ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - 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.
Although Khudi has spread its message in many Pakistani universities, its leaders say it could years to make an impact.
Just mentioning the world secularism can be a problem because it is portrayed as a non-religious concept — so someone secular could easily be labelled an infidel.
“We are trying to create the al Qaeda of democratic movements,” said Nawaz, 34, in a telephone interview, referring to the militant group’s reach.
“Pakistan is uniquely difficult. Anyone who mentions the word democracy is immediately labelled a Western stooge.”
Khudi believes holding free and fair elections in Pakistan is not enough, because religious radicalism is stifling democratic concepts like free speech and freedom of association.
So it is reaching out to the young, since over 60 percent of
Pakistan’s population is under 25.
Made up of eight executive committee members and about 5,000 volunteers, it deploys ideas as its weapons, insisting that military crackdowns on militants produce limited results.
Khudi members hold workshops at universities, hand out pamphlets and show films that condemn violence.
The group is trying to uproot hardline Islam that can be traced back decades. In the 1980s, for instance, President General Zia ul-Haq nurtured Islamist militants and turned society towards radicalism.
National coordinator Fatima Mullick recalls how as a teenager in the 1990s she heard how 40 Shi’ite doctors were shot dead outside their homes or on the way to work in just a few months in her home city of Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial hub.
“There is no illusion,” the 27-year-old said of Khudi’s challenge. “This is the toughest job in the world.”
For Imran Khan, a senior Khudi trainer and spokesman unrelated to the cricketer-turned-politician, it was the September 11 attacks on the United States that raised his awareness.
“People around me, even people from my family, were very happy that a few ‘infidels’ were killed by Muslim jihadis,” he said, sitting beside teenage Khudi volunteers with funky haircuts and Western-style sweatshirts.
Khudi pioneers work out of a type of safehouse in the capital Islamabad for fear of attacks by militants. To achieve its aims, Khudi holds workshops on university campuses.
A big part of the problem is the growing perception that the West is plotting against Muslims.
Recent events like the November 26 NATO air strike that killed 24 Pakistani troops on the border with Afghanistan are fuelling anti-Americanism, and making Khudi’s job harder.
“I have relatives who work for Pakistani intelligence. They told me the Americans were behind all the suicide bombings,” said Sobia Baig, a Pakistani woman at the hotel workshop.
Khudi is troubled by Pakistan’s long history of creeping radicalism. But a far more recent event shocked its leaders.
In January, Punjab province Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his own bodyguard. because the governor had called for the reform of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law, which critics say is misused against minorities.
Lawyers who once protested in support of democracy showered bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri with rose petals.
Two months after Taseer’s murder, Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was murdered by the Taliban for demanding changes to the blasphemy law.
After the Bhatti assassination, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said Pakistan was “poisoned by extremism.”
It was never meant to be this way.
Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah appealed for religious tolerance in his first address to parliament in 1947.
Ironically it is young Pakistanis who seem most receptive to his message, like the ones in jeans, tights and sleeveless shirts at the Jammin Java cafe in the city of Lahore — an ideal recruiting ground for Khudi.
“Pakistan should be Jinnah’s Pakistan where there is no room for extremism and intolerance,” said student Nafeesa Ali, 22.
But Nawaz’s old Islamist group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, is equally determined to find followers at the cafe as well. It has been known to leave its orange promotional stickers.
Few are more aware of the long battle ahead for Khudi than Shakil Ahmad Chaudhary, a communications specialist who passionately delivers speeches at the group’s workshops.
“My children (aged 9 and 12) go to a so-called elite school in Islamabad. And they come back and say ‘Our teacher tells us of conspiracy theories’, 9/11 for example was a conspiracy by George Bush and the Jews,” said Ahmad.
“I try to educate them. But again, I have to be careful. I don’t want them to pick a quarrel with the teacher or become outcasts in the class.”
Additional reporting by Mubashir Bukhari in LAHORE; Editing by Ron Popeski