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First published in South Asia Global Affairs magazine

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The youth of Pakistan is a force full of vitality and enthusiasm. However, if consistently distanced and belittled, it could lose its energy and become a liability rather than an asset.

The ways of the world have changed;
The tune is new, instruments have changed;
Free your mind from mental slavery;
Make the young, masters of the old.
– Alama Iqbal

Today, every 40th person in this world is a Pakistani. Some 68% of the country’s population is below the age of 25, making youth an important factor in an increasingly fragile society. In fact, Pakistan’s youth alone could constitute the world’s 12th largest country. Such statistics signify the importance of young people in Pakistan; a valuable yet troublesome bulge that will indeed continue to be visible well into the mid 2020s.

The youth is often considered to be an optimistic constituent, with dreams and guided by fervor and hope. However, in Pakistan, while the numbers are high, negativity prevails. One need not go far as this trend has permeated local news channels, dominates newspaper headlines and features prominently in conversations at the mass level on any local, regional or national issue.

Education is hard to attain for most of them, health facilities are scarce and economic and social justice is simply not available for the majority. Inflation is slowly squeezing the lower and middle classes, electricity has become a luxury commodity, CNG and petrol pumps are often not operational and hunger and poverty cripple an already desperate and discontented society. In the midst of all of this, the ugly head of corruption rears itself.

Adding salt to the wound is the all-powerful threat of extremism, which is rapidly permeating an unstable economy and shaky society. Extremism is evident in recurring incidences of religious, ethnic and social intolerance. Terrorism has left more than 40,000 dead in the last decade and the Pakistani society still struggles to challenge the radical narrative, in word and spirit.

Despite the thousands of challenges Pakistan faces, this dominant section of the population, namely youth, can serve as a trump card for the future success of the country since more than 105 million people, nearly two-thirds of the entire population, comprises youth.

This section of society can become a game-changer for Pakistan and the entire region. However, if their voice is ignored and their issues not addressed, it will not be long before their despondency turns into sheer hopelessness and transforms into a mass revolt. While much hope can be placed in the youth of Pakistan, they are still nothing more than a wild card. Depending on the conditions, this huge cohort of young people can prove to be a challenge as well, either leading to conflict and violence or opening the window to new opportunities

It is critical to remember though, that the existing youth bulge grew up in troubling times and is living in even more testing circumstances. The elders of their society were not able to broaden their world-view, empower the young with the mental faculty to look for errors within and consequently be a part of the solution, rather than becoming a part of the problem.

Every mistake made was instantly blamed on a foreign conspiracy, cementing the ‘victim’ mentality. The consequent identity crisis was never subjected to an intellectual and vibrant discourse to pave the way for an ideological coherence. The youth is essentially a victim of societal trend that undermines young talent, ignores its voice in national discourse and fails to understand that in their individual and collective lives, they might not want the kind of future their elders may want them to have. Never being able to cultivate a role in their communities, the youth has never had the opportunity to hone its leadership potential and become the future stakeholders in Pakistan.

Battling this clash of generations, the youth of the country, equipped with technological advancements, is ready to break free and work towards a more prosperous and evolving society. Traveling across Pakistan and working for the Pakistan Youth Alliance has unveiled for this writer the struggle that Pakistani youth are (unknowingly) engaged in. This perhaps is the first step towards Pakistan’s empowered youth involved in the decision-making process of its communities, cities, provinces and, subsequently, the country.

In many ways, the youth of Pakistan is in a desperate search for ways to improve the lives of 190 million people and find common ground between different segments of Pakistani society. The youth today is more vocal, critical and aware of its circumstances such as debating false nationalism or questioning the role of intelligence agencies. The youth has risen as an important player in Pakistan and has played a pivotal role in the democratic history of Pakistan. Swarming on to streets the youth today debates rigid theological interpretations and politicization of religion, illustrating pluralistic tendencies in the masses.

Scores of youth-centric organizations have sprung up and most major political parties have vibrant youth wings that in 2010 and 2011, bravely battled adverse weather conditions to deliver relief to victims of floods.

The diversity that Pakistan boasts of from Karachi to Khyber, the resilience that the Pakistani nation illustrates and the untested sea of youth potential that Pakistan asserts, makes one a strong believer in a ‘better’ future of Pakistan.

But this cannot be done in isolation. The older generation needs to broaden opportunities for the young to develop the human capital through knowledge and advice. By giving the youth an active role in the collective lives of neighborhoods, communities and the society at large, all generations can work together towards a more prosperous Pakistan.

It is up to the current stakeholders of Pakistan and the Pakistani system whether it wants to engage with and consider this youth bulge a ‘gift’ or turn its back on an opportunity that may transform into a ‘curse’, ready to rear its ugly head sooner than later.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi  is the founder of the Pakistan Youth Alliance, CEC at Khudi Pakistan and  community lead at Hosh Media.

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First published Council on Foreign Relations website

The following was written by Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, the founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance and a member of Khudi Pakistan. He tweets at @ali_abbas_zaidi.

It was November 1979. Anti-American outrage filled the streets of Pakistan. Several U.S. facilities were attacked across the country. A mob in Islamabad nearly burned the U.S. embassy to the ground. The chant “Kill the American infidels!” echoed in the air in response to the siege of Mecca’s grand mosque, Islam’s holiest site.

Pakistani crowds angered by the unprecedented events unfolding in Mecca concluded that such a plot could only be orchestrated by Americans. It turned out they were wrong. The homegrown radical group in Saudi Arabia that led the bloody siege had no link with the United States.

While the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has experienced many changes in the decades since, miscalculations of ground realities on both sides and anti-American sentiment have remained.

The majority of people in Pakistan admire the way Americans live—almost every Pakistani family has a member settled in the United States—but a glaring majority hates the impact of U.S. policies in Pakistan. The United States is considered by many to be the “great Satan.” Every U.S. political move in Pakistan is interpreted as an effort to destabilize Pakistan or to fight a war against Islam. Aggressive rhetoric on the Pakistani side—at times reflecting an unrealistic worldview and at times responding justifiably to belligerent U.S. action—molds mass perceptions.

A few months ago, I was in Kot Addu in the south of Pakistan’s Punjab province filming recent flood damage in the area with a British filmmaker named Oliver. He was confronted by a local who, after pushing Oliver, scanned the sky and shouted “drone, drone” as if Oliver’s tripod and camera were the equipment that maneuvers drones. Bear in mind that south Punjab has never had a drone attack and is very far from the area where drone attacks take place.

For me, this incident highlights an important fact for U.S.-Pakistani relations. The general public in Pakistan cannot be expected to understand the complicated nature of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. When something goes wrong in Pakistan, the public relies on their interpretation of the events at face value. In the case of drone attacks, for example, the United States must consider this effect and act more responsibly.

Many of my American friends ask the same question: “Why do they hate us?” By way of explanation, the discourse rampant in Pakistani streets is closest to what most Muslim-majority communities feel. The invasion of Iraq, decades-long support for oppressive governments, bias in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the killing of thousands of innocent Muslims, recurring stories of torture and abuse of prisoners—all have combined to generate suspicion of the United States within Pakistan. When Pakistanis find evidence that the United States applies its values of democracy and human rights selectively depending on its interests (the Raymond Davis episode and “collateral damage” from drone attacks being prime examples), for many, suspicion turns to hate.

Finally, solidifying this ill will is the lack of understanding between the two countries on a human level. People-to-people, civil society-based contact and interaction is scarce, and misconceptions are aided by a U.S. media that does not propagate alternative opinions from within U.S. society. The result is the image of the United States as a monolithic society.

Disagreement is a trait of democratic society and should be considered a strength rather than a weakness. If on-the-ground dissent in the United States can be understood in Pakistan, and communication between the United States and regions that “hate” the United States is given importance in the international media, the United States’ monolithic, negative image will become less rampant in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority communities. This will not only benefit the image of the United States worldwide, but will give “conspiracy theorists” reason to look within before pointing the finger at the United States.

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First published and cross-posted from Huffington Post

I was in Kasur, a small town near Lahore, Pakistan, where the celebrated mystic poet Bulleh Shah is buried. Thousands gathered for the 254th anniversary of his death. Slogans chanted on that occasion would be branded ‘blasphemous’ by extremist organizations in Pakistan.

Neither Hindu nor Muslim,
Sacrificing pride, let us sit together.
Neither Sunni nor Shia,
Let us walk the road of peace.

Bulleh Shah penned these verses challenging religious extremism and orthodoxy that plagued Muslim society hundreds of years ago. He was exiled from his home town and, history has it, he was denied a burial in Muslim cemetery. His advice has clearly gone unheeded as my country is still yet to find peace. Not even the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah has been spared being labelled ‘the great infidel’.

Incidentally, the same ilk of religio-political parties who now manipulate public discourse were at the forefront of using religious narrative for political point scoring before Pakistan came into being.

4 January 2011 is a day I cannot forget. Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Pakistan’s biggest province Punjab, was gunned down by his bodyguard. He was killed for supporting a Christian woman accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. He was shot twenty six times.

For the entire week after the killing, I was scared. I don’t remember being in that state of mind since Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. It’s not a very heartening sight to see fellow ‘educated’ countrymen glorifying a murderer and justifying his actions based on ignorant rhetoric. Scores of fan pages popped up on Facebook, many of my friends changed their profile pictures to one of the killer, Mumtaz Qadri, exalting a murderer as hero.

Very few turned out to pay homage to the slain governor in days to come, as ‘liberals’ arranged vigils in his remembrance. Yet thousands poured on to the streets to defend Mumtaz Qadri, his assassin. The media, which has been a primary tool in fanning conspiracy theories in public, had again played a pivotal role in enticing ‘religious’ emotions on this issue.

The killer of Salman Taseer had confessed proudly. The brave judge who sentenced him to death has gone into hiding and will not be re-appearing anytime soon.

7 March 2011. The start of another week of gloom and, if I’m honest, I was ashamed to be a Pakistani. We had arranged a protest to condemn the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minorities who was brutally assassinated on 2 March. He was an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the only Christian in the cabinet. Only a few youngsters turned up.

When it comes to numbers, we can gather thousands but the ’cause’ has to be against India, Israel or America. Not many will show up if the demonstration is against radical organisations, or asking for introspection within.

Many who rallied for Gaza in early 2009 were not seen in protests condemning Taliban atrocities in Swat at the same time. Many who burnt down shops in anger at the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad never stood up for Parachinar, a small town near the border of Afghanistan where thousands have been killed in sectarian violence between Sunni’s and Shia’s.

9 October 2011. I was stuck on the Islamabad Highway, the main road that connects Islamabad with Rawalpindi as it was blocked by flash mobs protesting for the release of Mumtaz Qadri.

Two decades and 40,000 deaths later which includes top politicians, generals and clerics – not many things have changed when it comes to checking radicalism within Islam.

Many attacks on places of worship of minority sects within Islam, recurring violent brawls between followers of different schools of thought, reaction to the murder of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, recent acts of violence in Baluchistan and the tale of Parachinar are chapters in recent history which expose the extent of radicalisation in Pakistani society.

Soon, we as citizens of a country founded because a minority felt discriminated against and followers of the great religion of Islam, need to face up to the challenge of the radical minded and their extremist ideology.

This is a war of ideologies and is inevitably a war that must be fought with opinions and ideas; it must encourage discourse and exchange of reason. It is a war that must form the basic pillar of a new and improved national paradigm for Pakistan

We as a society cannot ignore an emerging threat from radicalism within our ranks, because if it gets too late, there might be no ‘music’ left to face.

Follow Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Ali_Abbas_Zaidi

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First published in The Friday Times

The war of ideology is inevitably a war that must be fought with opinions and ideas; it must encourage discourse and transactions of reason; it must develop spaces for freedom of speech and of expression as the objective of ultimate victory. And it is a war that must form the basic pillar of a new and improved national security paradigm for Pakistan

The process of radicalisation in Pakistan took hold over three decades. After political organisations began using religion as an implement of social power (by defining Muslims, and therefore kafirs and murtads, in the 1973 constitution), radicalism became a force potent enough to engulf the apparatus of the modern state, render it redundant, and eliminate its writ from within its very territorial jurisdiction. In essence, Islam was no longer just a faith that bound a worshipper to the Almighty, it became a structural institution that could manifest in social, political, economic, and even military forms. Abuse of religion for political ends sowed the seeds of hatred that continue to bear fruit after decades.

This radicalisation took hold of Pakistan’s north-western tribal and Pakhtun-populated areas during the “Afghan jihad”, and slowly spread into the marginalised and poverty stricken areas of Pakistan – both urban and rural. Massive inflow of funding for religious institutions (mosques and madrassas) created an education system that espoused both a radical discourse and the eventual induction into a radical or extremist organisation, where the madrassa graduate found a career in becoming an ‘activist’ or ‘office-bearer’. However, these psycho-social processes that affect both individuals and communities are not irreversible; de-radicalisation is a rehabilitative process that moderates radical thought and principles, thereby reintegrating a former militant into society as a peaceful citizen. Counter-radicalisation means providing a counter-narrative to radical ideology and challenging the extremist discourse.

Having grown up in 1990s, we are silent spectators of this sequence. Some of us are even victims of this mindset, which is reflected in surveys highlighting the Pakistani youth’s propensity towards extremist ideologies. A Gallup poll released in May this year showed that a majority of Pakistanis (59%) view themselves as Muslims first, and Pakistanis second, making the very concept of the nation-state redundant.

That was precisely the problem in Swat, that led to the military operation against the Taliban. After a military victory, the army called for a ‘de-radicalisation programme’. Between July 4 and 6 this year, the ISPR held a seminar on the phenomenon of de-radicalisation. Scores of activists and journalists were invited to observe the reclaiming of Swat.

One noticeable element was that almost all locals seemed hesitant in voicing their honest opinion. Far from where the seminar was organised, we sat with a group of locals in Mingora city who were glad that Swat was cleansed of extremist militants, but considered the army and Taliban ‘two sides of the same coin’. “We saw them having tea together, when the Taliban were taking over. They literally had checkposts besides each other,” a local said. The army’s inaction while militants took over the streets of Swat is reminisced with anger. Some segments still consider army as too ‘liberal’, stating that funfairs and musical concerts caused the 2010 floods. This is the typical conspiracy theory mindset that we, as a nation, ought to counter: it perplexes our introspective ability to rectify errors. It was exhibited by locals of Swat who saw the siege and counter-insurgency happen in front of their eyes.

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan commanders like the loathed Mullah Fazlullah and his equally dreaded lieutenants Shah Doran and Bin Yameen capitalised on the religious ethos of the community, and eliminated rule of law and customs from Swat by capitalising on the enforcement of so-called “sharia law” which was granted assent by Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi’s Sufi Muhammad, and later, by the government as well. Fazlullah, the self-proclaimed ruler of Swat, did not control the streets of Swat overnight. It was a gradual advance, and that explains how this ideological war should be fought. His ambition was emboldened because the stakeholders of Pakistan pretended to be ignorant of the looming threat whilst Fazlullah was busy broadcasting a radical version of Islam and coercing local people to abide by his “shariah” laws. The conservative ethos of Swat’s society was manipulated, and its indigenous cultural values of pluralism, interfaith harmony, and even Pakhtunwali (the Pakhtun code and tradition), were destroyed by the Taliban, according to Swat Qaumi Jirga leader Ziauddin Yusufzai.

The foundations of terror had been laid; the government and the army appeared apathetic. Slowly, dead bodies started piling on the streets. The Green Chowk was renamed Khooni Chowk. And those visions have been imprinted on Swat’s history, on the mind of its children and of the youth. “Some people were terrified, while others were excited,” said Saddam, a local youth. “Communities and even families were divided over whether to support Fazlullah in his so-called jihad or to flee.”

Counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation are two different things. Fighting radical elements and ideologies is as important as rehabilitating those who are misguided or exploited. But in order to successfully do both, a coherent distinction between ideological propagators, militarised elements, and fringes, or foot-soldiers, must be made. Unfortunately, counter-radicalisation is weak because neither the state nor the Pakistani society has been able to cogently challenge terrorist ideology, or the prevalent phenomena of religious intolerance and extremism. Lt General (r) Mustafa Khan, former CGS of Pakistan Army, emphasised this fact and said that the media and religious leaders must play a pivotal role in neutralising radical ideologies that exist across Pakistan. The war of ideology is inevitably a war that must be fought with opinions and ideas; it must encourage discourse and transactions of reason; it must develop spaces for freedom of speech and of expression as the objective of ultimate victory. And it is a war that must form the basic pillar of a new and improved national security paradigm for Pakistan.

Policy circles in Pakistan fail to understand that counter-terrorism is one part counter-insurgency and three parts counter-extremism or counter-radicalisation. The counter-insurgency component is essentially military in nature, but also implies transition to civil administration. The three parts of counter-extremism are ending political marginalisation, extending economic opportunities, and ensuring justice, rule of law, and writ of the state as basic services to the citizens. Since there are no clear parameters – no definition of friend and enemy, for instance – the War on Terror has sadly become a war of terror for the people of Pakistan. Afzal Khan Lala, who fought the Swat Taliban, urged the participants of the seminar to develop policies that devolve elected bodies and authorities to the district and tehsil levels so that local communities could make their own rules and abide by them.

Although Pakistan has suffered more military and civilian deaths than any of the other 49 allied nations in the War on Terror, we are unable to boast of mass consensus against radical elements, let alone any significant victory where we can brandish the “Mission Accomplished” banner. Every terrorist incident is viewed, popularly and misguidedly, from the prism of anti-Americanism. The resilience and sacrifice of the people of Swat in particular, and of Pakistan in general, must not go to waste. We as a society cannot ignore an emerging threat from radicalsm, that, if left unbridled, would bring no harmony and certainly no music.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is the founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance, and is affiliated with Khudi Pakistan and Hosh Media.

Shemrez Nauman Afzal is a researcher and defense analyst with Spearhead Research, and is a social media consultant for Responsible Citizens – Zimmedar Shehri
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First published in english daily The Islamabad Dateline [28th April, 2010]

Ugay na maut Zamin par tou aur kya hoga / Key beej zehar key bantay gae kisano’n mayn!

I was born in 80’s. I grew up in 90’s, in a Pakistan with school curriculum preaching religious intolerance, state organs that colored geo strategic interests of our establishment in ‘holy’ flavor, Intelligentsia that fathered militant organizations, right leaning media that propagated conspiracy theories and a public sentiment that endorsed militancy, by open call for ‘Jihad’ in other countries.

I was more interested in Tom & Jerry then, but as I grew older and skimmed through unbiased political and religio-political history of Pakistan, I realized why our youth exhibit symptoms of being radicalized easily.

By radicalization I mean intolerance to others opinions (political, social or religious) and having a militant or extremist answer instead of agreeing to disagree peacefully. Many of us born in 70’s and 80’s were already pre-radicalized by constant bombardment and brainwashing by establishment, media and right wing political parties.

Many analysts of contemporary times believe socio-economic conditions and lack of education leads to radicalization but I beg to differ; Osama bin Laden is a civil engineer, Al-Zawahiri a surgeon, Omer Sheikh (famous for kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl) studied from London School of Economics, Faisal Shahzad is a financial analyst and in fact top leadership of all militant organizations are reasonably well-educated and come from rich families.

I witness three stages of radicalization in Pakistan. Pre-radicalization, radicalization and post radicalization. Endorsing a radical discourse is pre-radicalization. Radicalization is joining an extremist organization and blatant activism for the same. Post-radicalization is after joining a radical cause, now living a normal a life.

Madrassas have obviously played a vital role in providing a regular stream of radical minded youth. I had the pleasure to meet a senior official at NACTA (National Counter Terrorism Authority) who revealed that time of summer vacations in these religious schools is very crucial as it is the time when they are taught the art of ‘takfir’ (judging  as kaafir) and militancy. A 2008 estimate puts the number of madrassas in Pakistan as over 40,000 with an approximated 2 million youth enrolled. Every religious militant in Pakistan and from Pakistan spent time in a madrassa.

No one can deny the three stages of radicalization in Pakistan. The intensity of which unveiled when Governor Salman Taseer was murdered and almost 80 % of ‘educated’ youth were cheering for the assassin, on religious grounds.

What to do now? We have a huge youth bulge, many of them silently support radical causes and many exhibit high potential for joining radical causes.

Bear in mind here that every radical is not a terrorist but every terrorist is a radical.

Only counter and de-radicalization can serve to be the anti-dote to the venom of radicalization in Pakistan. Counter-radicalization on national level, like Zia’s radicalization programs, we ought to initiate counter-radicalization grass root initiatives spreading tolerance, peace and interfaith harmony. Countering radicalization should also involve reforming madrassas, keeping a strict check on religious discourse even in mosques where religious hatred is fed like en masse. This would mitigate the pre-radicalization mindset prevalent in masses.

De-radicalization for those already radicalized, like the famous rehab facility of would-be suicide bombers caught in Pakistan.

We cannot close our eyes to this monster when only in last years, 35000 Pakistanis lost their lives including top notch generals, politicians and ordinary citizens. We have to disrupt the extremist infrastructure, militant outfits, condemn biased journalism and instigate a multi-faced counter-radicalization strategy to prevent further abuse of our religion for political ends and stop following myopic U.S. policies and denounce Saudi/Iran sponsored intolerant religious discourse which have played a pivotal role in radicalizing Pakistan.

Key policy reformation is required in immediate future, hovering a broader objective, specifically targeting the younger generation else we will not move forward, but revolve in circles.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi


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