Research & Analysis

Pakistan Under Seige: Extremism, Society, and the State review: Muddled narratives

The central paradox today for those who study Pakistan is the obvious one: the persistence of state and societal toleration for and support of terrorism and extremism. What compounds this problem is the damage that terrorists have inflicted on Pakistan leaving its economy in tatters and its polity distorted. Even more devastating has been the impact on public morale and self-esteem and on Pakistan’s international image.

Whatever may have been the takeaways of such a policy in the 1990s — strategic depth in Afghanistan and an extent of pressure on India — it has been self-evidently counterproductive in this century. Yet it is largely persisted with and hence the paradox.

Those interested in these themes would be well rewarded by reading this slim volume. The author, Madiha Afzal, a U.S.-based scholar, focuses on Law, Education and Islamists in the context of Pakistan’s strategic and foreign policy aims in order to explain the structural roots of extremism in Pakistan. The methodology chosen is in part to use the results of a series of public opinion surveys carried out in Pakistan over the past decade and a half. This data is combined with historical analysis and the author’s own research.

The merit of the book is that it quickly relates largely abstract themes to concrete issues concerning the Afghan Taliban, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Lashkar-e-Taiba/ Jamaat-ud-Dawa, attitudes to India and the Kashmir issue, Afghanistan, the U.S., etc. The central question is of course ‘Are ordinary Pakistanis extremists?’ Her finding, to summarise somewhat drastically, is that while an overwhelming number of Pakistanis are opposed to terrorism yet ‘their narratives on extremism are muddied’ by anti-Indianism, anti-Americanism, Islam vs the West and, possibly most of all, by a sense of ‘national victimhood’. These conclusions lead the analysis to the deeper roots of extremism in Pakistan. The first stop here is naturally the Pakistani state itself and its ‘reliance on Islam to define Pakistan’s identity’ and its ‘paranoia vis-a-vis India’. Both provide a supportive environment for extremist groups. Then a mindset of denial — that terrorist attacks in Pakistan are the result of external conspiracy — prevents rational analysis.

Much of this ground has of course been traversed before although the use of the opinion surveys gives the analysis a firmer empirical foundation and provides an overview that is convincing and consistent. The author in addition identifies the central issue clearly: what makes the Pakistan case of widespread extremism cum hyper nationalism different from others in South Asia, Europe and elsewhere is in the role of the state and its institutions ‘which validate not only paranoia and hatred but also violence in the name of religion.’

 

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