Such was the devastating effect of the Peshawar attack on children that my 14-year-old son asked his mum what he should do in case came to his school. – “Line up or run”?
The day shocked Pakistan and the world. A spontaneous shutdown the following day reminded us of the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s killing in December 2007, when all of Pakistan was shut down in grief and anger.
The Pakistani state failed miserably to curb the rise of religious fundamentalism. For a long time, extremists were encouraged by the state as a second line of security. The security paradigm meant that enmity with India was the core purpose of state patronage. The process of Islamisation was accelerated by military dictator Ziaul Haq with the full support of American imperialism.
Apart from creating and supporting jihadist groups, for decades some sections of the state with the financial and political assistance of imperial powers have indoctrinated millions with a conservative Islamic ideology for the purpose of safeguarding their own strategic interests.
The three decades since 1980 are seen as the years of madressahs which, in many instances, became the alternative to the regular school system in the country. Many terrorist activities carried out in Pakistan have been linked to the organisational and political support some such madressahs.
After 9/11, the state’s close relationship with extremists has changed to some extent – but not broken in real terms. Banned terrorist groups continue to change their names and carry out activities on a regular basis. They hold meetings and public rallies, collect funds and publish literature without any state intervention.
Pakistan has become more conservative and more right wing. Blasphemy laws are frequently used for settling personal and ideological scores. Religious minorities, women and children are easy targets and are paying the greatest price for this decisive right-wing turn.
The rise of extremism has emerged as the most serious challenge not only to progressive forces but also to the very foundation of a modern society in the country.
Education and health are the real targets of these extremists. Polio workers, mainly women, are killed by terrorists on the assumption that a team working for the elimination of polio led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden, leading to his assassination. The net result is that the World Health Organisation has recommended a ban on all Pakistanis travelling abroad without a polio vaccination certificate.
The primary and high school syllabus in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is amended to give room to more unscientific and orthodox ideas in the name of religion.
Religious extremists are the new version of fascism. They are fascists in the making. They have all the historic characteristics of fascism. They kill opponents en masse. They have found considerable space among the middle class – particularly among the educated lot. They are against trade unions and social movements. They find women to be inferior to men, and aim to keep them in the home. Attacking religious minorities has become a norm.
These people must be countered. The American way of fighting back in the shape of the ‘war on terror’ has failed miserably. Despite all the American initiatives of occupations, wars and creating democratic alternatives, extremists have grown more in number and are stronger than they were on 9/11, despite the occupation of Afghanistan.
A whole package is needed. The state must break all links with extremist groups. The mindset that these people are ‘our own brothers, our own people, our security line and guarantee against Hindus’, some are bad and some are good’ and so on must be changed. Conspiracy theories are favoured by these extremist right–wing groups. They do not want to face the reality.
There is no short cut to ending extremism. There is no military solution. It has to be a political fight with dramatic reforms in education, health and realities of the working class in most Muslim countries. Starting from nationalisation of madressahs, we need free education, health and transport as one of most effective means to counter fundamentalism.
Right-wing ideas are promoting extreme right-wing ideology. A mass working class alternative in the shape of trade unions and political parties, linked with social movements, is what will really help counter this kind of extremism.