Jan 12, 2018

The Trump administration declared this week a war of words on Pakistan’s refusal to crush Islamic militants who target U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Trump threatened to cut aid, limit weapons deliveries and build up rival India.

Two weeks ago the State Department, for the first time, also added Pakistan to a list of countries accused of “severe violations of religious freedom.”

But a small non-governmental organization (NGO), working quietly in Pakistan’s Islamic madrassa schools, is winning new respect for tolerance and non-violence in this South Asian nation of 200 million people.

More than 3,000 madrasa leaders have attended tolerance workshops and trained more than 50,000 madrasa students.

Recently, the NGO has focused on countering violence between Muslim sects as it promotes religious tolerance more broadly. “At first some would not sit in the same room” with others from rival sects, said an organizer with the NGO.

To overcome this reluctance, the NGO bridge-builders:

(1) helped develop a local answer (counter narrative) to the extremist ideology that sparks sectarian violence;

(2) persuaded conservative religious leaders to endorse it;

(3) and recruited advocates to support the new thinking.

The counter narrative neutralizes extremist ideology using Islamic principles. It is based on Islamic texts and has been credited with helping to end anti-Shia suicide bombing attacks that used to kill dozens each year.

A remarkable sign that tolerance is taking root in Pakistan is that in 2017, there were no attacks on Shiites during the annual festivals in the Islamic holy month of Muharram.

Shiites consider themselves Muslim but are seen as heretics by many in the Sunni majority in Pakistan.

“When you say to others that ‘you are not a true Muslim,’ then they are easier to kill,” said one of the NGO team.

“So we are teaching them to tone down their language.”

Even the faculty of some of the more notorious madrassas in northwest Pakistan have participated in this training and support it wholeheartedly.

Now leaders of all sects are sitting down to talk to one another, although they have a long way to go to reverse decades of intolerance and violence. Using religion to end fighting instead of promoting it would be a real about-face for many Pakistanis.

In the 1980s, the U.S. helped plant the seeds of jihad in Pakistan's madrasas as it funded mujahideen holy warriors to evict the "Godless" Soviets from Afghanistan. In some respects, the extremism that subsequently took hold in those madrasas can be seen as an unintended consequence of the failure to help Afghanistan rebuild after the Soviets left in 1989.

One can only hope that the current harsh war of words between the US and Pakistan doesn't push moderate madrassa teachers back toward extremism and thereby undercut the advances being made by NGOs at the grassroots level.

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