There is a plethora of books on extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, written by Pakistanis as well as foreigners. Post-9/11 (now almost two decades ago) the rise of militancy in Pakistan, the response of the government, the military and other security agencies, and the subsequent fallout have been the subject of many a treatise. This has, in fact, spawned an industry in scholarship on countering violent extremism (or CVE, as it is rather superficially abbreviated to), with many stakeholders in the country holding Pakistan up as a success story, and others advocating caution and emphasising that the fight is not over.

Either way, the emphasis has been on Pakistan’s security-related response and, to a lesser extent, state efforts to counter extremist mindsets. But, as the American historian Will Durant famously espoused, history is really the story of ordinary people and everyday life. How has that fared over the past two decades, when Pakistan has lurched from one security-related crisis to another? How has society responded to threats over a period of innumerable attacks on the symbols of the quotidian — schools, hospitals, markets, public transport, etc?

It is this question that Anita M. Weiss explores in Countering Violent Extremism in Pakistan: Local Actions, Local Voices — her latest book on a country with which she has a long association and strong ties (she is married to a Pakistani, and has numerous friends here in addition to family).

The book is divided into chapters in which Weiss examines resistance through poetry, music, art, religious teachings, educational efforts and communal or social activities. For each category, she interviews a number of people and cites scores of examples, many of which will be very familiar to Pakistanis. As an academic and sociologist — she is professor of International Studies at the University of Oregon — she has a keen eye.

In the chapter on poetry, titled ‘Poetry as Resistance to Violence and Extremism’, for instance, Weiss focuses on Pashto and Sindhi poetry as, according to her, this is rooted in countering subjugation and reasserts an “authentic local identity.” But does Urdu not have a tradition of resistance poetry?

An American sociologist examines indigenous Pakistani resistance to violent extremism through the arts, religious teachings and social activities

Many of us will immediately think of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib and wonder at her choice. She justifies her contention by saying that Urdu resistance poetry has not been used to mobilise “large communities.” This does not seem to be true of Jalib, who wrote in a very accessible medium and in simple language, but for Weiss, Pashto and Sindhi poetry goes beyond voicing resistance and is itself an “arena of struggle.”

She points out, for example, that Pashto poetry relentlessly upholds Pakhtunwali — the history, values and rules governing everyday lives of the Pakhtun people — and manifests resistance to the view of Pakhtuns as violent or untamed. Rather than explicitly voicing anti-imperialism, it counters the narrative on Pakhtuns by simply presenting the people as they see themselves. Similarly, she points to the syncretism in the poetry of Sachal Sarmast as an example of how Sindhi literature embodies inclusion and lends itself to the promotion of counter-extremism.

Having said that, her research on Pashto and Sindhi poetry post-9/11 is replete with fascinating examples of how local poets perceive the fissures in their societies. Her encounter with Hafiz Nizamani, a Sindhi poet who is also the pesh imam — or senior most cleric — of his village mosque, is fascinating, as the protagonist is someone who breaks almost every stereotype about the village maulvi.

The chapter ‘Music and Performance’ also raises a number of questions. Weiss is understandably impressed with Saif Samejo and his brainchild, the Lahooti Melo — a one-of-its-kind music/literary festival in Jamshoro, which has been centred on contemporary themes such as the #MeToo movement (in 2019) and climate change (in 2020). While Samejo’s sincerity is not to be doubted, the event has been extensively discussed in the national press and a lot of the coverage has not been positive.

There have been comments on how the festival relies too heavily on participants from Karachi rather than from interior Sindh (the region whose culture it is supposed to highlight) and on how (mostly male) participants at the #MeToo-themed festival continued to indulge in harassment of the few female attendees, while festival organisers were given to fundamental oversights, such as not positioning women at a helpdesk for sexual harassment, etc.

But Weiss doesn’t seem to have asked Samejo the difficult questions. Similarly, when Taimur Rahman of Laal — a music band known for its socialist songs — tells her that they have not received the sort of media coverage they would like, she doesn’t really follow up to find out why Laal has not managed to make a mark in the mainstream music business, and has largely been limited to live performances at small private schools.

Is it because the band is not keen on corporate sponsorship, or because its music is not catchy enough, or because young people don’t ‘get’ the lyrics? Having said that, this chapter is one of the more interesting ones for the plethora of examples that Weiss quotes, from resistance theatre by Ajoka, to Sheema Kermani’s famous dhamaal on the anniversary of the bombing of Lal Shahbaz Qalander’s tomb. For all that music, dance and theatre have gone through during long periods of neglect in Pakistan, specifically in the 1980s, they are still a medium of resistance and a popular means of expressing dissent.

While it is not possible to discuss each chapter in this review, one’s overall reaction to this research is that it’s a painstaking collection of a range of events that have taken place over a decade or more. Many of these events and activities are well known here in this country. Most of the people mentioned are public figures, many with substantial followings. But bringing these stories together really serves to highlight how so many sectors of society have reacted to the growing intolerance around us.

While each individual experience or story may have had a small impact, perhaps over a limited time period or in a contained area, it all adds up to a consistent effort to counter the extremist narrative, little by little, bit by bit. Many of us who have lived through this difficult time have had our moments of despair. But this book brings together so many of the lamps that were lit to dispel the darkness, that one’s faith in humanity is restored.

The reviewer is a researcher and policy analyst

Countering Violent Extremism in Pakistan: Local Actions, Local Voices
By Anita M. Weiss
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9697340149
312pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 21st, 2021

Opinion

Editorial

UNGA speech
25 Sep, 2022

UNGA speech

CRISES test a nation’s resilience but also provide opportunities to rise and move forward. Prime Minister Shehbaz...
Dar’s return
Updated 25 Sep, 2022

Dar’s return

Dar will now be expected by his party to conjure up fiscal space for the govt to start spending ahead of the next elections.
Iran hijab protests
25 Sep, 2022

Iran hijab protests

FOR over a week now, Iran has been witnessing considerable tumult after a young woman died earlier this month in the...
Post-flood economy
Updated 24 Sep, 2022

Post-flood economy

WITH a third of the country — especially Sindh and Balochistan — under water, over 33m people displaced, and...
Panadol shortage
24 Sep, 2022

Panadol shortage

FROM headaches to fever to bodily pain — paracetamol is used ubiquitously in Pakistan as the go-to remedy for most...
Star-struck cops
24 Sep, 2022

Star-struck cops

IN this age of selfies and social media, it is easy to get carried away in the presence of famous people, even if ...