Can poetic expression counter violent extremism in Pakistan?

KARACHI: Dr Anita M Weiss is no stranger to Pakistan. A sociologist and professor of International Studies at the University of Oregon, USA, she has extensively researched and written on a multitude of issues in Pakistan. Her current project is Countering Violent Extremism in Pakistan: Local Actions, Local Voices.
The latter part of the title is an angle not many speak of when evaluating violent extremism in the country. Few understand the complicated issues interwoven with violent extremism – even less comprehend the local, cultural and religious voices working tirelessly in opposition.

Counter-narratives to violent extremism was Anita Weiss’ subject during her session at the annual Karachi Literature Festival on Sunday. The room was not only full, it was packed – people eagerly nodding their heads and writing notes during the short half-hour session.
“Is this soil in which the evil seed of violence has been sowed [in Pakistan], is this soil friendly to this kind of violent extremist, confrontationist attitude?” asks Salman Tarik Kureshi, who is moderating the session.
Dr Weiss says no.
“The conventional question is, how is it possible for a conservative effort to bring Pakistanis together – to reject extremism, to recapture their cultural values and identity; and how to celebrate their society,” she says.
“That’s not a question to ask because the reality is, many individuals and groups in Pakistan are engaged in doing just this.”

Her current book on the topic, which Oxford has agreed to publish and will be available next year, will look at the ways many Pakistanis are saying “buss [stop], enough!”
The author recounts her long journey in Pakistan. While she was in Islamabad on the day of the APS attack, the author vividly remembers seeing former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressing the nation on television after the deadly incident.

“I saw Nawaz Sharif with his commonly seen somber face and said he is so sad…I picked up a takkia [pillow] and threw it at the television,” she says. “To me it is not enough, it was not sufficient for the Prime Minister of my other country to say I’m so sad.”

The realisation
Dr Weiss first came to Pakistan in 1978, but she says while she thought she knew Pakistan, her “eyes were closed.”
It was not until she came back to the country in 2015 that she started talking to people about poetry in Sindhi and Pashto culture; by the summer of 2016, she started interviewing poets and became deeply engaged in the topic.
The fluent Urdu speaker jokes she would love to learn Pashto, but she “is now too old and the language doesn’t seem to get through her brain.”

It can be argued that formidable expressions countering violent extremism are found in written words throughout Pakistan. The Sufi tradition is particularly important in the Pashto poetry such as the works of Rahman Baba. According to Dr Weiss, each of these traditions has powerful manifestations.
These manifestations are often hidden in mainstream Pakistan today.
“Poetry is not only to express self-identity or nationalist sentiment, but also part of the cultural institutions and historical existence of people,” says Dr Weiss.

Moving towards Sindh, the professor says she was enamored by the poetry of Hafiz Nizamani. While she highlights three Sindhi poets in her upcoming book, she admires his play on concepts and words coming right out of traditions and also standing up to violent extremism in the way he feels is penetrating throughout society.
Inspired by poets and Sufi groups during her various trips, Dr Weiss says she ‘lit up’ when meeting a Qawwali chanting, ‘Na shia hoon, na sunni hoon (neither Shia, nor Sunni)’.
The topic of how religious leaders in the country are finding ways to counter violent extremism is also mentioned during the session.

Muhammad Abd-ul-Khabir Azad is a Mufti in Lahore who is especially mentioned, as one of the leaders bringing together religious leaders twice a month to discuss the state of their constituencies; when there is a crisis, they collectively attempt to calm things down.
“It’s not going to solve the problem, but it’s an important step, and we should not neglect that,” Dr Weiss says.
In response to a question from the audience, the sociologist clarified her stance on what she aims to do through her work of investigating poetry as a means to counter violent extremism. “I’m not trying to make up anything, not trying to say Pakistanis should do this, not trying to valorize standing up to extremism. I’m simply saying wow, look at what these amazing people are doing all over Pakistan to recapture their culture.”

She smiles at the end of her session, and perhaps leaves the audience with a positive message.
“Maybe we can all live happily ever after,” she says, with a hint of sarcasm but what also seems like deeply-embedded hope.



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