World media attention is currently focussed on the violent activities of Daesh (ISIS), which controls large areas in Iraq and Syria. It has an extremely anti-West policy and regards those Muslims who do not agree with its rigid interpretation of Islam as infidels or apostates. Daesh has attracted many Jihadists from Western countries as well. Apart from Daesd, extremist groups have emerged in several parts of the world. Al-Qaeda was set up by Osama bin Laden who was a participant in the US-backed Afghan Jihad against the Soviets. In the Gulf War, he opposed the stationing of US troops in the holy land of Islam. Osama recruited hundreds of “Afghan Arabs”, veterans of the Afghan Jihad. The Taliban regime gave him a sanctuary from where he plotted 9/11. That led to the US invasion of Afghanistan and the “war on terror” of President Bush, in which Iraq was attacked next in 2003. Osama was killed in 2011 and Al-Qaeda now operates like a franchise that provides logistic support to terrorist groups in different countries.
The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 1996. It was the first time that an extremist group was able to rule a state. A destructive civil war between the former Mujahidin allies created the environment in which many Afghans saw the Taliban as a non-corrupt, stabilizing force. However, once in power, the Taliban imposed a repressive regime.
In support of the war waged by the Afghan Taliban against USA and NATO forces, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) emerged around 2004. Pakistan already had several religious extremist groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba which were involved in sectarian killings. The Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) carried out operations in Indian-held Kashmir and in India. TTP and Al-Qaeda have had a symbiotic relationship: TTP draws ideological guidance from Al-Qaeda, while Al-Qaeda relies on TTP for manpower and safe havens.
The TTP and IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) have a history of collaboration. IMU is the strongest amongst several militant groups in Central Asia. Some other extremist groups involved in terrorism are Chechens, the Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
These diverse groups have certain common features. All are involved in terrorism, suicide bombings, kidnappings and lootings. They often exhibit brutality such as public beheadings of hostages. They are dedicated and consider dying for the cause as their duty, which also ensures their entry in paradise. They impose their narrow-minded version of Islam over other Muslims and are harsh in treatment of minorities. The extremist groups resent the West for trying to dominate Muslim countries and to deprive them of their resources. The creation of Israel, and its continued patronage by the USA, has generated more anti-West feelings than any other issue. Some groups are also involved in violent activities against Russia, India and China.
From time to time, fanatical groups have emerged in the Islamic world with the avowed aim of restoring the true message of Islam. They advocated violence in order to secure that objective. The Kharjites were members of an Islamic group in the 7th century, in southern Iraq, who first supported Hazrat Ali (RA), the fourth Caliph, but split when he accepted mediation in the war of succession. They became known as Kharjites and adopted a form of radical fundamentalism. They considered moderate Muslims to be ‘hypocrites’ or ‘unbelievers’, who could be killed with impunity. The present-day Islamic extremists are imitations of the Kharjites. The internal causes leading to extremism are the yearnings to recreate the early model of Islamic society. The external causes motivating the extremists are the perceived acts of injustice done to the Muslims in several parts of the world, notably by Western powers.
A typical extremist today is often the product of Madaris, or swayed by the brain-washing of radical Islamic preachers. In recent years, widespread anti-Americanism and the call for Jihad to oust foreign forces from Afghanistan and Iraq have provided the motivation for many young Muslims to join such groups. These extremists have a lynch mob mentality. In general, they are intolerant, rigid and xenophobic in their attitude.
For the first three decades after independence, Pakistani society was tolerant and there was communal harmony. When extremism started to spread, neither the government nor the society effectively encountered it. Fanatical Mullahs started to incite their listeners towards intolerance, extremism and even violence, while claiming that they alone were the protectors of true Islam. Extremism received a boost under General Ziaul Haq, when many extremists were militarized in the context of the Afghan Jihad. They later turned into Frankensteins and have caused over 60,000 deaths through bombings and assassinations. They have damaged communal harmony and caused immense economic losses, resulting in the destabilisation of Pakistan. After a long delay, mainly due to political vacillation, Pakistani armed forces eventually launched the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014 to wipe out terrorists, particularly the Taliban, in their strongholds in Pakistan’s tribal belt.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims are tolerant and moderate and reject violence and terrorism. Islam is a religion of peace. It is a great irony and misfortune that religious extremists have come to be identified with Islam and its teachings. These extremists have done far more harm to fellow Muslims than to the perceived enemies of Islam. Normally, the use of force must be considered as a policy of the last resort. Ideas are best countered by ideas. The distorted ideology of the extremists should be challenged by the right-thinking Ulema by highlighting the true meaning and spirit of Islam. Even though this process will take time and effort, it has to be pursued. In the short term, extremism can be countered by effective monitoring of madaris to end any undesirable activities, and improving their curriculum.
There must also be rethinking in non-Muslim countries as to why Muslims feel so deeply aggrieved in specific cases, e.g. denial of Muslim rights in Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya. Similarly, the spectacle of one Muslim country after another being invaded and occupied has alarmed Muslims worldwide. They are also disturbed by Islamophobia in Western countries, including sacrilegious cartoons ridiculing Islam. Faced with persecution, discrimination and racism, some Muslims have turned to extremism.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.
Daesh And Rise of Extremism | Shahid M Amin