Pen and Paper Jihad Pakistan's Effort to Resocialize Former Taliban

For two years, the Taliban terrorized the beautiful Swat Valley in northern Pakistan. Now that Islamabad has regained control, it is trying to resocialize those who supported the Islamist radicals. In "deradicalization" courses, they learn how they can be good Muslims without killing non-believers.

Hasnain Kazim

By in the Swat Valley, Pakistan

Faiz Ali Khan's hand are shaking as he pulls out his exercise book. The book is full of poems the 40-year-old has composed and he reads one aloud. It is a poem about springtime sunshine and freedom and peace.

Khan is a prisoner, an inmate at a "deradicalization center" for Taliban members in Pakistan's Swat Valley. A man with a graying beard, he wears a Pashtun hat, part of the prisoners' uniform. Khan is not particularly terrifying, striking an unimposing figure, his body slim and weak. His legs hurt, Khan says, and he hasn't done enough walking in recent days.

Khan is currently taking part in a computer course, where the inmates are learning to compose a text, then save and print it. It's nothing new for Khan, who worked as a journalist for the local newspaper before he was arrested, and who also holds a degree in law. "He's an educated man," says Major Waqas Akbar, who directs the deradicalization program here in Gulibagh, in the middle of the Swat Valley. The center is called "Rastoon," meaning "Place of the Right Path." There are other centers here in the Swat Valley -- another one for men, one for women and one for adolescents.

"Removing Radical Thoughts"

Several other inmates are hunched in front of computers in the same room, many finding the task more difficult than Khan, although they are considerably younger -- most are between 20 and 30. One man pecks away at the keyboard, using only his index finger, for several minutes. "I love you Hassan" is the end result on his computer screen. The men sitting next to him laugh when they read the sentence.

In the next room over, a sergeant is explaining what an electrical circuit is to a group of men. It's an effort for them to understand him, since their native language is Pashto, while the army uses Urdu.

Together with psychologists, officers here have spent months researching whether and how Taliban helpers and sympathizers could be deradicalized. They looked at programs in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen, learned about the reintegration of right-wing radicals in Denmark and Great Britain and studied how those who helped the Nazis during the Third Reich became democrats in the Federal Republic of Germany.

The result is a three-month deradicalization course that has been up and running for a year. The goal, Waqas says, is to "remove radical thoughts."

"We conduct very intensive one-on-one interviews, a total of six times over the course of 12 weeks, each time for five to six hours," explains Army psychologist Farrukh Akhtar, a diminutive, pleasant-seeming man. Akhtar also tries to find out to what degree the prisoners were perpetrators or victims. Akhtar has just come from a meeting with two men arrested because they'd had contact with a wanted terrorist. One of them even attended a Taliban training camp.

A "Holy War" with Paper and Pen

"What did you do there?" Akhtar asks him. As he talks to the men, he flips through files containing everything the army knows about the prisoners. Akhtar deliberately chooses not to wear a uniform, not wanting to further intimidate the men he questions, who are already distressed.

"They told me I should help build roads, Doctor."
"You didn't know you were supposed to dig trenches?"
"Is there anything you can tell us that was good about your time in the camp?"
The man considers the question. "Yes, actually, we always had something to eat."

An important part of the "de-Talibanization" process is religious instruction. "In any religion, there are various ways to interpret something. We want to set a few things straight there," Major Waqas explains. A "jihad," or "holy war," for example, can also be fought with paper and pen instead of weapons, he says.

More than 50 bearded men sit in a hall, listening to their teacher, a cleric. He is explaining, at length and with arm gestures, what makes a good Muslim.

"A devout Muslim respects his fellow humans," the teacher says.
The men nod.
"A devout Muslim doesn't misuse religion to exercise power."
The men nod again. The cleric speaks to them in Pashto, since it is imperative that they understand him.


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