Left Hand, Right Hand — The Roots of Extremism

By Anjum Altaf

Does the left hand know what the right one is doing? I was forced to ask this question on being updated on recent measures to counter terrorism in the country (Countering extremism, Dawn, December 20, 2020). 

I learnt that the government has set up a commission “for implementation of national narrative and development of structures against violent extremism and radicalisation” one of whose objectives is “establishing a centre of excellence to conduct degree and diploma courses in CVE [countering violent extremism] and CT [countering terrorism]. Another objective is “promoting awareness [of extremism and terrorism] through print and electronic media, publications, seminars, conferences, etc.”

This reminded me of the bizarre state of modern medicine. If you go to a doctor with a general malaise he/she would, if you are lucky, have your blood pressure measured and, if it turns out high, would prescribe you a pill to take every day to keep it under control. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the physician would not bother to discover why your blood pressure is raised and so you will be on a lifelong medication whose dosage would be progressively increased as you grow older. Ditto for cholesterol, uric acid or anything else that might be above the prescribed range. You will never be cured and meanwhile the drugs would wreak all sorts of unknown damage on your body.

Now we will be establishing centres of excellence to conduct degree and diploma courses in CVE and CT which will be progressively upgraded to HEC-approved universities with their own Vice-Chancellors, Provosts, Registrar’s etc. all of whom would have official residences, vehicles, POL and telephone allowances. Meanwhile friends and relatives would be wined and dined at international conferences and study tours would be arranged to countries that have successfully done what we have now so admirably set out to do.

Meanwhile, there will not be a single word in the print and electronic media, publications, seminars, conferences, etc. about how we got saddled with the extremism and terrorism that we have now set out to eradicate. Did they just drop out of the sky? Or were they always with us ever since August 14, 1947? Or are they a test that some divine power has devised for its most blessed followers who have to pass it by fire to prove their worthiness?

As long as there is no honest discussion of how we got this sickness, there will be little hope for a cure. We won’t even know if we are serious in undoing the causes of extremism and terrorism or if we are just going through the motions to tick off a box on some checklist that has been handed down to us to regain good standing in the the international financial system of banking transactions. 

I also learnt that Nacta [National Counter Terrorism Authority] had drafted detailed CVE policy guidelines in 2018 in which extremism was broadly defined as “having absolute belief in one’s truth with an ingrained sense of self-righteousness” which mindset was “likely to be accompanied with violence” to impose one’s belief system.

Given this definition of extremism, how do we square the setting up of a centre of excellence to conduct degree and diploma courses in CVE and CT with the curriculum that is intended at the school level to inject an absolute belief in one’s truth with an ingrained sense of self-righteousness which, to repeat the Nacta prognosis, is likely to be accompanied with violence to impose one’s belief system?

To go back to when and how extremism and then violence entered our society, can we not discern a connection to the parallel attempt to impose a uniformity in our thinking from early childhood with a heavy dose of an absolute belief in one’s truth with an ingrained sense of self righteousness — in other words to the cradle-to-grave imposition of Pakistan Studies and Islamic Studies in our educational institutions? And can we not put two and two together to see that this was done to create the national narrative that would endorse and support the conscious nurturing and promotion of extremism and terrorism for equally admirable geopolitical objectives?  

The objective conditions in Pakistan today are giving rise to broad trends of conformity, rigid thinking, and loss of imagination that incline societies towards extremism and violence. Everyone being made to learn and think the same truth on pain of being declared anti-national can only yield an unreflecting mass and a submissive society which is what authoritarian rulers drool over in their dreams.

Thus we see the paradox of a centre of excellence at the tertiary level to undo the damage inflicted at the elementary level. The only question of interest is whether the left hand knows what the right one is doing or whether both are clapping to the same tune? 

This opinion was published in Dawn on January 21, 2021 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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