Benazir’s battle against extremism
Looking back from where we are today, BB’s clarity of vision was prophetic. In her wisdom, she knew that only a genuine, empowered democracy can save Pakistan from the curse of extremism
I was all but 11 years of age when I made a promise to Shaheed BB that “when I grow up I will work with you”. It was a promise she would often remind me of whenever we would happen to meet. On the 18th of October 2007 when Shaheed BB returned to Pakistan after a long and testing exile of five years, I knew it was time. I wrote to her expressing my desire to assist her in any way possible. Her response was immediate, precise and clear “I welcome your support for the PPP and my struggle to restore democracy and save Pakistan from an extremist takeover”.
Looking back from where we are today, BB’s clarity of vision was prophetic. In her wisdom, she knew that only a genuine, empowered democracy can save Pakistan from the curse of extremism. Given the political and ideological polarisation in Pakistan, it became incumbent on her to steer the country in the right direction and assume the challenge of defeating extremist terrorism and securing democracy. Her message became an ominous augury of what was to come on the ill fated 27th of December 2007 when Shaheed BB lost her life in a terrorist attack.
Tragically, Benazir Bhutto’s death did not spur an awakening or realisation in Pakistan leading to tough action being meted out to terrorist networks operating inside the country with impunity. To the contrary, with the last bulwark against extremism gone, we are seeing a steadily consistent emboldening of armed militancy and religious extremism and a surrendering of authority and power by the State and State institutions. The ethnic cleansing of various communities such as the Hazaras, Ahmadis and Shias, the soul shattering attack on APS children, the crippling Faizabad siege of Pakistan’s capital city are just a few examples of how terror is being allowed to reign in the name of religion, rule of law is being held in abeyance, fundamental rights of people are being flagrantly violated and State institutions are failing to protect Pakistan’s citizens.
Security experts have identified two core features of extremist groups. One, they derive strength from intimidation of and violence against marginalised groups such as immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities and rights activists. Two, they are often supported by elements within the state, be it security forces or even established political parties.
Ironic as it may be, those who blatantly reject the ethos of democracy and refuse to submit themselves to the supremacy of democratic institution and the rule of law are being politically empowered by bringing them into the very institutions that symbolise democracy
What further provides extremist organisations the perfect breeding ground is a weak or no democracy. A report published by Freedom House in 2015 concludes that “While terrorism poses a threat to democratic and non democratic societies alike, it is apparently able to flourish only in dictatorships, states with authoritarian leaning and regimes and settings that suffer from weak or corrupt governments”.
Therefore, dictatorial or authoritarian states, states with a transitioning democracy, or states with weak democratic values and systems create an enabling environment for extremism. Consequently, whenever there is a tug of war between the politics of terrorism and the politics of democracy for control and authority, it is the latter which suffers a disadvantage before the former.
Brookings policy brief on “Democracy and Terrorism”, 2017 states that empirical evidence points towards a strong relationship between terrorism and a weak democracy and its “findings suggest that a country’s best defence against terrorism is to improve the legitimacy of the state through more democratic, human rights, and rule of law practices at the local, national, and international levels. Drivers of terrorist violence, nonetheless, derive from multiple and complex sources, many of which are local.”
Although historically, extremist religious parties have never scored an impressive win in Pakistan’s general elections, the effects of their intimidation on national politics are no longer deniable. Be it shaping policy agendas, or determining content of school text books; influencing the legal judicial system or enjoying full impunity from law, their assertive presence is now felt more than ever before.
A mind set which was previously seen as a fringe element is today being systematically mainstreamed into national politics. Ironic as it may be, those who blatantly reject the ethos of democracy and refuse to submit themselves to the supremacy of democratic institution and the rule of law; those who refuse to recognise the fundamental rights of every citizen irrespective of religion, belief or gender are being politically empowered by bringing them into the very institutions that symbolism democracy. How these extremist elements blatantly undermine every covenant, principle and ideal of democracy is evident from how the only tool of self expression and assertion known to them is intimidation and instilling fear.
Regardless of how well extremist groups are white washed, spruced up and presented as evolved and transformed individuals, regardless through what channels they enter into mainstream politics or what political value is erroneously attached to them, they never have and they never will bode well for democracy.