Countering extremism through civil society

Besides capacity & management problems, its difficult to mobilise diverse groups that constitute the moderate majority

Syed Mohammad Ali June 25, 2015
The writer is author of the book Development, Poverty and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

While the US has exhausted its military commitment in the war against terror, the threat of violent extremism has not yet abated.  In the attempt to further neutralise this threat, US policymakers continue mulling over possibilities to use means other than military might to address the problem. Countries like our own, which have also faced the brunt of the so-called war against terror, are also hard pressed to find workable solutions to this lingering threat of terror.

Within this context, the US-based Brookings Institute released a paper earlier this year aiming to identify means for the international community to support civil society initiatives in a country like Pakistan, to counter violent extremism.

Civil society is fairly robust in Pakistan. There are an estimated over 100,000 civil society organisations in the country. A majority of such organisations include NGOs working on an array of socio-economic development issues, as well as media and other professional networks. There are, however, also important faith-based civil society networks, which not only run mosques and madrasas, but also undertake different community-based initiatives ranging from the provision of free food or basic health care, to political activism and operating publishing houses.

While some faith-based networks do espouse extremist or sectarian views, there are also others which condemn sectarianism and extremist violence, and re working instead to promote social cohesion. The Brookings Institute also recognized the significance of the latter faith-based organisations, given their ability to erode the credibility of extremist groups by challenging their narratives within a culturally and religiously appropriate framework. For instance, the Darul Uloom Ashraf al-Madaris in Okara has been organising seminars on Islam’s emphasis on peace and conflict resolution. Traditional Islamic organizations from across the nation came together at the time of the Taliban insurgency in Swat in 2009 to organize the Istehkam-e Pakistan (Strengthening Pakistan) Conference.  Individual religious personalities have also issued dozens of anti-terror fatwas, including political aspirants like Tahirul Qadri. The prominent Islamic scholar Jawaid Ghamdi has also provided valuable insights to create a counter narrative to violent extremism.

Other civil society organisations, including NGOs and peace and political activists, have also participated in organising anti-terror campaigns, public rallies, demonstrations, and conferences to mobilise various segments of the population against violent extremism. Such efforts include the anti-extremism campaign launched by Jibran Nasir and the efforts of another youth activist who has tried countering radical narratives by painting messages promoting peace on rickshaws. Think tanks such as the Jinnah Institute also continue conducting research aiming to counter violent extremism.

These efforts are collectively described as having galvanised the population and forged a consensus against extremism, without which it would have been difficult for the military to take decisive action against the Taliban. Yet Pakistan’s civil society continues to face many challenges in contending with the menace of extremism. Besides capacity and management problems, it is difficult to mobilise the diverse groups that constitute the moderate majority due to poor collaboration between faith-based organisations and their secular counterparts. Elite run civil society organisations, which readily obtain foreign funding, find it difficult to gain legitimacy since they are suspected of being co-opted by a western agenda. On the other hand, grassroots and traditional faith-based organisations, which often have far greater outreach and legitimacy in at-risk areas, remain ignored by the international community.

The Brookings Institute provides a broader set of recommendations for the US government to more effectively support curbing violent extremism. I found two recommendations to be of most import. The first is the need for US policymakers to involve relevant segments of the Pakistani diaspora within the US in its efforts to build the capacity of Pakistani civil society to counter the violent extremism threat. Secondly, the international community, including the US, must develop a better working relationship with more grassroots-level organisations, including religiously inspired entities, which have the actual on-ground capacity to galvanise broader support for countering violent extremism. Forging such partnerships would not only provide more insight into the nature and the larger mindset within which violent extremism takes root, but also, significantly, enable policymakers and government entities to look inward at the nature of their own position in this modern plague.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 26th, 2015.

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