Extremism & Its Counter Narrative

The birthplace of any conflict has always been grounded in clashing ideologies. It is cradled by differences in opinions and interpretations that eventually take more tangible forms leading to brute actions, hence leaving the incorporeal yet powerful domain of influence. These actions do not transpire by chance or some random roll of probability, rather they are premeditated, calculated, and developed into a fuel that may sustain the machinery of men.

One of the most powerful forces that throw this machinery in an almost unstoppable inertia is “Narrative”.

The only way to break this inertia is to develop a “Counter-Narrative”, which is getting harder by the moment in an increasingly polarized, opinionated, frustrated, and angry population connected to the catalyst of technology. Mankind can survive in the harshest weather, without food or shelter, under poverty, in war zones, and sometimes under the cruel yoke of injustice but it cannot survive without hope. Hope stems forth from the eternal fountain of higher purpose and that is where a man transforms into a remarkable being.

21st Century Sling and Stone

Present times have taught us, through bitter experiences of loss of life; property, and economy, that there is a dire need to understand the narrative which has contaminated the minds of people, especially youth. To this purpose, our first step should be to accept this reality that no amount of policing, aggressive measures, and wars can eliminate the possibility of this contamination. The second step is to enter the mind of the corrupter who is duly equipped with tools of knowledge. This is the only way forward in developing an immune system for masses who, upon being targeted, will then be able to fight off effectively and independently.

Warfare has evolved far beyond the first generation. Today, this favorite past time is waged by frustrated non-state warriors, directing their rage against visible symbols of oppression, drawing visceral as well as vicarious pleasure out of their violence.

Third-generation warfare, which was waged between industrial-age armies over land and resources was replaced by fourth-generation warfare, waged by non-state actors and asymmetric warriors employing terrorism as a tool to achieve their political objectives. Col Thomas Hammes in his book “The Sling and the Stone” described 4GW as the only kind of war the United States ever lost and that too three times, that is, in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia. This warfare also formed the basis for the eventual defeat of the French in Vietnam and Algeria and the USSR in Afghanistan. ‘Asymmetrical’ warfare includes the conflicts of the 21st century and clearly portrays how difficult it is for the world’s superpowers to battle insurgents and terrorists who will fight unconventionally in the face of superior military power.

In 5th Generation Warfare, non-state actors fight nation-states out of sheer anger and frustration without clear political objectives grounded in ideological differences. US Marine Corps Lt Colonel Stanton writes in Marine Corps Gazette that the 5GW is most likely to be prosecuted in “Enclaves of Deprivation” where the vortex of violence threatens peace and order. The instability given to the state by non-state actors will provide ample playground for its enemies to incur damage in terms of economy, civil war or even proportionate loss of land.

The ‘Vulnerable’ Potentials

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.” Nelson Mandela

Terrorism has existed before the dawn of recorded history. Human nature has not changed, however, three interlocking trends have significantly changed the nature and the degree of threat. The globalization of commerce, travel, and information transfer puts economic disparities and ideological competition in sharp light and facilitates cooperative aggression by far-flung but like-minded conspirators. September 11, 2001, is one result and probably a warning for times to come. It perhaps would not be an exaggeration to state that these fast-evolving trends together constitute a clear danger to the security of civilization.

The assent of religious fundamentalism as an aggrieved competitor with the market economic, democratic and secular trends of modernity and the privatization of WMDs putting the potential of macro terrorist acts into the hands of small groups and even individuals.

According to conservative estimates of the World Bank, nearly half the adult population of Pakistan can’t read and net primary enrollment remains the lowest in South Asia. Experts say the system suffers from inadequate government investment, corruption, lack of institutional capacity, poor curriculum and teachers who garner interpretations that instill intolerance. Exploiting these weaknesses, terror groups offer free education to impoverished Pakistani children, where they can recruit and indoctrinate the next generation.

Since 2002, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has invested over $682 million to reform Pakistan\’s education system. In September 2009, the US Congress approved a new bill authorizing $1.5 billion a year in non-military aid for the next five years starting in 2010. While the bill does not earmark a specific amount for education, it is authorized to provide assistance in educational reform. The incumbent government disengaged from USAID influence and effectively introduced its own educational reforms by proffering a uniform curriculum, teachers oversight, taking Madrasas under Ministry of Education (earlier efforts were made to bring it under Ministry of Interior) and increasing the budget to PKR 97.15 billion (2019).

Though the stats clearly point towards the rise of terrorism incidents due to the presence of large educational vacuum yet according to NACTA, since 2001, as post effect of 9/11 incident and subsequent ‘War against Terror,’ terrorism’s impact reached its peak in 2010, gulping 2061 precious lives in 2010. They took a nosedive in 2014, as a result of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and NAP. In 2015, terrorism incidents declined up to 45% and declined from an average of almost 5 per day (2014) to 1 per day (2017).

Tangles of a Twisted Mind

“Many of our most serious conflicts are conflicts within ourselves. Those who suppose their judgments are always consistent are unreflective or dogmatic; not uncommonly they are ideologues and zealots”Professor John Rawls

Dr John Horgan is a professor of security studies at the School of Criminology and Justice Studies as well as Director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts. As an applied psychologist having more than 70 publications on terrorism and political violence, his research focuses on terrorist behavior. In an interview (2008) with Audrey Hamilton, he was asked: “You’ve interviewed hundreds of terrorists. Is there a way to identify potential terrorists and to prevent them from engaging in terrorism?” He replied: “I think it’s becoming very, very difficult to identify potential terrorists. In recent years, we’ve had a very emotional and I suppose very, engaging conversation about who becomes a terrorist and why…

…One of the assumptions in that is when people become radicalized; they get exposed to certain kinds of thoughts, certain kinds of ideas which somehow puts them at greater risk for involvement in terrorism… we’re finding right now that the initial concept of radicalization isn’t as helpful as we once thought…”

He continued: “I spent a lot of time in Pakistan this year. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of time looking into these de-radicalization programs. Some are more effective than others. Much of the work we’re doing in Pakistan right now is about understanding how individuals who have been detained for terrorist offenses can be effectively rehabilitated and reintegrated back into the communities that they once claimed to act on behalf of”.

With decade-long research and carefully compiled data, it can be safe to say that our Western ‘friends’ have not yet solved the conundrum that resides within the complex mind of a terrorist. Additionally, the studies point towards the domain of Psychology, Anthropology, and Theology, especially in the case of countries with deeply rooted religious beliefs such as ours.

Rise of Fascism, Neo Nazis & Islamophobia

“…I think Islam hates us!” ― US President Donald Trump

On Friday afternoon of 15th March 2019, two consecutive terrorist attacks at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand during Friday Prayer, shook the world. The gunman live-streamed the horrific first attack on Facebook Live which invited an unusually swift response from Facebook which almost always took its time to remove videos related to terror groups that affiliated with Islamists. The attacks killed 51 people along with 49 injured. A 28-year-old Australian man, described in media reports as a white supremacist and part of the alt-right, was arrested and charged with terrorism. He pleaded ‘Not Guilty’ to all charges, again highlighting an increase in white supremacism and alt-right extremism globally.

The latest research of western psychologists suggests that the vast majority of terrorists are not mentally ill but are essentially rational people who weigh the costs and benefits of terrorist acts, concluding that terrorism is profitable.

The advantages accrued, however, have value only in a particular social context. Group dynamics, often driven by charismatic leadership, play a powerful role in convincing individuals to embrace expansive goals and use violence to attain them. Personal factors like feelings of belonging, empowerment, and revenge also draw people toward terrorist activities.

A BBC article effectively dismantled the toxic Islamophobic intent behind the famous catchphrase “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”. The article quoted Erin Miller – a US-based analyst who is a part of the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) team at the University of Maryland. Miller admits that between 2004 and 2013, about half of all terrorist attacks with 60% fatalities took place in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; all of which have a majority Muslim population.

West’s ‘Final Solution to ‘The Muslim Problem’

RAND in 2007 published a comprehensive research book titled “Building Moderate Muslim Networks”. The most interesting chapter for any Muslim would be “Road Map for Moderate Network Building in the Muslim World\”, particularly the part regarding “Potential Partners”. The authors acknowledge that in general, there appear to be three broad sectors within the spectrum of ideological tendencies in the Muslim world where the United States and the West can find partners in the effort to combat extremism which are Secularists; Liberal Muslims, and Moderate Traditionalists, Sufis.

  • Secularists

They described the values of liberal secularists as being closest in orientation to Western political values; liberal secularists support secular law and institutions within the context of a democratic society. They hold liberal or social-democratic values that form the core of a Western-style “civil religion”. They believe in the separation of the political and religious spheres but since this group is a minority in the Muslim world therefore currently not of much use to the “Allies”.

  • Liberal Muslims

Liberal Muslims differ from secularists in that their political ideology has a religious substratum analogous to the European Christian Democrats but they are “hostile to the concept of Islamic state” and advocate the agenda that is compatible with Western notions of democracy and pluralism. A consistent view in their thinking is that “Sharia Law” is a product of the historical circumstances of the time of its creation and the elements of it are no longer contextual and therefore need to be “modernized”. As per the book, Liberal Muslims will eventually uproot the traditional orthodoxy of Islam and become dominant.

  • Moderate Traditionalists and Sufis

Constituting the majority of Muslims, they are often but not always conservative Muslims who uphold beliefs and traditions passed down through the centuries. They are the polar opposites of Salafis and refrain from engaging in unmediated interpretation of the Quran and the hadith. Researchers duly noted Sufis’ victimization by Salafis; they are “Natural Allies of the West” to the extent that ‘common ground’ can be found with them.

Conclusively, the book showered praise upon Fethullah Gülen who promoted a form of moderate modern Sufi Islam. Gulen opposes the state’s enforcement of Islamic law, pointing out that most Islamic regulations concern people’s private lives and only a few on matters of governance. It is pertinent to mention that Fethullah Gülen was responsible for 2016 Turkish coup d’état which killed over 300 people, injuring 2,100, with 40,000 detained, damage to government buildings including the Turkish Parliament and Presidential Palace which was bombed from the air. To escape repercussions, he requested asylum from the US which was more than graciously granted.

A similar pattern was seen in Egypt where external support poured in for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, responsible for the military coup that removed Mohamed Morsi (the country’s democratically elected president) from office on 3rd July 2013. Just a month later on 14th August 2013, Egypt witnessed the “Rabaa Massacre” which was described by Human Rights Watch as “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history. According to Human Rights Watch, a minimum of 817 people and more likely at least 1,000 died during the dispersal.

The Counter Narrative

“Pakistan not only means freedom and independence but the Muslim Ideology which has to be preserved, which has come to us as a precious gift and treasure and which, we hope others will share with us”. ― Muhammad Ali Jinnah

The Islamic Fiqh Council has defined terrorism as acts of aggression and enmity carried out by individuals, groups, or states by way of transgressing against people (affecting their religious commitment, physical and mental well-being, wealth, or honor).

This includes all ways of scaring, harming, threatening people, killing them unlawfully, and all actions that are connected to those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, scaring wayfarers and travelers, acts of banditry, and all violent acts or threats that take place in support of criminal objectives (individuals or groups), with the aim of instilling fear and terror in people, scaring them by harming them, or exposing their lives, freedom, sense of security and well-being to danger. All of these are ways of spreading mischief and corruption on earth, which Allah has forbidden:

“And desire not corruption in the land. Indeed, Allah does not like corrupters” [Al- Qasas 28:77]

Moderation in religion means following the example of the Prophet. Exaggeration means trying to do more than he did and negligence means not reaching that level.

“Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful”    [Al-Baqarah 2:185]

The Islamic view of humanity is filled with mercy and compassion, and it cannot be otherwise.

“And We have sent you (O Muhammad) not but as a mercy for the Alameen (Mankind, Jinns and all that exists)” [Al-Anbiya 21:107]

Once the Influential renowned scholars of Islam came forward and published ‘Paigham-e-Pakistan’ terming actions of Security Forces fighting against the scourge of terrorism as ‘Jihad’ they effectively eliminated the extremist mindset. It also provided much-needed clarity for our brave soldiers and countrymen who fought the cancer of terrorism. The highest number of casualties occurred in the initial phase of our “War against Terror” primarily due to the warm kind-hearted blood that gushes through the veins of our brave hearts. Our defenders initially assumed that the ones they are fighting are their brothers in Islam, little they knew that their barbaric misguided enemy did not consider them likewise.

Narrated by Sa’eed bin Zaid (RA):

“The Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم said: ‘Whoever is killed protecting his wealth, he is a martyr. Whoever is killed protecting his family, he is a martyr. Whoever is killed protecting his religion, he is a martyr. Whoever is killed protecting himself, he is a martyr.”  [An-Nasa\’i 4095 (Sahih)]

Islamic Unity: A Nation of Balance

The greatest damage done to the Islamic world has been the spread of disunity among its ranks. History tells us that the first 30 years of the Islamic Caliphate bore fruits of unity, progress, socio-economic stability, technological revival, military conquests, human rights, and unparalleled freedom, the likes not witnessed even after the US Emancipation Proclamation (1863) for African American people.

If God, His prophet, teachings, and sources of scripture are the same then why did Muslims end up disintegrated and weak? The answer to this puzzle is not complicated. It only requires tolerance and rational thinking that involves a rudimentary understanding of Islamic history, human psychology and Fiqh Al Waqi’ah (Theory or Philosophy of Islamic Law derived as per Reality of Events and Circumstances).

First Rift was created between the “People of Opinions” and “People of Hadith” in the Ummayad era when efforts were underway to compile authentic sources related to Prophetic traditions and design a methodology of referral. Formerly used the method of solving problems at hand by interpreting the textual knowledge by prioritizing intellect, arguments, and mind. Latter solved problems using only textual knowledge and delving seldom into the domain of “hypothetical” primarily to avoid the increasing influence of Greek philosophy.

Second Rift – the compilation of prophetic traditions became possible only through extreme hard work of scholars. But as the science of hadith transmission evolved, the domain of Ilm ar-Rijal (a compendium of knowledge about transmitters of Hadith known as ‘Ravi’) came under debate. Each group authenticated hadith as per its own framework and criteria developed over time. These differences gradually grew into respective schools of thought.

Due to differences in opinions, methodologies, and behavior of varying schools of thought, significant constructs of ideologies began to take root.

Each had its own mentor and followers who gave life to movements that carved nations, groups, and organizations on different parts of the globe. Inevitably the fundamental architecture of a unified Islamic state faded away into the past. Time and again sentiments of “Ummah” (Arabic word for single body or state of Muslims in entirety) were stroked, be it for nationalism, political activism, religious identification, or terrorism.

The only way forward is to return to the roots of Islamic intellectual discourse. The methodology of companions is a perfect balance for Fiqh Al-Waqi’ah that provides a road map towards the correct interpretation of a situation. This in essence will be the ultimate punch behind countering the toxic narrative of extremists on both sides of the threat spectrum.

Higher Purpose & Hope

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity” ― Sun Tzu

This wise statement by Sun Tzu holds good for all of us. Pakistan is currently witnessing extreme polarization of views. On one side, the Secularist Liberal Progressives are pushing for an “Enlightened Moderation” while the Conservatives refuse to let go of religion as the fundamental decisive pillar of their life.

The policymakers and stakeholders must find a balance between Sufism, Secularism, and Salafism. These ideologies can and must be engaged with dialogue.

Narrated by Irbad bin Sariyah (RA): He صلى الله عليه وسلم said,

“I admonish you to fear Allah and to listen and obey even if a black slave has been appointed as your leader. For whoever among you lives after me will see much discord. So hold fast to my Sunnah and the Sunnah of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs who will come after me. Adhere to them and hold fast to them. Beware of Bid\’ah (in religion) because every Bid’ah is a misguidance.” [Abu Dawud & At-Tirmidhi 702 (Sahih)]

Pakistan was founded on the principles of Islamic fundamentals; to reform it into a secular state where religion is relegated to private matters having no say within the larger dominion is akin to surgically removing every nerve from a body which is an impossible task. The need of the hour is to focus on authentic Islamic teachings instead of following the two extreme views. This nation that came into existence on the 27th of Ramadan has survived tremendous ordeals. Resilience and eternal hope stem forth from the enlightenment of the Quran and Prophetic traditions.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.


Mubashir Zia, passionate about reading and writing, explores history and regional affairs with a keen eye, while also providing astute analysis as a defense analyst.

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