Uzair Ali describes the changed perceptions regarding sectarianism
Last week was the beginning of the third decade after the 9/11 attacks and the intervening twenty years have brought about discernable alterations in the attitude of policymakers in all stakeholders of the issue. The issue of altered perceptions about religious extremism is now viewed from a different perspective and it is now perceived as more harmful than beneficial to states and their proxies. This shift is clearly evident in the policy changes taking place in both the western world and the Muslim countries that now are re-evaluating the essentials of their priorities. It must be kept in view that Pakistan also felt the heat of rising religious extremism and its policymakers struggled to maintain a position aimed at neutralizing this harmful tendency.
Pakistan had to face a challenge as it is placed in a diverse and politically-charged religious landscape and it has consistently worked to diffuse the violent situation emerging out of sectarian disharmony that was aggravated by similar conflicts in the Muslim countries of the Middle East. Apparently, the Muslim world is not coherent in terms of social, cultural, and intellectual trends because it is diverse in all these terms. It is also quite obvious that political developments in the Muslim world also cast a spell on Muslim-majority countries and societies in terms of forming religious radicalism and sectarian divide. It also adds weight to the argument that extremism is a political phenomenon feeding on religious sentiments.
In the past, the rich Muslim countries had deepened their political influences in Muslim societies on sectarian lines and also support their proxies there. These proxies promote the interests of these states by exploiting the sectarian sentiments of the masses. They not only divide societies along narrow religious and sectarian lines but also promote intolerance against religious minorities and cultivate conspiratorial mindsets.
Keenly aware of this linkage, Pakistani policymakers were always wary of the outburst of sectarian conflicts in Pakistan that seriously limited Pakistan’s strategic choices and compelled them to refrain from taking sides. Though Pakistan had ventured hard into the Muslim world to pursue Muslim identity with a view to gain geostrategic, diplomatic, and economic support from the region it was also mired in the negative consequences of this policy. While this policy paid rich economic dividends but the political costs of such a policy had proved high indeed that the country could not afford them for long.
Altered Perceptions About Religious Extremism
Many analysts point out a deep weakening of altered perceptions about religious extremism that was represented by Al-Qaeda in a global context and it is now not as deep-rooted as two decades before. Though the Arab Spring a decade before largely failed in leading to a democratic change in the Muslim world that was noted to be the hub of religious extremism and still the monetary and political cost of the envisioned change is not decisive its impact is now reckoned to be enormous. The outcome of this altered perception is the growing moderation witnessed in the policies of the Muslim world. Palpable evidence of this change is the gradual strengthening of religious moderation in Saudi Arabia and the signing of the Abraham Accords which will surely weaken the activity of radical groups.
It is an acknowledged fact that events and developments in the Middle East influence ideological and political trends in Pakistan though Pakistan has to also face religious extremism in Afghanistan, sectarian difficulties, and increasing communal violence in India. Pakistani policymakers are grappling with these multiple issues and in the process are definitely altering Pakistan’s sociopolitical and ideological outlook. In this context, it is strongly held that any change of this nature will ultimately not only reshape religious thought but also determine the future trends of extremism in Pakistani polity. This is precisely the reason that religious groups are re-positioning themselves and devising strategies accordingly. It has now become obvious to them that Pakistan’s financial dependence on rich Muslim countries will influence the geopolitical and strategic choices of the policymakers of the country ultimately altering their perceptions and plans.
The altered perceptions and commensurate policy directions are now reflected in the approach adopted by the Pakistani state and it is now trying to change its attitude toward certain militant and radical religious groups that were once pointed to be in their good books. Along with the pressures exerted by the process of change in the rich Muslim world, the external pressure exerted particularly by FATF had led the Pakistani policymakers to review their policies. This renewed emphasis will surely assist the process of change that can help in understanding how the changes in the policies of state institutions together impact radical forces in Pakistan. Though presently there exist disparate views among Pakistani policymakers with some favoring going after the extremist groups through force and some advocating trying to absorb them into the national mainstream but it will take time before firm policies are devised and implemented. The Weekender