For more than a decade now, a debate has raged over whether Pakistan is an ally or a foe in the battle against violent extremism. In Western media, analysis usually focuses on Pakistan’s weak civil central government, the virulently anti-Indian military or conspiracy theories about the country’s intelligence arm – the ISI.
If the conversation is limited to these three factors – then you are left to conclude that Pakistan is incapable or unwilling to address extremism. Yet, if one looks past the government and takes a closer look at what the people of Pakistan are doing, a more complex picture emerges. The truth is, a growing number of Pakistanis are initiating grassroots change, especially by pushing counter-narratives to radicalism through public education programs and campaigns throughout the country.
It is easy to see why many people concluded that waiting for the government to act was pointless. As Pakistan’s Express Tribune reports, “The 2006 Madrassa Reform Project [in Pakistan] aimed to reform 8,000 schools by integrating a balance between formal and religious education and expanding curricula to include the teaching of social and hard sciences, religious tolerance, and human rights. Only 6.3 percent of the targeted madrassas were reached. In 2008, the education ministry reported it had only spent $4 million of the allotted $100 million for madrassa reform over the past six years.”
Also, in 2013, the former Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan emphasized the need to correct the Islamized education system to combat indoctrination. Yet, there has been no change due to alleged budgetary constraints.
Into this void have flooded regular Pakistanis. Organizations such as Khudi host a variety of programs, seminars and conferences to raise awareness of issues related to human rights, including respect for tolerance in society. The group also publishes an inter-university magazine to increase communication between Pakistani youth throughout the country’s provinces. The magazine provides an opportunity for students who typically identify ethnically, linguistically and parochially with their unique communities, to get to know students of other provinces. One goal of such interraction is a reduction in sectarian violence in Pakistan, which has increased significantly in the last decade.
Other identified CSO activity by The World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE) includes the National Rural Support Programme, which improves the communication skills of local communities, so they may better identify and combat issues of extremism at a local level.
A WORDE report, “Pakistan’s Civil Society: Alternative Channels to Countering Violent Extremism,” highlights the activities of religious leaders and organizations that have played a critical role in reducing extremism in Pakistan. Imam, Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri, authored a 600-page fatwa rejecting terrorism and suicide bombing. An organization in Lahore called the Minhaj-ul-Quran encourages its religious students to celebrate Christmas with Christians in the city. Interfaith activity is a key factor in increasing respect and tolerance for non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan.
De-radicalization programs are also a necessary counter-extremism measure. Such programs represent a unique area of NGO and CSO outreach, due to the role played by the Pakistani military. Unlike the general population, arrested militants are already processed into the military/law enforcement system. As a result, this is one area where the Pakistani military has made an effort to support de-radicalization programs, such as the Sabaoon Center for Rehabilitation. The Sabaoon Center is run by the Hum Pakistani Foundation in Swat, where some of the heaviest anti-Taliban fighting has occurred over the years. Other known de-radicalization programs include Mishal, Sparley, Rastoon, Pythom, and Heila.
The Pakistani government has attempted to address extremism also, but with mixed results. After Taliban militants killed more than 100 children at the Peshawar school in December 2014, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif presented a 20-point National Action Plan (“NAP”) to address extremism in Pakistan. Unfortunately, only one point addressed education reform, which focused narrowly on registering and regulating religious schools. The remainder of the plan focused on cracking down on terrorists, including increasing the power of anti-terrorism laws, enforcement and anti-terrorism courts.
As a result, since the passage of NAP, there has been a spike in death sentences in Pakistan’s anti-terrorism courts, resulting in 139 executions between January-June of 2015 alone. This comes on the heels of the July 2014 Protection of Pakistan Act, which increased monitoring for terrorism-related activity in the country. The new legislation “grants police officers the powers to shoot and kill alleged terrorists and detain suspects for questioning for up to 60 days without charge.”
Still, with or without the active contribution from Pakistan’s central government, the push to improve education is growing. Pakistani Nobel-laureate, Malala Yousafzai recently began a campaign entitled #booksnotbullets, hoping to push governments like Pakistan to divert funds from its military to education.
Progress is being made, but sometimes only in small increments. Malala’s campaign comes on the heels of Pakistani authorities acquitting eight of the 10 Taliban members who stood accused of shooting Malala in the head and wounding other girls on a school bus. Twenty-five-year sentences were expected for all 10 defendants but a purported lack of evidence resulted in most of the attackers being acquitted.