Youth and extremism: Entrenched extremism harder to recognise

"The youth are witnessing various forms of extremism around them without even being aware of its presence... 'The physical and emotional challenges, which come with their age, make it trickier to make sense of it," Bargad, Executive Director Sabiha Shaheen. ILLUSTRATION: KIRAN SHAHID

“The youth are witnessing various forms of extremism around them without even being aware of its presence… ‘The physical and emotional challenges, which come with their age, make it trickier to make sense of it,” Bargad, Executive Director Sabiha Shaheen. ILLUSTRATION: KIRAN SHAHID

LAHORE: When it comes to extremism, the youth are the most vulnerable segment in our society, Rab Nawaz, a youth training and social activist, says.

Nawaz is also a member of the executive committee at Khudi – an organisation which identifies itself as a “counter extremism social movement”.

“The disempowerment of youth has caused confusion and frustration, which are both exploited by ‘extremist’ elements,” says Nawaz. He is one of the many individuals and organisations trying to figure out how the youth understand extremism, how vulnerable they are to it and how it impacts them.

Another initiative with a similar objective is Youth Hub against Extremism, which started out as a Facebook page, in June 2012, for discussing extremism among the youth but soon turned into an active platform through which students reached out to their peers. Now the group’s members hold awareness camps at their own and other universities.

The group met at training sessions conducted by Bargad – an NGO that focuses on youth related issues. That particular project was titled Tackling Youth Extremism.

Sabiha Shaheen, the executive director of Bargad, told The Express Tribune that the need for the project was felt because of the “vague understanding” of the term ‘extremism’. “The youth are witnessing various forms of extremism around them without even being aware of its presence,” says Shaheen. “The physical and emotional challenges, which come with their age, make it trickier to make sense of it.”

As part of the project young men and women, between 15 and 29 years of age, studying in 20 schools and universities were asked what they understood by the term and how it could be tackled. A booklet containing essays submitted by the students was published in May in which poverty, unemployment, lack of recreational activities, curriculum taught at schools, identity crisis and frustration were identified as reasons for extremism.

Shaheen says that though the issue is staring people in the face there are still many who deny that there is extremism in the society. Noor Imran, 21, a student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences believes that is because extremism is, at times, “deep rooted in our mentality”.

For 23-year-old Azeem Siddiqui extremism is “imposing my views on others”. The Bahauddin Zakariya University student has organised a number of awareness sessions on the campus. He says while extremism has been defined mostly in a religious context, socio-political circumstances also play a role. “If I were a child who lost his father in a terrorist attack, I would be more likely to develop an extremist mindset,” he says.

Tahira Arooj, another member, agrees. “Extremism is not just about religion… it can be political or cultural.” A Kinnaird College student, she has presented local radio programmes in Punjabi. “When intolerance becomes a part of the culture, it paves way for all kinds of extremism,” says the English literature major.

The varied interpretations of extremism don’t surprise Muhammad Shahzad Khan, executive director of Chanan Development Association – an NGO that works for youth development.

“It depends on the context,” says Khan.

In 2010, says Khan, when the CDA conducted a National Youth Peer Education and Awareness Campaign to Reduce Extremism in Lahore, Karachi, Gilgit, Quetta and Peshawar, he found out how varied the definitions were. Though extremism was largely defined by people in reference to non-Muslims, people in Gilgit defined it in terms of ethnic difference.

“The youth in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were of the view that in the absence of educational and recreational opportunities they had no option other than to strive for Jannat (paradise),” says Khan. “Such individuals become easy targets for militants,” he says, crossing the line between extremism and terrorism.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2013.

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