Pakistan’s Most Powerful Weapon

By Specialists Waleed Ziad and Mehreen Farooq
Foreign Policy Magazine: Af Pak Channel
, October 21, 2011

This is the second installment in a series contributed by researchers from the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE) as they traveled throughout Pakistan to explore how civil society is countering extremism at the grassroots level.

In a pristine, remote valley in Kashmir, far from the theaters of war, some families are abandoning their religious and cultural traditions in favor of extremist ideologies. The trend began after the 2005 earthquake, when several Islamist organizations – notably Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD) – came to the forefront, providing food, shelter and health supplies to devastated communities. A village elder lamented, “Many of us were impressed by their sophisticated ambulance services, and families willingly joined in their relief efforts.” Most of these families had no idea that JuD was in fact a front for the banned militant organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Pakistanis, particularly in such remote areas, require tools to recognize extremist ideologies and terrorist organizations so that they can create counter-movements within their own communities. We travelled throughout Northern Punjab and the Hazara region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to learn how certain grassroots organizations have designed effective awareness campaigns within a religious paradigm that are palatable even to the at-risk population.

We began with the leaders of Pakistan’s moderate religious networks. Since 9/11, dozens of religious scholars have issued public statements and fatwas against terrorism.  Dr. Raghib Naeemi — son of Dr. Sarfraz Naeemi who was killed in 2009 after he publically denounced terrorist activities as un-Islamic — appears regularly on TV to promote peace and social cohesion.

Traditional Muslim networks have organized nation-wide anti-Taliban public rallies from “Save Pakistan” to “Ulema and Mashaikh” conventions, bringing together religious scholars and community leaders. Last November, a “Long March” was organized from Islamabad to Lahore to protest the increasing number of suicide attacks on Pakistan’s cultural and spiritual landmarks. Over 20 major shrines across Pakistan were bombed last year alone. One of the core organizers of the Long March explained, “As we proceeded, the participation grew by the thousands, and in every city, we gave speeches and handed out fliers teaching people how to recognize extremism.”

Religious leaders have also developed rapid response mechanisms to denounce terrorism following major suicide attacks. Last year when the soup kitchen at the shrine of Lahore’s patron saint was bombed, the imam Mufti Mohammad Sialvi invited the media and mobilized leaders from different mosques to condemn terrorism. When we visited the shrine a year later, we found that students groups had maintained the campaign with freshly painted banners.

To form a stronger unified voice against the Taliban, religious scholars have also created a number of new NGOs. In the rural outskirts of Rawalpindi, Pir Mudassir Shah, a dynamic young leader versed in 14 languages, established the think tank Center for Innovative Research, Collaboration and Learning (CIRCLe). Pir Mudassir was a prominent organizer in a 25,000 man National Flag Day march to demonstrate support for the military counterinsurgency operations in the Swat Valley. The march brought together various elements of civil society, from conservative Muslim groups to the Christian Progressive Movement of Pakistan. CIRCLe will soon launch a poster campaign, for which they are seeking international support. One of the posters features a girl crying with a caption: “The Taliban Took my Father.”

Schools are another critical channel through which Pakistanis generate awareness. Our journey took us to Bhera, an ancient village known for its classic Mughal mosques, Hindu temples, and carved wooden balconies. Deep in the heart of Punjab, Bhera’s Dar ul-Uloom Muhammadia Ghousia is the hub of a network of educational and social welfare institutions providing free education grounded in the Sufi ethos to over 25,000 women and men. Pir Amin al-Hasanat, who leads the school, explained, “We teach all of our students that it is not their duty to fight jihad, but to look after the wellbeing of their community – regardless of one’s faith or ethnicity.” Just last year, the school and its affiliate philanthropic and social welfare organizations distributed hundreds of hygiene kits, established medical facilities for over 7,000 people and rebuilt homes for flood victims. They targeted remote areas at risk of falling under the influence of radical groups who use relief as a means to win recruits.

We encountered other successful models. The Pak Turk International School system has campuses throughout Pakistan, including volatile regions like Quetta and Peshawar. Their teachers challenge radical narratives by providing students and their families the necessary tools for interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding, which allow them to deconstruct the tribal, cultural, and religious stereotypes that feed militancy. Successful counter radicalization, we were told, is not taught in a specific class or manual but rather by example. In the Pak Turk schools, teachers are available at all times for guidance, and visit students in their homes. Through these civil society efforts, Pakistanis are becoming aware of the dangers of violent extremism. According to recent public opinion polls, a greater number of Pakistanis have a negative view of al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban than before. “At first people were hesitant to speak out against the Taliban,” explained Pir Mudassir Shah, “but now they are becoming more comfortable challenging extremism because the issue is mainstreamed.” Today, while barriers and police checkpoints can be seen lining the streets of Pakistan’s capital, and the army mobilizes in the tribal belt, a parallel war is being waged in Pakistan’s heartland by local communities.

In one instance in rural Abbottabad, not far from the compound in which slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was living,  a group of radical mullahs offered to build a mosque on the condition that the clerics could provide their own teachers. Not long after, families were alarmed to see that their children were being radicalized in classes taught at the new mosque. When parents learned that their children were being taught that “J” stands for “jihad” and “K” for “kalashnikov” the community held the mosque under siege until the mullahs were forced out.

150 miles south, in a village near Bhera, a father learned that his son was being brainwashed by a fundamentalist community member to believe that he would enter paradise if he became a suicide bomber. The father, supported by the Dar ul-Uloom community, rescued the children by publically exposing the radical mullah. He challenged the mullah: “After sending my child to paradise, why don’t you send your own son to join him so that mine won’t be lonely?”

Even some segments of the population that had been involved in militancy are now condemning extremism. Irfan, a former “toll collector” for a militant outfit along the Pakistan-Afghanistan Durand Line explained, “After the Taliban bombed the shrine of the Rahman Baba, the great Pashtun poet-saint, I realized that militants are destroying our country.” Now as a taxi driver, Irfan makes it a point to lambast the Taliban in conversations with all of his passengers.

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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