LAHORE, Pakistan – At a militant training camp in Pakistan, a new recruit asks his instructor why his comrades are attacking churches and mosques rather than enemy bases. "This world is full of sin. It needs to be bathed in blood," the instructor replies, nurturing seeds of doubt that will eventually lead the young man to turn away from violence.
It's a scene from a three-part comic book, titled "The Guardian," that a private group has started to distribute in Pakistani schools to help combat extremism. The author, 31-year-old Gauher Aftab, says it was inspired by his own experience of nearly joining militants fighting in Kashmir as a teenager.
Pakistan has been battling Islamic extremists for more than a decade, but despite $30 billion in U.S. aid and an American drone campaign, the country still hosts powerful armed groups that have killed tens of thousands of people. A growing number of civil society initiatives are aimed at what many see as the source of the problem — indoctrination of youth.
In the southern port city of Karachi, friends of the late Sabeen Mahmud, an activist gunned down in April because of her liberal views, have assembled 300 local artists to paint over violent graffiti. The group says it has created some 2,000 murals depicting historic buildings and nature scenes.
"If you read hatred all the time, it is leaving a mark, especially on young minds," said artist Adeela Suleman, who's taking part in the project.
Aftab recalls his own experience in the late 1990s at Aitchison College, an elite school in the eastern city of Lahore where a former student who had become a well-known jihadi was revered as a cult hero. The militant, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, would go on to kidnap and kill Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
Aftab says he was brainwashed at the college by his religious studies instructor, a veteran of Afghanistan's civil war, who convinced him to join militants fighting India in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
He had worked out a plan with his teacher to travel to Kashmir after the school year ended. But two days before then, his parents showed up unannounced because there had been a death in his family. "Being a 12-year-old or a 13-year-old with limited access, I couldn't leave home and join that particular struggle."
After three months at home with his parents, he reconsidered the decision. He eventually graduated at the top of his class and went on to attend Knox College, a liberal arts school in Illinois.
Now Aftab works with a group called CFXcomics, which aims to counter extremist propaganda. His comic book has been translated into Urdu by a legendary Pakistani playwright, Amjad Islam Amjad. The group has distributed 15,000 copies in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, focusing on areas of militant recruitment, says Managing Director Mustafa Hasnain.
CFXcomics has also launched a free app that allows people to read the book on mobile devices, and plans to release another 49 volumes. The project is funded by an NGO called Hope Alive.
The graphic novel follows two idealistic young men, Asim and Munir, who decide to join a militant organization because of its charitable activities. When they find themselves at a militant training camp, Munir embraces the group's violent message while Asim questions it and ultimately leaves.
The two are reunited after Munir is captured in a counterterrorism raid. They then team up and use religious arguments to convince their captured trainer that he was wrong. Eventually the message is carried up the chain to top militant commanders.
Aftab says he began working on the comic book after a mass shooting at a military school in Peshawar in December, in which Taliban militants shot dead 150 people, nearly all of them students.
"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 comic book's message could still prove a tough sell in Pakistan's schools, where much of the curriculum is devoted to the glorification of past Islamic conquests and jihad against Pakistan's enemies.
Many Pakistanis believe America and the West are at war with Islam, thereby justifying attacks, and view militants in Kashmir as freedom fighters battling India, with which Pakistan has fought three wars. Pakistan is at war with homegrown extremists, but analysts say it has long backed Islamic militants in Kashmir and Afghanistan as a way to project power in the region.
Those conflicting impulses were on display during recent visits by CFXcomics to schools in Lahore. One student, 14-year-old Asim Mahmood, said he learned from the comic that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. But when asked if he would fight to defend Islam, he said he would.
Associated Press Writer Adil Jawad in Karachi, Pakistan contributed to this report.
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