Globally, millions of people have been killed, disabled, displaced, widowed and orphaned as a result of acts of violent extremism. In the majority of cases, the statistics are available because it is a tangible, visible damage that can be measured. However, the discourse around the imperceptible, invisible harm that extremism, rather than violence, has inflicted on communities, societies and countries is still limited. States have introduced strategies and policies to prevent and counter violent extremism (P/CVE), but there is no strategy or policy developed to address the long-lasting harm and impact of extremism on individuals, families and communities.
Extremism today has become a way of thinking and outlook not only in the countries which have been directly affected by acts of violent extremism but in countries that have not experienced it directly. In my opinion, extremism is an attitude and it becomes part of one’s belief system when it is not checked, condemned and disapproved by family, the larger community and the state itself.
This tendency permeates into institutions, organisations, families and the wider community and has devastating impact on the social harmony and unity of the society. I conducted training with students of Abdul Wali Kahn University Mardan, Pakistan, who had witnessed the lynching of Mashal Khan by a mob of students. I asked if they regretted not doing something to save him at the time. To my surprise, they all responded negatively. I realised that this extremist tendency among educated young people is more dangerous than violence itself. It is an invisible outcome of living within an environment of violent extremism for years.
In the context of Pakistan, the extremist movements and tendencies have found succor in the minds and hearts of the people and majority of them have internalised extremism as a normal way of life.
The greatest impact of such a societal attitude is the transformation of a tolerant, accommodative and pluralistic society into an intolerant and exclusionist one. The intolerance of ordinary citizens matters because it impacts the socio-political sphere of the society. Due to prevalent religious, ethnic and sectarian intolerance, people have less heterogeneous peer groups, they are more critical of others’ behaviour and faith, and they do not feel free to express themselves because of the fear of negative consequences. This mass religious, ethnic, sectarian and political intolerance has resulted in a culture of conformity that constrains individual rights and liberty in many important ways. At the same time, cultural intolerance has divided once united communities on the narrow lines of sectarianism, religion, ethnicity and language. Communities that have been living together peaceably, sharing religious and cultural festivals and supporting each other in time of sorrow and joy, now live under the shadow of doubt and suspicion of each other.
Massive displacement of people from their area of origin to other places, as a result of incidents of extremism, is changing the fabric of society, not only in Pakistan but elsewhere, and it is undermining traditional coexistence. This is compounded by an education crisis that is affecting millions of children and young people. An entire generation is at risk of unemployment and social exclusion.
The most harmful and usually unrecognised impact of extremism is at the psychological level. People who have been living in an uncertain situation due to the regular occurrence of violent extremism, develop fear of everything and internalise trauma. This can lead to a metamorphosis of the psyche, mental decomposition and loss of confidence in oneself and others. In Pakistan, young students became so fearful after the attacks on the school that many of them stopped leaving their homes for sports and other social gatherings. This constant exposure to fear also has a negative effect on children’s motor and psychosocial development. Research has highlighted the role of a ‘building block effect’. Traumatic experiences build upon each other and cumulatively increase the chance of developing PTSD and depression.
The economic impact of extremism is the closure of many businesses in the affected areas. This results in an increase in poverty, unemployment and various types of crimes. Extremism also has a devastating impact on women’s mobility, social protection and services. Many women are left as heads of households and a significant number as widows. Displacement has rendered many women homeless and more vulnerable to exploitation. The loss of loved ones also has a psychological and social impact on these women. However, due to gender norms and in their interplay with local contexts, young women face greater isolation as their mobility in many places have been restricted, affecting their access to education and employment opportunities.
Globally, the intolerance toward minority groups is on the rise in many countries and there is growing insecurity and fear among them. Unfortunately, Muslims make up the majority of victims of hate crimes, threats, attacks on places of worship and forced conversion, particularly in India and China. In many cases, the reluctance of the state to condemn the attacks on a minority group is also reflected in more stringent laws that discriminate against religious minorities. Deep hatred, some of which previously healed through dialogue and reconciliation, and which permitted distinct ethnic and religious groups to live together in peace and cooperation, has surfaced in social behavior and political movements across the globe. The ban on headscarves and the rejection of Islamic education and building of Mosques in Western Europe is the result of such tendencies, where the government and communities had no previous objection to it.
Among all these negative developments as a result of extremism, there have been some positive changes. In Pakistan, some communities have developed a strong resilience against the ideology of hate, suspicion and exclusion. They have formed effective community structures and mechanisms to create social cohesion, inter-faith and intra-faith harmony. Education institutions have introduced the Inclusive Peace Curriculum to teach the value of tolerance, pluralism and peaceful coexistence.
Another positive outcome is that communities have recognised the importance of women’s role in preventing violent extremism and community peacebuilding. Some national-level civil society organisations have built the leadership capacity of women to resolve and mediate local conflict, de-mobilise extremist young people and hold interfaith and intra-faith dialogue.
Some of the recommendations for policymakers in this context should be that states honour their obligations under international human rights law to fight any discrimination and take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in all fields of civil, economic, political, social and cultural life. Legislation protecting the rights of all religious communities should be adopted and implemented with the full commitment of police, judiciary and other actors.
In the face of the bleak global landscape of growing persecution and restrictions on religious freedom, it is imperative to hold interfaith dialogue and forge alliances within and between religious groups that can become a formidable force in coping with existing persecution and preventing it in the future.
States should also work to institutionalise inclusive peace education as a long-term remedy and integrate diversity into education, so that our young people consider the racial, religious, ethnic, sectarian and cultural diversity of their societies an important part of their national heritage. More broadly, there is need for a greater understanding of the invisible and unrecognised impact of extremism on individuals and communities, looking beyond physical violence.
Read the Full Collection
Beyond Violence: The Impact of Extremism on Communities