Eradicating extremist ideology

By Hussain Bokhari


It has been over a week since the devastating attack on the school in Peshawar that took the precious lives of so many. Over the past week, I have thought about that day, the children that were mercilessly killed, and the families that will forever be barren. I was unable to express my grief and rage as many others so eloquently did – the words required to do so eluded me. My visceral reaction was similar to several other Pakistanis, that these barbarians should be eliminated.

However, the more cerebral response is to get to the root cause of this cancer in order to find a more long-term solution. This brings me to the discourse in Pakistan which has prevailed over the past few years – should we talk to the Taliban, or should we bomb them? The horrendous events of 16/12 have shifted both, public sentiment and public policy towards a more aggressive stance in the form of a reinvigorated military offensive and the establishment of military courts. What’s troubling about this debate is that neither stance is actually the solution to the problem we face – extremist ideology.

Having dialogue is not the solution because these individuals are not part of a centralized organization, but are rather a group of factions which subscribe to varying degrees of extremism. Neither is any ceasefire going to be honored by every faction while dialogue is taking place, nor will the demands put forth be rational or realistic. These issues mired the peace talks earlier in 2014, and ultimately led to their failure.

Military action on the other hand will not eradicate extremist ideology. At best, it will temporarily limit the ability of extremists to perpetrate mindless acts of terror. Some extremists will be killed in pursuit of whatever has been promised to them in the afterlife, while others will slip away and integrate into our society and wait for the scrutiny and intensity to die down. Military action will come to an end – war cannot be perpetual – and when it does, those who ceased to operate will return with their ideology intact, those who were killed will leave behind loved ones ripe for recruiting, and those already in the pipeline being brainwashed will be cited the death and destruction caused by this military action in order to further ingrain them with extremist ideology. The largest war machine in the world has spent $1.6 trillion dollars over the past 13 years, and has failed miserably in eradicating extremism – and has arguably resulted in more extremism.

What we require is a holistic counter-terrorism policy which addresses the core issues that result in the breeding, enablement and enactment of extremism. One way to look at this is to understand the end-to-end process of extremism: The underlying ideology, the agents and locations of radicalization, the people who are radicalized, the logistics of radicalization, the people that fight radicals, and the readiness of state institutions to handle extremism. We need to have a number of difficult debates amongst the public, the lawmakers and other stakeholders related to each aspect of this process – only through a multi-pronged approach will we be able to eradicate it successfully. Here are some thoughts on each:

The ideology: Extremists in our part of the world subscribe to an extreme religious ideology. The number of people that believe in it are minute compared to the majority of Muslims who adhere to a more peaceful version of Islam. In order to rid our society of radical Islam, we need to replace it with the version that preaches peace and tolerance, and that is where moderate scholars need to play their role in a meaningful way – issuing fatwas against terrorism is not sufficient in combatting extremist ideology. We need to do this by forming a body that is tasked with, and held accountable for promoting the moderate version of Islam most of us believe in. Given the fragmentation within our religion, getting scholars from the various sects under one roof would be challenging, but a united effort is required to be successful in this cause.

There are a number of policy related questions that need to be answered. How can the government best facilitate this? Would this be a centralized body? What type of authority would it have and what limits would it have? What tools and infrastructures would it need to be successful? What type of accountability would be associated with the authority? These are just some of the questions that need to be answered in order to lay down the foundation for combatting radical Islam.

The agents and locations of radicalization: We need to do a better job of managing the individuals who radicalize others and the locations where they radicalize them. There are a number of constructs in which this can happen, but let’s look at just two: Maulvis in Masjids and Mua’lims in Madrasas. Before we do though, it is important to preface this by the fact that not every maulvi, masjid, mua’lim and madrasa is contributing towards radical Islam – but some are.

By maulvi, I mean the preacher that has a captive audience every Friday in masjids all across Pakistan. These individuals often have a contorted view of Islam, and they convey learnings which were originally revealed in a language they barely understand, to an audience that doesn’t understand it at all. In effect they have the ability to attribute to God whatever they please, without being questioned by innocent audiences and without any oversight from a religious regulatory body to ensure that they are not abusing this power. This leads to not only incorrect religious assertions – I once heard a maulvi in a DHA masjid say during a Friday sermon that Marketing as a subject is ‘haram’ because it perpetuates lies – but also proves to be an effective and dangerous soap box for individuals who want to promote radical beliefs – like one Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi of Lal masjid who refused to condemn the Peshawar attack. We need to discuss as a society why have we given these individuals so much power.

Mu’alims and the madrasas they teach in can also be potential places of radicalization. Some of the reasons that these institutions exist are to fill the gap in education where state run schools don’t exist, to fill the gap in religious education due to the perceived lack of such education in the curriculum of state run schools, and to further the interests of various competing ideologies of Islam. Leaving these institutions to be run independently of the state will leave the door open to radical elements benefiting from these channels. A major part of the solution to extremism lies within broader education reform in Pakistan, an area where we currently spend an embarrassing 2% of our GDP, and one we seem to give diminishing importance given the further 11% reduction earlier this year. We need to ensure that there are alternatives to madrasas available throughout Pakistan that don’t require students to travel great distances, and that they offer properly regulated religious education to students. As for the madrasas that are operating to further the interests of various religious ideologies for external interests, we need to take a harsher stance as a society, work towards developing our own religious identity rather than importing it from elsewhere, and take the steps to incapacitate these institutions.

Any comprehensive counter-terrorism policy must address a number of important questions in this regard. How do we ensure that we regulate maulvis and mua’lims? Would that be the role of the aforementioned centralized religious authority – an accreditation body for these individuals with a monitoring role to evaluate the integrity of the message being preached in masjids and taught in schools? What should the role of a masjid be in a community and should there be licensing required to establish a masjid? How can we effectively bring madrasas into the fold of the broader education system? What do these madrasas offer that our current education system lacks? How can the overall education system be improved to attract students away from hardline madrasas? Our society and lawmakers both need to debate these questions and take appropriate action.

The people who are radicalized: An important aspect of combatting extremism ideology is to understand the underlying causes of radicalization and taking a tailored approach for each narrative. There are several models that present different archetypes of radical individuals. These need to be studied and we need to develop the best course of action for each. How do we best combat a student who has been brainwashed in an extremist madrasa since childhood? How do we handle individuals who have turned to extreme measures due to collateral damage of war? How do we identify and deal with individuals who are simply mercenaries? What is the best way to isolate individuals who hold on to non-negotiable beliefs about how a society ought to be run? The debates we need to have and strategies we need to put in place should focus on the identification, monitoring, reform and/or punishment of these individuals. A one size fits all approach will not be effective in combatting the types of radicals we are dealing with.

The logistics of radicalization: Radicalization and the resulting terrorism do not happen without the necessary logistics. This includes the funding of radical ideology, militant training, and armament among other things. A comprehensive counter-terrorism policy needs to take a closer look at each of these. The state needs to do a better job at clamping down on sources of funding which help aid extremist elements. Gulf countries, specifically Saudi Arabia is mentioned as a source of funding for a lot of the madrasas in Pakistan.

In the 80’s, it was with Saudi money that these madrasas spread throughout Pakistan under the pretext of countering anti-communist influence. The Saudis have their own agenda, one they have pursued for over three decades to promote their ideology of Wahabi Islam, specifically to counter Iran. Our policymakers need to determine how we can diminish this intervention over time – something which won’t be easily done. The Saudi royal family and Wahabism have had a symbiotic relationship from the inception of Saudi Arabia, and we have strong political relations and a great degree of economic reliance on the Saudis.

We also have to answer a number of key questions: What measures do we need to take to block the transfer of these funds? How do we restrict the entry of miscreants into the borders of Pakistan? How do we ensure that the charity we give‎ does not end ‎up in the wrong hands? What locations are being used to train these individuals? If they are outside our borders, how can we best work with neighboring countries to eliminate these safe havens? If they are within our borders, who is facilitating them and what measures do we put in place to stop them? What are the sources and supply roots of the arms and ammunitions used by extremists, and how do we clamp down on those? What are their communication and transportation methods and how do we effectively monitor and restrict those? ‎Nothing short of crippling every aspect of their infrastructure will suffice.


The people that fight radicals: The people who are at the front line of this fight are essential to the success of any counter terrorism initiative. This includes the army, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement agencies within the country. ‎The lawmakers of this country need to ensure that these institutions are ready and equipped to combat extremism. The institutions themselves need to ensure that their ranks are filled with not only the most competent personnel, but also void of any personnel that harbor a soft corner for extremist elements.

The latter is most important with reference to our military and intelligence agencies as the policy of importing, nurturing, and  facilitating jihadist elements in the 1980’s with the objective of defending against the Soviets and having a friendly western border was executed by them. While they were successful in doing so, the consequences of that policy which have played out over the past three decades reflect the shortsightedness of these institutions, as well as of the foreign players who used our land as a sandbox for proxy war. Any individuals present in the ranks of these organizations need to be dealt with quickly.

The issue of competency is of greater concern for domestic law enforcement agencies, which are nowhere close to where they need to be in terms of capabilities, organization and integrity. Agencies like the police are used to further the personal interests of politicians and other influential individuals. This lack of focus on what they should be doing – protecting and serving Pakistanis – leads to the gaps in our country’s defenses and fosters an environment ideal for extremist elements to carry out their activities.

Any successful counter-terrorism policy will have to ‎address difficult questions about these institutions? Are they ready to combat extremism? What organizational, personnel, financial and technological enablers are required? What is the best way to deal with individuals within these organizations that harbor positive sentiments for extremist ideology – whether it is for strategic reasons or otherwise? What processes and controls need to be put into place to deal with these people? What type of reform is required for our domestic law enforcement agencies that will enable them to be independent and to serve and protect Pakistanis instead of furthering the interests of the political elite? Until we get our house in order with regards to the people who combat extremists, no policy will be successful.

The readiness of state institutions to handle extremism: Beyond the individuals fighting terrorists, there are other institutions that need to be ready to provide a robust infrastructure that deals with extremist ideology. This includes an active legislative body that makes it challenging for extremists to operate in Pakistan and a judicial system that can process extremists quickly and transparently.

Our legislators need to do a better job.  It is criminal that after 70,000 casualties and over a decade of combatting extremism, we don’t have a counter-terrorism policy. It’s shameful that our parliamentarians barely even show up to the parliament, let alone debate and pass the laws that are required for a properly functioning democracy. In order to seriously tackle extremism, our lawmakers need to urgently study, debate and pass the banking, telecom, real estate, security, immigration and transportation related legislation to help restrict the aforementioned logistical aspects of extremism. ‎They need to come together and enable other stakeholders such as the voices of religious moderation and rationale to play the role that is required of them.

The judicial system is in dire need of reform, not just to build the capacity required to deliver justice, but also to build the kind of consistency, integrity, and authority that a judicial system needs to have to be of any significance. The system needs proper investment in order to build the required capabilities to scientifically collect and analyze evidence, provide the necessary protection to witnesses, and reach convictions with transparency. Having military courts is not a long-term solution, but rather a cop-out and attempt to circumvent the fundamental problems that plague our judiciary.

We have to answer difficult questions as a society.  How do we hold our elected leaders accountable when they so blatantly fail to do what they are paid for? What type of freedoms are we willing to give up through pieces of legislation like the Pakistan Protection Act? What are the risks of allowing the military to run the judicial process? Are we ok as a society to have capital punishment? What steps do we need to take to strengthen our judiciary system and other state institutions? How do we look beyond our religious, ethnic, social, and political differences, and stand together as a nation of ~200 million to effectively demand our rights as citizens?

Pakistan did not just spontaneously become a welcoming destination for extremist ideology. It happened because we made poor policy choices. It happened because we provided extremism with the favorable conditions of corrupt governance, absent legislation, mediocre bureaucracy, religious hypocrisy and an identity crisis. It happened because we let it happen.

In my opinion, the approach and questions outlined are what we need to be debating. These may be over-simplified, or may not take into account all the nuances that need to be considered. What I am sure of though is that the answer to combatting extremist ideology is more complex than the ‘whether we should bomb them or talk to them’ debate – and definitely more complex than tracking individuals who order more than 50 naans at a tandoor.

  • EddyMalik

    Perhaps stop the inbreeding and blaming Israel,India and USA for every ill in the society. Also, accept that Islam is a flawed ideology which has only held the nation back. Give up the hatred, there is still time!