Speaking out against violent extremism, Afghans strive to create a new peace dialogue
MAZAR-I-SHARIF - Distressed by violence sweeping parts of northern Afghanistan, Dr Najib Paikan mounted the stairs of his mosque one recent day, and stepped up to the pulpit to provide his personal view of what is needed to “win the peace.” He called on his friends and colleagues to “wake up” and engage in a more sincere way in a peace process.
“I felt awkward at first, but then the speech I gave just took on a life of its own,” he said. “Talking about peace in a mosque came naturally to me – especially because it was so needed.”
Dr. Najib is one of many Afghans expressing similar sentiments, often in public. He is a private citizen who takes part in local peace dialogue and, as a community leader, is keen to tap into the mood of a generation of young Afghans who are standing up to the ongoing efforts of militant groups to recruit the nation’s young to their cause.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) backs frequent events and media roundtables aimed at providing unique opportunities for Afghans to talk about local peace efforts so the voices of Dr. Najib and others can be heard. UNAMA has welcomed religious leaders to voice their views, also considered essential to the peace process. Nevertheless, much of the enthusiasm for countering the messages of violent extremism is organic in nature, arising from individuals and from institutions anxious to promote peace in new ways.
“We teach medical care at the Hayat Balkh Institute of Health Science, and we are establishing a dialogue across the country with young people who care about the health of the nation,” said Dr. Najib. As with many local initiatives, his peace efforts are not underpinned with foreign money, and they are driven primarily by local volunteers.
“My concern is to give moral support and momentum to the peace movement as we face up to violence across Afghanistan,” he said.
UNAMA’s chief, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, has welcomed local grassroots peace efforts, which he says can help drive a new Afghan-wide peace dialogue. In a recent opinion piece in The Diplomat, a leading pan-Asian news outlet, he called for a “sustained push for peace in a conflict in which there can be no military solution, nor any one victor.”
New polling has shown a groundswell of Afghans agree with that assessment. On 2 December, the Center for Strategic and Regional Studies (CSRS) in Kabul released a survey that showed 83 per cent of respondents across a number of key provinces in Afghanistan believe that the current war in Afghanistan does not have a “winner” and the only way to end it is through dialogue. Likewise, in November, the annual Asia Foundation survey found a majority of Afghans believe peace through dialogue with insurgents is possible.
Afghan peace activists say, however, that they can alter the dynamic of incessant war only by addressing social and economic factors in tandem with fresh dialogue. “The wolf in winter goes out when it is hungry,” said Qazi Mohammad Same, the regional head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, alluding to the Afghan myth that predators, or militants, emerge when there is scarcity.
“A lot of the fight against extremism starts with creating a literate population that has work to do and is able to put food on the table,” he said, noting that there is a crucial intersection of good governance and peace, especially in gaining broader public support for overarching peace efforts.
“An insurgency can only thrive when it operates against a backdrop of fatigue, poverty and unemployment,” he stressed. “Right now, when a majority of our population is illiterate, that’s an easy target for recruiters.”
QaziSame called for an honest approach to peace discussions with an acknowledgement that there can be no winners in the military conflict: “It also does not help that in a year that is as bloody as last year, we keep hearing that the Taliban is losing and about to be defeated,” he said. “My eleven-year-old daughter asked the other day a poignant question: ‘If we are winning, daddy, why is it necessary for thousands of more troops to be sent in from abroad?’”
Peace activists in northern Afghanistan are facing a fast-changing security environment: According to recent news reports, militant groups have strengthened their hand in remote provinces like Jawzjan, Sar-I-Pul, even Balkh, an ancient stronghold of literacy and tolerance. These groups are attempting to lure young Afghans with clever web-messaging that calls on “true believers” to take up arms and fight for their global cause.
Dr. Najib said that to counter religious calls to arms, civil society must rise up with its own voice and create its own community leaders who can help shape public opinion. “We can’t just have the usual government officials calling for peace; we need a much broader network of voices,” he said, noting that media can help send the right message in big cities, but in rural areas torn by fighting, there is a need to identify new people to lead the peace conversations and peacemaking initiatives.
“We need people who plea for better government on the one hand and despise violent extremism on the other,” he said. “This is the combination I am looking for when identifying young peace activists.”
Religion, Dr. Najib also said, is a key to promoting a broader peace process. “The Quran itself is full of positive peace messages, and they should be used as our best hope to tap into what people have faith in,” he said. “Yet there can’t just be talk; there has to be action.”
To improve the chances of a positive dialogue, he underlined the importance of compassion on all sides. “We must treat those we are dealing with – even when they are violent – as real humans instead of referring to them in the media as rats or rodents,” he said. “Right now, there is just so much chaos and propaganda on all sides that our peace message is being lost in translation.”