“From the pressure of all desolations faith gushes forth … we are entering a grave illumined by the dawn.” (Victor Hugo) Revolutions around the world have always been triggered by massive inequities and injustice. From the Set and Nubian revolutions in 2730 BC and 2690 BC in ancient Egypt to the storming of the Bastille in 1789, revolutions including the 1776 American and the Bolshevik revolutions are driven by people’s frustration in a hopeless system that did not promise anything for ordinary people.
‘Le pouvoir’ – the power – that presides over a system of spoils has always been the target of people’s outrage in all such revolutions. Where a lack of collective action owing to organisational and intellectual deficit in society stymies any possible revolution, the ‘revolutionary urge’ usually morphs into collective disorder and violence.
This disorder, according to eminent scholar Gary Becker, is engendered by pressure groups which come into prominence in response to a government’s inability to correct the political failures which favour the politically powerful and rich segments of society. These pressure groups could be political, ideological or anomic (spontaneous).
An anomic political group originates in response to an event. The example of the rise of the Ghazi brigade after the Lal Masjid operation is an example of an anomic pressure group. According to Arthur Bentley and David Truman, the two prominent scholars on pressure groups, these groups are formed on the basis of shared beliefs or attitudes that ultimately become group interests which are further advanced along with the transmission of certain types of values in the people.
In Pakistan, the failure of politics to anchor the needs and aspirations of the people in political and governance structures has led towards the slow alienation of people from mainstream politics. Fareed Zakaria’s concept of ‘illiberal democracy’ that has all the outward trappings of a constitutional democracy – elections, parliament and governance bodies – applies well to Pakistan where the substance of democracy – rule of law, strong institutions, public accountability and civic sense – is absent.
The consequent elitist polity gives rise to proverbial ‘les miserables’ who are left with no choice but to take to the streets to fight for their rights. The non-inclusive polity, bad governance and frequent authoritarian regimes result in the emasculation of the democratic spirit that animates a polity with the rights-based struggle for basic rights and privileges for the dispossessed.
When people feel disempowered in the face of an extractive elite, they tend to gravitate towards a pressure group that ennobles their quest for personal dignity. In the absence of political parties with inclusive structures and internal democracy, the people, especially the dominant conservative fringe of society, embrace the parties that base their politics on religion. The clerics and ideologues of those parties cleverly integrate the religious doctrine with the cultural practices embedded in society for ages.
Motivating people in the name of religion to defend those values that accord with their vision of Islam is the strategy to gain fame as well as put pressure on the government to claim political and economic spaces. Two enabling factors strengthen these extremist narratives. One: the absence of the state from the human security space and equitable provision of public goods like education, healthcare, justice, law and order, housing and civic amenities.
Second: the expedient use of religion to achieve political and strategic objectives by the state. Our history – as well as that of other countries – shows that whenever an emotionally charged religious ideology has been employed for political or strategic purposes, the result has been the rise of religious militancy.
Examples of extremist Jewish parties like Kach that believed in the theocratic state and Al-Qaeda that believed in armed struggle against its perceived enemies are apposite. Even in the atheist Chinese context, when an ideologically inspired communist force, which was initially supported and armed by the US along with Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalists and which controlled the areas behind Japanese invaders through an army of 900,000 by May 1945, refused to disarm after World War II, it morphed into the famous Red Army.
The use of the Deobandi version of Islam as a motivating force for the Afghan jihad in 1979 created a militant cadre well-trained and equipped who refused to lay down arms after the jihad was over. Seeing the steady rise of Deobandi Islamic parties, the Barelvi majority that constitutes over 51 percent of the population in Pakistan also rose to stake their claim to the political power pie.
Starting from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), Sunni Tehreek, Sunni Ittehad Council to the latest Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the Barelvi sects have also used the same template to gain political clout and public following. The dispossessed and disempowered from the poorly governed spaces have rallied around these parties to get empowered and relevant to the country’s power realities. A soft state and a sympathetic population collude with sensationalism seeking the media to hamstring the state response to the steady march of extremist militancy.
The state’s failure to hold the muscular religious militancy accountable for acts of violence is the biggest incentive for the religious particularism’s defiance of the state. A populist judge not only bailed out but went so far as to rehabilitate Lal Masjid clerics involved in the incitement of violence and killings of law-enforcement personnel.
Later, TLP clerics were again left scot-free after the Faizabad sit-in. And now another concession to the TLP has shown the state’s incapacity to enforce the law of the land. The creeping religious militancy cannot be contained through administrative and law-enforcement measures alone. To contain this threat, a full menu of options is required.
That menu needs to consist of measures addressed at eliminating the root causes of extremism which include a distorted understanding of religion at the apex. Instead of injecting religiosity, the state has to patronise enlightened and non-sectarian clerics to take the centre stage in religious discourse. Measures aimed at ameliorating the security needs of the people and rule of law can wean a vast segment of the population off militancy. Only strict accountability, and no mollycoddling of clerics stoking the fires of militancy, can heal the cries of the disempowered.
Note: This article appeared in The News, dated 25 November 2021.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.