Hundreds of Pakistanis met outside Islamabad’s infamous Red Mosque last week to light candles for victims of the Taliban’s recent attack against the Army Public School in Peshawar. Nearby, activists called on the mosque’s extremist cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz to condemn the attack that killed over 140 teachers and children.

Across Pakistan, similar vigils are being held as community leaders and religious leaders alike condemn the Taliban and ramp up support for counter-terrorism operations. 


This should not be unexpected. During our fieldwork in over 35 cities and villages in every region of Pakistan, we found that Pakistan’s civil society is playing a decisive role in challenging violent extremism at multiple levels. 

Public intellectuals and community leaders are promoting inclusion and social cohesion to undercut intolerant ideologies. Every Christmas, for example, the charity, Muslim Hands, provides food and gifts for Pakistan’s poor Christian communities. Community leaders are also organizing anti-terror campaigns and public rallies to mobilize various segments of the population against the Taliban. When militants took over the picturesque Swat Valley in 2009, religious leaders from across the country came together to organize the ‘Strengthen Pakistan Conference.’ This helped garner public support for military operations against the insurgents. 

Some NGOs like the women’s organization, PAIMAN, also offer specially designed counter-radicalization seminars, offering vulnerable youth vocational training and counseling. Civil society groups publically denounce attacks on innocent civilians and the destruction of Pakistan’s cultural heritage. Just last year, after a historic church in Peshawar was attacked, activists formed human chains around the church to protect Christians during Sunday services. Moreover, religious scholars have issued dozens of fatwas condemning extremism. Finally, social welfare organizations provide aid to impoverished communities to deter them from seeking support from terrorist groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawa

So, why, despite all these efforts, are we not seeing an end to radicalization? There are several reasons. 

First, to date, both the Pakistan and U.S. government’s strategy has relied largely on state and military-centric approaches that focus on kinetic capture and kill counterterrorism operations. As a result, civil society engagement has been kept on the back burner. 

Second, civil society actors who are at the forefront in the battle against violent extremism lack basic resources. Although Pakistan has one of the most robust civil societies in the developing world, a large portion of the sector comprises start-ups and grassroots organizations with limited funding. By contrast, militant organizations are well funded from foreign sources, kidnapping ransoms, and drug smuggling operations. 

Third, Pakistan’s peace activists require assistance in building up their institutional capacity. Most peacebuilding organizations, for example, could benefit from communications training programs to create viral anti-Taliban campaigns. The religious scholar Fazl ur-Rahman Okarvi, for example, teachers a course on Quranic principles of peace for hundreds of madrasa students, which he recorded and posted on YouTube. Unfortunately, without social media savvy, the videos have only received a dozen hits each. 

Fourth, Pakistanis require better community-policing structures so law enforcement and communities can cooperate to thwart militant activity. Local organizations also need help in providing civic engagement training, so that citizens can hold their elected officials responsible and express their grievances through democratic processes. 

Moreover, Pakistan’s civil society requires coalition-building assistance. To date, Pakistan’s response to terrorism has largely been reactive, with a spike in activity often following a large-scale attack. The U.S. government, in conjunction with the Pakistan diaspora, should use its convening power to network Pakistan’s civil society. In particular, we need to connect non-faith based and faith-based organizations, which both do highly effective work in countering extremism but rarely collaborate. The widespread condemnation of the Taliban following Tuesday’s attack presents a critical window of opportunity to sustain this momentum and develop a national response. 

Finally, we need to bridge the US-Pakistan trust deficit. This year, Pakistan issued its first comprehensive national security policy to take on extremism. Many of its strategic objectives are the same as America’s and can provide the groundwork for further collaboration. 

With the potential of ISIS increasing their recruitment in the region, this is a critical time to invest in civil society based approaches to countering violent extremism in Pakistan. At a fraction of the cost of military aid, the U.S. and international community, in consultation with Pakistani’s civil society can provide guidance, training, or direct aid in the form of micro-grants for organizations with grassroots reach. Ultimately, it is important to remember that whichever programs we support, ideas must come from within, and we must leverage from local resources so that counter extremism initiatives resonate with Pakistanis.  

Ziad is the director of South and Central Asia Programs at WORDE, and a Truman National Security Fellow. Farooq is a senior fellow at WORDE.