The "Extremist" Phenomenon: At Home and Abroad

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This time it’s the ambassador of United States Ryan Crocker complaining about extremists. In the context of relief work for earthquake victims Crocker was concerned that the banned extremist groups were active. According to media reports he said that “the involvement of banned groups in the earthquake relief operation was a matter of concern and his country’s position on such outfits, which have been put on the watch-list, was very clear.” The government has already taken the correct position that while the activities of these groups will be closely monitored they will not be prevented from providing relief to the earthquake victims. Crocker’s response to the government’s position was that “…I don’t find them doing something that can’t be done by the government and internationally-recognized NGOs. Our concern is very well known.” According to one report he added the caveat that “it would be a different issue if these groups renounced any act of violence and devoted themselves to the people.”

Crocker’s concern raises two issues. One, what would Pakistan do with its home-grown “extremist” political forces. Two Washington’s approach towards political forces within the Muslim world that have taken positions that are viewed as extremist by Washington and also by sections of the societies within which they function. As for Pakistan, its government’s objective must be to earnestly force these groups back into the net of normalcy, disarmament and rule of law. The State must exhibit zero tolerance for any violation of law by these groups. And this presupposes the State’s own commitment to rule of law.

As for Washington dealing with the extremist groups that have been banned on the US administration listings, the outcome of local elections in Egypt and Palestine should prove instructive for Washington. The incumbents have lost to Hammas in Palestine and to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Washington needs to reframe the issue of “extremism.” It must facilitate the creation of a context in which these groups that enjoy democratic legitimacy within their societies chose to eschew violence.

An ill-advised simplistic approach to extremism is one that views shunning of those groups which mobilize around religion, oppose US policies in their own region and resort to political violence. This needs to be altered. Ultimately only that policy which while rejecting extremism also as a multi-faceted complex phenomenon, can deal with the problem of extremism both within governments, opposition groups and other political groups.

Extremism, a disease of our times has spread its tentacles all around. Of its many defining determinants at least three are noteworthy. One the extremism that those in power exhibit. They go in with tanks and bombs where patient force-backed diplomacy can work, seek to destroy what requires careful reconstruction, preach hate where tutoring understanding is needed, promote rejection where curtailment and reform are important, craft a militaristic- religiosity combine to fight your adversary; advance division and hate where bridging of differences is required, take the moderating view, abandon the path of justice and fair play for pure partisanship. All this naturally promotes deadly and debilitating extremism.

Two often in the absence of a credible and participatory system of politics and a reliable justice system, political groups frame their concerns and solutions in an exaggerated extremist manner. When a non-credible political system often leads to the unconstitutional imposition of a specific elite, party, ethnicity, institution’s rule over the ‘rest’ the response of the ‘rest’ is often cast in extreme ethnic, religious, anti-elite and anti the-ascendant institution’s rule. There are groups that turn their religious, racial or ethnic identity into a crusading cry. Hence through exaggeration of their legitimate concerns they construct a victim-hood scenario. In countries where credible political and legal systems do not exist, many will buy into victim-hood framing. For the many who would ‘buy into’ this victim-hood, the causes of discontent maybe numerous. They could be political, cultural, sociological economic and moral which lead to a mental and emotional state of exclusion and alienation vis a vis the dominant group in their context. The historical evolution and the legal triggers may differ but groups like East Pakistanis in 1971, the LTTE, the Kashmiris, the Basque party, Naxalites would fall in this group.

Three perpetual discontent breeds frustration, irrationality and desperation and a mind that will almost effortlessly take to extremism, like fish to water. The alienated and desperate have virtually no stake in the dominant socio-political and cultural milieu. Morally too they find it repugnant. The milieu is often framed as the ‘evil.’ From this repugnance they often derive justification to destroy the ‘other’ by themselves resorting to immoral means too. And when such routes are available they opt for the anarchistic, nihilistic or messianic route to worldly and heavenly salvation. Many religious groups would fall in this group.

The birth of extremism hence has different causes; some more complex than the others. In some cases it is more complex than, an outcome of an entire system gone awry. Multiple causes have required multiple approaches to neutralize extremism. In India the extremism of the Khalistan movement, for which both Indian and Pakistani policies were responsible, was largely tackled through policy changes in Delhi and in Islamabad. Pakistan pulled back its support and Indian mainstream parties entered into political alliance with the parties from Punjab.

Within the US the extremism of the Klu Klux Klan, of the born-again Christians like Reverend Pat Robertson who called for Chavez’s killing and of General Boykin who called his God more superior than that of the Muslim’s God, has been tackled through a web of checks that the American democratic system has in place. Only late last week two steps have been taken to block the US Establishment from taking extremist steps in the name of national security. Republican Senator John McCain called for an explanation, while Senator Arlen Specter, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said he would investigate the charges against the National Security Agency of spying on hundreds of people without warrants. The NSA is constitutionally barred from eavesdropping. Similarly the Senate on Friday rejected efforts to renew expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, dealing a major blow to President Bush and the Republican leadership.

Senators on both sides of the aisle argued that some of the act’s provisions infringe on civil rights.

Malaysia too has prevented the extremism from emerging in its multi-ethnic polity. In the seventies Malaysia responded to the challenge of integration involving various ethnic communities and to the challenge posed by religious crusaders in the nineties through well-planned economic integration programs and through combining democracy with effective State control. Mindful of the extremist socio-political tendencies that a one-party rule can generate, a Chinese scholar at Harvard was working how to prevent regime collapse in a one –”party system. Intellectual Chinese capital is being spent on how to pre-empt rise of political extremism.

Reconciliation has been another tool used by governments to undermine political extremism. The Sudanese government had opted for the grand return of the SPLA leader John Garang to Khartoum and that brought peace to Sudan, despite the tragic death of Garang. Similarly to end the 13 year old Islamic Salvation Front(FIS)’s insurgency the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced to hold the Sept 29 referendum to vote on a partial amnesty offer to the FIS. The insurgency began when the military cancelled elections which FIS was set to win in 1992

Indians faced the difficult task of tackling the religious extremists who traveled the constitutional path into the Indian parliament. Having slayed mosques and Muslims, their communalism virtually rendered ineffective India’s administrative machinery and the legal system. India’s genuine democracy helped deal with this extremism; the very route that brought them to power.

Conversely in Pakistan the State promoted ethnic extremism and religious extremism for its own reasons and set aside any semblance of rule of law and trashed the Constitution at repeated intervals. Unfortunately in Pakistan the causes of political extremism remain unaddressed. Hence with the continued absence of a credible political system, of Constitutional rule and of rule of law, the problem of political extremism, whether ethnic, religious or regional, is likely to stay. Political extremism in a Federation will always flourish in the absence of a credible centre.

In the twenty-first century our global context will become even more vulnerable to extremism. Extremism could further grow in the powerful mix of hate, alienation, immoral and unaccountable exercise of power, human and material mobility, information explosion, committed ‘crusaders’ of multiple ilks, single unassailable military power, proliferation of weapons and of deadly technologies.

Ambassador Crocker, his government and no less our own government would do well to understand the ‘extremist’ phenomenon more comprehensively. In any event Pakistan’s principle problem is not extremism; it has been the absence of rule of law and a State apparatus that have consciously promoted extremism.

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Nasim Zehra is a Fellow at the Harvard University – Asia Center. She contributed this article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from Massachusetts, USA.

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