In September, President Donald Trump threatened to cut financial aid from Pakistan if the country didn’t do more to stop the flow of militants. He also accused Pakistan of providing “safe havens to terrorist organizations.” Meanwhile, Pakistani peace practitioners like Mossarat Qadeem have been putting blood, sweat and tears to do the exact opposite.
Qadeem is the Executive Director of PAIMAN Alumni Trust, an organization that earned an international recognition for its pioneering working on countering violent extremism using innovative methods. We spoke to her about Trump’s threat and her own work in Pakistan.
What does extremism look like in your country?
Extremism manifests itself in different shapes and forms in Pakistan. We have been experiencing it in the form of violence, be it political violence, economic violence, or violence coming out of religious schools and leaders. It is not necessarily only practiced through suicidal attacks or bomb blasts, but there is invisible violent extremism in the mindset. It is there in the way we treat each other, the way we speak to each other, and the way we perceive each other. Our whole outlook on life and how we handle others has shifted from a moderate pattern to a more volatile one.
Trump is currently claiming that Pakistan is not doing enough to fight extremism. What is your opinion?
I would like to send an open letter to Mr. Trump reminding him of the sacrifices of 65,000 innocent civilians, 4,700 security personnel, hundreds and thousands of disabled, economic losses of around USD102.5 billion, internal migration of millions of people from FATA and the Swat Valley and the irreparable socio-psychological impact in an aimless pointless war which has nothing to do with us. We suffered because of the ambitious endeavor of major powers. You are safe in the US. You haven’t witnessed the killing and maiming of thousands of people in worship places, in local busses, in markets and in schools. You haven’t heard the silent sigh of mothers who lost their children and you haven’t experienced the loss of a loved one who goes out for work or to school and never comes back. You haven’t experienced that fear and uncertainty that surrounds Pakistanis all the time despite having the most beautiful countryside with an abundance of resources. I would also say to President Trump, that I pray to Allah to give you a feeling heart and a thinking mind to stop him from asking for shedding more blood from us Pakistanis.
Can you describe your counter-terrorism work in Pakistan?
I am trying to prevent my communities from becoming extremist so the acts of terrorism become a history. PAIMAN is a pioneer in Pakistan in initiating a process of preventing and countering violent extremism since 2007. From the platform of PAIMAN Trust, we neutralize extremist tendencies through community mobilization, active citizenship and community empowerment for building social cohesion.
We empower women and youth economically, build their critical thinking, help them understand the indicators of violent extremism and responding to it, give them the skill of mediation and dialogue to create awareness in their communities to collectively prevent violent extremism. PAIMAN has de-radicalized, rehabilitated and re-integrated 1287 extremist and those who were vulnerable. We also trained a further 14,000 males and 43,00 females. Once the youth and women receive training from PAIMAN they become members of our Peace groups called TOLANA, and they help promote practices of peace and countering violent extremism from within the community. Our TOLANA today have become a collective movement. They are working against all odds in a non-violent manner. We use social and electronic media, hold community sessions in schools, madrassas, public places to create awareness regarding violent extremism and how to address it.
We developed an inclusive peace curriculum and trained 120 school and religious madrassa teachers to teach respect for diversity and non-violence, using creative methods like sports, poetry, art, interactive theater. We have also worked with 100 female madrassa teachers and 120 women activists of all faith in Pakistan and female leaders of religious political parties to form a coalition of “Women of faith building social cohesion in Pakistan”. The members of the coalition are working today to promote inclusion, equality and interfaith dialogue in their communities, providing a platform for all voices to be heard, regardless of personal religious belief. They celebrate each other’s religious festivals and support each other in case of any incident of violence against one or the other community.
What was the turning point that inspired or pushed you into peace activism?
The turning point was the killing, miseries and suffering of my people in my province of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and adjacent area of federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) that I witnessed daily in 2007 and 2008. Being a student of conflict studies, I thought I will be able to contribute from the platform of PAIMAN Trust.
Could you tell us one story or situation you have been through that deeply affected you or left a mark in your life?
There are many, but the one that really strengthened my resolve to continue my work against myriads challenges took place in 2009. I went to Swat to conduct research on the impact of violent extremism on women in Swat. I met a boy, Janas, who escaped from the extremists group but then was detained by security agencies and finally released. He told me that the extremists took him by force and kept him with other boys under strict surveillance. One night he didn’t swallow the pill that would be given to them every night. In the middle of the night he asked the watchman to let him go to urinate who allowed him and went to sleep himself. He then escaped and reached home after 24 hours with a lot of difficulty. The very same day the security forces came and took him to one of the detentions camps and kept him there for five months under very harsh condition.
In a very quiet voice he asked me a profound question: “why did I suffer at the hands of two powerful groups of people. I was not an extremist but taken by force by extremists to be used for suicide attacks and detained again by security forces, punished, tortured with no fault of mine.” His experience compelled me to start this non-violent movement, ‘Let’s Live in Peace’ to help prevent extremism and radicalization of youth and become their voice.
We helped him to learn how to repair mobile phones to earn an income. We also worked with him to overcome his trauma and fear. He recovered psychologically and physically. Today he runs his own mobile repair shop in his village, has a lot of self-confidence and is an active member of PAIMAN’s Youth TOLANA but his silent, piercing gaze and his question chase me even today. He imbibed in me this spirit to hold the hands of the youth who are punished for no fault of theirs because they have no alternatives, no means and no status in their communities.
How would you think peaceful responses instead of military operations would benefit the cause?
That is a dream. The economic interests of a minority are tied to selling weapons and killing people. I do not see that there is a change coming soon to the policy framework to invest more in peacebuilding or peace initiatives, or conflict resolution and transformation. When you invest more in positive measures and efforts that resolve the issues and problems of the world, there will be tranquility and coexistence. It will also have much greater economic returns for more people. However, the way we are looking at the extremism problem right now is very superfluous. There is no real will to get rid of it, because politicians everywhere exploit it. Are the international institutions really serious about it? This is a question I ask everyone.
How far can a small fund affect peace solutions?
It goes a long way. We know how to be frugal with the funds we receive. We try to multiply our effort. We educate, and we help youth to try to understand extremism and how and why it affects them negatively. We work in areas which are hard-hit by extremism, and they are very far from Islamabad. Because of security reasons, we cannot do the training in their own areas, so we have to take them to our center in Islamabad. The training lasts for a week. All this costs 100 to 150 dollars per person. they go back to the community and start talking to each other. When a handful of more skillful and more knowledgeable people go back to their communities and talk to them, the understanding becomes even more widespread. We try to give the funds too. Just a $1,000 in the hands of the right groups can touch the lives of between 100 and 200 people.
Why does including women in peace efforts matter?
Women are half the population. They are half of the population that is suffering. They are also half of the population that is excluded from peacebuilding. We cannot afford to exclude that social capital. Secondly, some women were actually part of breeding extremists. For example, they contributed to the making of suicide jackets. They facilitated violent extremism because they have been told it is a good cause, that it will bring them respect or security. So you need to engage women so that they become part of peaceful resolution and conflict transformation. In addition, women think, feel, and act differently. We have to project the positive roles women are playing. A woman’s role is not just a mother, but also an activist, a teacher, a religious scholar, a political leader, a decision maker, and a peace negotiator. Without women, I do not think there can be a peaceful world. If they are educated and given the skills, the world will definitely be a better place.
What does the world need to do to support women peace practitioners?
Stop giving lip service to women in peace and security. It has become a buzzword like “gender”. Peace and security need to be taken seriously. Resolutions have passed, and a lot of funding is committed, but where is it? There is very little funding for women led organizations doing peace work. Only a few donor agencies are actually interested in supporting women’s peace and security issues. So the world needs to get serious about this. Second, the best practices need to be solidified and shared with the world. Policy frameworks for the international community need to be developed based on these initiatives that are changing the communities. Material needs to be documented properly. The world needs to learn from us this time, we are the experts from the field, we have gone through so much.