Our Beacon Forum

Extremism and its antidote
By:Quilliam Foundation
Date: Sunday, 25 October 2009, 6:35 pm

Dawn, October 25, 2009

HARDLY a day now goes by without some new development linked to terrorism in Pakistan . Thousands have lost their lives and millions have had to flee their homes. Even the army GHQ, Pakistan ’s most heavily fortified institution, has not been spared attack and schools and universities are no longer considered safe.

However, it is important to remember that the seeds of this current malaise were sown much earlier than today — I know this because I am living testimony to it. In 1999, when the Pakistan military was preoccupied with Kargil and the cricket team had lost the World Cup final to Australia , I was particularly interested in another development the year before — the country’s newfound status as the seventh nuclear-armed state in the world.

The news of this ‘Islamic bomb’ was what drew me from Britain to Lahore in the summer of 1999, not yet 22 years old. Spurred on by revolutionary zeal and dreams of erecting an Islamist caliphate, I arrived as part of a vanguard to set up a Pakistani branch of the global Islamist group Hizb ut Tahrir (HT). The plan was to radicalise the country and foment a military coup against the democratically elected ‘client’ ruler Nawaz Sharif, so that our future caliphate could go nuclear. I was determined not to let anything get in my way, and nothing really did.

During the following decade everything changed. Having spent four years as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience in Egypt I had time to think, question and gain perspective on the extremist cause I had dedicated my life to.

It led me to finally understand the crucial difference between the faith of Islam and the political ideology of Islamism — a realisation that necessitated my leaving HT as I no longer believed in their ideas and the ‘Islamic’ justifications they used to support them. I thus decided to return to Pakistan this year, this time to push back against the insidious spread of Islamist extremism that I myself was partly responsible for.

Pakistan’s university campuses were the natural choice for me to start. Aided and supported by the local youth development NGO Bargad, I embarked on a four-week, nationwide university tour to address thousands of students on the bankruptcy of Islamist ideology. Along the way I was asked several times, often by students themselves, why I hadn’t chosen to go to madressahs first — after all, it seemed to be what everyone was doing.

My response was always the same: while it is true that the madressah 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.

Many of the pseudo-intellectuals of HT are also highly educated, including the nuclear scientist and computer and telecom engineers who were recently arrested along with other HT activists during a police raid in Islamabad . It came as no surprise to me that nuclear scientists were among those accused of belonging to HT, considering that this is exactly why I was sent to Pakistan as far back as 1999. In the year 2000, I had also personally met Pakistani Army officers in London , who had been training at Sandhurst . HT had recruited them to its cause, and then sent them back to Pakistan .

Back to the future, travelling across Pakistan ’s provinces, visiting key campuses along the way, I had the valuable opportunity to engage directly with students on such issues. I told them my life story, my reasons for joining HT, my time in prison and why I eventually left.

In return, I heard from them about how they think and feel about Pakistan ’s problems, and their aspirations for the future of their country. We discussed the need to tackle extremism on an ideological level, and the steps Pakistan would have to take towards a more democratic and pluralistic society and government. The reactions I received were mixed, but they spoke volumes for those who populate Pakistan ’s universities.

Students from Sindh tended to be hugely receptive to my message, whilst those in Mirpur, Azad Kashmir, from where the majority of British Pakistanis hail, expressed much greater hostility towards the West. In Quetta, the prevailing preoccupation was with ‘Punjabi hegemony’; here I encountered popular revolutionaries with little time for religious extremism but a hardened resolve to secede from Pakistan, in some cases through violence.

I was accused by some of being a ‘foreign agent’, while others wholeheartedly embraced my stance. I sometimes encountered a denial of Pakistan ’s role in allowing extremism to breed within its borders, but also an acceptance that religion had been misused by various elements within the country. Irrespective of their leanings, in every university, people had something to say.

Ironically, the most violent opposition to my efforts didn’t come from Pakistani students at all — it came from a British-Pakistani member of HT who decided to punch me one evening in a cafe in Lahore . I later learned that he, like several others, had left the UK to recruit students in Pakistan , and to do this had started teaching at a private university in Lahore .

It was sad evidence to the fact that British citizens continue to export Islamism to Pakistan , along with playing a crucial role in exporting the ideology to countries such as Malaysia , Indonesia , Kenya , Mauritius , India , Egypt and Denmark . Only when the governments of Britain and Pakistan wake up to take responsibility for the rot on their doorsteps will we ever be able to reverse these trends.

As violence in Pakistan surges and ordinary Pakistanis feel increasingly insecure in their own homes, we cannot afford to stop at just a military response to this problem. Greater emphasis needs to be given to winning the struggle for ideas; to foster an understanding that taking a stance against Islamism does not equate to a rejection of Islam.

This requires greater civil society engagement, popularising counter-extremism narratives through the media, and the promotion of secular spaces within society and the state.

While it is true that such measures rarely have quantifiable results and require great resources in terms of time and effort, we can ill afford not to implement them, for without this vision it is unlikely that Pakistan can overcome the current moral dilemma and political crisis it finds itself in.

The writer is director of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank based in the UK .