs across Pakistan.

The government and its local and international partners need to upgrade the National Action Plan. Policy should move beyond countering to preventing violent extremism in the long-term. Most important of all is the urgent need to address the structural issues—the social divisions based on ethnic, sectarian, and religious lines—to prevent violent extremism taking place.

It is vital to overcome any confusion between sectarian organisations, especially those that promote violent extremism, and terrorist groups. The government’s confusion in this matter only encourages groups promoting violent religious extremism.

Most important of all, having the relevant government authorities work side-by-side with civil society groups, local and international NGOs, will develop a comprehensive strategy on countering and preventing violent extremism.

While many peacebuilding organisations address social divisions through inter-faith and intra-faith Shia–Sunni dialogue, they need to include Sufis and their devotees in the peacebuilding process. Sufi involvement in peacebuilding activities in Pakistan can significantly strengthen the campaign for peace and harmony in the country.

Featured image: Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar attracts both Muslim and Hindu devotees Photo: Ibaadnaqvi Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed is a postdoctoral fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, and author of Regionalism and Regional Security in South Asia: The Case of SAARC (Routledge, 2013).

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