Getting Pakistan Out of the Grip of Extremism

The horrific events of the last week in Mumbai, in which at least 188 wholly uninvolved people were gunned down for no other reason than that they happened accidentally to be in the way of merciless gunmen, have to be viewed in the context of Pakistan’s recent history.

With the backing of the United States, the Pakistani government started military operations to chase out terrorists following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in on September 11, 2001, thereby increasing civilian resentment first against their own government, and subsequently against the US, for all the civilian casualties during operations. This resentment has resulted in domestic acts of insurgency against Western and security targets – further polarising internal divisions.

Pakistan, now considered by some as the “most dangerous place on earth” was until the late 1960s a beautiful mosaic of diverse populations where people of different faiths, casts and creeds lived together peacefully.

Few remember that Pakistan’s first foreign minister, Zafarullah Khan, was a Qadiani, as was the only Pakistani Nobel laureate, physics professor Dr. Abdus Salam. Qadianis comprise a sect declared non-Muslim in Pakistan’s constitution in the late 1970s. And unbeknownst to many, Pakistan’s first Law Minister, Jogindar Nath Mandal, was Hindu.

No one at the time of Pakistan’s founding objected to a Hindu interpreting and implementing the laws of the first state established in the name of Islam. Unfortunately, however, these early indicators of lasting co-existence, cohesion and equality have eroded and Pakistan’s mosaic has become divided.

Recent sectarian strife in Pakistan can be traced to the use of religion by President General Zia ul Haq as a tool for regime legitimisation in the 1980s. His attempt to create an Islamic polity within Pakistan was a bid to gain legitimacy with the religious right, but instead divided the nation along religious lines.

Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, a complex network developed between the Afghan mujahideen fighters, domestic religious groups, and the Pakistani state, with a generous supply of weapons coming from the United States. This combination of easily available arms and a growing, motivated cadre of militants resulted in the rapid spread of violence from Afghanistan into Pakistan itself.

The US’s so-called “war on terror” directly affected Pakistan following 9/11. After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, many Al Qaeda suspects and Taliban remnants fled Afghanistan and are believed to have taken refuge in Pakistan. The government has tried to commence several peace deals with these militants but no agreements have been reached.


While the above conflicts have led to increased extremism within the country, Pakistan’s religiously motivated curriculum has created further divisions. The “Islamised” curriculum being taught in public schools portrays the Muslim as a hero by bluntly negating the contributions of non-Muslims, according to studies by independent writers. Hence, negative behavior, biased approaches and discriminatory mindsets towards non-Muslims, both domestically and internationally, are established at an early age.

The lust for power and vested interests of political, religious and tribal leaders endangers the fabric of the society and promotes oppression and discrimination. And communal violence continuously spills into the existing environment of disharmony.

To make Pakistan a modern, moderate, peaceful, prosperous and healthy nation we must change the exploitative systems, structures, patterns of discrimination, injustice and intolerance, as well as the reactive, rather than proactive, politics that have developed over the last three decades.

A participatory democracy requires open dialogue, mutual cooperation between the heads of sectarian and religious movements and the affected local populations in order to combat militancy, hatred and intolerance of all kind.

Pakistan requires a two-pronged strategy on a short-term and long-term basis to combat internal strife or sectarianism and create an environment of peace, harmony and equal opportunities for all. In the short-term it is necessary to include people feeling alienated and disenfranchised, whether ethnically, religiously, politically or economically, to devise a national policy of cohesion and inclusivity.

In the long run, a complete overhaul of the country‘s education system, curriculum and political process, as well as distribution of wealth and resources among all provinces and sectors, are imperative. We need to bring back a spirit of national progress founded on the principles of unity and faith, embracing diversity, pluralism, justice and equality, all of which are an integral part of this nation. It necessitates attitudinal change – from the top to the grassroots level – so that discriminatory trends, biases and taboos are wiped away.

Pakistan’s enormous challenge is to ensure that the affected communities experience a smooth transition from conflict to sustainable peace, from hopelessness to hopefulness and from injustice to justice. We need new ways of thinking about old problems and new ways of acting to make a significant impression on the existing power structures.

Saiqa Qureshi is a project coordinator at the Christian Study Centre in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, working on interfaith harmony at a grassroots level. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)