In Pakistan, despite the myth-making surrounding fundamentalism, the country is yet to develop a counternarrative to the anti-Western and pro-extremism agenda of militants. Following General Ziaul Haq’s rule and Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan jihad, we are yet to turn the page on radicalism. Some accuse the madrassa culture for this, which has become a symbol of challenging the state through a parallel support system in the absence of robust national infrastructure. Others hint at the economic chasm between the haves and the have-nots, which is exploited by militants.
In such a context, the army introduced Sabawoon in 2009, an institution located in Mingora, Swat, which aims to deradicalise juvenile militants between the ages of 12 and 17, in order to rehabilitate them as productive members of society. A key objective here was to assist the millions who were displaced during the army’s operation that attempted to expel the Taliban from Swat in 2009. Sabawoon’s underlying philosophy is to provide young people with a new chance at life. During Operation Rah-e-Rast, several juvenile militants were apprehended or surrendered. They have been provided with education, vocational training and psychological counselling, as well as courses in ethics, patriotism and religious instruction. Once these individuals complete their training, they are absorbed into relevant occupations.
Sabawoon’s most challenging task is to enable these young people to ‘unlearn’ what they have been taught about religion during their militancy training. Being captured at a young age by militants makes them sceptical to accepting an entirely contradictory doctrine at a later stage. The second measure of success for the centre is following up on graduates and ensuring that they do not revert to their previous lives. Sabawoon’s emphasis on imparting a secular curriculum geared towards harnessing professional skills, in addition to providing religious knowledge is praiseworthy. Being a first-of-its-kind endeavour to combat the menace of extremism, it provides a unique kind of intervention for young potential suicide bombers. Through vocational training, it seeks to provide alternatives to bridge the poverty trap that is earmarked as a major the cause of extremism in the country.
The question though is of scalability. In order to bring about transformation at a much wider level, it is vital to target juvenile militants across multiple geographical locations. The double-edged impact of madrassas is ubiquitous across the country, with young people systematically targeted across each province. Therefore Sabawoon, rather than representing a single institution, must begin to symbolise a paradigm shift in the way of thinking represented by Pakistan’s bureaucracy, private sector and military, through to its grass roots level organisations, when strategising counterterrorism techniques.
Secondly, when tackling root causes leading to the development of child soldiers and militants, the pitfall of ‘madrassa closure’ must be avoided, as it is likely to spark reactions among those who may view this as an anti-Islamic endeavour. Instead, both the public and private sectors must begin effectively implementing regulations for professional registration of these institutions, monitor their standards and content of curriculum and demand accountability for non-adherence. Whilst the Musharraf regime did attempt to undertake a madrassa reform plan, this was not successful.
Following in Sabawoon’s footsteps, other alternative interventions are the need of the hour. Institutionalising counterterrorism will ensure that these productive options remain available to vulnerable individuals beyond a particular regime or leader. In the lack of an effective deradicalisation framework for young militants (existing and potential), the country may witness another lost generation.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 31st, 2015.
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The author writes that Pakistan is yet to develop a counternarrative to the anti-Western and pro-extremism agenda of militants!! Very strong words, but does not explain who exactly she means or why does she wants to box certain youth.