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One man and his nemesis
Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi's fight against extremism is a battle of ideas in which the odds are stacked against him.
Last Modified: 25 Oct 2011 14:39
Filmmaker Oliver Englehart films activist Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi as he attempts to spread tolerance across Pakistan

Filmmaker Oliver Englehart travelled around Pakistan with a team of young activists as they sought to tackle the extremism plaguing their country. Here he describes a journey that was both daunting and inspiring.

Since 2001, 35,000 Pakistanis have been killed on home soil as a result of extremist violence.

Bombs explode in crowded bazaars with grim regularity. Politicians, journalists and activists are hounded, harassed and murdered. A plethora of extremist organisations fight to capture the imagination of the people in a nation that is still struggling to find its identity and direction and which remains undecided about whom its friends and enemies are - within and without.

That is the backdrop to the film Pakistan: The New Radicals. And it is a pretty daunting backdrop against which to make a film.

Anyone who dares to challenge the status quo in Pakistan puts their life in peril, as shown by the recent high profile killings of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab who challenged the implementation of blasphemy laws, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian minorities minister, and Saleem Shahzad, a journalist investigating possible al-Qaeda infiltration in the ranks of Pakistan's navy. In none of these cases has justice yet been served.

Despite of all this, Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi and his Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA) remain vociferous in their campaign to counter the extremist narrative enveloping their country; a country they love and desperately want the best for. This group of young activists are brave and tireless in their pursuit of positive change.

As a director, I wanted the primary focus of the film to be Ali himself rather than trying to take on his murky nemesis, 'extremism'. I wanted to gain an insight into Ali's experience and routine, his methods and mindset; to understand what made him tick. This is a young man who could be making a lot of money building missiles for the Pakistani military as an aeronautical engineer, but who, despite the risks, instead chose to quench his soul with campaigning.

Journalistically, I was also aware that the film, as part of a series about activism, should not simply be a soapbox for the activist, however benevolent their cause.

Most of the PYA members I came into contact with during filming had full time jobs during the week and would then spend their weekends volunteering - travelling thousands of kilometres to engage in flood rehabilitation work, school-building, de-radicalisation workshops or punchy satirical street theatre on the streets of Swat. They would sleep for just a couple of hours during the course of the whole weekend and they did all of this, of course, without the permission of their parents.

We filmed during August when temperatures were meltingly hot. And as it was also Ramadan nobody was eating or drinking during the day. The month of fasting may not traditionally be the most productive, but it did not stop the PYA racing around the country and going about their business.

It did, however, mean it was a real sweat making anything else happen.

By far the greatest challenge in making this documentary was negotiating the bureaucracy and permissions needed with various suspicious government agencies, while they did whatever check-ups they deemed necessary. Whether they were grossly incompetent or deliberately obstructive I cannot say.

The PYA, however, were desperate to show me the beauty of their country, as well as to discuss, debate and consider the problems they faced in the back of minibuses on long, sprawling road trips across Pakistan. They were spirited, thoughtful and looked after me, an Englishman, splendidly - even quelling rumours that I was Danish (not good considering the cartoon scandal) in a village in the depths of the Swat Valley and that my camera was some sort of apparatus for calling in drone strikes in southern Punjab.

Although these episodes were harmless, they were disappointing indicators of the ignorance and confusion that bubbles away menacingly beneath the surface in Pakistan.

Ali Abbas claims that the extremist groups he rallies against are among the best-run organisations in the country, performing charitable and social works while inculcating their beliefs and attitudes. This is a model that Ali tries to emulate with the PYA.

But what the PYA can physically achieve with their social works is comparatively limited given their resources and the scale of the problems in Pakistan. But more than their 'good works', the PYA are fighting an abstract battle - a battle of ideas - and, by their own admission, it is one they are losing as the majority remain in silent acquiescence with the state of things.

Nevertheless, Ali Abbas and the PYA have an acute sense of social responsibility and are inspiring in their desire to connect with people for positive change, despite the dinosaurs and retrogrades that would hold them back.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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