A Counter-Radicalization Strategy

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Mushfiq Murshed*

The counter-terrorism strategy currently being pursued by Pakistan is, at best, a half measure because it is not reinforced by a parallel counter-radicalization strategy. At issue here is the identification of the root cause of terrorism and extremist violence only then will the country be able to deal with the radicalization of its nationals. More to the point, why are men and women alike, willing to sacrifice even their lives for an extremist ideology propounded by a lunatic fringe, numbering no more than a few thousand?

The obscurantist doctrines espoused by the so-called religious parties, target free markets, democracy, women’s rights and modernity in its diverse aspects. Unfortunately the mischief does not end here because these parties have made considerable inroads at the grass roots level.  Their efficient welfare network whereby food, clothing, shelter and education are provided to the needy, as at the time of the 2006 earthquake, further bolsters such outfits and ensures them a continuous flow of radicalized recruits.

This dissent into chaos can only be arrested if the government snaps out of its lethargy. It has to merge its disjointed efforts and evolve a strategy to win back the hearts and minds of the people. The solution lies in a mix of economic and ideological initiatives.

Socio-Economic Issues

The ideological battle cannot be won until the malaise of grueling poverty is addressed.  Social and economic inequalities, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the erosion of the middle class are playing a more pivotal role in increasing the flanks of the militants than negative indoctrination by the clerics.

The Government must come forward with a well-thought-through programme   to empower the masses by broadening the country’s economic base.  To date, economic prosperity has been restricted to a few who have amassed huge fortunes. The country no longer has the time for the much touted trickle down benefits of growth. Political and social stability will continue to elude the country unless measures are immediately taken to reduce the level of poverty.  Distribution of wealth through projects in vocational training, development of small and medium sized enterprises backed by micro-credit schemes need to be encouraged.  Simultaneously, low income housing, healthcare and education have to be developed.

These projects are, however, a part of a medium to long term strategy with relatively long   gestation periods.  The immediate objective is to tackle inflation which is further compounded by economic stagnation and has reached pandemic levels. Reports of suicides and the sale of children indicate the severity of the problem.

Desperate times require bold and imaginative measures. The Government must lead the way.   Public awareness media campaigns are required to sensitize and mobilize the more fortunate.  Funds for poverty alleviation are urgently needed and can be raised from both the private and public sectors.  The proper utilization of these funds in the form of food banks, subsidies, temporary shelters and clothing must be efficiently coordinated and monitored. The luxury of procrastination is no longer available to the government which has to move with speed and determination to redress the inequities.

The injustices and inequality prevalent in the society, inflation without economic growth, massive disinvestment, unemployment and a large yet ineffective state administration is gradually eroding the confidence of the people in democratic values and the secular parties that they brought into power just over two years ago.

In societies where economic depression and injustice become unbearable an educated middle class usually provides the impetus for civil movements to rectify and address grievances. In extreme instances, these result in revolutions. In Pakistan, however, the middle class itself is being gradually eroded and sinking into the quicksand of poverty. This socio-economic morass is being skillfully exploited by the well- organized and financed extremist elements, in the face of the callous neglect by the state, to gain support of the masses.

The Ideological Issue

The militant extremists profess to be fighting an ideological battle to rescue true Islam and Muslims from the “infidels.”

What is “true Islam”? Is it what was practiced under Taliban rule in Afghanistan?  That administration was rejected by the overwhelming majority of the Islamic countries and only three of them i.e., Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia extended formal recognition to the Taliban Government. Saudi Arabia subsequently withdrew its recognition after the Taliban, despite an earlier undertaking, refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden during a stormy meeting in Kandahar between Mullah Omar and the then Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud.

In addition, how can the extremists claim that they are rescuing Muslims when a majority of the victims of terrorist violence have been Muslim civilians? The former base their actions on Ibn Taymiyya’s (d.1328) fatwa which was influenced by the Mongol invasions of the time and was, therefore, radical in nature. In a significant article carried by the Secular Perspective of 16-30 April 2010, the noted scholar, Asghar Ali Engineer, referred to the Mardin fatwa issued by fifteen leading scholars from the Islamic world against Ibn Taymiyya’s edict urging violence against unjust rulers. The following extract from the article is relevant:

“All analysts and scholars agree that Osama and his followers used Ibn Taymiyya’s famous fatwa on use of violence against unjust rulers. Ibn Taymiyyah was born a few years after the Mongol sack of Baghdad and unimaginable savagery committed by them killing hundreds of thousands of people in most barbarous ways.

Imam Hanbal prohibits rebellion against unjust authority as it would result in anarchy and more bloodshed.

However, Ibn Taymiyyah, against the teachings of his own school, issued a fatwa justifying violence against unjust and authoritarian rulers so as to re-establish the Islamic rule and rule of Shari’ah. This fatwa is being used by the terrorists to justify their attacks as

‘Islamic’ and many young Muslims who do not even know who Ibn Taymiyyah was and in what circumstances he issued this fatwa, get misled and find ‘Islamic legitimation’ in his fatwa.

Initially the Ulema, though did not necessarily approve of use of this fatwa, kept mum or just whispered their opposition not loud enough to be heard. But when violence intensified and became uncontrollable, their conscience revolted and many of them decided to call al-Qaeda’s bluff by opposing the fatwa. Now many of them are coming forward condemning use and misuse of Ibn Taymiyya.

Ibn Taymiyya, undoubtedly a great scholar and eminent jurist, had issued a set of four fatwas known as Mardin fatwas. Mardin was a Turkish fortress in South East Turkey with mixed population. And Osama had quoted this Mardin fatwa repeatedly in his calls for Muslims to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and wage jihad against the United States. Some prominent Ulema from the Islamic world decided to meet in Mardin to discuss Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwa towards the end of March 2010.

This historic document was referred to by these Islamic scholars and took decisive stand against it. They said, ‘Anyone who seeks support from this fatwa for killing Muslims or non-Muslims has erred in his interpretation.’ They further said, ‘It is not for a Muslim individual or a group to announce and declare war or engage in combative jihad on their own.’

Those who use Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwa totally ignore the circumstances in which the fatwa was issued. Nothing can be valid unless seen in historically concrete circumstances. Ibn Taymiyyah himself, as pointed out above, had gone against his own Hanbali School in issuing the fatwa. Even then all Islamic scholars had not unanimously endorsed it. Moreover, as pointed out by an Islamic scholar from Belgium Prof. Yahya Michot, Mardin fatwa has some ambiguity which has been ignored both by terrorists as well as many western scholars and commentators.

It is important to note that the Mardin conference gathered 15 leading scholars from countries including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, Senegal, Kuwait, Iran, Morocco and Indonesia. Among them were Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah of Mauritania and Yemeni Sheikh Habib Ali al-Jifri.

It would be seen that while Ibn Taymiyyah was alone in issuing the fatwa here a galaxy of prominent Ulema and Muftis from across the Islamic world from Indonesia in South East to Algeria in the West Africa gathered and rejected the fatwa. It is representative statement  of  the  Islamic  world  rejecting  terrorism.  Not  that those terrorists are going to stop violence and come on table for negotiations for peace.

There are too powerful interests to care for any such rejection from across the Islamic world but it certainly sets norms and indicates what the Islamic world stands for. For sure even then anti-Islamic tirade is not going to stop and many western commentators and anti-Islamic forces will continue to hold Osama bin Laden as real representative rather than this galaxy of Ulema from across the Islamic world…..”

It is unfortunate that in Pakistan, which is the world’s primary victim of terrorism, the Mardin Fatwa of March 2010 is not even mentioned in the print and electronic media.  One only has to scratch the surface to realize how fragile the attempts of extremists to legitimize their heinous crimes against humanity really are.  The Ummah must wake up from teachings of the Qur’an which is Islam in its purest form.  It is time that the self-proclaimed militant spokesmen of the Islamic world are neutralized and their bogus call to jihad is exposed for what it really is. Their propaganda and distortion of the religion has to be countered, otherwise, a time may come when the masses may actually believe that eradication of a race or nation is justifiable and in accordance with Islamic tenets.

Sporadic attempts have been made by religious scholars to counter obscurantist doctrines.   Maulana Hassan Jan, for instance spoke out against Taliban atrocities. His decree condemning Taliban suicide attacks as un-Islamic, however, led to his assassination in September 2007. His violent death generated fear among likeminded religious scholars and clerics who preferred to remain silent rather than denounce the Taliban and consequently face their wrath. However, Maulana Hassan Jan’s decree did not go unheeded.

In Mach 2008, an edict was circulated in Darra Adamkhel on behalf of Mufti Zainul Aabideen. Through this one page document, 73 different Muslim sects denounced the extremist acts perpetrated by the Taliban as being “out of Islam.”   The edict exposed the contradiction between the Taliban atrocities, “in particular the slaughtering and beheading of innocent people,” under the pretence of defending Islam and the actual tenets of the religion based on peace and tolerance.

This bold initiative should have been used as a driving force to encourage similar edicts nationwide from religious personalities that are trusted and respected by the masses. It could have provided the impetus needed to launch an effective counter-extremist campaign alongside a similar movement in India around that time, whereby, 20,000 Deobandis collectively declared terrorism as un-Islamic. Such parallel efforts on the part of the enlightened ulema in Pakistan and India would have generated grass roots support against extremist violence and reinforced the war against terror being pursued by the government.

The Deobandi movement in India against militancy in the guise of religion was inspired by Sheykh Waheeduddin Khan, a prominent scholar, who stated that Dajjal, a concept that some theologians equate with the Islamic antichrist, is not a person, but is a manifestation of violence and terrorism. As the Taliban in Pakistan are mostly Deobandi, the impact of such a movement, if efficiently exploited, would have far- reaching consequences in broadening the rifts that already exist in their ranks.

Fighting an ideological battle involves changing people’s mindset which is a monumental task that requires commitment of time, effort and resources. This is certainly achievable and efforts have to focus on exposing the distortion of religious tenets by a miniscule minority.  A concerted civil/government initiative is the ingredient which is lacking.

1.  Proposal  For A Counter Radicalization Association

Majid Nawaz, co-founder and co-director of the Quillium Foundation, rightly pointed out in his article, “Tackling Extremism” that: “while it is true that the madrassah system has supplied a steady stream of jihadists over the years, a little highlighted fact is that the leading ideologues of Islamist movements have invariably been educated, are elite and socially mobile.  After all, Bin Laden is an engineer and his deputy, Ayman al- Zawahiri, a doctor.”The illiterate and madrassah educated may be the foot soldiers in this war, however, the top ranks of these organizations include nuclear scientists, computer engineers, lawyers, doctors, etc.

Some prominent examples from Pakistan are: Faisal Shahzad who was charged with attempting to detonate a car bomb in New York’s Times Square is an MBA from the University of Bridgeport. Dr. Aafia Siddique is accused of being associated with the Al Qaeda.  She is a neuroscientist who is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumna and a Brandeis University Ph.D.

The extremists have deftly used their network of mosques and madrassahs to spread their skewed interpretation of religion. As is evident from the examples cited, their success in the radicalization of some segments of society has nothing to do with whether the target audience is educated or not in the conventional sense.  It is the lack of religious knowledge that is played upon and exploited.  Even amongst the majority of the educated elite there is a proclivity to obtain answers on questions pertaining to religious matters from semi-literate clerics even though there is no priesthood in Islam rather than acquiring knowledge directly from the source, i.e., the study of the Quran and the life of the prophet. Furthermore, soliciting opinions from such clerics only provides them the opportunity to propound their distortions of religious doctrine.

This process has to be neutralized. The logical first step in this direction would be to energize Islamic scholars to develop an Association to defend Islam against the miscreants and confront the danger posed by the deteriorating security situation in the country. Such an organization would elevate issues pertaining to religion from a local or regional level to a national level.  The Association of Islamic Scholars would, if it is established, be able to:

1.            Have a uniform nationwide approach on matters of faith, keeping national interest as the driving force rather than local level agendas.  It will be able to issue more credible, authoritative, far-reaching opinions than those at the local level.

2.            Ensure  that  the  guidance  in  fatwas  is  uniform  within  the country and, in accordance with the tenets of Islam and not influenced, once again, by extremist agendas. This would also entail scrutiny of fatwas being passed by violent and extremist organizations and thereby expose the lack of credibility of the scholars issuing them.

3.            Discredit and limit the influence of undesirable clerics as well as allow the body to preemptively squelch opposition from violent/highly radicalized elements.

4.            Delegitimize the idea that violent Islamic extremism is  an acceptable tactic to effect political change and draw attention to Islamic jurisprudence which strictly proscribes the violent extremist methods adopted by terrorist groups in the name of the religion.

5.            Push non-violent interpretations down to the local levels to provide them with uniform guidance;

6.            Empower and embolden local level leaders; and

7.            Monitor education being imparted through the madrassahs. Advise the five boards on upgrading and updating courses, material, etc.

The establishment of such an Association is easier said than done because of the obvious difficulties and obstacles in the way. These have to be taken into account and, where possible, remedial measures adopted. The problems that are likely to emerge include:

1.            Overcoming the fear factor. This alone will be a daunting task. Moderate Islamic scholars may refrain from joining such an Association for fear of becoming targets for reprisal by militants. No security arrangement can be absolutely foolproof, but the government would have to provide protection to the best of its ability.

2.            Given the contentious nature of the issues that will be discussed in this forum, initial unanimity of opinion among the members is highly unlikely. It is, therefore, essential that an efficient set of internal rules is developed to govern the Association so that issues can be debated and brainstormed for reaching consensus. For such an Association to be effective it needs to speak with one voice and cannot afford to have dissenting individuals publicly expressing views that are not in accord with the consensus.

3.            If  such  an  Association  eventually  becomes  effective  and influential then it is bound to attract the attention of groups with vested interests which will be counter-productive to its goals.  Extremist    groups, political parties and even other countries such as India may attempt to steer the members of this Association towards their own agendas. The internal rules or the charter of such an organization should include provisions for the expulsion of such members.

4.            It is also essential that, while keeping the national interest in focus, the members of the association do not lose sight of local concerns and issues of the people. Particular attention has to be focused at the grassroots level where people are relatively more  vulnerable to  extremist ideology and  obscurantist religious dogma.

The broad-based ambitious agenda of such an Association would require Government patronage.   Support and coordination between the ministries of  Religious Affairs, Education and the Interior and the Association would be essential for the latter’s success in having a nationwide impact. At a later stage, depending on such success, the Association could be made a constitutional body for which the required two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and the Senate might not be immediately available.

The organizational structure of the Association should be such as to make it effective at the local, regional and national levels. This would entail the creation of:

1.            A four member board of founders (who should be the most venerable, credible and moderate scholars).

2.            A board of governors (10-14 individuals selected by the board of founders);

3.            A board of advisers ( who would be the Association’s local representatives); and

4.            An analytical unit (to examine fatwas which are being issued illegally)

The Association would need to have monthly meetings to address routine/regular issues; there must be a provision for emergency meetings.  The body would pull together and publish fatwas.  There would be quarterly meetings to handle administrative business. Finally there would need to be yearly conferences to discuss/highlight topics of interest to the different schools of Islamic thought and to the Deobandi movement in particular since it is from this school that most of the extremist groups emerge. The idea is to moderate the Deobandis and this is not a farfetched objective as is evident from the fatwas issued by this School in India which have been cited earlier.  The Association would be responsible for issuing Fatwas, surveying and refuting rogue fatwas, and over-seeing/advising on education (cleric re-education/licensing).

2.  Education

Once  again,  one  of  the  key  factors  that  has  accelerated  the radicalization process in Pakistan has been the reliance of the general public on what they hear in mosques.  A large portion of preaching in mosques has been extremely politicized.   The sermons tend to mesh matters of faith with local and world politics.  The primary objective of many of these sermons is the demonization of modernism and progressive ideas as un-Islamic. The clerics/preachers of these sermons are the product of a vast network of Madrassahs within the country.

There does not seem to be a formal process or effective Pakistani Government institution responsible for guiding and monitoring the activity of these madrassahs. When the government came into power in

2008 there was talk of establishing a Madrassah Welfare Authority. We have yet to hear of what work has been done towards the establishment and operations of such an authority.

There is hardly any information on unregistered Madrassahs. However, the registered Madrassahs are controlled by their own boards. The name of these boards are:  Wafaq ull Madaris, Tanzim ul Madaris, Wafaq ul Madaris (Shia), Rabta-tul-Madariss-al-Islamia and Wafq ul Madaris-al-Safia.

All madrassahs teach their own modified version of a curriculum called  Dars-i-Nizami.   This  system  was  evolved  by  Mulla  Nizam Uddin Sihalvi in the 18th  century.  The content taught from this system is medieval and does not address contemporary concerns.   Even the commentaries on the Qur’an are from that period and therefore address issues of that era.

The Government must be proactive and work towards establishing collaboration with these boards to develop their curricula to meet contemporary requirements.  This will also provide an opportunity for the administration to monitor what is being taught in these institutions.

Once the registered madrassahs have reached a certain standard then the certification process of maulvies should only be through this system.

Graduate from any unregistered madrassah should not be allowed to conduct sermons, issue fatwas, etc., unless he is first certified by the established boards.

Simultaneously, the secular education system in Pakistan has to make one essential addition to its curriculum and that is the introduction of Arabic as a compulsory subject.  Understanding the language will allow future generations to circumvent intermediaries and go directly to the source, i.e., the Qur’an, to resolve any queries or issues that they may have regarding their religion. This will reduce, to a great extent, the influence that clerics presently have in propagating their extremist ideology.


It has been repeated on countless occasions since the War on Terror began that the hearts and minds of the people have to be won over. This has remained mere rhetoric.   Nothing of significance has been done and therefore a vacuum has been created which is adroitly being taken advantage of by the multiple extremist groups within Pakistani society. The radicalization process has unnecessarily been given space to expand and has gathered momentum.  The remedy lies in a mix of socio-economic and ideological initiatives.

The government has to take into account that this war cannot be won if a substantial segment of society lives below the poverty line. Social and economic inequalities may weigh more in a jihadi mindset than the desire to establish an “Islamic emirate.” The idea of living on the street, not being able to educate ones children or, even worse, not being able to put food on the table may be more threatening than any amount of negative indoctrination by clerics.

The time has come for the government to reclaim the public services provided by religious seminaries such as education, board, lodging and even stipends to the families of potential jihadists. Massive projects on a national level pertaining to low income housing, educational and vocational training, health care and employment opportunities have to be implemented. Once these basic necessities are met only then can the ideological battle against extremist violence yield results.

On the ideological front there have been several opportunities which were not availed. Individual efforts to counter extremism such as those of the late Maulana Hassan Jan, though undoubtedly commendable, are futile unless a proper mechanism is in place to galvanize these efforts and unify people behind them. This can only be achieved if the people and government of Pakistan collaborate to achieve the same objective.

A  counter  radicalization  Association  of  Islamic  Scholars  that has been proposed would be a step in the right direction to establish a mechanism to take on the violent ideology propagated by extremist elements in the country. Local interpretations on matters of religion and faith that are skewed by local level agendas would be neutralized as the same issues would be handled through this Association.

The Government must also revamp the curriculum of registered madrassahs and have a say in the process of certifying clerics through these madrassahs who will then be allowed to conduct their public religious duties.  Any graduate from unregistered madrasssahs should not be allowed the same privileges. Arabic should also be introduced as a compulsory subject in all schools to neutralize the possibility of people’s minds being manipulated by extremist perceptions and obscurantist doctrines.

The task at hand may be daunting but is nonetheless achievable. This will only be possible if there is a sincere commitment on the part of the country’s leadership to take on the challenge. It is fundamentally important to get civil society on board. Such a partnership, accompanied by a determined effort by the government to eradicate poverty, is essential for defeating the forces of   extremism.