Less than two years after the Pakistani military drew down its counterinsurgency operations in the picturesque Swat valley, Pakistan's frontier region is once again being rocked by suicide attacks and targeted killings. While the country may appear to be locked in an entrenched conflict, Pakistan's civil society could hold the key for a sustainable, peaceful future.
The World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE), a non-profit, educational organization aiming to enhance communication and understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, recently completed a year-long study to understand the capacity of Pakistan's civil society for resolving conflict within its borders. The WORDE team travelled to over 35 cities and villages — from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to interior Sindh — to interview over 100 organizations countering radical narratives and fostering social harmony.
Our research indicates that Pakistan's civil society has the capacity to promote peace and regional stability through five powerful mechanisms.
First, activists are leading bold public awareness initiatives to educate the population about the threat of radicalization. Public rallies, such as "Save Pakistan Conventions", have galvanized the population and forged unity against terrorism. In 2009, for example, conservative Muslim parties teamed up with the Christian Progressive Movement of Pakistan to hold a 25,000-man National Flag Day march in Islamabad to demonstrate national solidarity against violent extremism.
Following examples from the Arab Spring, Pakistani youth are also using new media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to promote peace — often at great personal risk. Just last month, Malala Yousufzai, a female teenage blogger and girls' education activist, was shot by militants in the Swat valley for speaking out against the Taleban.
Second, concerted efforts are under way across the country to empower youth with alternatives to militancy. For example, schools such as the Dar ul Uloom Okara in Southern Punjab organize intensive two-week seminars on Qur'anic principles of peace and conflict resolution. Others, like the Dar ul Uloom Bhera, conduct individually tailored interventions for at-risk youth that refute the idea of violence in the name of Islam. Where possible, large schools are also offering advanced courses in English, sciences, mathematics and vocational training to prepare students for professional careers after graduation.
Third, public statements are also a powerful mechanism to counter violent ideologies. Since 9/11, dozens of fatwas, or non-binding opinions by Islamic scholars, in Urdu and local languages have been issued to denounce terrorism at the theological level. Given the high number of targeted killings in Pakistan, however, many scholars are hesitant to address the issue of extremism directly. Instead, they often embed their anti-terror messages within speeches on broader social issues.
Fourth, religious scholars are organizing public lectures and debates to deconstruct radical interpretations of Islam using the Qur'an, stories of the Prophets and historical examples. In regions like southern Punjab, where robust civil society networks exist, public debates and lectures are held on a weekly basis. Those featuring prominent speakers such as Syed Arshad Kazmi are televised or posted on YouTube.
Fifth, Pakistani faith-based organizations are using their social networks to distribute humanitarian assistance to impoverished communities at risk of militancy. For example, the Jamia Subhaniyya Rizvia, a school bordering the tribal regions, recently teamed up with the military and social welfare organizations to distribute emergency kits and over 30 tons of goods to internally displaced peoples in terrorism-affected regions.
In short, there are many examples of Pakistani civil society's constructive efforts to create change, and Pakistan's future hinges on replicating and expanding these efforts across the country. However, security and a lack of funding and resources prevent activists from creating a sustained national movement.
Today, with the public outcry following the attack on Malala Yousufzai and other peace activists, the international community — especially the Pakistani diaspora — has been presented with a window of opportunity to provide training in capacity-building, technical assistance and material support to strengthen Pakistan's civil society.
Ultimately, such support can further empower Pakistanis to peacefully push back against the tide of violent extremism.