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Rehab for the radicalised

Published Jul 09, 2011 12:35pm


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Pakistani youths, who worked under Taliban attends a class at the army-run de-radicalisation centre of Mishal School in Barikot tehsil of Swat valley on July 5, 2011. – AFP Photo

MINGORA: At the rehabilitation center for former militants in Pakistan's Swat valley, the psychiatrist speaks for the young man sitting opposite him in silence. "It was terrible. He was unable to escape. The fear is so strong. Still the fear is so strong."

Hundreds of miles away in Lahore, capital of Punjab province, a retired army officer recalls another young man who attacked him while he prayed - his "absolutely expressionless face" as he crouched down robot-like to reload his gun.

Both youths had been sucked into an increasingly fierce campaign of gun and bomb attacks by Islamist militants on military and civilian targets across Pakistan.

But there the similarity stops.

One is now being "de-radicalised" in the rehabilitation center in Swat, the northern region which only two years ago was overrun by the Pakistani Taliban and has since been cleared after a massive military operation.

He will be taught that Islam does not permit violence against the state and that suicide bombing is "haram" or forbidden.

The other had attacked the minority Ahmadi sect, declared non-Muslim by the state and subject to frequent attacks in Punjab, where many of them live.

Though he was arrested after being overpowered by the retired army officer, survivors said many of their neighbors celebrated his act of violence with the distribution of sweets.

The different responses to the two are symptomatic of Pakistan's compartmentalised approach on counter-terrorism and counter-extremism.

In some parts of the country - like Swat - violent Islamists are crushed and their beliefs confronted.

In others - like Punjab, the heartland province far more important to the stability of Pakistan than the more talked-about tribal areas bordering Afghanistan - they are tolerated while their ideology of religious extremism flourishes.

Swat is the Pakistan army's success story. After Taliban militants imposed a brutal regime of beheadings and killings, the army sent in troops to clear them out and restore order.

This week it held an international seminar on de-radicalisation in the main town Mingora and organised tours of its rehabilitation centers to demonstrate its commitment to fighting terrorism.

The turbaned men who brought fear to Swat have been replaced by boys playing cricket in the cool before dusk; women are back out in the streets, some even showing their faces under casually draped headscarves, peace is enforced by a heavy military presence.

Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani - a man whose position in Pakistan was demonstrated by the alacrity at which the audience at the seminar rose to its feet when he entered the hall - insisted in a rare public speech on the need to fight the "political, psychological or religious" trends which lead to radicalism.

At the rehabilitation center, a large brick building with high walls and barbed wire set between craggy grassy hills in the Swat countryside, an officer explained that several hundred prisoners had been selected for "the removal of radical thoughts."

The young man sitting with the psychiatrist - he cannot be named for his own safety - was a construction worker who ended up with the Taliban and is now being counseled in the hope he can return to a normal life. He still suffers from post-traumatic stress from the violence he witnessed.

In another rehabilitation center, this one for juveniles aged 12-17, boys dressed in green and white striped shirts, brown trousers and black shoes are given classes about Pakistan.

The setting is softer here - the boys have neat bunk beds with covers of blue floral print on pale brown, a living room with television and table tennis, a computer room, a small library including a collection of English-language novels.

Some of them were used by the Taliban for menial chores - you have to rise one step up the hierarchy to become a suicide bomber, to be injected with drugs and dispatched to kill.

The Swat story has less gentle sides - in the thousands of hard-core prisoners who visitors are not taken to see, in reports, denied by the army, of extra-judicial executions.

Local people say they fear that the Taliban might yet return to an area mired in poverty and hit anew by devastating floods last year. But at least in terms of trend, Swat is a success.

Permissive Culture of Violence

Punjab, having never known the extreme violence seen in Swat and with nothing to shock it into action, is going in the opposite direction.

Last year, more than 80 people were killed in Lahore at two mosques of the Ahmadi sect. The retired military officer - he too did not want to be named - and others who survived speak of neighbors distributing sweets in the streets of Lahore.

Only a few -- mainly in the liberal English media -- spoke out strongly to condemn the attacks.

This year Punjab's provincial governor Salman Taseer was assassinated at a cosmopolitan shopping center in Islamabad for questioning the country's blasphemy laws - legal provisions often used to justify violence against Ahmadis and other minorities. His murderer was celebrated as a hero.

The same Pakistani state which is challenging radicalism in Swat has been unable to respond to a similar ideology in Punjab - for the country's divided politicians, the religious right is a powerful force to be either courted or avoided as an enemy.

Western diplomats and many Pakistani analysts often express concern about a society which is becoming more permissive about settling religious and political differences through violence, and about a state which is unable to impose the rule of law even in its sleepy capital Islamabad.

Punjab-based militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed by India and the United States for the November 2008 attack on Mumbai which killed 166 people, are banned but have yet to be disarmed and dismantled.

The army says it does not want to tackle all militant groups at once for fear of driving them into a dangerous coalition, or splintering them into fragments it can no longer contain.

But since these groups were once nurtured by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to fight India, many suspect the army of deliberately retaining these groups as insurance against Pakistan's bigger neighbor, a charge it denies.

The result is widespread confusion in the public about exactly what the state and the army are trying to achieve on counter-terrorism and counter-extremism.

"I was quite mystified to note," wrote columnist Kamran Shafi in Dawn newspaper, "that the very army that considers the militants its strategic assets is de-programming young terrorists programmed by its own assets in the first place. How does this work, please?"

Shadows From Swat

At the seminar on de-radicalisation, participants reeled off a list of reforms that needed to happen in Swat - prison and judicial reform, economic development, and education.

Many of these factors could be applied to the whole country. Yet at the seminar, nobody explained how the programme of de-radicalisation begun in Swat was meant to be replicated in a much more complex and larger place like Punjab.

Nobody asked how a confused and divided people were meant to distinguish between Pakistan's experience of Islam, politicised by the army as a unifying force, and subsequently by both the religious right and the Taliban to varying degrees.

Kayani promised the army was committed to taking "stern action against all terrorist groups" and called for the people of the country to rally behind the military.

"Pakistan Army being a national army, derives its strength from the people of Pakistan and is answerable to the people and their representatives in the parliament," he said.

Nobody questioned that either. The seminar was concluded by an officer who spoke of unanimous consensus in how right the military's approach to de-radicalisation was.

Comments (10) Closed

greg Jul 09, 2011 07:21pm
"He will be taught that Islam does not permit violence against the state" How about teaching him that Islam does not permit violence against anyone. Then, maybe, we can make some progress.
paatchu Jul 09, 2011 08:32pm
A Good Army is the one who identifies who the real enemy is!!...There i think Pakistan Army failed..They think still India is the enemy..But they are unaware of the new enemy of the state... INDIA is no more under INDIRA GANDHI, it's under more wise more educated men at SOUTH BLOCK of DELHI.
Mazhar Hussain Jul 10, 2011 05:48am
Well done pakistan Army, I wish religious leaders and maulvies (of all sects) should be mature enough mentally and take responsibility of guiding youth in right direction. Most of the terrorism in Islamic world came from religious leaders (Mullahs) and they have broken our society into pieces based on their hatred literature and sermons. South Punjab could be more dangerous if not handle properly in time, Sipah Sahaba, lashkareJhangvee like organizations should be rehabilitated or crushed.
mehmoona Jul 10, 2011 06:05am
this is indeed a bold ,thoughtful ,far thinking and courageous step and preferrably we would like to see the names of the officers who initiated it get the credit not just Gen Kayani
Absar Jul 10, 2011 06:12am
abbas kd Jul 10, 2011 10:53am
So glad & feel so proud to know that in Pakistan, there are people & organisations who truely cares about their youth who have been radicalized by the criminal minded extremists. Rehebilitating these youth the best, humane & civilized way of dealing with this issue instead of just keep killing our own people by letting Americans to slaughter our people by drone attacks. I solute the courage & efforts of those who are devoting their resources to educate & help these young Pakistanis & give them their normal lives back.
Iftikhar Husain Jul 10, 2011 04:09pm
We are very proud of our armed forces and the way they are fighting the menace of terrorism they deserve all the praise and thanks. May Allah bless the armed forces of Pakistan.
Jey Jul 10, 2011 06:14pm
Very good.... Really a good news for pakistan and indians like me... hope this continues to all parts of pakistan... Atleast our next generation will live without the fear of each other.... Please dont bash me as am an indian... Thanks in advance...
Agha Ata Jul 10, 2011 07:07pm
Very little is being done, and very late. I would suggest the army should send its teachers (several times a week) to give lessons in all madresshas in that area.
Farooq Jul 11, 2011 02:00pm
it has been an excellent initiative on part of the army; and should be replicated like someone has suggested in other parts of the country by the government, not the army. with this changing environments, US leaving the resource wells of TTP would dry out soon after. if it is not done now, we would be late in timeframe