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.