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Radicalisation In Pakistani Youth

Muhammad Amir Rana


It might come as a surprise to those concerned about a growing militancy in Pakistan that most of the people in the country believe that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are not doing any service to Islam. According to the findings of a recent survey by Pew Research Center, support for terrorism among Pakistanis is much lower  compared to that in other Muslims states. The people of Pakistan are concerned about a rise in extremism linked to religion.


But radicalisation is not a simple phenomenon that may be measured simply through support for or disapproval of violent actions. After all, despite the low support for Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the country, Pakistan has been faced with an unprecedented and devastating wave of terrorism, which far exceeds anything confronting countries with a decidedly higher level of radicalisation. And that begs the question: what are the factors contributing to such a violent landscape in Pakistan, despite popular opposition to terrorism amongst the Pakistani people.


There is no single answer to the question. Firstly, society may be against violence, but not necessarily against the agenda of extremists. The second, and the most important, factor is the presence of militant networks in Pakistan. Over 100 militant and Taliban groups and foreign terrorist networks operating in and from the tribal areas of Pakistan present the key difference between Pakistan and other Muslim states affected by radicalisation. Radicalisation and terrorism have a cause-and-effect relationship in Pakistan. The challenge of terrorism cannot be overcome without weakening this bond. 


Trends of Radicalisation

In this perspective, Pakistani youths have the same tendencies and seem confused on issues related to radicalisation, extremism and terrorism, as a few recent studies suggest. A study by Brookings Institution in 2008, based on approximately 350 responses from Swat and Malakand, hinted that the increasing cases of radicalisation among young people in Pakistan is due to multiple factors.ii A report by the British High Commission, based on a survey applied to over 1,000 youth from all over the country in 2009 highlighted the dissatisfaction and frustration of youth over the lack of systems in the country. Similarly, a survey by the Centre for Civic Education in 2009 said a vast majority of youth (69.6 per cent) believe that extremism is on the rise among youth, while an overwhelming majority of 85.4 per cent believes that the youth of Pakistan can play a constructive role in combating growing extremism in the society.


The findings of these studies indicate that the average Pakistani takes his religion seriously. However, unlike the Taliban, he does not want to make it claustrophobic for other people. The average Pakistani thus wants to be progressive in a conservative framework. He is caught between two competing narratives: the first one, which is primarily grounded in religion and is now championed by militant groups, makes him want to see his religion triumph; the other, usually trotted out by the government and the media, is mainly based on information and rational analysis, making him realise the significance of progressing in the world.


F or instance, one of such studies, conducted by Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based research think tank, asserts that there are some traces of cultural and religious radicalisation among rural youths who also share some economic and social-based grievances. The urban youths, on the other hand, although seemingly liberal in their sociopolitical outlook, are confused about the direction of the change in society, and secondly, their global political views almost resemble those of religious and also to some extent extremist ideologues. Similarly a team of eight PIPS researchers visited 16 public and private universities and post-graduate public colleges across the country from February to April 2010, and findings of their study suggested that there was a widespread perception among the youth that democracy will not help Pakistan deal with its problems. The study also found that there was extensive frustration among the youth over the current state of affairs in the country, which they feel needs to be changed. Equally important among the social and religious variables that influence young individuals is the resistance to ethnic and religious diversity among a large section of Pakistani youth, necessitating urgent efforts to counter this distrust.


Thinking Patterns of Youth

According to the PIPS youth study, 79.4 per cent of the respondents thought that the Pakistani Taliban were not serving Islam. Most of the respondents (85.6 per cent) believed that suicide bombings were prohibited in Islam. The majority of the respondents (61.7 per cent) supported military operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. At the same time, the youth overwhelmingly considered religion an important factor in their life (92.4 per cent), but said that they do not offer prayers regularly. (51.7 per cent). The majority of the respondents (51.3 per cent) endorsed the country’s hybrid legal system in which Shariah is not the only source of law. The respondents were almost equally divided on the question whether religious-political parties should get a chance to rule the country, with 42.6 per cent endorsing the idea and 42 per cent opposing it. A positive indication noted in the survey was that 77.8 per cent of the male respondents agreed that women had the same rights as men, while 95.9 per cent stated that women should get an education and 75.7 per cent that they should have the opportunity to work. But most of the respondents’ linked women’s freedom with the observance of Pardah as 65.5 per cent thought that women should wear the veil in public. 


Most importantly, the study noted that influences by parents, the media and religious books contribute more to shaping the socio-cultural, religious and political views as well as the worldview of the youth of Pakistan. Contrary to the common perception of the dominance of the clergy in imparting religious education, 38 per cent of the respondents said that they received their basic religious education from their parents and not from a mosque or a madrassa. Another 38 per cent relied upon religious books. Booksellers have confirmed a spike in the sale of religious books in the last few years. For nine per cent of the respondents, the official curriculum was the preferred mode of acquiring Islamic knowledge, again contrary to the common perception.


The impact of the media on youth awareness was very visible as the youth relied upon the various forms of the media, included the television, newspapers and the Internet, to keep themselves abreast of latest developments. The survey results also revealed the desire of the majority of the respondents to stay significantly informed. Around 93 per cent owned television sets. Nearly half of the survey population (50.2 per cent) relied on Geo News, a private Urdu news channel, for information and only four per cent said they watched QTV, a channel that focuses on religious education. Nearly 86 per cent of the students said they read newspapers. Most of them named mainstream Urdu broadsheets such as Jang (38.8 per cent), Express (19.9 per cent) and Nawa-e-Waqt (9 per cent) as papers they read.


Only a few of the respondents were interested in militant media publications such as the daily Islam (2.5 per cent) or Zarb-e-Momin (0.6 per cent). This despite claims by the groups printing these newspapers that they have greater outreach and circulation than some of the leading newspapers in the country. Nevertheless, it is pertinent to mention that some strands of militant discourse can also be seen in the conservative segments of Pakistani media. Hence, young people remain exposed to radical ideas whether they read militant media publications or not.


The survey noted growing religiosity and political awareness among the educated youth. Religion is an issue of identity for them but they seemed confused about whether it can provide solutions to their problems as seen from the large proportion of the respondents who supported the country’s hybrid legal system in which Shariah is not the only source of law. But a fairly large percentage (19.5) also thought that democracy would not make a difference. The same confusion could be seen in society overall. The key drivers identified for the prevailing confusion were parents, media and religious publications and these could prove instrumental in reversing the thinking patterns.


That is not to say that it would be an easy job. It would involve reversing the whole socio-cultural, religious and political thinking discourse. Injustice, inequality, identity crisis, state delivery systems, and a sense of marginalisation as individuals or as a society could be discerned as the undercurrents in the prevailing thinking patterns. The role of the state, especially in the perspective of state-society relations, and relations with other states, would also merit a closer look in this perspective.


Counter-Radicalisation Strategies

But counter-radicalisation measures in Pakistan, both at state and civil society levels have focused almost exclusively on the nexus of radicalisation, violence and terrorism and little attention has been paid to factors behind non-violent manifestations of radicalisation, particularly in the youth. Moreover the typology, content and direction of civil society interventions to engage youths have also remained general in their focus and not focused exclusively on countering and/or preventing radicalisation and extremism in youth.


There are in fact some fundamental problems associated with these interventions. First, they do not target the representative class of youth from across the country and their outreach is very limited; geographical outreach hardly touches the grass-roots level. Secondly, most of such interventions are confined to one or another particular class of youth – engagement of one segment remains isolated from the other(s). Thirdly, these interventions are seemingly short-lived, direct and instantaneous, and thus lack sustainability and long-term impact. Fourthly, being based on common perceptions, these interventions also lack the support base of empirical research, which is imperative to strategise a proper framework for youth engagement, and which can provide the fundamental context, typology, nature and content for any programme meant to engage the youth for the said purpose. 


The paucity of governmental budget allocations for education notwithstanding, there are also few investment programs at state and societal levels which prioritise youth for their informal education and training, which is the dire need of the hour owing to the increasing youth bulge (an excess in especially young adult male population) in Pakistan. According to the UN’s definition of youth more than 36 million in Pakistan are within the age group of between 15-24 years. Being a significant demographic feature in the country, the youth thus form a considerable social entity to be engaged and targeted in any effort meant to promote peace, tolerance and religious harmony in youth itself and also in the society.

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