By Sonya Rehman
He was an unassuming ninth-grader when he was radicalized years ago by a school teacher to join a jihad training camp. Gauher Aftab, one of the co-founders of CFx Comics, a Pakistani comic book start-up, recently wrote a tell-all article about his brush with Islamic extremism and how his experience led him to wage a different kind of jihad; one in which consisted of penning comic books for students in a bid to combat terrorism in Pakistan.
For Aftab, the 2014 terrorist attack at a school in Peshawar acted as the final impetus to launch a comic book series in 2015 called Paasban – The Guardian, a series that addresses terrorism and the radicalization of young Pakistanis.
“I had never written anything before, but I knew I had to tell this story, and that maybe I was one of the few people who could do justice to the empathy and integrity such a controversial issue deserves,” stated Aftab, also the writer of the series. “Had I not gone through my childhood experience, [Paasban] would have never had the impact on people that only a truthful narrative can achieve.”
Once released, the Paasban comic series was distributed to over 10,000 students at both public and private educational institutions in Lahore, Lodhran, Multan, Muzaffargarh and Bahawalpur, apart from being downloaded over 3,000 times on the company’s free app.
“The Paasban series exposes the real extremist actors and their mercenary motives of power, greed, and control, and strips away the veneer of glory and sacrifice that surrounds the misused term of ‘jihad,’” Aftab said, “In other comics we try to reclaim these terms that have been appropriated by extremist groups, and attempt to redefine them so readers can judge good and evil for themselves.”
Having received a deluge of positive feedback, not to mention encouraging results from their impact assessment for the series, Aftab is hopeful that the Pakistani youth – who are most at risk of being radicalized – can be “reclaimed by timely and truthful interventions.”
“Storytelling itself has the power of proliferating a shared experience, and our mission now is to expand our outreach to give millions of young people a common reference point for what is expected of them if approached by a radicalizer or violent extremist group.”
With the release of other comic series such as Haider (on Pakistan’s war heroes) and Khiladi (on Pakistan’s national sport, cricket), the company hopes to branch out into television to reach a wider audience.
“Culture, art, and media have a great role to play in shaping the national narratives and reinforcing concepts of legal writ, social justice, acceptance and tolerance among diverse citizens with a common goal,” Aftab states.
“From our work, we’ve understood that children and young people may be susceptible to intolerant dogma but equally malleable when confronted with progressive ideas and better, more just solutions to their problems. There is a great deal of hope still left in Pakistan, and the effort to reclaim hearts and minds from extremism is very much alive and kicking.”