The South Asia Channel

Out-recruiting Pakistan’s extremists

This is part four of a series contributed by WORDE researchers, as they traveled through 35 cities and villages in Pakistan – from FATA to interior Sindh – to understand how civil society is countering extremism. In a moderate madrassa on the border of Pakistan’s rugged Khyber Agency, an imam demonstrated a new computer program ...

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

This is part four of a series contributed by WORDE researchers, as they traveled through 35 cities and villages in Pakistan – from FATA to interior Sindh – to understand how civil society is countering extremism.

In a moderate madrassa on the border of Pakistan’s rugged Khyber Agency, an imam demonstrated a new computer program to teach religious studies. This CD-ROM has been distributed to madrassas across Pakistan by a foreign source to promote radical Salafi ideologies that are linked to militant organizations. Crouching over one of the five PCs in his computer lab, the imam opened the program to show us how extremists are trying to infiltrate moderate institutions. The first e-lesson he selected instructed students to hate those who did not conform to strict Salafi belief system.

Elsewhere, in major universities across Pakistan’s bustling cities, extremists are winning recruits by embedding Islamist narratives into their lectures. A professor in Lahore explained how she witnessed several students attend such lectures and change their behavior overnight. "The first sign of radicalization was in their dress code," she explained. "Within weeks they assumed the role of moral police for the student body and began advocating for Taliban-style Shariah law."

Facing increasing unemployment and political disillusionment, youth are by far the most important demographic for Taliban recruiters. This is a particularly disturbing trend considering that an estimated 102 million Pakistanis, or 59% of the population, are under the age of 24. Without outlets to channel their energy, this age bracket can easily become Pakistan’s most lethal powder keg.

To stem youth radicalization in Pakistan, both secular schools and moderate madrassas have had to seek innovative solutions. In July 2009, a youth NGO called Barghad hosted the "All Pakistan Student Leaders Conference" to address how students can openly challenge extremist influence on college campuses. Remarkably, even in the frontier provinces, the epicenter of the conflict, students are turning out in high numbers to promote peace. In 2010, when the Sustainable Peace and Development Organization (SPADO) held a "Peace Walk" to protest gun violence at Peshawar University, 500 students participated. Building off such initiatives, the Young Parliamentarian caucus in the National Assembly is organizing a series of college debates to engage students on sensitive issues such as terrorism. The caucus is led by Member of the National Assembly Dr. Donya Aziz, whose bill criminalizing violence against women was recently passed with the support of religious scholars.

Minhaj ul Quran, one of Pakistan’s largest religious school networks, created the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum to promote a tolerant worldview. Each year, Minhaj’s Muslim students celebrate Christmas with Lahore’s Christian community. Many madrassas also encourage students to participate in anti-terror rallies. After Lahore’s landmark Sufi shrine, Data Darbar, was bombed in 2010, students at the nearby Jamia Nizamia Rizvia participated in demonstrations denouncing all forms of terrorism. Dr. Raghib Naeemi, the son of Dr. Sarfraz Naeemi, who was murdered by extremists for speaking out against the Taliban, told us that he gave his students a day off to participate in "Save Pakistan" rallies.

According to Reza Shah Khan, the Executive Director of SPADO, "Many Pakistani youth have immense potential to lead counter-extremism programs because they have high skill sets on par with students in the West. The challenge is that they lack the platforms to achieve and utilize their potential." To address this, SPADO created the "Youth for Peace Network" which involves thousands of young Pakistanis in participating in peacebuilding programs and public awareness campaigns. Other civil society leaders and activists are training youth in civic engagement and in organizing peace initiatives.

At Bahria University in Islamabad, we met with Professor Ali Jafari, who pioneered a course on leadership and social responsibility. Every semester he challenges students to hit the streets and create sustainable community development projects in at-risk areas, from building schools to creating job opportunities. Students use video-logs to document "before-and-after changes" in the communities.

National crises — natural and manmade — have also been an impetus for mobilizing youth. After the constitution was suspended in 2007, pro-democracy youth movements came together to form the urban activist network, Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA). Today PYA organizes rallies and peace vigils, and gets students to roll up their sleeves to participate in humanitarian relief. Last August, PYA arranged a street theater performance in the Swat valley at a notorious street corner where the Taliban would hang corpses when they controlled the area. The performance was designed to encourage youth to speak out against extremist ideologies.

Meanwhile, in the deserts of Sindh Province, we spoke with young women activists who are part of the NGO network Web For Human Development. We met in their office in Makli, minutes away from the world’s largest ancient necropolis, with miles of magnificent sandstone monuments. Here, young activists provide rural schools with workshops on Government 101, human rights, and peace building.

Youth across Pakistan are applying these types of skills, using the media, blogosphere, arts, and public rallies to challenge jihadism and extremist world views.

Pakistan’s new media is rapidly becoming a space to mainstream controversial issues from terrorism to homosexuality and there are concerted efforts to bring youth into these discourses.  Nationwide, the Open Minds Project trains students in dozens of schools and madrassas in journalism and conflict reporting. Their students have appeared on national news shows. In the frontier regions, the Center for Research and Security Studies invites students to share their stories of conflict affected areas on radio stations broadcasting in Kohat, Abbottabad, and Peshawar.

Taking examples from the Arab Spring, Pakistani youth are also using social media forums such as Twitter and Facebook to promote peace initiatives. Online petitions like http://www.amanittehad.com, which has over 15,000 signatories, urge Pakistanis to foster pluralism. Similarly, Facebook pages like "A call to youth to bring peace in Karachi" mobilized students from major universities in the city to participate in a march against targeted killings in August 2011 when political violence was at its height.

According to Dean Salima Hashmi at Beaconhouse National University, art is another powerful medium for countering extremism. She took her class to the streets of Lahore, to disseminate messages of peace through chalk art graffiti. Other students developed slogans and designed tee-shirts. "For many," Dr. Hashmi explained, "this was the first time they got involved in public activism."  Art has also been used by NGOs like Pakistan Rising to rehabilitate youth affected by the war in Swat after the Taliban offensive ended last year. Even the government has recognized art as a powerful tool. Last August, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called upon leading Pakistani artists for a "Dialogue with the Prime Minister" to help build a national counter-extremism strategy.

On national television, the show Coke Studio has captivated Pakistan by introducing a new mechanism for peace-promotion. We met with the lead singer of the women’s rock band "Zeb and Haniya" who described that every week on prime-time TV, Pakistan’s top musicians perform new music on themes such as tolerance and diversity. Additionally, by combining pop music with traditional poetry, there has been a resurgence of interest amongst youth in Sufi culture, which has championed these values for over a millennium.

While these programs provide great models, they need to be expanded and integrated in order to successfully push back against the tide of radicalization.  In particular, universities, moderate madrassas and civil society organizations should network and pool their human capital. Additionally, the Government of Pakistan should be brought on to generate public service initiatives for the youth.

Naturally, one of the biggest obstacles is funding. There are very few financial resources within Pakistan for non-profits, and most NGOs lack the institutional capacity to tap into international sources. For Pakistan’s next generation to coordinate a country-wide movement against extremism, youth require substantial training in capacity building, social mobilization, and leadership development. Fortunately, there is an immense opportunity for international organizations and private institutions to partner with Pakistani organizations to provide this training. At the end of the day, this collaboration at the civil society level can help rebuild trust between the US and Pakistan at this critical juncture.

Waleed Ziad and Mehreen Farooq are leading a project to analyze the role of Pakistan’s civil society in countering extremism for the Washington DC-based World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE).

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