Ali Gohar looked out of place at the train station of Bradford, England, on a drearily damp-cold November day in 2014.
Not because he’s Pakistani – about a quarter of Bradford’s half-million residents have recent roots in Britain’s former colonies in and around the Indian subcontinent. It’s just that Gohar looked as if he were still living and working among his beloved Pukhtoon people in northwestern Pakistan.
Instead he found himself stuck in Bradford, a former factory city that once claimed to be the wool-processing capital of the world. Today its factories stand empty, and the working-class housing is mainly occupied by relatively recent arrivals to Britain, hoping for a more secure life than they had back home.
On this day, Gohar was wearing his traditional Pukhtoon garb – a brown coat and a vest over a tunic extending to the knee, over white linen pantaloons. On his head sat a pakol, a soft, round-topped men’s woolen hat typical of his home region. Gohar looked much as he does in photos taken at jirga meetings in conflict-gripped regions of Pakistan that border Afghanistan – namely Baluchistan, Khyber Pukhtoonkhawa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Stuck in Bradford? Gohar and his family were in the required paperwork-and-waiting stage of gaining semi-permanent UK residency during the fall and winter of 2014-15. Much of his wife’s family has settled there – her parents and two brothers and their families.
Meanwhile, Gohar admits it’s been a challenge to travel extensively to do his peace work in some of the most violent areas of Pakistan – with funding inconstant, depending on the priorities of the donor agencies – while simultaneously trying to be a good husband and father.
When his wife sought to move herself and their four children from Pakistan to England, Gohar went along with the idea on a trial basis. But one year has turned into six, and the children have thrived in Bradford’s school system, surrounded by many students from their home country.
The Gohar family’s love and devotion is obvious when they’re all in the same three-room flat in Bradford, with the 22-year-old twins (one of each gender) usually studying science books in one small room in their quest to be physicians, while Dad, Mom and the younger two girls sit in close proximity in the almost-as-small living room, working on their projects late in the evening. If a Skype call comes in, everyone gathers to smile, wave, and say hello into a laptop screen.
As soon as Gohar’s family gets its residency, though, history suggests he will be on a plane, heading back to the place where he has deep roots and loyal staff, working from an office that doubles as his sleeping quarters in Peshawar, Pakistan. Once there, if the past is a predictor, Gohar will rely on Skype to stay in touch with his family, plus an annual visit of a couple of months.
Founding Just Peace
In 2002, after Gohar finished his master’s degree at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) of Eastern Mennonite University (his Fulbright scholarship provided just enough for his family to live in the attic of a house near campus), they all returned to Pakistan where Gohar worked with another CJP grad to co-found what is now called Just Peace Initiatives.
Funding was non-existent those first few years, and the other grad, Hassan Yousufzai, soon shifted from Just Peace to government employment.
Just Peace now has five professionals as its core staff, plus two support staff (a watchman and a driver). Another 20 or so university-educated Pakistanis have been through Just Peace trainings and are hired when grant money permits. The unevenness of the flow of grant money means their income is never certain, though. Cherished staffers have needed to take other jobs during lean times, returning as volunteers when they can.
Truth be told, Gohar pockets so little from Just Peace, each of his family members old enough to work holds paid-by-the-hour jobs in Bradford (one of them does double shifts, working two jobs). The family lives much less securely, for example, than that of fellow Pakistani graduates of CJP who hold government positions.
“God brought us here to relieve suffering,” Gohar says. “I am a poor man. I suffer. I see the suffering of others. I can’t just live well and watch others suffer. I have the most respect for those who work for a better future for others. Everyone wants the best for their family, not just me.”
Normally an optimist, Gohar confesses he reached a nadir in 2011 when Just Peace’s chief executive, Javed Akhathar, was shot and killed while traveling by car, for no apparent reason. Just six months previously, the man’s 22-year-old son had died of cancer. Akhathar’s widow and the two remaining children needed all the support Gohar could muster.
“It took me a year to recover my spirits and energy,” Gohar says. “I wondered why he [his colleague], who never hurt a soul, lost his life and wondered why God had spared me so far, despite all the dangerous places I’ve been to.”
Though Gohar is a devout Muslim, he has positioned Just Peace as “a nonpolitical, nonreligious, nonprofit, civil society initiative that uses conflict transformation methods to promote peace, justice and dignity in Pakistan.”
That doesn’t mean that Gohar shies away from religion. On the contrary, he uses the faith and cultural traditions of Pakistan as a key resource for the teachings of Just Peace. “I can persuade my people if I can just sit with them. That’s all I need – time and permission to sit with them.”
Gohar and his staffers almost always start their Just Peace workshops – which may be as short as a day and as long as three days – with a reading from the Quran and a story relevant to them. He says he wants each participant to seek to have a clean mind and heart, “to fight within their own souls” to build peace.
Gohar reminds his listeners that the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) asked his followers to respect life, calling the life of one person more sacred that the holiest place on earth. Moreover, in both the eyes of the Muhammad (PBUH) and that of Pukhtoon tradition, men who fail to honor women – who raise their hand against them – are acting shamefully, notes Gohar. He points out that Muhammad (PBUH) forgave his enemies, including those who killed his uncle.
In recent years, when equipment is available, Gohar brings along a CD to show a half-hour dramatization of a true story– one which he scripted for production by Pakistan Television – of a young woman who, after being violated by a man, nearly loses her life due the practice of honor-killing. The show is one of four written by Gohar, all with social justice themes, which have been broadcast on national television.
“UN agencies and NGOs in Pakistan are now using this show in their capacity-building, trainings and workshops,” says Gohar. “I’ve had policemen and jirga elders tell me they cried when they saw it – it was the first time they had considered honor killing from the woman’s point of view.”
Somewhere in his time with workshop participants, Gohar typically points to his personal hero, Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988), a friend of Gandhi’s who fought nonviolently for his people’s independence from the British in the mid 1900s. The Bacha Khan, as he is affectionately called, was a Pukhtoon political and spiritual leader (100,000 followers in his non-violent army, called “Servants of God”), a lifelong pacifist, a believer in the equality of women, a champion of the poor, and a devout Muslim.
According to a 2013-14 research paper co-authored by Gohar and Australian criminologist John Braithwaite, Gohar’s work is not universally popular in Pakistan. Some professionals, notably city-based lawyers, object to Gohar’s view that the traditional approaches to justice in rural Pakistan do, and should, play a role in modern-day Pakistan. They don’t agree that indigenous-style dispute resolution offers locals an alternative to the regular court system.
Almost nobody disputes, however, that cases tend to drag out for years in Pakistan’s court system, with fees and payments typically greasing the process and tilting the wheel of justice toward the rich and powerful.
In editorial commentaries and blogs, some women’s and human rights groups have argued that traditional “elders” identified by Just Peace are always men, often holding ignorant (even abusive) views on women and members of minority groups.
Gohar nods and smiles wanly when these criticisms are raised in person. He doesn’t disagree. But he does disagree on how change best occurs, on how cultural attitudes shift. From experience, he feels he achieves more engaging people conversationally, rather than confronting them angrily, head on, causing them to react to protect their honor – especially in the honor-driven Pukhtoon culture.
“I’m trying to win minds and hearts not with a stick, but with a carrot,” says Gohar. “But if you give people a carrot, you have to give them time for digestion.”
Muslahathi committees as a hybrid
As a way of offering a complementary alternative to male-controlled jirgas – which admittedly operate without formal checks and balances – Just Peace has promoted a “hybrid” (Braithwaite’s word) approach since 2008. The approach is embodied in what Just Peace calls muslahathi (“reconciliation”) committees, which don’t necessarily replace jirgas. They simply give community members, especially women, another option for dispute resolution.
Ideally, these muslahathi committees consist of respected members of civil society, including several women, plus one police officer who is charged with reminding committee members of relevant human rights laws. Unlike the informality of jirgas, the decisions of the committee are supposed to be recorded for future reference.
Operating under the auspices of the local police station, it was thought, would also give members of these committees a measure of protection against attacks by the Taliban. In their 2013-14 paper, Gohar and Braithwaite describe how the Taliban typically move into lawless situations and eventually kill even respected elders who deliberate in jirgas, viewing them as competitors for the people’s loyalties.
With financial support from the Asia Foundation and Australian government from 2008 to 2010, Just Peace succeeded in launching these muslahathi committees, with trainings provided to all committee members, in 73 village-level police stations in the volatile district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
At the time, Just Peace’s work benefited from the strong endorsement of Malik Naveed, a high-ranking police official who was then inspector general of police for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Naveed and Gohar met at a restorative justice symposium in Peshawar in 2003 – also attended by Braithwaite – and decided to collaborate on adapting restorative justice practices to Pakistan.
A blessing and a curse
This collaboration has proved to be both a blessing and a curse for Just Peace Initiatives.
The blessing part was being able to see if the muslahathi committees were workable. And – as Braithwaite found in the spring of 2013 when he spent a month in Pakistan doing research that included site visits, interviewing muslahathi committee members, and reviewing their records – many of them worked remarkably well, even continuing to function on a voluntary basis when outside funding (and trainings) ceased in 2010.
These committees, whose members receive no pay (other than the police officer on his usual salary), had successfully settled civil disputes involving businesses, land, gambling, roadways, water usage and other environmental concerns, treatment of women, and more. In so doing, they had extinguished sparks that typically fueled cycles of violence.
The curse aspect came from Just Peace being associated with inspector general Malik Naveed when, in 2010, he was accused of illegal activities not related to the functioning of the muslahathi committees. To this day, Naveed is fighting court charges pertaining to embezzled payments for large-scale arms sales. And, to this day, Gohar emphasizes that Just Peace has never benefited from any arms sales (an activity that would violate Gohar’s pacifist principles, in any case), but is an organization that – then and now – operates frugally and is happy to have its activities monitored by anyone at anytime.
As an example of the social-support role of muslahathi committees, Braithwaite cited a situation in 2012 where hundreds of people fled the fighting between the Pakistani army and Taliban in the Swat Valley and arrived in Abbottabad District (known today for being Osama bin Laden’s last place of residence.) The locals hospitably opened their homes to them.
“In one of these grossly overcrowded situations, people living in the ceiling of a home were peering down into the adjacent home, invading the privacy of women,” wrote Braithwaite. “Violence erupted. Homes were burnt down.”
The local muslahathi committee helped the IDPs [internally displaced peoples] – including those involved in the violence – to rebuild a destroyed house, even supplying building materials and their own labor. Peace was restored between the host community and the IDPs.
“Perhaps the most impressive thing about muslahathi committees is the volunteerism that has sustained the fruits of a modest donor investment of approximately $90,000 years after it was spent,” wrote Braithwaite. “It is a remarkable thing that one of the largest restorative justice programs (restorative justice hybrids) in the world has no public funding apart from the salary of the police officer.”
In early 2015, a year after Braithwaite wrote these words, Gohar expressed regret to a Peacebuilder reporter that Just Peace has not been able to secure funding to continue to train, advise and monitor existing muslahathi committees, much less establish new ones.
Family history of enmity
Gohar’s maternal grandfather responded to the Bacha Khan’s call and became a Servant of God. Arrested by the British, he spent years in prison, enduring beatings and other forms of torture, including a winter’s night in freezing pond water. He lost his eyesight and his mind as a result of this treatment, spending the rest of his life bitter and angry. Gohar’s grandmother and the children survived by selling the family’s land, piece by piece.
More family tragedy centered around revenge killing, in the Pukhtoon tradition. Gohar’s maternal great-grandfather was killed in a dispute in 1923, causing the son who became a Servant of God to be raised fatherless. A maternal uncle of Gohar’s decided to take revenge for this 1923 offense by killing in 1996 the grandson of the 1923 killer. This maternal uncle was then killed in 1971. Another Gohar uncle took revenge in 1973. And it kept going.
By the time 1978 rolled around, 12 people had been killed from these two family lines. “I had never seen my mother happy – she was always weeping, crying,” said Gohar. “It had been a 60-year enmity – that was enough.”
Jirga members approached Gohar’s maternal uncles and separately approached men from the other family, using what Gohar calls “parachute diplomacy.” Deciding eventually that the feud needed to end “for the sake of God,” the families extended forgiveness to each other “without even payment of blood money,” ending the multi-generational cycle of violence.
The success of a jirga in addressing his family tragedy helped Gohar to see its potential for implementing a Pakistani form of “restorative justice,” as it’s called at his U.S. alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University (Gohar also has an MSc in international relations from Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad).
“My Pukhtoon culture is at least 5,000 years old,” Gohar says proudly. “Our system of jirga has been part of our culture since long ago. About 90% cases in rural areas and 70% in urban areas are still resolved through jirga. Since the system still functions and is respected, it needs to be used” – preferably, he adds, informed by modern concepts of human rights, restorative justice practices, women’s participation, and decisions that are documented.
“Everywhere in the world, it is important for restorative justice practices to be embedded in the local culture and context, or local people will not feel that they own them,” he explains.
In contrast with the jirga system, Gohar says, Pakistan’s criminal court system might render a decision, but “it does not reconcile the parties in conflict or promote consensus. Even after years of litigation, an acquitted person is often killed in vengeance on the same day, even going home from the court.”
In addition to rejuvenating the jirga system and introducing muslahathi committees through publications, workshops and presentations, Gohar’s accomplishments via Just Peace Initiatives cut a broad swath. As a partial summary, Gohar has:
- Written scripts for nationally broadcast programs aimed at combating drug use, preventing AIDS, reducing domestic violence, stopping honor killings, and introducing restorative justice.
- Produced books and manuals in both English and Pukhto that offer instruction on the basics of conflict transformation, including A Little Handbook on Restorative Justice co-written with Howard Zehr, Distinguished Professor of Restorative Justice at EMU.
- Collaborated with CJP research professor Lisa Schirch in producing an op-ed piece “Lessons from South Asia for an Arab Spring,” plus articles on the role of rituals in peacebuilding, the role of Pakistani civil society in peacebuilding, and the way drone warfare contributes to the growth of terrorism.
- Worked in settings as varied as public schools, refugee camps, hurjas (village community centers), universities, churches, and madrasases (Islamic schools). In the first six months of 2014, for example, Gohar facilitated eight three-day workshops in three locations in the northwest tribal area of Pakistan, reaching 90 female and 150 male teachers on restorative methods of handling conflict with students, reintegrating drop-outs, and addressing students’ trauma and other psychosocial problems.
Over the years, major funders of Just Peace projects have included United Nations agencies (UNDP, UNHCR, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNOCHA), Asia Foundation, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Union, Catholic Relief Services, U.S. Institute of Peace, Concern Worldwide, and International Fellowship of Reconciliation. About 6,000 have attended one of the day-long workshops held by Just Peace in all four provinces of Pakistan since 2003, and 2,027 have attended one of the three-day Just Peace workshops. The attendees included 900 women.
We’ll give the last word on this subject to John Braithwaite, a renowned criminologist and restorative justice pioneer on the faculty of Australian National University:
In conditions where hundreds of jirga leaders have been assassinated by the Taliban, and jirgas attacked by suicide bombers (because jirgas are more popular than the Taliban justice system), Just Peace Initiatives has innovated with collaborations between state justice and restorative justice in order for jirgas and muslahathi committees to be held in secure conditions. Under the inspiring leadership of Ali Gohar, Just Peace Initiatives has been a practice-based think tank focused on retrieving the wisdom and the restorative qualities of Pukhtoon traditions, while also campaigning for respect for human rights.