Saad Aziz’s confession with regards to his involvement in perhaps the most high profile target killing incidents (Safoora chowk massacre and Sabeen Mehmood’s murder) in recent times seemed like a convenient all-in-one package that helped the state seal the controversial cases. Speculating the odd timing and circumstances behind the confession is a rather futile exercise. However, what is of greater concern is that the general public found it hard to digest that an IBA graduate could be complicit in such activities. In the aftermath of this revelation, a plethora of opinion pieces were published dubbing the rise of educated terrorists as a new era in the history of terrorism. It has been almost a decade and half since Pakistan became embroiled in the War on Terror. Today, Pakistan is considered the 8th most dangerous country on the planet. It is ironic and deeply worrying that academic research on religious extremism and violence in Pakistan remains in dearth. There is a lack of awareness about the fact that while terrorism can be tackled with the use of force, extremism cannot. This has resulted in stale and short sighted defense policy which has and continues to prove to be an efficacious long term solution. Moreover, whatever research does exist, is either focused solely on statistics or is completely theoretical in nature detached from the on-ground reality.
Educated individuals from the middle class falling prey to the scourge of militancy is by no means a new phenomenon. For instance, the mastermind of the Parade Lane attack of 2009 was a student at the International Islamic University. Furthermore, one of the key people of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Islamabad is a student at the National Defense University. There are a couple of other examples as well, but the crux of the matter is that there exists this misconception that radicalism and militancy is all a matter of poverty and illiteracy.
The radical and extremist narrative has been ingrained in our mindset over the years. Be it our homes, mosques, schools, or even the air we breathe; it is present all around. Taking the example of the rising sectarian violence in the country; beyond the usual suspects, there is another ignored factor at work behind the plight of minorities in Pakistan, and that is the significance of public opinion. The hard fact is that hatred towards non-Muslims is now the default attitude of a significant number of Pakistanis. They may not condone attacks and violence against these communities, but they fully endorse the basic doctrinal core that fuels the hatred against non-Muslims.
According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2012, 41 percent of regular Pakistanis do not even believe that Shiites are true Muslims. In addition, militant organizations have recognized this shift in attitudes and used it to justify attacks on the grounds that Shiites are the enemies of Islam. Also, the prevalence of this anti-Shia sentiment has given religious and political groups an opportunity to exploit and demand that they, like Ahmadis before them, also be recognized by the state as non-Muslims.
Though there is consensus in the country that terrorism is a major issue that needs to be addressed and we can see that the required measures are being put into place, there has hardly been any initiative with regards to tacking the phenomenon of extremism. There is a dire need to realize that an ideological reorientation is what is required. This extremist mindset that has been institutionalized needs to be countered through radical reform of the education curriculum (schools and seminaries), and a change in narrative needs to be brought about in our homes, mosques and public spaces. Because reactionary measures that are taken by the heads of state might curb terrorism in the short-run, but the extremist ideology will soon become an extension of ourselves.