Mind Over Jihad

With the growing difficulty to prevent radicalization and rehabilitate militants, there is a lot more that needs to be done by parents, imams, scholars, teachers and the entire society to promote the message of mercy and compassion.
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The U.S. has taken an initiative to spread the counter-extremist message across Pakistan to prevent the breeding of extremism and to deradicalize militants who were completely taken by the jihadist ideology, which is a tough battle because Pakistan is, perhaps, the only country where the state, with funding from U.S. and Saudi Arabia, financed and trained jihadis to fight Soviet Russia and did nothing to deprogram the mujahideen after the war was over.

The one-of-its-kind three-person unit, whose aim is to support grassroots groups and moderate religious leaders to counter extremist ideology, started operating in Pakistan last July.

Sultan Mehmood Gujar, 46, a property dealer by profession, is reported to be one of the many staunch supporters of the "holy war." But his views changed after listening to a 40-day lecture series offering a counter narrative to jihad. Hopefully, this measure will prevent the youth from joining radical groups and deradicalize militants -- if the message seeps in!

For more than a decade, Pakistan has endured the wrath of extremist ideology that has successfully bred terrorism and convinced many to blow themselves up to "fight the infidels" in foreign soil and even kill those Muslims who do not subscribe to the cause on home ground. But have the leaders done anything besides giving lipservice to its people on combating violent extremism?

"Pakistan has done absolutely nothing to deradicalize the militants," said Tariq Pervez, ex-chairman National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA). "World over, one dimension for deradicalization is to rehabilitate those people who are in jails on terrorism charges."

By the end of 2009, he said, 494 people -- some convicted terrorists, others awaiting trails --were behind bars. The NACTA lobbeyed for profiling of all those jailed on terrorism charges to learn the motivating factors for jihad. They also tried to strategize counter narrative in all four provinces of Pakistan with the aim to involve religious leaders to have one-on-one discourse with the jailed extremists to debunk their views, which is exactly the strategy that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia employed. But Pakistan People's Party-led government didn't give a green signal to NACTA.

If the al Qaeda poster boy, Dr. Fadl, can take a U-turn in the jail and write a book titled "Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World" that shattered the extremist ideology, it gives cause to believe that rehabilitation is possible no matter how brainwashed the person is.

Saudi Arabia has been running terrorist rehabilitation programs for ex-Guantanamo detainees. And the kingdom officials claim to have 80 percent success rate. However, they have enormous resources and are seemingly committed to make a change as well.

But in Pakistan, initiatives to counter-violent extremism pose a difficulty when the subject starts to question the legitimacy of the program. "The problem is that conspicuous support from Western governments for 'moderate Islam' is usually counterproductive, in that it contaminates the moderates with the stain of association with Western policies, notably support for unpopular despotic regimes, unjust financial systems, and hardline backing for Israeli policies," wrote Tim Winter, lecturer of Islamic Science at Cambridge University. "To accept such support is usually a kiss of death, and strengthens the hand of the radicals."

Perhaps this is why the U.S. is leveraging local groups and moderate religious leaders. Knowing how keen the Pakistani government is to fight terrorism, one can only rely on grassroots initiatives.

"The problem with the groups working on ground is that their efforts are not coordinated," said Mr. Pervez. People were systematically radicalized in General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's regime, and a greater effort is required to deradicalize the militant psyche and to neutralize the breeding grounds. Akbar Ahmed, author of "Journey into Islam," rightly noted: "unless these [initiatives] are conducted on a national scale, they will only create the smallest of dents in Pakistani society."

And that's not it.

Militant material is readily available on social media that adds another tier to the problem. "U.S. policy makers have focused on YouTube because videos are one of the most effective tools for radical recruiters," wrote J.M. Berger, author of "Jihad Joe" in an e-mail. "Facebook has a constantly growing body of radical material available, and there hasn't been much focus on policing it ... Over the last year, we've seen a surge of violence-oriented radicals using Twitter."

With the growing difficulty to prevent radicalization and rehabilitate militants, there is a lot more that needs to be done by parents, imams, scholars, teachers and the entire society to promote the message of mercy and compassion.

"With the growth of new media, it is important for prominent and trusted voices to get on television, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to help counter narratives which might promote extremism," wrote Arsalan Iftikhar, author of "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." He added: "Since many youth are quite impressionable, it is important to get to them [at] an early age..."

Imams and religious scholars, across the globe, tweet and update their Facebook statuses and fan pages regularly, often with a thought-provoking line or a religious quote. There is a dire need to counter extremist ideology on networking sites, regardless of how unpalatable it may be to the followers.

A national security analyst, speaking to me off the record, said that counter narrative would work when one person hears from 10,000 voices that militant ideology is unfounded and unjust. I wish we could rely on John Stewart to spread the counter-extremist message, like we're depending on him to counter Islamophobia on "The Daily Show," but we really need to mobilize the entire Muslim community if we really want to counter the extremist ideology.

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