How comic books are combating extremism in Pakistan

The graphic novel 'The Guardian' represents a growing trend in which soft power and civil society initiatives are increasingly being leveraged to fight extremism.

The graphic novel "The Guardian" tells the story of two young Pakistani men who join a militant organization but ultimately try to convince its leadership that their goals and methods are wrong.

To fight terrorism, the US has waged wars, spent tens of billions of dollars on defense and aid, and engaged in massive programs, at home and abroad, to root out extremism before it spreads.

In Pakistan, one young militant-turned-author is trying a different approach: comic books.

Inspired by his own experiences, 31-year-old Gauher Aftab has written a three-part comic book that is being distributed in Pakistani schools to combat extremism.

The graphic novel, entitled "The Guardian," chronicles the disparate journeys of two young men, Asim and Munir. Wooed by its charitable activities, the pair decide to join a militant organization, but when they land in a training camp, Munir embraces the group's violent message while Asim questions it and ultimately leaves, reports the Associated Press.

Asim and Munir are eventually reunited and work together to convince their trainer – and ultimately top militant commanders – that they are wrong.

The graphic novel represents a growing trend in which soft power and civil society initiatives are increasingly being leveraged to fight extremism. For example, in Argentina, a tank made of books encourages youth to choose reading over violence.

Still, the graphic novel may be a tough sell in Pakistan. But Aftab says he is determined to try something different.

He told the AP he was inspired by his own experience of nearly joining militant fighters in Kashmir as a teenager. In college, he says he was brainwashed by his religious studies instructor, a veteran of the Afghanistan civil war, who convinced him to join Pakistani militants in the disputed region of Kashmir, in the Himalayas.

According to reports, Aftab had planned to travel to Kashmir to fight with his teacher after the school year ended. But two days before he was due to leave, a death in the family brought his parents, unannounced, to his school. "Being a 12-year-old or a 13-year-old with limited access, I couldn't leave home and join that particular struggle," he said, according to media reports.

Later, a mass shooting at a military school in Peshawar in December, in which Taliban militants shot and killed 150 people, nearly all students, steeled his resolve to begin working on a project to counter extremists' indoctrination of Pakistani youth.

"People thought that they were protected. They then realized that we have a shared goal. We need to save our children from people who will kill them," he said.

The group with which he works, CFXcomics, aims to counter extremist propaganda with comics. So far, 15,000 copies of his graphic novel, which has been translated into Urdu, has been distributed in Pujab, the most populous province in Pakistan. The project, which is funded by an NGO, has focused distribution on areas of militant recruitment. Aftab has plans to release another 49 volumes.

Can comics combat extremism? Time will tell, but as we've said before, it's a surprising initiative with a proven argument: books, not bombs, win hearts and minds.

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