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Un-teaching extremism

January 07, 2012

The US has taken an initiative to spread the counter-extremist message across Pakistan to prevent the breeding of extremism and to deradicalise militants who were completely taken by the jihadist ideology — which is a tough battle becausePakistan is, perhaps, the only country where the state, with funding from US andSaudi Arabia, financed and trained jihadis to fight Soviet Russia and did nothing todeprogram the mujahideen after the war was over.

The one of its kind three-person unit, whose aim is to support grassroots groups and moderate religious leaders to counter extremist ideology, started operating in Pakistan last July.

Sultan Mehmood Gujar, 46, a property dealer by profession, is reported to be one of the many staunch supporters of the “holy war.” But his views changed after listening to a 40-day lecture series offering a counter narrative to jihad. Hopefully, this measure will prevent the youth from joining radical groups and deradicalise militants — if the message seeps in!

For over a decade, Pakistan has endured the wrath of extremist ideology that has successfully bred terrorism and convinced many to blow themselves up to “fight theInfidels” in foreign soil and even perish those Muslims who do not subscribe to the cause on home ground. But have the leaders done anything besides giving lip service to its people on combating violent extremism?

“Pakistan has done absolutely nothing to deradicalise the militants,” said Tariq Pervez, ex-chairman National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA). “World over, one dimension for deradicalisation is to rehabilitate those people who are in jails on terrorism charges.”

If the al Qaeda poster boy, Dr. Fadl, can take a U-turn in the jail and write a book titled “Rationalising Jihad in Egypt and the World” that shattered the extremist ideology, it gives cause to believe that rehabilitation is possible no matter how brainwashed the person is.

Saudi Arabia has been running terrorist rehabilitation programs for ex-Guantanamo detainees. And the kingdom officials claim to have 80 per cent success rate. However, they have enormous resources and are seemingly committed to make a change as well.

But in Pakistan, initiatives to counter-violent extremism pose a difficulty when the subject starts to question the legitimacy of the program. “The problem is that conspicuous support from Western governments for ‘moderate Islam’ is usually counterproductive, in that it contaminates the moderates with the stain of association with Western policies, notably support for unpopular despotic regimes, unjust financial systems, and hard-line backing for Israeli policies,” wrote Tim Winter, lecturer of Islamic Science at Cambridge University. “To accept such support is usually a kiss of death, and strengthens the hand of the radicals.”

Perhaps this is why the US is leveraging local groups and moderate religious leaders.Knowing how keen the Pakistani government is to fight terrorism, one can only rely on grassroots initiatives.

“The problem with the groups working on ground is that their efforts are not coordinated,” said Mr. Pervez. "People were systematically radicalised in GeneralMuhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s regime and a greater effort is required to deradicalise the militant psyche and to neutralise the breeding grounds."

Akbar Ahmed, author of “Journey into Islam,” rightly noted: “unless these [initiatives] are conducted on a national scale, they will only create the smallest of dents in Pakistani society.”

And that’s not it.

Militant material is readily available on social media that adds another tier to the problem. “US policy makers have focused on YouTube because videos are one of the most effective tools for radical recruiters,” wrote J.M. Berger, author of “Jihad Joe” said in an email.

“Facebook has a constantly growing body of radical material available, and there hasn’t been much focus on policing it…Over the last year, we’ve seen a surge of violence-oriented radicals using Twitter.”

With the growing difficulty to prevent radicalisation and rehabilitate militants, there is a lot more that needs to be done by parents, imams, scholars, teachers, and the entire society to promote the message of mercy and compassion.

“With the growth of new media, it is important for prominent and trusted voices to get on television, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to help counter narratives which might promote extremism,” wrote Arsalan Iftikhar, author of “Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era” He added: “Since many youth are quite impressionable, it is important to get to them at an early age.”

Imams and religious scholars, across the globe, tweet and update their Facebook statuses and fan pages regularly, often with a thought-provoking line or a religious quote, there is a dire need to counter extremist ideology on networking sites, regardless of how unpalatable it may be to the followers.

A national security analyst, speaking off the record, said that counter narratives would work when one person hears from 10,000 voices that militant ideology is unfounded and unjust.

I wish we could rely on Jon Stewart to spread the counter-extremist message, like we’re depending on him to counter Islamophobia on The Daily Show, but we really need to mobilise the entire Muslim community if we really want to counter the extremist ideology.


Fahad Faruqui is a journalist, writer and educator. Alumni Columbia University. You can email him at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.