Book review: Extremism and Counter Extremism Narratives in Pakistan: An Analysis of Narrative Building

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Extremism and Counter-Extremism Narratives in Pakistan: An Analysis of Narrative Building book cover

ISBN 9781032478807 196 Pages  Published May 19, 2023 by Routledge

by Maryum Mastoor     17 July 2023

Dr. Sadia Nisar in her maiden book on Extremism and Counter Extremism Narratives in Pakistan: An Analysis of Narrative Building, has tried to explain the history and genesis of narrative building in Pakistan. She explains that how short sighted policies of the state led to the problem of extremism in the country and now the state wishes to eradicate it through counter extremism initiatives and counter extremism narrative building. The book is divided into two main themes that how extremism brewed in Pakistan’s society through a naïve approach towards use of symbols and language in national notions and second, how extremism can be countered through counter extremism initiatives and counter extremism narrative building.

Regarding the phenomena of extremism, a lot of work has been done, but this book uniquely discusses the process of narrative building with respect to extremism. While referring to the process of narrative building, Dr. Sadia rightly capsuled the issue by writing in the beginning that ‘narratives play an essential role in constructing social reality.’ Later in the book Dr. Sadia elaborates upon this reflection and enlightens the reader that how Pakistani state endorsed a narrow mind set and gradually created a reality that the country faces now in form of extremism through selective use of religion, education and short sighted state polices.

The anti Ahmedi riots of 1953, the movement to discredit Mohatarma Fatima Jinnah as she was a woman, and it was touted by the then religious scholars that a woman cannot lead, the declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslims in 1974, which created a divide of us and they, tarnishing the spirit to embrace diversity, the Islamic socialism of Bhutto, a very unnatural blend of Islam with the prevailing socialist movement,  General Zia’s use of Jihad for fighting the US war in Afghanistan, then during the Musharraf era, fighting those Mujahdeen who were once ‘nurtured’ during Zia’s era, all in tandem led to extremist ideological character of the nation.  By referring to all these events Dr. Sadia showed that how extremism not only evolved but was also embedded in the social fabric of Pakistan. She also explains that the agents for keeping and nurturing this narrative in Pakistan’s society, were the leaders.

The book is divided into five chapters. The first chapter explains the theoretical underpinnings by using the work of Aristotle, Rhetoric, here it is explained that how the ‘word’ of a leader or political figure eventually shapes the thinking of the masses. It also highlighted the importance of sloganeering in politics. The slogan of ‘Jehad’ was misused in the country.

Dr. Sadia highlighted the importance of diminishing space for masses to express themselves though political participation in a continued political process, which eventually led to extremist tendencies at societal level.  For instance, dictators cracked down the political opponents, and religious political parties were ‘used’ to legitimize their stay and were given a go ahead for maintaining power. Resultantly, political parties also ‘used’ religious parties to gain power, when they were given a chance to rule the country.

In addition, the international environment was also instrumental in shaping Pakistan’s indigenous narratives. The author maintained that Pakistan’s state leaders did not empower indigenous reality and instead succumbed to the external pressures and charted a narrative accordingly. For instance, the narratives adopted during General Zia’s era and narratives adopted in Musharraf’s era were all because of international pressures which eventually led to an in cohesive and highly polarized society.

In later part of the book she described the efforts by the state to counter extremism through counter extremism narrative building and though certain initiatives. The author elaborated in detail the work of National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) for that matter. However, she also identified the limitations of NACTA. Dr. Sadia says that NACTA has tried to address the problem of understanding extremism but there is confusion about the definition of extremism. She says that words like radicalization, terrorism and extremism are interchangeably used. Therefore, she stressed upon the need to have clarity on the issue for dealing it in an effective manner. The counter extremism narrative building was unsuccessful as state was unable to grasp and imbibe the problem. In the last chapter, Dr. Sadia suggested various strategies for the state to counter the menace of extremism.  Amongst all of those strategies, five were very significant. The first was the need for reviewing state policies. She called for an introspective analysis of the state policies that are backfiring the country. Secondly, she talked about a more robust and meaningful engagement of civil society in building and disseminating counter narratives. Third, she stressed on inclusion of youth which constitutes more than half of the country’s population, nearly 64 percent people are below 30. Therefore, the author significantly highlighted the need to target the Youth in counter narrative building. Fourth, she has called upon promoting dialogue among all power brokers and diverse sections of society so that a spirit to accept diversity can be created. And lastly she talked about creating alternative narratives encompassing positive messages.

However, she did not discuss that what those alternative narratives can be. While describing the problem of an inability of state institutions to define the phenomenon of extremism per se, she has not attempted to define the phenomena herself. Nonetheless this book provides a comprehensive account of the process of narrative building in Pakistan with respect to extremism. It is a sad fact that Pakistan’s social reality is entrenched in extreme ideological positions, which are immovable due to religious connotation afforded to them.

This book is a fascinating read for all those who wish to gain understanding of Pakistani society and politics. This book can also be included in university syllabus, as it also explains the evolution of Pakistan’s society. It is truly an enriching read.