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Can community building help end extremist violence in Pakistan?

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Saud Bin Ahsen |

During the last fifteen years Pakistan has been a victim of instability, insecurity and political violence due to its role as a “frontline state” in the Global War against Terrorism. In terms of human losses, more than seventy two thousand people, including civilians and personnel of law enforcement agencies, have been killed in terrorist attacks from 2001 to 2017. Due to this war and security challenges, Pakistan paid high a cost with reference to its economy, both in terms of direct costs to fight extremism, as well cost of investment inflows, market confidence and social fabric distortion.

Counterterrorism strategies around the world are based on military actions against the terrorists and terrorist outfits using force to safeguard their population and critical public infrastructure while no significant focus is made to enhance community resilience against terrorism through involving and utilizing their potentials as best way of encountering terrorism is to strengthen the community at the garss root level through capacity building , public awareness, strengthening the inter-community links rather than focusing heavily on military adventures. 

This strategy will require the developed countries to shift beyond a transactional relationship with civilian and military officials, to one that invests in developing Pakistan’s civil society.

Resilience is a dynamic quality of a community and is dependent on many factors like physical conditions of the area, access to social justice, individual capacities, and social and economic conditions of the population. As it is variable in nature, thus every community has different degrees of resilience, i.e. someone’s are more resilient and others are not.

Definition of community resilience is context specific and could be categorized into two types, definitions that mainly are focused on capacity building and second definitions are focused on capability enhancement of a community. In the present scenario, it is the negative impacts of terrorism and future threat of terrorist attacks, for which communities are expected to enhance or create resilience in them.

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The definition of the term community resilience is as following, “The ability of communities to prevent, to mitigate the impacts of terrorism, and to protect from future threats of terrorism, Preventing Violent Extremism is a community based approach”. The term “Prevent” refers to combating terrorism activities before they happened. The term “Prepare” intends that if a terrorist attack becomes inevitable, then how could people reduce the impacts of terrorism? On the other hand, the “Protect” is to build the capacity of the communities to minimize the risk of future terrorism.

Community Resilience in Pakistan: Option Challenges

To effectively overcome the challenge of terrorism, Pakistan can build mechanisms for community resilience against terrorism. It can create an environment that will be very hostile to extremism and terrorism. This policy can be supported by the people if moderate values and the spirit of peaceful co-existence, interfaith harmony and respect for diversity, are created in the country. In addition, with the support of communities, terrorist plots and recruitment efforts can be disrupted. Given the magnitude of the problem, Pakistan can only defeat terrorism through joint state and society efforts.

Counter-Narrative

Creating a counter-narrative is very important to prepare the community for countering terrorism. Members of the community understand events, which are based on the narratives that appeal to them at an emotional level. People understand easily a particular aspect of events in emotional terms because they want to understand it in that perspective. Narratives express emotions, desires, fears and expectations of the community members. In Pakistan the militant’s narrative is still very strong.

The desire of Pakistani’s to eliminate violent extremism is visible throughout the country. Despite frequent terrorist attacks, civil society organizations across Pakistan have demonstrated.

The message of extremist gains strength because it is advanced in religious language and supports the popular slogan of pan-Islamism and anti-Americanism. Pakistan is a Muslim majority country; here religious symbols are more important than the ideas based on reason and arguments. Anything that is presented in religious context creates immediate public sympathy. The use of religious slogans makes extremist messages very attractive to the people. The fight against terrorism is portrayed as if it is war on Islam or it is a conspiracy to divide Pakistan and promote Western values.

The public opinion in Pakistan is misguided due to the absence of strong ideological responses against terrorism even after a decade long war and sacrifices. Moreover, the state’s contradiction stands to fight terrorism is confusing the people when it is said that terrorists are misguided people. This policy allowed militants to exploit the communication gap between the state and society. People believe that the narrative of extremists is an attractive way of understanding the world. The conservative political and religious environment in Pakistan is tilted in favor of extremists and terrorists. As a result, it has proved cumbersome for Pakistani governments to create support for national counter-narrative against extremism.

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Faith based Networks and Moderate Religious Scholars

Religious scholars enjoy public trust in Pakistan but they also hold a great sway in shaping, molding and directing public opinion. Projecting the voice of moderate Muslim scholars in Pakistan against extremist-narrative is critically important. General masses, literate and illiterate, mostly rely on religious leaders for their belief system. The militants and extremists exploit this source by injecting their agenda through extremist clergy.

The police officer is constantly moving neighborhoods and works in the communities toward solving their problems, and encouraging citizens to help and look out for each other.

On the contrary, Pakistani government can use faith-based networks and moderate religious scholars to refute the extremist message and promote the message of peaceful co-existence, moderation and inter-faith harmony. The apathy of the Pakistani state and increasing life threats to moderate religious scholars has pushed such voices in isolation of silence.  In order to engage religious scholars in CVE (Countering Violent Extremism), it is the government’s duty to provide them and their families with security so that they can work independently without any fear.

Faith-based networks have grass-root outreach and connections with the local communities, which make them ideal partners to work with. In addition, such networks also enjoy a fair amount of trust within the eyes of the public. Religious scholars are familiar with arguments used by extremist networks to promote their agenda, and these can be useful in providing a point-by-point rebuttal coached in a plausible religious language.

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Role of Media 

Pakistan’s new electronic media is not wholly playing a positive role in promoting tolerance and harmony among Pakistani society. It is rapidly becoming a forum of mere discussion of issues from domestic violence to radical Islamism. As Pakistan’s conservative society is not against militants as a whole, rather it has division in it ranks, the media should denounce militants and extremism in any kind or shape but while denouncing acts of terrorism it at times does not condemn extremism.

Religious scholars are familiar with arguments used by extremist networks to promote their agenda, and these can be useful in providing a point-by-point rebuttal coached in a plausible religious language.

Media also play a negative role when after an act of terrorism, it creates sensation in the country only to increase it’s ratings in the public. It gives opportunity and provides a platform to the hard line religious leaders who have sympathy’s with the rigid schools of thought and militants to promote a radical point of view, as a lot of Pakistanis who are already sympathetic towards radicalism consider their stand towards militants correct. Social media represents the newest platform to expand public awareness campaigns. Moreover, taking inspiration from the Arab Spring, Pakistani youth are also using social media forums such as Twitter and Facebook to promote peace initiatives.

Community Policing

Community policing includes a police officer assigned to the same area, meeting and working with the residents and business people who live and work in the beat area. The citizens and police work together to identify the problems of the area and made efforts to resolve them. The police officer is constantly moving neighborhoods and works in the communities toward solving their problems, and encouraging citizens to help and look out for each other.

People believe that the narrative of extremists is an attractive way of understanding the world. The conservative political and religious environment in Pakistan is tilted in favor of extremists and terrorists.

It is a proactive decentralized and personalized approach. It works toward solving long-term problems by dealing with the causes, not just reacting to the symptoms. In a community, people know each other very well, it is very easy to identify the extremists in the community and with the help of community support preventive strategies can be designed to eradicate extremism from communities.

The community policing officer assists the residents by meeting with them individually and in groups in hopes that communication will lead to some consensus of accepted action will be agreed upon and implemented by the residents. The major considerations in community policing are: citizen input into defining problems to be solved, citizen involvement in planning and implementing problem solving activities.

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Conclusion 

The desire of Pakistani’s to eliminate violent extremism is visible throughout the country. Despite frequent terrorist attacks, civil society organizations across Pakistan have demonstrated their will and capacity to counter extremism by devising indigenous mechanisms of countering extremism within a vernacular that appeals to local populations. The counter narrative is not as effective as it should have been, as there is a need to reconstruct counter narratives making it familiar and acceptable to the masses.

Moreover, through capacity building, technical assistance, and material support, the developed countries can help Pakistanis counter extremism in their communities.

This strategy will require the developed countries to shift beyond a transactional relationship with civilian and military officials, to one that invests in developing Pakistan’s civil society. This does not mean that developed countries should abandon their current relationships that have been developed over time; rather, the world should complement these relationships and maximize our leverage with the GOP by investing in developing relations and providing solutions.

Saud Bin Ahsen is Post-Grad student of Public Administration at Institute of Administrative Sciences (IAS), University of the Punjab, Lahore and associated with a Think Tank Institute. He is interested in Comparative Public Administration, Post-Colonial Literature, and South Asian Politics. He can be reached at saudzafar5@gmail.com


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