Okara (Pakistan): Sultan Mehmood Gujar was a solid supporter of Islamist militants fighting in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India and even donated money to them, until he attended an innovative 40-day lecture series by a moderate cleric aimed at countering violent extremism.
The course, given to the public at an Islamic school in a hotbed of militancy in Pakistan, had a profound effect on the 46-year-old property dealer, convincing him the militants were wrong to claim they were waging holy war, or jihad, justified by the Quran, the religion's holy book.
"I was shocked to discover that what the militants were doing was against Islam," said Gujar, sitting on the floor at the madrasa in Okara city where the lectures were delivered.
"Now I call them terrorists, not jihadis."
Fazal ur Rehman, the cleric who runs the 400-student madrasa, recorded each of the 2-hour lectures he and others gave this past summer and would like to distribute the DVDs to reach a wider audience. But he lacks the money.
The US has created a new unit in Pakistan that aims to leverage such grassroots efforts by working with local moderates to counter violent extremism the first of its kind set up by an American embassy anywhere in the world, according to US officials here. The existence of the unit has never before been reported.
Rehman and other clerics attempting to challenge extremism in Pakistan recently met with US Ambassador Cameron Munter in Islamabad, though the 50-year-old Rehman says he has not yet received support from the Americans.
Okara has special significance because it is near the village of Ajmal Kasab, home of the only surviving gunman from the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed over 160 people.
The US chose Pakistan as the site for its new venture because it is home to a vast network of Islamist militants who have been fighting US-led troops in neighboring Afghanistan for over a decade and have even organized attacks on American soil.
The three-person unit in the US Embassy public affairs section was established in July. It plans to work with local partners, including moderate religious leaders, to project their counter-extremist messages and push back against the militants' extensive propaganda machine, said US officials.
Updated Date: Jan 01, 2012 08:48:02 IST