February 5th, 2022
By Rehan Piracha
Intellectuals have stressed upon the revival of Sindhi culture and language to check the growing religious extremism among youth in the province as pointed out in a recent think tank research report.
“With radicalisation growing among youths, the country’s problem of religious extremism is likely to worsen in future unless the state adopts a gradual and subtle policy shift toward the separation of religion and politics,” according to findings of research report titled “How Youth in Sindh View State, Society, Religion, and Politics”, released by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS).
Sindh, the second largest province of Pakistan, was once known for its religious harmony and interfaith co-existence. However, the province has been seeing an upsurge in incidents of violence against religious, sectarian and ethnic minorities since the beginning of the 21st century, the report states.
The province, which has the largest Hindu population of the country, is also grappling with issues like forced conversions of Hindu girls and vandalisation of Hindu temples, according to the report.
The report is based on a three-fold assessment: workshops providing the youth of Sindh with an open forum to share their views and observations, and pre- and post-event surveys. The workshops were held in Karachi, Sukkur and Hyderabad. The participants of these workshops were male and female young students from both rural and urban areas of the province.
The key themes covered in the workshop speakers included interfaith dialogue and communication, conscious and rational approach, socioeconomic and intellectual deprivation, social contract theory and citizenship, and freedom of expression and media.
Extremists taking over shrines: Arfana Mallah
Responding to the findings of the report, Arfana Mallah, academic and writer, viewed that the recent religious extremism in the province was result of jihadi and other religious groups setting up their madrassas along the National Highway in Sindh during Musharraf’s military regime.
In 2010, these religious groups came in contact with thousands of local people displaced in the massive flooding in Sindh. “The relief activities carried out by workers of religious groups especially that of the banned Jamatul Dawa left a deep impression on flood victims especially children which saw them as their benefactors,” Mallah explained. Those displaced children are now youngsters who have imbibed the ideology of such religious groups, she added.
The penetration of these religious groups is increasing in the province. “Now, the religious groups’ influence is not limited to the madrassas but they have encroached upon shrines of Sufi saints,” Mallah said. In some of the shrines in the province, there is a segregation of sexes during food distribution (Langar) unheard of previously, she said. “In the coming days, one might see dance and music being banned on shrines,” Mallah said.
The academic pointed out that the Pakistan Peoples Party has not met public expectations in terms of service delivery and governance in its 15 years of rule in the province. “The PPP also did not focus on bringing out cultural and educational policies to check the extremist narratives of such religious groups,” she added.
In her opinion, the provincial government needed to make serious efforts to revive Sindhi culture and language to check the onslaught of religious extremism in the province.
Mob power on rise: Amar Sindhu
According to poet and academic Amar Sindhu, the number of university students with extremist religious leanings have increased over the years.
“The public narrative in Sindh had been closely associated with progressive leanings but that began to change after the media revolution in Musharraf’s regime,” Sindhu said. The onslaught of state narrative through media channels has distanced and demoralised the youth from progressive politics, she explained.
Similarly, the state apparatus had backed religious parties and extremist groups in building pockets in border districts of the province which was being manifested itself in mob power on different occasions, Sindhu said. “These extremist groups are now targeting the enemies within,” she explained.
Sindhu warned that Tehrik Labaik Pakistan’s violent protests and the consequent state’s surrender did not bode well for the country. “The cycle of violence won’t be limited to religious extremism but it can engulf everybody and anybody,” she added.
Extremism linked with state policy: Zulfiqar Halepoto
In the view of activist and author Zulfiqar Halepoto, the growing extremism in the youth was linked with state policy and hence temporary. “The moment the State withdraws or changes its support to religious extremist groups, you would see normalcy prevail,” he said.
The PPP has not been effective in dealing with religious extremism because of the ethnic divide in Sindh, he said. “Religion is an easy tool to sway the masses,” he said, adding that the Sindh feudal lords were also using the religion card to keep themselves in power.
The PIPS report urges the government to undertake a thorough assessment of the social and political costs of faith-based nationalism.
The report also emphasises a massive need to upgrade the education system and suggests that the curricula must be sensitive about the portrayal of minorities and the assessment should not be based on rote-learning but should encourage critical and rational thinking.
Given the poor handling of interfaith issues in the education system of Pakistan, civil rights organisations must take action to fill the gap, organising workshops and training at campuses on the subject across the country, the report states.