OKARA, Pakistan — Sultan Mehmood Gujar was a solid supporter of Islamist militants fighting in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India and even donated money to them, until he attended an innovative 40-day lecture series by a moderate cleric aimed at countering violent extremism.
The course, given to the public at an Islamic school in a hotbed of militancy in Pakistan, had a profound effect on the 46-year-old property dealer, convincing him the militants were wrong to claim they were waging holy war, or jihad, justified by the Quran, the religion’s holy book.
"I was shocked to discover that what the militants were doing was against Islam," said Gujar, sitting on the floor at the madrasa in Okara city where the lectures were delivered. "Now I call them terrorists, not jihadis."
Fazal ur Rehman, the cleric who runs the 400-student madrasa, recorded each of the 2-hour lectures he and others gave this past summer and would like to distribute the DVDs to reach a wider audience. But he lacks the money.
The U.S. has created a new unit in Pakistan that aims to leverage such grassroots efforts by working with local moderates to counter violent extremism — the first of its kind set up by an American embassy anywhere in the world, according to U.S. officials here. The existence of the unit has never before been reported.
Rehman and other clerics attempting to challenge extremism in Pakistan recently met with U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter in Islamabad, though the 50-year-old Rehman says he has not yet received support from the Americans.
Okara has special significance because it is near the village of Ajmal Kasab, home of the only surviving gunman from the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed over 160 people.
The U.S. chose Pakistan as the site for its new venture because it is home to a vast network of Islamist militants who have been fighting U.S.-led troops in neighboring Afghanistan for over a decade and have even organized attacks on American soil.
The three-person unit in the U.S. Embassy public affairs section was established in July. It plans to work with local partners, including moderate religious leaders, to project their counter-extremist messages and push back against the militants’ extensive propaganda machine, said U.S. officials.
It will use TV shows, documentaries, radio programs and posters. It also intends to ramp up exchange programs for religious leaders and public outreach to conservative Muslims who previously had little contact with American officials.
"There are a lot of courageous voices speaking out against extremism here in Pakistan," said Tom Miller, head of public affairs at the U.S. Embassy. "Our job is to find out how we can amplify those narratives."
The unit is just now ramping up operations, said officials. It was funded with an initial budget of $5 million that officials hope will grow. Officials declined to provide details on specific programs they are funding or plan to fund, for fear that publicly acknowledging U.S. involvement would discredit their partners.
That’s a major worry in this country where anti-American sentiment is rampant. Any cleric known to be taking U.S. help is likely to be shunned by many. There are other challenges as well. Many among clerics and the public who are considered moderates have mixed views — they often oppose the killing of innocent civilians in Pakistan, but support jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan or against neighboring India. Further complicating the situation is alleged Pakistani government support for some militant groups.
Also, the militants are likely to strike back, as indicated by a recent trip the U.S. ambassador made to a madrasa in Faisalabad city to attend a meeting of moderate religious leaders who denounced suicide bombings and other forms of violence.
Militants responded the next day by calling the Muslim cleric who hosted the event, Yasin Zafar, and warning he could be killed. The call was from a member of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely believed to be a front group for Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-India militant organization, said Zafar.
"I was taunted for becoming a U.S. supporter," said Zafar. "I was told that I should be cautious because I may have provoked the Taliban."
The ambassador’s visit to the 900-student Jaamia Salafia was unusual because the madrasa teaches a puritanical strain of Islam followed by some Pakistani militant organizations, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, although Zafar said he does not support the group.
The meeting’s participants railed against American drone strikes, which are very unpopular in Pakistan, said Zafar.
The anger illustrated one of the difficulties for the U.S. in working with Muslim leaders who have the local networks to counter extremists.
"They might disagree with how the U.S. is conducting some aspects of its foreign policy, but there is a huge opportunity to partner with these groups because of the mutual goal of stopping the Taliban," said Mehreen Farooq, who recently studied grassroots counter-extremism efforts in Pakistan for the U.S.-based World Organization for Resource Development and Education.
The most intensive component of the new U.S. initiative will be a media campaign focused on raising awareness about civilians harmed by militant attacks, said Miller, the embassy public affairs chief.
"We are trying to discredit these acts and take away the narrative that the militants are some kind of ideological heroes," said Miller.
Surveys have shown that despite varying levels of support for militant groups within Pakistan, a majority of citizens oppose attacks that target civilians. Militants in Pakistan often deny responsibility for civilian casualties.
The militants have an extensive propaganda network of newspapers, magazines and Internet videos — an effort that in some cases has been enabled by decades of support from the Pakistani government.
The government spent millions of dollars on a media campaign in 2009 trying to dent some of the support for militancy it had built up over the years. The successful initiative aimed to foster public backing for military operations against the Pakistani Taliban, a homegrown insurgent group seeking to topple the government and responsible for killing thousands in suicide attacks.
But the campaign was careful not to single out groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba or the Afghan Taliban, which have received support from the government in the past and many believe still do, said a former government official who worked on counter-extremism programs. The program has since fizzled out, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Islamic clerics who have met with the U.S. ambassador recently expressed hope they could steer Pakistanis away from militancy by explaining when holy war is justified. But they also disagreed on when that’s the case.
Zafar, the cleric who hosted the ambassador, said the insurgencies inside Pakistan and in the Indian-ruled part of Kashmir were unjustified. But he backs the Taliban’s fight against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, a common sentiment inside Pakistan.
"Afghanistan was invaded, and the Taliban are waging jihad to protect their homeland, their freedom and their rights, so I recognize that as jihad," said Zafar.
Rehman, the cleric who conducted the 40 days of lectures, opposes the Afghan Taliban’s fight but said he was powerless to compete with the extremists.
"The militants have arms, are trained and have the resources to distribute their literature in bulk quantities," said Rehman. "We are very limited in our ability to distribute material to counter it."