Below please find an email to me from a leading Pakistani democracy activist in response to my post last week questioning U.S. government policies in Pakistan, “U.S. Taxpayer Money Goes to Pakistan’s Radicals.”
Unfortunately the U.S. embassy and senior diplomats here in Islamabad from other Western countries think that the religious leaders are the key to countering extremism in Pakistan. According to my sources and firsthand observation at diplomatic events, official meetings, and roundtables, Western diplomats believe that liberal activists, and for that matter the whole of Pakistani civil society, do not have following or credibility among the people since the majority of the Pakistani people are conservative and so can only relate to the Mullahs. Western diplomats fail to understand that unlike Pakistani elite liberals, many civil society activists come from among the masses and go out to the most neglected colleges and universities in the small cities and engage young people, who often join us later as volunteers and spread the message to others.
Secondly, the diplomats don’t realize that educated young Pakistanis are also very vulnerable to extremism—some are already very inclined toward the extremist Islamist narrative. Young people do not automatically listen to Mullahs. They have been radicalized by neo-Islamist televangelists like Zaid Hamid, extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Pakistani right-wing media, and the distorted versions of history, religion studies, and Pakistan studies they are taught at school. Well-intentioned religious scholars cannot necessarily address all of these issues; only civil society leaders and non-religious social movement is the answer.
As for the issue of U.S. funding to madrassas to counter radicalization, despite my best efforts I haven’t been able to find out which groups are receiving the funding, as the U.S. embassy and the madrassas are keeping it secret. However, my sources in the Pakistani Interior Ministry and the religious establishment tell me that the U.S. embassy is funding select madrassas and religious leaders from almost all Muslim denominations. The support is not confined to Salafis only—some Barelevi groups are also receiving the funding.
On a different note, the so-called counterextremism experts of the U.S. Embassy, the British High Commission, the Canadian government, and even the German government are on the same page on the issue of funding religious groups. They consult with each other often. That said, the Germans are well-disposed toward some civil society groups, and appreciate and understand our work. They have refused to believe the negative propaganda spread against some democracy activists, and while they support religious groups, they are also positively engaged with us.
Last but not least, you may advise the U.S. State Department officials that while funding religious scholars is counterproductive, it is probably a good idea to engage them as the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies is doing, organizing seminars in madrassas where religious leaders of all sects are invited to discuss contemporary religious and political issues. Secular and liberal religious scholars—and there are a few in Pakistan—are asked to give keynote speeches. Connecting religious leaders of different sects with each other is very important and that is something that we can do as neutral actors.
(Name and identity of writer withheld by Ed Husain)