Lahore Blast and Aftermath: Civil Society Challenges & Recommendations to Counter Violent Extremism

Photo credits: AFP

Ammara Farooq Malik 

The three days’ mourning for the poor victims of the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Lahore bomb blast which left 72 dead including 29 children and injuring more than 340[1], has come to an end. And here comes the inevitably hard part of dealing with the Lahore attacks: Finding solutions.

There are several civil society organizations including mine which work specifically in countering violent extremism in South Punjab and Lahore. We have trained so many young people on the benefits of inclusive thinking, positive approach, positive activities, bridging the differences between the privileged and the privileged…and then theses blasts still take place. As civil society members some things are within our control (somewhat) and some beyond.  At a time when our morales are shaken   because despite our years of work, premeditated acts of violence in the form of terrorist activities have yet again left innocent children dead, it is more important than ever to keep our resolve strong to keep doing what we do: spreading education, awareness, connecting people and projecting the soft image of the real Pakistan.

To achieve this we must continue trying to knock some sense into the extremist /pro extremist elements so that the support network of actual extremists can be shaken. This is something that will take years to achieve. It took 40 odd years of wrong policies and passiveness on the part of successive governments, that abetted quietly yet steadily to strengthen this monster of extremism. It will therefore take if not the same amount then at least 15-20 years for us to wipe out this menace and deradicalize our youth and communities towards positive doctrines.

We cannot build the counter narrative of Pakistan in a day because evidently though it is much easier to hand out help, it is much harder to change mindsets. As civilians we cannot possibly stop suicide bombers but we have to keep educating people so that there is no support network available to help with the planning and logistics of such attacks in Pakistan.

Recently I gave several recommendations from the platform of the SEPLAA Foundation to the Department of Culture and Information Punjab on countering violent extremism after the said department helped me to meet the staff at the Directorate of Staff Development to perform a CVE gap analysis.[2]

I had offered to help myself because I want to help Pakistan. I realized that the Peace Semester I ran with privileged and underprivileged children in Lahore under the SEPLAA Young Leaders’ Club,  the work we have done in South Punjab under the SEPLAA Foundation and the work I am doing with positive activities with women under SEW-EGAP is not enough to counter violent extremism in a country where supporters of Qadri may very well be sitting right next to you in Lahore or Islamabad and not just in South Punjab or Sindh.

It is the need of the hour that the efforts, of all those who want to contribute towards eradicating this menace from our society, be utilized and welcomed by the government.  The joint efforts must be collaborative in nature and must include regular gap analysis to assess the general mood and direction of youth thought development in communities in the field and on social media.

The Punjab government has recently introduced small school books on ‘tolerance’ and ‘positive cultural integration of various communities in an effort to deradicalize youth.

The question that arose to my mind immediately after seeing these books was that who is going to teach from them? The same teachers who are not imaginative enough to think outside the box or those teachers who mark their attendance in ghost schools and collect illegal pay or those teachers who themselves might hold extremist views? These are not farfetched assumptions in a country where the budget for education is less than 4% and that of developing metros and roads is much higher than even the actual cost required[3]  or where extremist Maulvis make unbelievable demands on the government in the heart of the capital in D Chowk Islamabad.

The information about these books must be widely shared. Many educationalists are not even aware of the existence of these  books that apparently carry 5 marks. When the said books were brought up during a teacher training[4] being conducted at a school for underprivileged children in Lahore[5] none of the teachers including the principal were aware of this step of the Punjab Government. And to add to it, they highlighted the existing challenges that they have to deal with on a daily basis including lack of resources, poverty of the students and difficulties in retaining students who leave school because of domestic issues. They highlighted that where it was already difficult to teach the core subjects to underprivileged students, teaching them values such as ‘tolerance’ from a separate book was a very cumbersome and impractical task.

Similarly, when I spoke with the Additional Program Director at the Directorate of Staff Development in Lahore and asked how the teachers of Punjab public schools can be trained in CVE and be given CVE sensitization, the response was a vehement ‘It can’t be done’ almost making it sound like a grim impossibility.

When I suggested that CVE mainstreaming be done in the entire  staff refresher course and suggested workable methods to do the same, I even had to highlight that we will not be able to change things if there is no ‘will’ to change.  The said officers looked a little embarrassed when I pointed this out but I can understand why they must have stated that there can be no change: The slow bureaucratic system paralyses any will to change the status quo in Pakistan.

The question now is: If there is still no will to change systems even after the APS attacks, the Bacha Khan University attack and now the Lahore Gulshan-e-Ravi attack, then when will the state ever find the concrete resolve to change? Creating a National Action Plan that is often challenged for being slow in implementation will not help the fight against extremism unless a drastic over hauling of the civilian systems are launched, alongside the military operations and foreign policy stands. Too idealist? Perhaps. But if the state and its citizens do not take ownership of this national problem and collectively support each other to find solutions then not much will change in Pakistan.

While we ran a pioneer peace semester under the SEPLAA Young Leaders’ Club from January- April 2016 with school children as a pilot self funded project, we gave some talks on peace and then tried to connect very privileged children with underprivileged children. The idea was to make them think about the divide between the two classes, to try to bridge differences[6] and see where and how an impact can be created. We even presented this idea to the government to replicate if they could find any benefit in it. In South Punjab, one of SEPLAA Foundation’s idea to incubate youth in social entrepreneurship to build peace in the region [7] ran as a successful pilot project where over 2300 direct beneficiaries were created but which came to an abrupt halt due to lack of further funding. It is now being restructured into a sustainable model. There are ways to help and there are isolated efforts being undertaken as well. But it is now time for the government to bring all stake holders including civil society together on one table without labeling some as productive and others as ‘toxic’.

An initial recommendation therefore is that complete CVE sensitization must be started by training school teachers and head teachers across Punjab.  Simultaneously, youth must be engaged in positive activities including cultural promotion and income generation activities which would be in line with the Adolescent Strategy and Strategic Plan 2013-2017 for Punjab Pakistan. [8]

Civil society, government and donors must therefore work together as stakeholders to contain the threat that comes with the extremist mindset. The entire country cannot be policed or brought under the army’s operation because that will simply result in further anarchy. But instead, careful measured steps in a multipronged approach must be taken with the involvement of all relevant stakeholders.

The writer is the Founder and Executive Director of the SEPLAA Foundation and Think Tank.

[1] http://tribune.com.pk/story/1073825/blast-in-lahore-leaves-several-injured/

[2] ‘Recommendations and Suggestions from the SEPLAA Foundation to develop the Counter Narrative of Peace in Pakistan’, Submitted to Secretary Culture & Information, dated 20th February, 2016.

[3] Rs 165 billion required for Lahore Orange Line Metro Train project.

[4] SEW-EGAP 6th Policy Dialogue with Teachers on ‘Peaceful Methods of Teaching’, held in March 2016 at Ameen Maktab with 30 school teachers.

[5] Ameen Maktab located in Gulberg Lahore that caters to child domestic workers and children of domestic workers.

[6] http://seplaayoungleadersclub.org/sylc-bridging-differences/

[7] http://icx-incubator.com/icx-success-stories/

[8] http://punjab.gov.pk/system/files/pb_adolescent_atrategy_final.pdf

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