Mission impossible for Pakistani progressives?

December 7, 2011

(The Shah Faisal Mosque is seen from the Margalla Hills in Pakistan's capital Islamabad July 31, 2007. REUTERS/Adrees Latif)

The small but enthusiastic group of “progressive” Muslims arrives at a hotel conference room in Pakistan’s capital with the tools they hope will help blunt extremism in the unstable U.S. ally. The Khudi organisation — self-esteem in Urdu — does not expect the government to tackle the problem of spreading Islamist radicalism. So it has taken on what seems to be mission impossible — creating a social movement that can reverse the growing tide.

Seconds after using laptop computers, a slide projector, a film documentary and examples from history to highlight the dangers of militancy, Khudi leaders are confronted by hostile university students in the audience.

A veiled woman says amputations of thieves’ hands should not be criticised because they reduce crime in Saudi Arabia, which is accused of funding hardline Islamist seminaries in Pakistan.

Others deny there is intolerance in Pakistan — where al Qaeda-inspired Sunni militants kill members of minorities — arguing instead that Western conspirators fabricate the problem. “I just don’t know how to get my point across to you,” said one of the lecturers, visibly frustrated.

The United States and other Western countries have long urged the government to counter extremism. Critics say Pakistani leaders have failed, allowing everyone from clerics in small rural mosques to school teachers in big cities to spread radicalism in the nuclear-armed state.

Khudi’s struggle underscores the difficulties of stabilising Pakistan, seen as critical to U.S. efforts to tackle militancy. It was founded in 2010 by Maajid Nawaz, a former member of the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, that tries to recruit military officers in Muslim nations to topple pro-Western governments.

Nawaz, a Briton whose family comes from Pakistan, spent years persuading Muslims — from Europe to Egypt — that Western-style democracies were doomed and only Islamic theocracies could succeed. During four years in a notorious Cairo jail for his activities, Nawaz vowed to become a suicide bomber after watching state security agents electrocute fellow Islamists.

After holding political debates with fellow inmates, he eventually decided to preach moderation in deeply conservative Pakistan, where liberals and intellectuals are seen as impotent.

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