Combatting the Contagion Of Violence In Pakistan

Editor’s Note: Zaheer Abbas Maseed is a civil society activist from Pakistan. Currently he is pursuing a leadership program by the McCain Institute for International Leadership and working with Cure Violence in their Safe Streets Program run by the Health Department of Baltimore City, Maryland, USA. He belongs to Waziristan, the tribal area of Pakistan.  A version of this blog originally appeared on the McCain’s Institute’sNGL Blog.

The word ‘contagion’ literally means the transmission of disease from one person to another by close contact. I am using this term deliberately to reflect my understanding of violence and its spread. This understanding has been developed based on my experience with Cure Violence, an American NGO working on issue of violence in United States and globally.

The Cure Violence model is based on a public health approach. Cure Violence considers all forms of violence like psychological, emotional, physical and sexual as a kind of contagious disease or epidemic. The organization believes that violence could be effectively prevented and controlled if the approach of an epidemic control is adopted in communities disproportionately affected by violence. The model suggests that in a certain society where violence is normalized by means of consistent exposure, experience, glorification, promotion and desensitization process; it is very likely that the people will become less immune to violence and hence more receptive to its infection.

It is because violence is an acquired and learned behavior. Perpetrators of violence are not bad people. They have been living in a society where violence has become a norm. This approach also suggests that communities and regions sharing boundaries with the conflict area/country or community are more vulnerable to be infected by violence.

When I look at the history and current situation of my country, Pakistan, the above approach not only seems a convenient analogy but also a very effective and innovative approach to address and prevent violence in the society.

Pakistan has been exposed to mega scale violence since its very creation in 1947 including these events:

  • Creation of Pakistan, Mass Migration (Hijrat) and War of 1947 – 1948
  • War of 1965
  • War of 1971
  • USSR-Afghan War (1979-1989)
  • Taliban the new Rulers of Afghanistan
  • Kargil War
  • Fall of Taliban Regime and Global War on Terror

The current terrorism and instability in Pakistani society is not merely the result of Pakistan’s participation and so-called ‘cooperation’ with United States in ‘war on terror’ that started in 2001, but rather the logical outcome of society’s continued experience of violence and exposure to it. It is because of the country’s history of using violence at home and in the region which have produced a new culture where ‘violence’ have become a social norm, a continued mindset of the state and society at large.

Curing the Violence in Pakistan?

This deadly epidemic could only be reversed and contained if the strategies of epidemic control are applied. The Cure Violence approach is a three pronged strategy and all three components of the model are applied simultaneously.

1. Interruption of Violence

The first component is interruption of violence. It implies detection of potential conflicts and high risk individuals in communities and in areas which have a high ratio of violence. It suggests interrupting the violence before it happens. To further clarify it, interruption needs to work with individuals and groups who are more likely to exercise violence at any time for varied reasons and purposes. To outreach to such individuals and communities, we need people among them who could work as credible messengers, “violence interrupters” (VIs). VIs need to be trained in detection of high risk individuals, mapping of ongoing and potential conflicts, and most importantly on how to mediate those potential conflicts by convincing the high risk individuals and groups in the community that violence is not a ‘solution’.

In case of Pakistan, ‘violence interrupters’ may include ex-jihadis, clerics and activists of different religious, ethnic and political groups being part of violence in the past and now living peaceful and neutral lives. Others mays be identified among former dacoits and run-away criminals living in tribal areas away from the reach of the police. This kind of people will need specialized trainings, behavior change programs, counselling and essentially clearance of all charges and commitment of not perpetrating violence and involving in illegal activities again. They could be best ‘credible messengers’ than the field workers of NGOs and Government to outreach the militants, work with violent religious and political groups to change their behavior and thinking about use of violence.

The reason is they have a high ‘level of trust’ and known credibility to outreach to perpetrators of violence and victims in conflict situations and in areas in which NGOs and personnel of Law Enforcement agencies are less effective. The important caution that needs to be taken here is that violence interrupters need to be under constant watch, thorough monitoring and supervision and regular rigorous trainings so that they can positively influence others instead of relapsing into violence again because they are directly exposed to violence and its carriers (the high risk individuals) in the field.

2. Preventing Further Spread and Transmission

The second component is to prevent people and communities from exposure to violence just as healthy people are suggested to be away from a patient suffering from a contagious disease. Individuals and communities involved in violence should be kept away from people and areas which are not affected. It also implies stopping the perpetrator from committing further violence and the victim’s family, friends and relatives from retaliation for seeking revenge. Again this is only possible by violence interrupters with the help of the community. VIs must know how to mediate between the two fighting groups at the scene of the incident and immediately after the conflict to prevent retaliation.

3. Changing Community Norms about Violence and its Use

The final component is to build resilience and increase communities’ immunity (resistance) to violence. It needs ambitious and targeted efforts by the government, media and civil society to change the community norms and behavior about violence and its use.

We have the alternate ways and stories in our own culture and history. Leadership messages from the struggles and autobiographies of peace icons and political leaders like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela and most importantly the holy saints of Indo-Pak like Rahman Baba, Syed Mir Anwar Shah of Tirah, Baba Bulleh Shah, Sachal Sar Mast, Shah Abdul Lateef, Moin Ud Din Chishti etc whose only message was love, peace and tolerance should inform the contents of schools and colleges’ curriculum more than hadiths (Prophet’s sayings) and Ayahs (verses of the Holy Quran) about Jihad and Qital (killing).