x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Saudis urge Pakistan to follow anti-extremist plan

Riyadh's envoy to Islamabad says a home-grown media campaign to curb the spread of extremism is needed.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan needs a home-grown media campaign to curb the spread of extremism and could learn from Saudi Arabia's jihadi deprogramming scheme, Riyadh's envoy to Islamabad says. The two close Muslim states, both allies of the United States, are beset by militancy - among their otherwise moderate populaces - spreading violent ideology and staging deadly attacks in the name of religion and in response to US aggression.

"Both our countries have been victims of radicalism, militancy and terrorism," Ali S Awadh Asseri, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Pakistan, said in an interview. Mr Asseri, who has been the kingdom's Islamabad-based envoy for eight years, has nearly completed a book on counterterrorism, with a heavy focus on non-military means. Its publication is planned for next year. Seven years after the September 11 attacks, Pakistan is struggling with a growing militant problem in response to its co-operation in the US-led war against Taliban and al Qa'eda fighters.

But Saudi Arabia, Mr Asseri said, has been grappling with terrorism since long before Sept 11 2001 and has learnt some important lessons along the way. "You have to remember we were hit before New York," Mr Asseri said, recalling the Grand Mosque seizure in Mecca in 1979, car-bomb attacks in Riyadh and Dhahran in 1995 and 1996, respectively and assassinations of Saudi diplomats in Bangkok in the 1990s. "Terrorism has been a problem for us long before 9/11," he said.

After the September 11 attacks, the Saudi kingdom adopted a "prevent, cure and care" approach to halting the spread of terrorism, which includes a media campaign by moderate religious scholars and a rehabilitation programme for captured militant fighters. "The problem is that those who are misleading their followers are not really ulemas [scholars trained in Islamic law]. They just choose a few [Quranic] verses," Mr Asseri said. "In our media campaigns we take highly educated, PhD-level scholars who know the true spirit of our religion and the way it is taught and put them on radio and TV.

"If Pakistan was to use the media to convey enlightened messages to those people through radio and television, it could be a great help." Mr Asseri said prisoners receive counselling from psychiatrists, psychologists and sociologists, as well as ulemas, as part of the rehabilitation programme. "They ask them questions like, 'Why do you kill others?' Since these ulemas are so qualified in all verses and their meaning, they debate with the prisoner in a rational, persuasive manner until they convince him of the error of his thinking."

Up to 90 per cent of prisoners who have undergone Riyadh's rehabilitation programme have been cured and "are living normally", Mr Asseri said. There have been more than 100 suicide bomb attacks in Pakistan since the start of last year, killing more than 1,000 civilians and members of the security forces. These have included attacks on the homecoming convoy of Benazir Bhutto, her subsequent daylight assassination and a lorry bomb attack on Islamabad's landmark Marriott Hotel in September.

Recently militants have trained their sights on anti-Taliban tribesmen and foreigners in and around the frontier city of Peshawar, shooting dead a US development worker, kidnapping the Afghan ambassador-designate, an Iranian diplomat and a Polish engineer and firing on a pair of Japanese and Pakistani journalists. However, Pakistan's people and infrastructure have suffered most: tribal elders are being killed; girls' schools in the north-west are being razed; bridges are bombed, roads destroyed and trade halted. Police and private security guards earning wages of less than US$100 (Dh367) per month are being attacked.

Such violence is halting badly needed investment and obstructing development in a country whose economy is collapsing under 25 per cent inflation, 30 per cent currency devaluation and shrinking foreign reserves. The fledgling civilian government cites a three-pronged strategy of dialogue, development and force to deal with militancy. But past dialogue and ceasefire attempts have failed and military offensives not only invoke fresh attacks, they breed new militants.

Excluding the government, few voices of moderation have spoken up in the Pakistani media. Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as president this year, spoke frequently of "enlightened moderation", but his credibility was and remains low. "Some of our respected religious scholars have come out openly, urged moderation and condemned suicide bombings, but we need a concerted effort," said Pervez Iqbal Cheema, a Pakistani security analyst.

"For someone who has been subjected to the wrong type of propaganda for a long time, you can't expect him to be convinced otherwise through one or two sermons? [The] media could play a very important role," Mr Cheema said. "If our respected scholars give the sermons, my own belief is that a vast majority of tribesmen would listen to them and consider their lessons." Any solution must be a home-grown Pakistani solution, the Saudi envoy stressed. He has informally encouraged officials here to conduct study tours in the Saudi kingdom and compose a model to suit Pakistan's needs.

"Study us, our successes and failures, and make a homemade package. Use Pakistani psychologists, psychiatrists, ulema, sociologists," Mr Asseri said. "Look at the ways in which those who are misleading are spreading their message. Cassettes are made of their speeches and distributed and everyone listens in their cars to them and they are so influential, they are able to scare you. "A heavy media campaign using moderate and enlightened religious scholars as effective instruments to project a correct interpretation of religion could help a great deal. "This would encourage people to understand the true message of Islam, which is a message of peace, harmony and coexistence." bcurran@thenational.ae