I was introduced to Pakistan while studying in the UK. After studying about its history, meeting countless and invaluable friends who have now become family and being seduced by Pakistani cuisine, a trip to Karachi and Lahore became a priority. Over the years, I made multiple trips to Pakistan and every time I did so, I felt welcomed.
In Lahore, I discovered the ‘fun’ side of Pakistan — parties and weddings to attend, historical sites to visit and great food. But it was also in the same city that I discovered a darker side of the country. On one my trips, I met and interviewed Gauher Aftab, a 30-something-year-old visionary, who was fighting Pakistan’s major problems through comic books.
The kicker is that Aftab was a jihadi at the age of 12. “Back then it was so glamorous,” he explains. Aftab detailed the charisma of his Islamic instructor at school. “To fight the Russians in Afghanistan they would take drugs and be up for days,” reminisces Aftab.
A missed bus saved a man from being pushed into militancy. Now he writes comic books to deter
children from being lured towards extremism
He described himself as a nerdy kid who had trouble finding himself. “All I did was read — I wasn’t good at sports. My teacher preached everyday about being a ‘real’ Muslim and about jihad.”
Aftab’s teacher ‘exploited’ him every way he could. For instance, his teacher would encourage him to pay for bullets. “He explained that a rupee would help kill those who were oppressing Muslims worldwide and that I would receive blessings from Allah because of my monetary sacrifice,” the former jihadi says.
Aftab was a pre-teen at the time, 12 going on 13, so he remembered the whole thing looking like a video game formulating his identity. He would listen to his teacher who wore a flowing white shalwar kameez and had a red-dyed beard. He was slowly becoming brainwashed. Aftab, like many disenfranchised Muslim youth, in fact like marginalised youth in general worldwide, was an easy target for a gang or cult or a group that thrives on naive people to do their bidding.
Aftab was meant to give his teacher 700 rupees (roughly seven dollars) in order to catch a bus to Kashmir, write a farewell letter to his ‘sinful’ parents and journey into the darkness. After months of slow and effective manipulation, Aftab was ready to be a soldier of Islam and to fight against the injustices the world was causing his devoted peers.
Whether it was because of Kosovo or Palestine, Aftab was taken by the idea of wielding a weapon and having a purpose in his life. “I just didn’t trust my parents or my schoolmates to tell me what being a good Muslim looked like,” Aftab explains informally.
As the months drew on, he became increasingly distant from those around him only to get closer to the teachings of Islam, which he now admits he can’t find in the Quran. “You see,” says Aftab, “they simply recount Prophet Muhammad’s war efforts and manipulate the Hadith to ingrain a sort of justification for their heinous acts.”
For the first time, I began to understand the process of radicalisation. It wasn’t this idea that you were born into, sometimes it was a club you were told would help you survive whatever you were going through. Aftab felt alone and in some ways he felt existential (a rather normal thing to feel as a youthful teenager). The people who loved him didn’t understand that his piety was turning violent. No one in his family felt the same way about Islam and vengeance, but the cause was crystallising for Aftab. It seemed imperative to him that he make his life meaningful. He paid his teacher whatever money he could scrounge, he prepared for a journey he didn’t intend to come back from.
Now an adult man, I sit across from him as he smokes countless cigarettes, seemingly carrying the weight of Pakistan’s vicious cycle of violence on his shoulders. “I was lucky. My grandmother fell sick and I basically just missed that bus. My parents had also slowly caught wind that something was up.” Aftab was literally put under surveillance for months, and used the time to read and reread the particulars of the faith, only to fail to find explanations of his teacher’s beliefs.
He had intended to get on that bus which would lead to a camp where he would be trained to fight along with other boys for the great cause of Islam. However, his violent jihad ended in order to sprout a more beautiful version of itself. Aftab is now proudly pushing comic books all over Pakistan with political messaging that directly opposes the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and, of course, the so-called ISIS.
He explains that even the poorest families share cell phones with internet access nowadays. “Telecommunication has over 70 percent penetration in Pakistan, there are 120 million subscribers in Pakistan and growing,” he says. Recruitment and Islamism are accessible on all streams of media. In fact, on a ride home one night I caught snippets of a preacher on the radio calling for an uprising. Aftab explains that the only way to push back is to give an alternative space for messaging.
He realised that the menace of terrorism cannot be resolved by violence, it had to be fought with ideas. One of the most vulnerable targets of violent extremism is children who don’t have access to education. And in an attempt to protect young minds from going astray and being inclined towards radicalisation, he started the comic books project with his friends so children can gain an understanding of basic humanistic values.
The comics are varied, some cover domestic corruption while others take on Islamic extremism. “The point is to give the Muslim or Pakistani child other kids who do good to identify with.” One of the collections called Paasban (meaning ‘The Guardian’) is an assertive attempt to fight the spread of terrorism in young minds by basically taking the reader through the same steps that Aftab experienced and researched himself.
The protagonists go to the camps, have to make hard choices and have to reject violence. The process is emotional and real, and it illuminates the darkness that children are manipulated into. The vulnerability of families to sell their children off to Islamist groups who promise a beautiful life, or for the children themselves to be charmed into a lifestyle that eventually ruins theirs — radicalism has become a major opiate for the angry, disenfranchised Muslim the world over.
Aftab was recruited and manipulated face-to-face, but he realises that the problem is now online. He has distributed his stories for free on the internet, in schools around the country and is attempting to take back what jihad really means: the internal struggle to be better. “My jihad is ongoing, and these comics are a way to do good in this world,” Aftab says genuinely.
We left the conversation praying for blessings and peace upon each other — as Muslims often do — and let the Quran play above as we shared more cigarettes. I realised that Aftab was on the precipice of possibly the most effective anti-terrorism tool: by pre-empting the victimhood of a recruit, Aftab could give a chance to those who were most at-risk to look beyond a vicious cycle which is bound to ruin their life.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 25th, 2016