This week, Pakistani high schools are distributing comic books that authorities hope will dissuade at-risk teenagers from joining militant organizations like the Taliban. Paasban (“The Guardian”) tells the story of a group of young friends and how they react when one of them becomes drawn to Islamic extremism. It was created by Mustafa Hasnain, Yahya Ehsan, and Gauher Aftab, who together run the Islamabad-based creative studio CFX Comics.
“We want to show kids how young people with the best of intentions can be misled by a twisted and false version of Islam, and that being a real muslim means to reject that kind of hatred,” Aftab told Hyperallergic. He wrote the English language version of the comic, drawing on his own experiences being recruited by jihadists when he was just 13 years old. A teacher had convinced him to quit school and fight, and though his family intervened before he could do so, he never forgot the power militants wield over vulnerable and impressionable youth. That comes out in Paasban, which was illustrated by Ehsan in a magnetic style reminiscent of Pakistani artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai and the Czech Alphonse Mucha.
“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,” Aftab said. And since many rural youths don’t speak English, he and his colleagues enlisted the help of Pakistani poet Amjad Islam Amjad to translate the book into Urdu. All three versions were distributed to 5,000 students — 15,000 copies altogether — in the cities of Lahore and Multan, as well as the more rural municipality of Lodhran. They hope to further expand the book’s reach when they launch it as an app for Android and IoS on August 14 (a beta version will be available beginning June 10).
This has all been a long time coming. The team has been working on Paasban for two years but were unable to find funding because anyone they approached was afraid of being targeted by extremist groups. That changed on December 16, 2014, when Taliban militants stormed a school in Peshawar and murdered nearly 150 children. Since then, the project has received support from all sectors of Pakistani society, including the government’s Umeed Jawan campaign, which paid for distribution.
“Pakistanis everywhere have really had enough and are not willing to live in fear anymore,” Aftab said. “Now people at every level in Pakistan realize that we need to come together and do everything we can to push extremism and violence out of our society. The first step in doing so is to reclaim our religion back from those who would pervert it’s teachings to spread destruction and chaos.”