Ayesha Siddiqa writes on the rise of religious extremism in the South Punjab region of Pakistan
A few years ago, I met some young boys from my village near Bahawalpur who were preparing to go on jihad. They smirked politely when I asked them to close their eyes and imagine their future. "We can tell you without closing our eyes that we don't see anything."
It was not entirely surprising. South Punjab is a region mired in poverty and underdevelopment. There are few job prospects for the youth. While the government has built airports and a few hospitals, these projects are symbolic and barely meet the needs of the area. It's in areas like this, amid economic stagnation and hopelessness, that religious extremists find fertile ground to plant and spread their ideology.
The first step is recruitment - and the methodology is straightforward. Young children, or even men, are taken to madrassas in nearby towns. They are fed well and kept in living conditions considerably better than what they are used to. This is a simple psychological strategy meant to help them compare their homes with the alternatives offered by militant organisations. The returning children, like the boys I met, then undergo ideological indoctrination in a madrassa. Those who are indoctrinated always bring more friends and family with them. It is a swelling cycle.