Can Cartoons Save Pakistan’s Children From Jihad?
A bold movement of progressive publishers and artists is bringing new comic book heroes to Pakistan’s at-risk children.
LAHORE, Pakistan — “How do we prevent the 5-year-old in Pakistan from becoming a radical?” U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan asked in an April interview.
Imran Azhar has a ready answer: “You make him a hero. And you redefine what it is to be a hero.” Azhar is part of a small group of Pakistani artists, activists, and entrepreneurs trying to do that through cartoons.
In Pakistan, “intolerance and extremism … [are] so deep as to be … part of the national genetic code,” the Express Tribune wrote in a May editorial about the assassination of an anti-extremist blogger and activist. Since then, the litany of bloodshed has only continued, from a hospital bombing that killed more than 70 lawyers, journalists, and others mourning the death of an assassinated judge to a seemingly endless series of “honor killings,” including the murder of a controversial female social media star by her brother.
Religious intolerance. Ethnic intolerance. Socioeconomic intolerance. It is a narrative that paints a bloody path across newspapers and TV screens here on a daily basis. More than 47,000 Pakistanis have been killed in the past decade alone due to terrorism-related violence.
“What is this sickness?” asks Gauher Aftab, the co-creator of a series of comic books designed to provide a counternarrative for young people in rural areas. “It is essentially injustice and helplessness. The moment a person is born in a third-world country, they realize their life is worthless, that the social contract here does not exist.” Which leaves them prey to whomever purports to be their protector. In today’s Pakistan, those would-be heroes are all too often the soldiers of jihad.
“This kind of ideology that they’re tackling is very widespread,” says Faiza Mushtaq, the chair of the social sciences department at Karachi’s Institute of Business Administration, referring to Aftab and the other cartoon creators. “If you look at any public school textbook, even some of those textbooks [that] are taught in private schools, they’re carrying these very extremist messages without any counternarrative at all.”
A report by Islamabad’s Peace and Education Foundation that chronicled religious bias in Pakistani curricula found a host of examples of intolerance and extremist ideas. According to one sixth-grade textbook, “In the last half of the twentieth century, the Muslim world was free from Western oppression, but the West continued its conspiracies to keep Muslims disempowered so that Muslims could never become a super power of the world again,” while eighth-graders are told, “As a student though you cannot practically participate in Jihad but you can financially help in preparation of Jihad.”
As a 2014 U.N. Development Programme study reported, “no young Pakistani man or woman, school going or not, socio-economically deprived or affluent, can escape exposure to this [extremist narrative]: the narratives are public, they are loud, and they are bold.”
The various artists and producers waging this cartoon counterjihad are trying to present alternative ideas in a way that captures the imagination of Pakistan’s youth. The vehicles range from comic books to apps to full-fledged animated TV series. Topics cover the spectrum of Pakistan’s societal problems, including violence, corruption, pollution, health, discrimination, sexual harassment, and child trafficking. The storylines may be serious, but the presentation is what you might expect in any cartoon. The bad guys are buffoons, the main characters are endearing, and — as with Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner — no one ever dies.
“These kids are not born to hate. We need to catch them early,” says Azhar, who produces a series of comic books.
Burka Avenger is the poster child for the movement. The animated star of the Peabody Award-winning series is Jiya. She is a schoolteacher by day “but whenever evil is afoot” transforms into her alter ego, Burka Avenger, practicing an imaginary martial art that involves throwing pens and books at her enemies, a reference to the Taliban’s opposition to education.
“They look like ninjas,” says series creator Haroon Rashid, a Pakistani rock musician. “And I thought, ‘If the Taliban were confronted with a woman in a burka, how would they react?’ Would they say, ‘Take off the burka so we can see who you are?’”
Not everyone agrees with his choice of heroine.
“Why does she have to wear the veil? It’s very problematic,” Rafay Mahmood, the Express Tribune’s arts critic, told me. “By giving a mainstream superhero a burka and calling her the Burka Avenger, you’re actually reinforcing the very thing that you’re trying to run away from.”
Rashid says the reality is exactly the opposite. The idea is to reclaim the symbol from the extremists and to empower women. “I used to imagine that anyone who wore a burka was oppressed,” he recalls. “I would say, ‘I’m sorry, did your father make you wear this?’ And they would say, ‘No, he hates it. It’s my choice. This is my way of displaying my faith.’”
The themes of empowerment, freedom, equality, and social justice are woven through the various cartoon projects. So, too, is the importance of education. The teen heroes in Team Muhafiz, who run a detective agency in the slums of Karachi, are an equal number of women and men and include representatives of each of the major ethnic and religious sects in Pakistan. In the four issues printed so far, they have taken on the land mafia, drug gangs, polluters, and the horror of disfiguring acid attacks. The cartoon detectives insist on being paid in books, not money, underlining the value of education. The series was launched in a Karachi youth prison, where copies were distributed, underwritten by several Pakistani corporations.
“The idea is not just to show the social issues, but what the laws are and how you can protect yourself and your community,” explains Azhar, who recently returned to the country after a career in hotel management abroad.
His organization’s next project is Mein Hero/I am a Hero, a grass-roots initiative in which schoolchildren in poor areas of Karachi will be asked to create heroes and storylines modeled on themselves. “From those schools, I thought we would get bad answers because a lot of hate narratives are in those communities, but no,” Azhar says. “These are the heroes of Karachi created by the kids of Karachi. They are going to make the clothes, the costumes, and then we are going to convert them into comic books. And theater.”
Aftab says such innovative approaches are vital. “We’re going to have to shake the foundation, get them thinking, and then provide the alternative.”
Dodging a bullet
Gauher Aftab knows firsthand the dangers of extremist ideology. He was radicalized at age 12. Only a fluke stopped him from joining the jihad in Kashmir.
His Islamic studies teacher fought as a mujahideen in the Afghan war against the Soviets, and “he didn’t teach Islam — he just stood in class giving jihadi lectures.” The young Aftab was fascinated. “‘Why can’t I just take this little shortcut?’” he recalls asking himself. “‘Why do I need to study, get a job, and do all these things that are difficult? Why should I do that when I can just jump right to the end, give up my life in some sort of glorious battle, and get eternal salvation?’ It was the epitome of everything I wanted.”
As is often the case, his teacher didn’t overtly try to recruit Aftab at first, “but he inspired me toward violence.” After a year, the young boy told his teacher he wanted to join the jihad. Arrangements were made for him to board a bus to Kashmir, where he would become part of a militant group. But fate intervened. His grandmother fell ill on the day of his departure. “My parents just randomly showed up. I was in the car before I knew what happened,” he says. Aftab spent the summer reading the Quran and the hadith, the sayings and actions of the Prophet Mohammed. “None of it gave me any radical inclination; violence was not in it at all.” He had dodged a bullet. Twenty years later, he is trying to help other young Pakistanis do the same.
Paasban, one of the comic series produced by Aftab’s CFx Comics, directly takes on jihadi recruitment of young people. “Sometimes you forget you even had a choice. But you do. It’s just not always easy to know the right ones,” reads the text of one edition.
Another comic series produced by Aftab’s team, Haider, features Pakistani military heroes. It’s an attempt to recapture the martial narrative from the extremists. “We are using those martial myths, rather than using something fluffy like Care Bears, in order to redefine words like ‘jihad’ and ‘mujahid’ [fighter],” he says. “Jihad means being a protector, not an aggressor.”
“We’re giving people the moral compass with which to decide critically who gets to use this word or not. Who gets to inspire you to become a jihadi or not?” Aftab explains. “And my hope is that if we can get the kids to read this before the jihadi walks in, he’s on unstable enough ground that [young people] can make a decision and reject that person.”
That effort to instill critical thinking is at the heart of the animated short series Quaid Say Baatein (Talking to the Leader), in which the heroine, Zainab, confronts moral and ethical challenges with the help of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, known to Pakistanis as Quaid-e-Azam (the Great Leader), who comes to her in dreams. “The Quaid is never didactic; he never tells Zainab, ‘This is what you have to do. This is the solution,’” creator Daniyal Noorani explains. “He always ends a dream by saying, ‘You have to decide for yourself by taking the first step.’”
Critical thinking, Noorani says, is essential to combating extremism. “Whether it is the way you see it emerging in the U.S. through Trump or whether it’s in Pakistan with religious extremists, it stems from the person’s willingness to say, ‘You make the decisions for me. I’m not going to analyze or question [whatever] you say,’” he explains.
A musician, Noorani first came upon the idea of animated messages for Pakistani children when he was working at a biotech company in Boston. Feeling helpless about the rising violence in his homeland, he wrote a song asking, “Hey, what’s going on over here? Something’s just not right.… You haven’t answered my question: the meaning of life and why there is injustice. Where’s the God in this?” A friend did a simple animation that he posted online. It went viral. As Noorani described in a 2010 Foreign Policy article, a group of children in Pakistan saw the video and decided to re-enact it for their school play.
“To me, that validated that this is a very powerful medium that we could use to create a counternarrative,” he says. Noorani eventually came up with the idea of Quaid Say Baatein, producing 13 three-minute episodes that aired between programs on one of Pakistan’s largest broadcasters late last year. The series is also being used in classrooms, with lesson plans created by Noorani’s team.
By adopting Jinnah as Zainab’s muse, and drawing on the Pakistani founder’s actual teachings, Quaid Say Baatein was able to gain credibility beyond Pakistani liberal circles. One episode about the privileges of the corrupt elite was posted on the Facebook page of Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, the youth wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s largest Islamist political party, and received more than 4.5 million views.
I was surprised that a conservative Islamist organization, accused of links to radical splinter groups, would endorse such a project. But Farid Piracha, Jamaat-e-Islami’s deputy secretary-general, told me that Quaid Say Baatein’s message “is clear, ethical, and according to the basic teaching of Islam.”
It’s impossible to know how many would-be jihadis the cartoons have convinced to follow another path, but Quaid Say Baatein’s social media success is evidence they are at least being seen and heard in a cross section of society.
Its counterparts are also having an impact. Burka Avenger, broadcast in Urdu, is the most-watched children’s TV show in Pakistan. Four seasons of 13 half-hour episodes each have been completed. Initially airing on Geo TV, one of the leading national channels, the series was picked up by Nickelodeon Pakistan, and a deal is now in the works to extend the show to the government-run broadcaster, Pakistan TV, to reach children in the most remote rural areas who do not have access to satellite or cable television.
Quaid Say Baatein was the highest-rated animated series in the months it aired last year. Meanwhile, a basic PDF version of Aftab’s comics, made available through a Pakistani messaging app, resulted in more than 500,000 downloads.
Before distributing their comic books at schools in the rural Punjab region, Aftab and his team surveyed 250 students between the ages of 12 and 18. Sixty-six percent of them “believed that if you had a religious opinion about something, you had the right to take violent action to enforce it — the right,” he emphasizes. “They’re already radicalized; they just haven’t been recruited yet.”
But after they read the comic books, Aftab reports, the worldview among half the students began to shift. “It wasn’t that they said, ‘Our preacher is bad,’ or, ‘We’re going to become pacifists.’ They just took a critical-thinking approach.” That, to Aftab, is the key.
Turning tragedy into action
A 2014 attack on a Pakistani army school that left more than 130 children dead was a watershed moment for Pakistan. The army ramped up its offensive against extremists in the border areas and the main business capital, Karachi, which was rife with militant groups. The cartoonists, too, began pushing the envelope even further. Burka Avenger produced an episode, among the few subtitled in English for online audiences, that opens with children watching a sanitized version of the kind of recruitment video so commonly found on the web.
“Children! Are you looking for adventure? Do you want your life to be full of action?” the recruiter asks, as a jihadi carries out feats of daring. “Do you want the power to strike down your enemies?… Sign up now and become a hero like Rambo Scambo, and just like him, you too can have your name up on the great Wall of Heroes!” The children are lured into a plot to attack their own village. In the end, of course, Burka Avenger swoops in and saves them.
Quaid Say Baatein produced an episode specifically about the army school attack that was viewed almost 100,000 times on the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba Facebook page alone.
The army school massacre may have created an atmosphere in which Rashid and the others feel safer to operate, but that doesn’t mean they can let down their guard. “They have to be very careful,” Pakistan’s chief military spokesman, Gen. Asim Bajwa, told me, warning of the threat from the militants.
To House Speaker Ryan’s question of what the United States can do to prevent that 5-year old from becoming radicalized, Aftab says aside from stopping the hated drone attacks and giving money to projects like his, Americans simply can’t do much. “You have to go behind enemy lines and talk to them and get their trust. For that, you have to empathize with their problems. And it’s impossible for a Westerner to do that,” he says.
Which is precisely why the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development recently announced a Joint Strategy on Countering Violent Extremism that calls for the agencies to “build the capacity of locally influential voices across a range of engagement platforms to promote alternate visions [and] challenge violent extremist propaganda.” The cartoon projects predate that announcement, and U.S. officials won’t say whether American money is involved in funding them. But the cartoons fit perfectly within that strategy.
Meanwhile, there is talk of extending the existing projects far beyond Pakistan.Aftab’s CFXComics is in negotiations with the Norwegian government and an American international development organization about an educational cartoon aimed at Syrian refugees.
Burka Avenger has been dubbed in Hindi, Pashto, Dari, and several other languages and now airs in India and Afghanistan.
After the show won a Peabody Award in 2013, Nickelodeon expressed interest in a possible U.S. version. But when Rashid was back in Hollywood recently, “the whole mood had changed.” In the era of Donald Trump, he says, “maybe that word ‘burka’ is a little much for them.”
Photo credit: ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images