ISSN 2330-717X

Combating Extremism and Terrorism


By Vikas Kumar

The assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistani province of Punjab, is the latest reminder of the continuing impasse in the War on Terror. A lot has been written about the mysterious inaction of rest of the security guards when Taseer was being shot by one of them, the Pakistani Army’s silence, and the massive support for the unrepentant assassin.

We are faced with individuals whose belief system is logically as well as empirically unfalsifiable. If democratic governments and free markets fail to deliver, which happens more often than not in countries like Pakistan, people are told that God is unhappy with innovations. However, if they succeed people are asked to guard against the charm offensive of Satan. So, irrespective of the actual performance, Islamic extremists are convinced that the quest for a liberal democracy and free markets is dangerous. No amount of reasoning and/or exposure to facts can change them. Any move away from the fundamentals of the faith even for the sake of argument amounts to apostasy. In short, persuasion will not work with people wedded to an impregnable world view. The religiously motivated are bound by the internal logic of their belief to attack liberals, who will not mend their ways on their own.

The easy way out is to surrender hard earned liberties and conform to the assassin’s way of life. But, as Benjamin Franklin warned long ago, “those who give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither”. The other option is to combat the mind of the terrorists, to isolate them ideologically, which is easier said than done. We cannot even restrict their access to religious and secular public spaces without casting democracy in a poor light and turning them into martyrs. But can we not at least physically defend ourselves by fighting the war on the extremist territory? That is exactly what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is doing along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border with very limited success.

Unfortunately, NATO has opted for the third best solution in absence of a credible ideological war strategy. The first best solution would involve modernist, democratic forces in direct ideological war with Islamic extremists. As argued above the first best solution is a non-solution because any ideological campaign against the extremists has to first clear the Islam-in-danger hurdle. The second best solution would involve allying with moderate Islamic groups locked in ideological war with the extremists. The traditional Islamic opponents of the extremists need not clear the Islam-in-danger hurdle because they have extensive support at the grass root level and cannot be portrayed as intruders.

A case for ideological war

For some reason NATO has chosen to overlook the second best solution and is given to believe that military operation coupled with concurrent democratisation and development is sufficient to conclusively eliminate the threat posed by Islamic extremists. But this purely secular strategy will at best bring the war-torn areas back to pre-war levels of development, without affecting the ideological base of Islamic extremists. In the meantime, the drone-borne war financed by democratic countries will discredit the very idea of democracy more than it would harm the extremists. Unsurprisingly, the strategy pursued so far has not only failed to stabilise Afghanistan but has also destabilised Pakistan. Even if victory is obtained, the revival of Islamic extremists after the withdrawal of NATO forces is inevitable because their ideological appeal will remain intact. In short, the War on Terror is a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money because it can at best temporarily neutralize ragtag extremist militias.

It is not that the current policy of isolating the armed militants and gradually expanding the constituency of peace through development projects is entirely superfluous. The development offensive provides people with a greater chance of obtaining secular employment and social security whereas the military offensive increases the fatality rates in the extremist camp. Similarly, the development initiative assures potential defectors that their livelihood will be taken care of and military preparedness assures them of physical security and protection from sanctions imposed by extremists. So, the current two-pronged strategy definitely increases the cost of joining the extremist camp and reduces the cost of defection.

However, its effectiveness is limited to the not yet indoctrinated masses and their half-hearted cousins in the extremist camp. Once indoctrinated, individuals are shielded from well-meaning arguments and drones alike by an impregnable belief system. Unfortunately, the extremists have already begun to put down roots in hitherto moderate masses and are able to strike targets across the length and breadth of Pakistan. The War on Terror cannot be won unless their ideological appeal is limited. NATO has to shed its ideological-cultural ambivalence and add an ideological component to its military-development strategy. NATO has to exploit the historical divide between the extremists and the masses to check the growth of the extremist camp.

Allying with the historical rivals of the extremists

South Asian Islam can be grouped into two broad categories: heterodox/Sufi Islam, which promotes religious syncretism, and exclusivist/puritan Islam. The theological divide between these categories is complemented by a linguistic and cultural divide, which goes back to the formative period of Sufism in South Asia, when Amir Khusro (1253 – 1325 CE), a gifted poet-musician and disciple of Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi, began to use local languages and cultural idioms to express his religious thoughts. An example of his poetry is in order here:

khusro rain suhaag ki, jaagi pi ke saang
tan mero man piu ko, dou bhaya ekrang.

(Khusro spends the night of union, wakeful with the beloved.
The body belongs to me but the mind to my love, the two merging in a monochrome.)

The Sufi engagement with South Asian languages, religions, and cultures was not without challengers within Islam. Many were punished for apostasy. But they defended their freedom of conscience and expression. Here one is reminded of Noor Mohammad, the author of Indraavati and Anuraaga Baansuri, a contemporary of the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah (1720 – 1748 AD). When challenged by his sectarian peers he defended himself in the following words.

jaanat hai wah sirjanhaaraa, jo kichu hai man maram hamaraa
hindu mag par paon na raakheon, kaa jo bahutai hindi bhakheon.

(He, the Creator, alone knows, what is in my mind.
I haven’t stepped on the Hindu threshold, what if I’ve written in Hindi.)

It bears noting that not all Sufi orders are syncretists. In particular, Naqshbandi Sufism, prevalent in Central Asia and adjoining parts of South Asia, is very sectarian. Under the leadership of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi, the Naqshbandis played a pivotal role in vitiating communal harmony in medieval South Asia.

The Deobandis, the contemporary exemplars of the sectarian Islam in South Asia, derive their appellation from an important Sunni seminary, the Darul Uloom in Deoband, a small town in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh. This seminary attracts students from across the Sunni world and its graduates play an important role within Muslim communities as teachers in seminaries and experts of Islamic law. While the Pakistani Deobandis continue to hold the seminary in Deoband in reverence, they have independent seminaries. Unlike their Indian cousins, who operate within a stable state and publicly shun violence, the Pakistani Deobandis show a marked preference for violence due to state-sponsored exposure to jihads in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The Afghan experience has, in fact, drawn them, ideologically and operationally, closer to Wahhabism and global jihad.

To spread its message among the believers the Darul Uloom relies almost exclusively on Arabic and Urdu but not other South Asian languages. Why does the seminary steer clear of South Asian languages? The answer is available in the description of Al-Daie, its monthly Arabic magazine, on its website.

Arabic is the religious and official language of Islam and Darul Uloom is an Arabic institute. Therefore, it was [sic] natural that Darul Uloom publishes any Arabic magazine so that the Arab world could be informed about the activities of Darul Uloom and its straight path in their own pure language. (Emphasis added)

So, on the one hand the Darul Uloom recognizes the need to reach the far off Arabs in their own language and on the other it hardly makes any effort to engage with South Asians through their languages, except Urdu, the mother tongue of merely 15 per cent of South Asian Muslims.

The linguistic exclusivism of the Deobandis neatly dovetails with their religious sectarianism. The Deobandis are opposed to all non-Deobandis. The Taliban, who destroyed the cultural heritage of Afghanistan and adjoining parts of Pakistan, are products of Pakistani Deobandi seminaries. The Deobandi disengagement from South Asian culture and attempt to re-cast South Asian Islam in an extremist-Arab mould, with generous support from the Middle East, contrasts starkly with locally-supported Sufism’s linguistic and religious syncretism. Other exclusivist Islamic sects in South Asia are similar to the Deobandis. For instance, the Ahl-e Hadith (People of the Traditions of the Prophet) sect also shuns local culture, is opposed to other Islamic sects, including the Deobandis. Ideologically, this sect is closer to the Wahhabis than the Deobandis. The difference between its Indian and Pakistani wings parallels the difference between the two wings of the Deobandis. Like the Deobandis, its Pakistani wing has its own militant outfit, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has carried out a number of attacks on Sufi institutions.

No wonder Sufism’s appeal transcends religious boundaries, whereas the extremist appeal is restricted to a sub-group of Sunnis. Unfortunately, Sufism and other heterodox sects are beleaguered in Pakistan and areas partly under its influence like Afghanistan and Kashmir Valley, where the Islamic extremists are ascendant. So far, the extremists are far from dominant and have never managed to win free and fair elections in South Asia. Yet if the Pakistani army continues to shield them and nurture them as strategic assets then the balance of power could ultimately shift in their favour, which can in turn trigger the radicalization of the relatively moderate sects. A case in point is the increasing involvement of the (Pakistani) Barelvis, the traditional rivals of the Deobandis in South Asia, in extremist violence within Pakistan and trans-national terrorism. The assassination of Taseer is an advance warning in this regard.

It is indeed surprising that despite its partition in 1971 due to imposition of Urdu and sectarian Islam on Bengalis, the Pakistani state continues to patronise Urdu (the mother tongue of less than 10 per cent of Pakistanis) and exclusivist Islamic sects and suppress local languages and heterodox sects. Since local languages and heterodox sects are closely related and are the only organic sources of resistance to the Arabic-Islamists, NATO can no longer afford to remain neutral in the ideological-cultural war within South Asian Islam. NATO has to nudge the Pakistani state to amend its policies that marginalize heterodox sects and local languages.

Concluding remarks

The War on Terror cannot be won unless the current strategy, which prioritizes military offensive coupled with development and democracy, is complemented by a suitable ideological offensive to delegitimize Islamic extremism. The best way to achieve this is to protect and strengthen local competitors of Islamic extremism and enlist them as partners in the development offensive and help them reach quake and flood victims before the extremists, who are flush with petro-dollars. But will the proposed strategy of exploiting traditional fault lines divert attention from real issues like political ambitions and narcotic smuggling for which Islam could be a convenient cover? The proposed strategy makes sense because when pushed to the wall these vested interests champion the Islam-in-danger cause with telling effect.

In short, irrespective of whether we are faced with instrumental or true extremists, we can no longer shy away from the fact that ideological offensive is an indispensable part of the winning strategy.

(Vikas Kumar is an independent researcher based in Bangalore. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected] The views expressed by the author are his own)

Click here to have Eurasia Review's newsletter delivered via RSS, as an email newsletter, via mobile or on your personal news page.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *