December 10, 2021 | OPINION | By Zoraiz Zafar | Illustration by Iris Guo

In the past week, Pakistan and the global community were left stunned after the brutal lynching of a Sri Lankan national in the city of Sialkot. Priyantha Kumara, a factory manager, was wrongly accused of blasphemy by a violent mob that proceeded to torture him to death before burning his body. Several videos of the incident were shared through social media, where hundreds of onlookers can be seen chanting slogans in support of the assailants.

This is not the first time that the South Asian country has witnessed such barbaric acts of violence in the name of religion. In a legal system where blasphemy is punishable by death, mobs like these are all but encouraged to take the law into their own hands. But before delving into the frailties of the penal code, the structural issue of societal radicalization must first be addressed.

Close analysis of the footage from last week’s hate crime indicates a worsening trajectory for extremism in Pakistan. Scores of children under the age of 12 can be seen chanting alongside the mob as smoke billows from the burning remains. The country’s leadership should be aware that the roots of extremism have penetrated the depths of Pakistani society and reached the youth.

The story also takes a political turn. Kumara was accused of removing posters of a far-right religious political party, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), from the factory premises. The assailants could be heard chanting slogans in support of the TLP and many were later found to be active members of the same party.

The TLP came to the fore in 2017, and it is strongly believed that Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was responsible for its formation. It is alleged that this was done to help the electoral fortunes of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party in the 2018 general elections.

After the TLP staged several sit-ins in the federal capital, the civil-military leadership decided to declare it as a terrorist organization in April 2021 and ban its participation in all elections. Yet, this ban was reversed in November just weeks before the fatal attack on Kumara. So, is the country’s military establishment responsible for the menace of religious extremism in Pakistan? Yes and no.

First, the military has been engaged in a constant bid to oust militant forces in the country’s northwest region since 2014. This has led to a significant drop in terrorism across the nation. But what the military’s top brass have failed to come to terms with is the fact that the war on radicalization is not a war of weapons or soldiers but a war of ideologies. And to win this hybrid war, its root causes must be addressed.

The country’s leadership has to recall the principle of religious freedom upon which the nation was founded. This means that the authorities must take a firm stand against those looking to impose mob rule. With regard to the TLP, its organizational capabilities must be completely dismantled until it drastically alters its platform to fit within the norms of society.

Furthermore, the educational system needs to be revamped in a way that promotes innovation and creativity rather than the current state of religious extremism. To this extent, the government should seek to regulate the activities of religious institutions known as madrassahs.

The implementation of these steps would not guarantee the de-radicalization of society, but it would be a step in the right direction. And to prevent more incidents like the Sialkot lynching, it is a step Pakistan must take. After terrorism, Pakistan’s leadership and its people must seek to defeat extremism.

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