Why De-Radicalization and CVE Remain Major Challenges for Pakistan: Learning from CRSS CVE Programming

CRSS Team | 06 June 2018

Visit to a Hindu Temple

The Pakistan Center for Excellence (PACE) is a countering violent extremism (CVE) initiative aimed at motivating young intellectuals and academics on “critical thinking” through participation in monthly training workshops.

Designed by the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), PACE grew out of the need to  foster critical thinking through discourse  anchored in globally acknowledged and practiced values - including acceptance of socio-political diversity, rule of law, equal citizenry, freedom of faith and expression - as well as the rights afforded within Pakistan’s Constitution (articles 8-28).

Observations and key findings from 30 trainings suggest that it is critical that policymakers, civil society members, and stakeholders in university administration commit to creating routine opportunities for dialogue to both educate about tolerance, and give diverse groups opportunities to practice tolerance in real-time interactions.


  • Pakistan needs to develop a holistic strategy to fight against radicalization and extremism by brining reforms in curriculum of mainstream educational system and madrassas;
  • The university administration along with policymakers and civil society members should focus on drafting a youth policy aiming at creating recreational and job opportunities for them;
  • There are deep rooted elements of radicalization; therefore, there should be initiatives with a community-based approach. Community members need to be involved to counter radicalization;
  • Student clubs and associations at universities should also be trained on counter radicalization strategies and such mechanisms should be developed that are resilient to extremism; and
  • In Pakistan, people are mostly influenced by the religious scholars; therefore inter/intra-faith networking involving these scholars should be made to promote social cohesion and peace. It is very important to shape and mold public opinion by the projection of the moderate religious scholars to fight against extremism


PACE organized 30 workshops, drawing as many as 630 young university teachers and professors from 85 public and private sector Pakistani universities. The workshops were carried out with participants from the universities all across Pakistan on monthly basis. Participants attended thirty trainings over the course of 2.5 years. In every round of the workshop, PACE had a new group of participants from the universities. There were six to seven sessions on different thematic areas of PACE, including visits to the worship places of other religious groups to promote inter-faith harmony and social cohesion. Each session was structured to achieve the following outcomes.

  • Outcome 1: Empower selected young professionals from diverse backgrounds with the intellectual tools - to counter-intolerance and lead peaceful conflict resolution in their respective social/ professional spheres - through the provision of trainings on; the need for respecting fundamental human rights, cultural diversity and enhancing their knowledge and capacity to promote virtues of universally acknowledged democratic values as a fundamental pre-requisite for ensuring equal citizenry, social peace, harmony and rule of law.
  • Outcome 2: Generate enlightened narrative and intensified demand for rule of law, equal citizenry, and respect for diversity, social peace and harmony through Trained Professionals’ dialogue within their respective social/professional spheres for message multiplication, and mainstreaming the need for fundamental human rights to all indiscriminately for peaceful co-existence.
  • Outcome 3: Enhanced thinking and discourse embedded in universally acknowledged democratic values through interactive dialogue - on the need for equal citizenry and respect for cultural diversity as a measure of ensuring social peace, harmony and rule of law in a multicultural diverse society - by sharing multicultural perspectives and promoting ideals of democracy from diverse societies across the world.

Key Observations

Feedback from these monthly gatherings leads one to conclude that countering increasing religious radicalization and polarization through critical discourse remains a major challenge for Pakistan’s policymakers and citizens at large. Questions related to gender equality, religious diversity, and perceptions of relative religiosity drove much of the discussion and appeared to be at the core of inter-group tensions.

Gender Equality

CRSS’s experience of working with such a wide array of young male and female teachers was a mixed bag; some were progressive in their ideas and approach, while others appeared less receptive or even reluctant to embrace notions on fundamental human rights that were being advocated during the workshops. When it came to gender diversity, there were other pressing issues. The female participants were usually hesitant and not allowed to travel alone due to cultural barriers. Some were also not allowed to stay at the hotels as it was considered against their cultural values.

Secondly, men thought that propagating gender equality meant asking for more women rights. Patriarchal mindset was evident among several male participants. Not only men, but women also believe that they needed a man’s support to survive in the society.

However, few female participants were still enthusiastic to be a part of this program; as in a society like Pakistan, there are limited forums for females like PACE to make their voice heard. One of the major challenges faced during this training program was how some participants’ religious sensitivity came to fore, and how they expressed little or no tolerance towards difference of opinion.

To reduce misperception regarding gender equality from the grass root level, sensitization session should be conducted at schools and colleges from the beginning so the men should not take it as a threat to their power or dominance rather they take it as giving out equal rights to another human being 

Religious Diversity

The project also included participants from remote areas who were struggling to accept and tolerate others over religious differences and opinions; and therefore, were not receptive to ‘change’. However, CRSS, through PACE, tried to provide them with a platform to debate and discuss progressive ideas.

Initially, most participants would agree that there were gaps in the ideals of inter-faith harmony and diversity and the actual practice. Soon after the dialogues, however, many participants reverted to their original conservative narratives on issues such as womens’ or equal rights for religious minorities.

Also, the preconceived notions of religious intolerance can be fought against with a full-fledge community-based approach to root out the extremist narratives. Moreover, the messenger is as important as the message, and that it is important that people from within these communities also be present as trainers if possible.

Some were amenable to changing their perceptions, while others were not – as evidenced from the inter-active discussions with resource persons. An assessment of the pre and post training questionnaires also helped in determining the extent of influence these workshops had on the participants.

One surprising revelation was some participants even saying that Hindus, their fellow citizens, ought to leave the country if they were prone to forced conversions. They even believed that talking about equal status of Ahmadis as human beings was very much against their religious beliefs. On a positive note, there were participants who believed in a pluralistic society with equal respect for all.

Furthermore, the participants were introduced to interactive sessions with minorities at the latter’s worship places. Initially, they appeared to be respectful towards their religious beliefs; however, soon after leaving the dialogues, they reverted to their fixed pattern of thinking. The CRSS, however, appreciated from the beginning that the project would be a challenge, as most participants come from far flung areas of Pakistan and with a fixed set of preconceived notions nurtured in their minds over the course of their lives.

Hence, some of them were not mentally ready to shun their prejudices and emotional attachments. For them, some issues were ‘no-go’ areas as ‘they challenged the foundations of their religious beliefs’. Therefore, for some, deradicalization programs and campaigns were propagation of defying values against religion.

Piety Tests and Religiosity

During the project, some trainers were also criticized by several participants ‘for not being as religious as them’. For such participants, everything started and ended with religion, simply because they related everything to it. If someone choose to disagree with them, they were quick to accuse them committing blasphemy. On a positive side, however, there were others who seemed to be appreciative of being given a chance. These participants also believed an equal society with respect for all, irrespective of their religion.

There is a preconceived notion that professors and lecturers are open and flexible in their thinking. However, there is a large proportion of these ‘influencers’ that refuses to promote diverse values and tolerance; hence as a result, the future generations suffer.

These experiences and reflections suggest that if teachers, considered role models for every society, are less receptive to change and diversity, how can we, as a society, blame those who rarely get an opportunity to seek formal education and change their preconceived notions. This also suggests that Pakistan needs more projects like PACE in order to break barriers and contribute towards a more diverse and pluralistic society.


Although, Pakistan has suffered tremendously from religious extremism and radicalization, there is still hope that through collective efforts, we can bring about positive change in the society. Through such training workshops, the CRSS wishes to sensitize and shape the mindset of the coming generations by promoting the message of equality, diversity and tolerance. Hence, there is a dire need for multiple stakeholders and donor in collaboration with organizations should engage in the process of countering extremism and radicalization.


Author Information

Farhana Kanwal

Farhana Kanwal is a Project Coordinator at CRSS, where she works primarily on Pakistan Center of Excellence (PACE), a project countering violent extremism. She has a Master’s degree in Political Science from University of Peshawar. She has previously worked with Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), Sarhad Rural Support Program (SRSP) and a government-run project in different capacities.                                                                                                     

At CRSS, she is responsible for the coordination, planning, operation, execution and reporting of PACE activities. She is also working as a Research Associate, and has contributed in publication of a research titled The NAP Tracker

Zehra Zaidi

Zehra Zaidi is a Project Coordinator at CRSS, where she works primarily on Pakistan Center of Excellence (PACE), a project countering violent extremism. She holds a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from Bahria University, Islamabad. Currently, Zehra is pursuing her MPhil in Development Studies from Iqra University, Islamabad. She has previously worked as a Capacity Building Assistant in Hum Qadam, a project of IMC Worldwide funded by DFID.                                                               

Her areas of interest are working towards the upliftment of marginalized segments of society and conducting field visits to assess, monitor and understand the dynamics of the community one is working with. At CRSS, she is responsible for collecting and evaluating data to ensure smooth flow of PACE activities.

Image credit: CRSS Pakistan | 2017

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