A summit against extremism

Published: July 22, 2011
The writer is vice-president of READ (Rural Education and Area Development), which is currently piloting a cell-phone based teacher attendance system in Pakistan

The writer is vice-president of READ (Rural Education and Area Development), which is currently piloting a cell-phone based teacher attendance system in Pakistan

A white supremacist, Latino gang-banger and jihadist walk onto stage together. This may sound like the beginning of a bad joke, but this was the scene at the recent Summit Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) held in Dublin by Google’s new think/do tank, Google Ideas. At the forefront of this conference were the ‘Formers’, people who had formerly been members of extremist organisations. The goal of the conference was to gather people from diverse backgrounds and have them generate new ideas to counter extremism.

During the multiple panels that featured Formers, an underlying commonality emerged between them. Whether the Former was from a well-to-do suburb in Wisconsin or a small village in Nigeria, they all had a similar backstory; they were restless youths who lacked identity growing up and found an identity within their respective extremist groups. When I view this fact from the perspective of Pakistan, it helps explain why our country is susceptible to extremism. With 40 per cent of Pakistanis beneath the poverty line, facing a failed education system and with negligible probability of improving the quality of their life, these youths are ripe for recruitment from extremists organisations, which provide a strong identity and purpose.

The strategy of using Formers to lead the counterrorism narrative may appear to be a no-brainer, but within Pakistan one would be hard-pressed to find former extremists who speak out against extremism. The politicians here are too scared, so the onus of formulating a counter narrative has fallen upon civil society. The current narrative is being led by highly educated Pakistanis, who have difficulty engaging with people susceptible to extremism and whose words have little credibility with extremists. While I do not wish to undermine the efforts of these people, and such efforts are needed in parallel, the counter narrative against extremism must also be lead by people like Omar Fidai, the suicide bomber who survived his own attack in Dera Ghazi Khan and was immediately remorseful of his actions.

The insight that I took away from the conference was a somber one. The Formers made it clear that their journey of reformation was a long one and that it took years of personal turmoil before they realised the wrongs of their ways. This is a grim reality for Pakistan, as this means that we are in for a long, tough battle against extremism. There is no magic pill that will result in the extremists having an epiphany of their ill ways. According to the Formers, the best strategy to expedite the process of reformation is by having more people reach out to extremists and be there to support them when they abandon their extremist organisations. Currently, there is a very limited number of organisations providing rehabilitation services to extremists, hence help and support should be given to expedite their rehabilitation.

Google Idea’s SAVE proved to be a transformational experience for me. A lot of my assumptions and ideas regarding extremists were negated and I was forced to reshape my thoughts. The summit further highlighted how woefully behind the eight ball Pakistan is with regards to effectively countering extremism. One hopes that the Pakistani government will use the insights gained from this conference done by a technology company and formulate a potent counter extremist narrative and strategy. Otherwise, when you google Pakistan, you will continue to see stories of extremism at the top of your search.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 23rd, 2011.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (7)

  • Jul 22, 2011 - 11:31PM

    in addition to the formers, there was a good number of ‘survivors’ at the summit, people who have either survived an act of violent extremism, or have lost a loved one to terrorism. there were almost half a dozen people from Pakistan. the summit gave the delegates a lot of good ideas to take home, on the whole this was an excellent networking opportunity that will go a long way to foster cross cultural and social interactions.Recommend

  • Salman Arshad
    Jul 23, 2011 - 12:15AM

    The really really really frustrating conclusion that you too have derived, is that the problem is lack of “education” !!!
    Education and that too school education merely gives people a set of skills that might help them create better bombs when they become extremists. Or they might become better at promoting and convincing others of their ideology.
    If only you would face the real issue: identity.


  • R
    Jul 23, 2011 - 12:52AM

    The Formers have become formers because the society that they breed in is not rooted in false history and bigotry. So it is relatively easy for the larger society to rehab such people with their outreach and educational programs. Pakistani national narrative and ethos is steeped in history of hate towards the ‘other’ – Hindu India and supremacy of all things “Islamic”.

    India and USA are the traditional enemies no matter what, Jihadi terrorists are sent across borders as state policy, history text books are filled with enmity. The army sees itself as defending Islam, not Pakistan. All ills are blamed on ‘others’.

    Tactically how successful will the efforts be to reform the extremists is anyone’s guess when the overall climate that fosters and promotes extremism is not addressed. It has little to do with job opportunities and whole lot to do with what is taught.


  • BruteForce
    Jul 23, 2011 - 7:11AM

    Look poverty alone is not the contributing factor or the deciding factor, it is the way the Society functions. If it was so then there would be more extremists from India than anywhere else.

    The need of the hour is to Indianize Pakistan, teach its kids about its glorious History, not just the Islamic one; and get yourself a Secular Constitution.

    India has roughly the same number of Muslims that Pakistan has, but how many Indians are part of Al Qaeda, compared to Pakistan?


  • Talat Haque
    Jul 23, 2011 - 1:03PM

    It’s sure going to be a long haul ……… everyone chip in and do and say what they can to express the counter extremism argument / story ………… in the end extremism will die …….. but it will take some time / a long time


  • ap
    Jul 23, 2011 - 3:58PM


    ‘Indianize Pakistan’?

    Assuming you are a fellow Indian, why come here with provocative ideas designed to substantiate people’s assumption about Indians? All of South Asia sees us as a clumsy overbearing regional power and words like yours only validate that image.

    This newspaper with its fantastic interface is an opportunity to learn about Pakistan and engage with a modern Pakistani audience. Please reflect before responding to any article.


  • BruteForce
    Jul 23, 2011 - 5:33PM


    I am well aware what I am talking about. Maybe it would have been better if I hadn’t used that word. But, truth of the matter is, like Bangladesh has attempted, Pakistan too much rid of the ideology of 2 nation theory and rid the tag of Islam from its Constitution. Bangladesh has done that and look how much dividends it is paying. India is not perfect, but the idea of India is..


More in Opinion