BOSTON — In Peshawar, Pakistan, the sermons of radical imams are carried on loudspeakers atop the minarets of mosques, and the words echo in the narrow streets.
The Pakistani Taliban is strong in Peshawar. In recent months, the Taliban leadership has used these radical sermons to step up recruitment of young fighters in their jihad against the Pakistani government and across the border in Afghanistan.
The Taliban recruiters are playing off bitter resentments over the Pakistani military’s offensive that left millions displaced. The Taliban also exploit anger over America’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan, using it to search for young men willing to kill in the name of God.
A 16-year-old boy from a small village in the Khyber Agency near Peshawar answered the Taliban’s call and the militants set about grooming him to be a suicide bomber.
He underwent a rigorous indoctrination and was trained to “accept martyrdom,” to borrow the language used by the ready to detonate a belt bomb to kill themselves and as many Pakistani soldiers and civilians as possible.
But there was one problem. The boy’s mother, Zubida, found out about her son’s plans. She knew her son had been led to a place in his faith that strayed far from who he was and the lessons she had taught him growing up about Islam’s message of tolerance and respect for life.
Zubida, whose last name is not being used to protect her identity, turned to Mossarat Qadeem, an academic turned peace activist and a mother herself, who has established a center in Peshawar that empowers women in the struggle against terrorism.
Qadeem, who attended a recent conference by the Institute for Inclusive Security at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, says she is now working to “re-integrate” and “re-educate,” as she puts it, 82 young men who’ve come forward through the women in their lives.
Typically it is young men who have been encouraged to come forward by mothers like Zubida. They are in some cases turned over to authorities by their mothers with promises that they will be given an opportunity to return to society and break free from the process of radicalization and militancy that is pushed by the local Taliban leaders.
Qadeem told me her story on Jan. 12 at the Harvard University conference, which was coordinated by the chair of The Institute for Inclusive Security, Ambassador Swanee Hunt.
The institute uses research, training and advocacy to promote the inclusion of all community stakeholders, particularly women, in pursuing peace. The weeklong conference brought together leading female academics, parliamentarians, human rights activists and journalists from Iran, Lebanon, Bosnia, Rwanda and Pakistan to share their experiences and shed light on the unique role women play in resolving conflict.
Qadeem told me how Zubida, the mother of the 16-year-old boy intent on being a suicide bomber, had reached out to her in December, saying, “My boy is not a Talib, but the Taliban have taken him away. He has been indoctrinated by them.”
Qadeem worked with Zubida to bring her son out of hiding and to turn him over to the authorities.
“We have to work to reclaim our faith,” said Qadeem. “The mothers of these young men are a very important part of succeeding in that.”
When the young men turn themselves in, Qadeem explained, they take the dramatic step of surrendering to Pakistani counter-terrorism officials who question them and also provide psychological counseling and religious education aimed at countering the Taliban’s warped and violent interpretations of the Koran, explains Qadeem.
A political science professor at the University of Peshawar, Qadeem said she has turned away from academia to start an organization known by the acronym PAIMAN, which means “promise” in Pashto. The organization works to empower Pakistani women to counter Islamic militancy and to pursue conflict resolution in their communities.
“We are doing critical analysis of the role women can play in ending violence and extremism,” said Qadeem. “We are trying to develop the need for peace from within as an instrument to end violence.”
She said she had offered direct training to some 5,000 women through the Peshawar-based organization which has 18 offices around the country and more than 200 staff. Those women in turn have developed as leaders in their community to “teach peace” and, Qadeem said, have spread the message to some 75,000 additional women.
Qadeem operates in what she describe as “a very insecure environment.” She is on the hit list of two Taliban groups in the Khyber agency, and has been repeatedly threatened in her work. So why does she do it?
“The vulnerability of my youth keep me awake at night and the killing of the innocent people every day bleeds my heart. As a daughter of the soil, I am trying to use our community’s network of women to break the hold of militancy on their sons and brothers and husbands. That is an important avenue to achieving real peace.”