Religious and secular extremes in Pakistan, is moderation achievable?

Rizwan Mustafa*

Birmingham, August 21, 2016 (Alochonaa):  A  visit to Pakistan provided me with an opportunity to indulge in my academic interest. Whilst travelling through the country’s capital city, Islamabad I had the privilege to become acquainted with senior counter terrorism officials working in various governmental departments. My engagement became even more insightful as a result of the tragic events which occurred on 16.12.2014 in Peshawar. The massacre of over 130 school children fuelled public outrage and galvanised the Pakistani community. It also provided me with an invaluable opportunity to understand the government strategy and practitioner mindset in respect of counter terrorism.

My perspective starts at the end. That is as I left Pakistan I was faced with a question that caused me to re-evaluate what I thought I knew about extremism in Pakistan. The two terms, ‘extremism’ and ‘Pakistan’ had always invoked images of bearded men preaching Jihad and anti American/Western sentiment. Pakistan has always been depicted as a hotbed of radical Islamism and militant Islam. Whether it be the Tahreek e Taliban, al Qaedah, Lashkar e Tayebah or some other ‘religiously’ motivated group, the presentation of Pakistan as a fertile ground for religious extremism dominates conventional wisdom. However my opportune meetings with governmental officials and metropolitan police chiefs caused me to question more and more; is it possible to strike the balance in Pakistan between religious and secular extremism?

As matters relating to the causes of Muslim violent extremism were discussed I found an overwhelming sense that those in political office and strategic posts saw a distinct division between ‘church’ (or mosque as is the case) and state. Religion was very much a private affair and although there was a normality of devout daily prayer, religious doctrine did not appear to inform political or strategic thought on counter terrorism. Rather the introduction of such a perspective was greeted with contempt and a resounding relegation of faith to the shadows of privacy. Though my analysis appears to be religiously bias, leaning towards to an affection of religious consideration in the country’s governance; it was perhaps instigated by the extreme secularist views that I encountered from CT professionals. In particular there appeared to be a mindset in CT circles that the Ulema (Muslim scholars of traditional Islamic theology) were very much a part of the problem that led to incidents like the Peshawar attack.


Traditionalists fuelled violent extremism, or so I was led to understand and in order for Pakistani society to progress there needed to be a complete detachment from traditional Islamic practice in mainstream society. I found this particularly difficult to accept for a number of theological reasons but also because I come from a traditional Islamic theology background and have studied in seminaries in Pakistan. However the picture of such seminaries and associated clerics being the fundamental cause of faith motivated terrorism was not one that I recognised. If anything from experience the teaching of Jihad in such seminaries has always been in a historical context where very little reference is made to current world issues. In addition many religious institutions take a proactive approach to weed out individuals and groups who have joined the seminary for the purposes of recruiting other students. There was nevertheless an under-appreciation at senior levels within government of such efforts accompanied by an impression that not enough was being done by the traditionalists to counter to the terrorist threat.

Although there may be a degree of merit in the above statement and it is perhaps possible that traditional madrasah’s do indeed have an opportunity with their specialist knowledge to tackle theological arguments posed by Muslim extremists; the mindset among decision makers and policy influencers, especially after the Peshawar attack, was one of disengagement and disdain. This presented a particular problem as such an endeavour to potentially counteract violent extremist narrative at grass roots levels would only be possible through mutual engagement, something of an impossibility in the present climate. This notion of difficulty was compounded further by a senior police officer who asked me whether I thought the world needed organised religion. Unsure of where this conversation was going I replied as diplomatically as possible to try and gauge the perspective of my host. A Muslim himself (or associated to the Islamic faith is perhaps a more accurate description) he continued to argue the case that the world has been enlightened and there is no need for the prescriptive moral and spiritual guidance that religion deems to offer. Rather we now possess the intellect to make our own rational and informed decisions. His argument developed to the point where asserted that Islam was inherently a religion of violence that promoted killing and as per current understanding terrorism. I sat with great discomfort as I listened to what I can only describe as a skewed a narrow perspective that was void of any credible rationale or theological content. Yet his argument appeared to follow a narrative that I was hearing time and time again – religion has no place in mainstream society.

As I reflected upon my time in Pakistan I was surprised by the degree of secular extremism or A religiousness among the country’s ruling elite. I thought to myself is it possible to counter the ‘threat’ posed by religious groups by distancing ones self from religion even further? Would this not feed in to the narrative of Muslim violent extremists who seek to highlight the inadequacies and lack of god consciousness of current governments? More prominently though I was left asking myself the question, is moderation between religious and secular extremism in Pakistan possible?

*The writer is a Doctoral Researcher, University of Birmingham, UK and works a police officer with the West Midland Police.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at


Categories: Religion-Politics

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