How a new Pakistani comic is challenging religious extremism

When Gauher Aftab was 13-years-old, he was singled out, groomed, and recruited into a life of religious extremism by a man he says he did not know was a jihadist. Aftab had only recently moved to Pakistan from his native Saudi Arabia a year prior, and as a young teenager in an unfamiliar place, he felt a deep sense of uncertainty. Language and cultural barriers both fed into a profound loneliness that Gauher now recognizes made him a potential target. The man who first suggested that he take up the militant cause was his Islamic studies teacher.

“The lectures he used to give were less about Islam and more about his propagation and ideology of Islam,” Aftab told The Friday Times. “He followed a very convincing pattern that I feel the extremists have perfected over the span of 30 years. [Their] narrative first delegitimizes the family or societal authority, negates Sufism, encourages followers to think outside the box and then victimizes Muslims.”

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Aftab says that his indoctrination into jihadism was calculated and methodical. While fear was an effective tool of convincing people to join, playing on his emotional vulnerabilities proved to be just as powerful. Aftab’s family pulled him away from his teacher’s influence before they lost him to the group, but the experience has stuck with him ever since.

Paasban (p-ahs b-ahn, Urdu for “guardian"), a multimedia comic book produced by CFX Comics, draws upon Aftab’s brush with jihadists and transforms his stories (and others) into a narrative designed to hit extremism where it hurts: in the mind. Paasban tells the story of four friends—Asim, Saad, Zara, and Irfan—whose city is plunged into chaos as a result of militant violence.

In search of a way to give back to his community, Asim becomes a part of a welfare organization where he meets and is immediately enthralled by its silver-tongued leader, Saleh. In time, though, Asim’s friends begin to realize that the welfare group isn’t what it appears to be, and begin to fight to save their friend from a life of war and unnecessarily violence.

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Yahya Ehsan, CFX Comics

The comic’s first issue places you in the mindset of a young teenager struggling to make sense of his place in the world right as he’s presented with the chance to become a part of something larger than himself. Though Saleh’s promises of social justice are tantalizing, Paasban invites readers to think more critically about the underlying ideology.

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“The arguments that the extremists use are very contradictory, basic, and not all that deep,” Paasban co-creator Mustafa Hasnain explained to Fusion. “When you really begin to think about their reasoning, it falls apart.”

Rather than simply depicting religious extremism as a flatly negative ideology, Paasban engages with the kinds of real-world events that often lead people to consider becoming jihadi. Some, like Aftab and Asim, are lured in with the promise of purpose and belonging. Others, Hasnain says, are robbed of the cultural anchors that tether them to their individual identities.

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“We found that it’s pretty easy for these recruiters to lure kids in,” he said. “It’s a lot like what ISIS does, they come into a place, wipe out a culture, and take away all the roots they have to their identity. They then fill that void with their own narrative. It’s that erosion of culture that makes them so dangerous.”

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After being in production for nearly two years, the galvanizing force behind Paasban’s launch turned out to be a Taliban attack on a Peshawar school that killed nearly 150 people—most of them young children. The attack shook the CFX team in a way that made it difficult for them to just stand by and express their grief passively. They wanted to use their skills to do more and make sense of what happened.

“These [jihadis] who went and killed these kids weren't that much older than the people they murdered. What turned them into butchers? What made it something that they could fathom?"

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Paasban’s goal is to give young Pakistani children a set of core critical thinking skills, empowering them to see through jihadist rationale—15,000 copies of Paasban were distributed throughout Pakistani high schools last week as a part of the comic’s first run. These issues, printed in Urdu, were just the first step in CFX Comic’s plan to bring Pasbaan’s message to a much broader audience. The book’s being published in both English and Urdu in an effort to make sure that it sees as wide a readership as possible. The decision, Gauher Aftab told Hyperallergic, was developed in direct response to tactics extremists often use to target the at-risk kids:

When you consider that one of the most vulnerable targets of violent extremism are kids who don’t have access to education, we really had to try and make the art captivating and yet simple enough to explain the story to someone even if they can’t read the words.

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(Slide to read in either English or Urdu)

“The book’s completely free in Pakistan, there’s less buying power for comic books in Pakistan because it’s such a new medium for so many children,” Hasnain explained. “The feedback we received from the book’s physical run was overwhelmingly positive and we’re on schedule to release it digitally later this week.”

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Unlike here in the U.S., comic books have historically been something of a luxury item in Pakistan. Rather than investing in a large-scale physical distribution model, CFX opted to publish Paasban through Apple and Google’s app stores to get themselves onto young people’s phones and tablets directly (you can sign up for a beta on the website.)

CFX Comics
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From the Paasban team’s perspective, their comic isn’t just about convincing young people to steer clear of people that would have them turn to violence to solve their problems. In order to address Pakistan’s systemic problems with the Taliban, they explained to Fusion, the public has to begin to see past its own fear that’s often exacerbated by fighting fire with fire.

“In many ways our answer to extremism is more security—-barricades and barbed wires—but those visual signs perpetuate a culture of fear that shuts down conversations,” Hasnain said.  “Enough voices have to be there to challenge this very culture. It has to be the will of the people.”

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