Examining reasons for extremist support by Syed Muhammad Ali

Given the increasing levels of extremist violence in Pakistan over the past decade or so, debates concerning its underlying causes are still ongoing. Madrassas have become an evident target according to numerous sources, based on the commonly held assumption that they advocate a narrow view of Islam which not only breeds intolerance but also fuels acts of violence. Not only liberals within our country, but numerous think tanks and even the Western media have thus pointed to madrassas as one of the major sources of Pakistanís violent fundamentalism. Our national efforts to counter extremism have also specifically identified the need for madrassa reform as a major element of the stateís strategy to combat terrorism. Attempts to reform madrassas were in fact launched soon after 9/11, but the lacklustre efforts had little discernable impact, and there is not much evidence for significant madrassa reforms having taken place within the context of the more recent National Action Plan either.

Some scholars have, however, argued that madrassa reforms by themselves will not suffice, since the problem of growing intolerance in the country is due to the low quality, bias-ridden, and sectarian content of the educational curriculum being taught in all schools across Pakistan. Given this ongoing debate, it is important to consider findings of a research paper put out by Christine Fair at Georgetown University ďCan Knowledge of Islam Explain Lack of Support for Terrorism? Evidence from PakistanĒ. This research employs data derived from a nationally representative survey of several thousand Pakistanis to assess which factors are most relevant for those who expressed support for militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban and sectarian groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba-e-Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat.

The resulting analysis reveals that even a basic knowledge of Islam has significant impact on respondents support for terrorist groups, but this impact is not what many liberal-minded Pakistanis may think. Instead, religious education in Pakistanis was seen to have an important dampening effect for support for militancy. This study has instead identified other factors such as a respondentís maslak and ethnicity to be far more stable predictors of support for militant groups. Fair eludes to the fact that patronage of particular maslaks to achieve the stateís geostrategic objectives may help explain the strong impact of this variable on support for militant groups. Such a finding would imply that acquisition of religious knowledge by itself is perhaps not the problem, instead it is the production of sectarian differences, be it by madrassas, or through other mediums including the pulpit or the media, which needs to be squarely addressed.

Fair and her team found strong correlations between ethnicity and support for militant groups. While ethnic identity has been a relevant factor in intra-state conflict in the country, the implications of the identified correlation were not really fleshed out in the research report. Some of the other findings of this research are somewhat puzzling as well, such as the fact that in comparison to females, males were less likely to support the SSP but more likely to support the Taliban. Overall, this research serves as a cautionary tale against simply assuming that the pursuit of Islamic knowledge is by itself a sure-shot marker of potential danger. The findings of this preliminary research based on statistical regressions do, however, need to be further investigated using qualitative methods to highlight actionable implications for not only how to reform madrassas, but also to identify what else needs to be done to effectively undermine support for extremist violence in our country.