HUMANS have been known to transgress all extremes when they come down to savagery. Even then, the trends set over the last few decades are alarming. Our violent tendencies did not emerge out of the blue: extremism was birthed, reared, and nurtured right in front of us as we stood by, unsure of what to do. We witnessed religious and sectarian fault lines deepen in the late 1970s, when a traditional, all-embracing affection for each other’s way of living and beliefs began to be replaced with xenophobia and hate.
Soon after, sectarian divisions flared up. Riots killed hundreds. Curfew had to be imposed numerous times. There was mass displacement in cities: colonies and townships appeared, which barricaded themselves along sectarian lines. Many lives were lost, but very few were held accountable.
In the 1980s, Bushra Zaidi, a student, died in a traffic accident, caused by a reckless bus driver, in Karachi. Her death gave way to racial violence. Massacre ensued and many belonging to ‘other’ ethnicities were killed. Over the course of the 1990s, scores of prominent individuals, particularly professionals like doctors, engineers and scholars, were singled out and eliminated for their sect or ethnicity.
Unruliness was given a new lease of life with 9/11. A host of monsters, with backing from within and outside the country, unleashed havoc in the name of faith. The law was applied only where convenient and, rather than being reprimanded, the religious and ethnic groups doing wrong were appeased and elevated to the mainstream.
A massive effort was eventually launched to take back the space seized by these elements. It involved the expenditure of a number of resources and entailed human losses before militant forces were tamed or forced to retreat. However, the war remains far from won. Many of the subdued militant outfits remain in hibernation, waiting to return.
Strategies that employ the use of force alone have not taken any nation far in the fight against militancy. The European experience, on the other hand, proves that security measures grounded in human rights and the rule of law have better potential to combat terrorism and other forms of crime.
I recently participated in a conference titled ‘Community-Oriented Policing and Combating Violent Extremism’, organised by the Near East South Asia Centre for Strategic Studies in collaboration with the UAE government. During the four-day programme, which was attended by law-enforcement officials from 12 countries, there was broad agreement that police should always be the first responders for law enforcement. This is a vital recognition in the fight against extremism and terrorism and requires support from all relevant departments and organs of the state.
Developing a partnership and ties with antagonised communities at appropriate levels and empowering them by giving them ownership of their future was emphasised as necessary to curtail zealotry. I found the concept of the Hedayah Centre in the UAE particularly interesting in this regard. The centre carries out science-based deradicalisation and reintegration programmes and has been deemed a valuable source in identifying early signs of extremism.
Another view shared by the participants was that overly coercive covert security measures serve as a major driver for violent extremism, even insurgency, as they create more anger in communities and drive families of the targeted to settle scores and restore their ‘honour’. It was agreed that where regulations are discriminatory, there is an increased risk of radicalisation and recruitment to violent extremist groups.
When expediency, shortcuts and illegal actions are justified, extremism and terrorism, as well as other social ailments, take further root. To defeat extremism in all its manifestations, the state, its institutions and leaders must remain ‘ruthlessly ethical’ — they must refrain from extrajudicial actions and admit that employing such tactics is many times illegal and almost always counterproductive. If not them, someone will pay the cost. The sooner law enforcement and stakeholders understand this the better.
Allegiance must always be to the Constitution and the law, and to uphold the highest ethical standards. Law enforcement should not be beholden to decision-makers who call the shots but are almost never held accountable for them.
In our case, the National Action Plan, the National Internal Security Policy, and most recently, the National Security Policy are all documented strategies to counter militancy. They are sombre in their aspirations, yet also a little flawed in their approach. It is time we started to reconsider if they are sufficient for scenarios in which a people turn against their own, defy their own laws and even take arms and support from sworn enemies to attain their misguided causes.
The writer holds a doctorate in politics and international relations and has served as a federal secretary and IGP.
Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2022