The lynching of a Sri-Lankan citizen in Sialkot by a mob accusing him of blasphemy has put a stamp of authenticity on the pervasive extremism in the name of religion in Pakistan, which is really a great threat to the state and solidarity of society. If the situation continues, the already squeezed space for saner voices would become unavailable and then Pakistani society would be a completely uncivilized and brutish space with the law of the jungle.
The incident, which took place in the Central Punjab city of Sialkot, has sent shivers down the spine of everyone in Pakistan and every individual has started thinking that he or she may face the same situation one day. The Sri Lankan citizen, Priryantha Kumara, who worked in a factory in Sialkot as production manager, was lynched for alleged blasphemy for removing some Islamic text from a factory machine. The manner he was killed demonstrates that members of the mob were completely bereft of reason. However, more sordid was the role of the onlookers who did not try to stop the mob from killing him. This speaks volumes about the insensitivity of the members of society to the appalling situation of others. The state apparatus was incapacitated, perhaps due to lack of the will to protect Kumara. The incident has further maligned the image of Pakistan, its society, government and people of being intolerant, extremist and religiously jingoistic. This would definitely affect the level of foreign investment in Pakistan, particularly from the close ally China pumping into Pakistan billions of dollars under the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). Several Chinese workers and experts have been killed in Pakistan by militant and terrorist groups. On the other hand, Western countries and their citizens would be further discouraged to arrive and work in Pakistan.
It is important to note that as a state and society Pakistan is faced with multiple threats. Of these, the most important threat that has evolved over decades is extremism. The extremist threat to Pakistani society and the state is not only grave but extensive. More importantly, the extremist threat to Pakistan not only manifests itself in the shape of the formation of radical social attitudes and their translation into violent behavior but also terrorism. The story of the effects of extremism, formation of fundamentalist social attitudes, violence and terrorism does not end here. The fact of the matter is that extremism has seriously affected the normal functioning of society and the state per se. This can be gauged from the Sialkot incident. There is another important aspect. It is generally believed that extremism and radical social attitudes thrive in the countryside with rural mindsets. Industrialization is believed to give rise to more modern social structures that are tolerant and inclusive. However, in the case of Sialkot, which is one of the industrial hubs of Pakistan, the demonstration of such a radical attitude gives rise to many questions.
Extremism has various forms and manifestations. It could be racial, ethnic, nationalist, gender-based, and above all, religious. History is testimony to the fact that Adolf Hitler demonstrated unprecedented racist extremism and put the peace of the world in danger. The example of ethnic radicalism unprecedentedly manifested itself in Rwanda between Hutus and Tutsis. In India, extremism on the basis of the Hindu chauvinist ideology, Hindutva, has catapulted fundamentalists, like Narendra Modi, to the position of the prime minister of the country. In Pakistan, extremism is present in all its forms and manifestations and importantly the state and its institutions have no vibrant policy to counter it despite the formation of the much-touted National Action Plan after the sordid Army Public School Peshawar terrorist attack in December 2014. Noticeably, it is extremism that results in terrorism instead of the other way round. So, if the country has a plan for fighting terrorism, it does not mean that extremism could be countered. In fact, the nature, scope and profundity of extremism in Pakistan are such that it would require an all-out state and societal response to counter it. However, the state and society are far away from even agreeing to take on extremism. The release of TLP militants, who killed policemen in Lahore during a protest, is a case in point. This lack of agreement mainly has two reasons. Firstly, both state and society are unable to understand the graveness of the extremist threat. Secondly, there is no will to fight extremism, fundamentally because of fear. Here, the need arises to educate and apprise both people and policymakers about the threat level of extremism and its nature and forms.
The gravest of the extremist threat in Pakistan is the prevalence of large-scale radicalism in the name of religion within the country as was evident during the recent TLP protest and lynching of Kumara in Sialkot. There are innumerable groups and individuals, who have been part of the extremist enterprises. In the last many years, the government may have been able to launch some large-scale successful military operations against terrorists and militants. However, the extremist organisations, institutions and networks, which have been behind these terrorists and militants, are still very much intact. The magnitude and strength of the extremist organisations and networks is so huge that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for the security agencies to dismantle them.
Keeping in view the sensitivity of the question of religion in Pakistan, successive governments often chose not to take action against leaders of extremist networks. This has been the case with almost all successive federal and provincial governments and other state agencies due to which extremist networks have been growing in scale, size and scope without inhibition. Resultantly, several extremist networks have become monstrosities and the entire extremist enterprise as a proverbial Hydra. In particular in Punjab, there has always been a lack of enthusiasm about taking on extremists and what we see today are incidents, like TLP attacks on state officials and the killing of Kumara.
Leaders of radical religious groups and networks are cognizant of the anti-state and anti-social nature of their activities and they remained embroiled in the activities primarily because of their economic and social benefits. The control structure of extremist religious groups and networks is elaborate, intricate and extensive. Most of the extremist networks are controlled by bodies of individuals who have intimate relations with each other often of teacher-pupil. These networks of individuals, in turn, are controlled by the high-profile social, political, economic, and above all, religious elite.
The support structure of extremist networks in Pakistan is also varied and complex. The biggest ground level support to extremist webs comes from the conservative sections of society, which back the genuineness of the agenda and argument of the organizations. As this section makes up the largest part of Pakistani society, extremist groups capitalise on this support. This support is critical for the survival and growth of these groups.
Unless the state clearly come up with a policy to tackle extremism and in this connection educate society, it would be impossible to end the scourge.