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Pakistan Could Use a Therapeutic Intervention

There's individual and couple therapy; how about country therapy?

Sectarian violence is rife in Pakistan

Sectarian violence is tearing apart Pakistani society.

When a country is struggling economically and politically to bring stability to its people, maybe some out-of-the-box thinking can suggest new approaches to recovery. How about applying lessons from the therapy world to fixing countries that are being torn apart by sectarian violence?

Individual psychopathology occurs when differences are addressed via conflict. The result is anger and aggression, depression, anxiety and escape patterns instead of cooperation and well-being. Could this hypothesis guide a method of helping distressed countries as well as it serves to guide individual, couple and family therapy?

Therapy in this theoretical model is a process of:

a) guiding clients through more sanguine ways of addressing the problems they face, including deepening the understanding and implementing responsiveness to underlying concerns and

b) coaching collaborative conflict resolution methods so that the client(s) can use these up-graded skills to address future concerns and differences more effectively.

I asked my friend, Mehlaqa Samdani the question of how or if this model of therapy could be helpful to a country locked in a culture of violence. Samdani studies and consults on issues of international relations with a particular focus on her native country of Pakistan.

It turned out that Samdani had recently written a proposal to reduce sectarian violence in her home country. Interestingly, Samdani's proposal, which follows this introduction, reads with remarkable similararity to the interventional path my conflict-resolution model of therapy advocates:

a. Clarification of the pathology and target goals for change.

b. Brief exploration of the history of the target symptom.

c. Identification of strengths that can be mobilized toward healthier functioning.

d. Identification of the core underlying concerns

e. Creation of win-win solutions to these concerns, including making structural changes to upgrade how the overall system functions.

f. Teach healthy conflict resolution skills so that subsequent difficulties will be addressed cooperatively.

The idea of country therapy for Pakistan has particular import for me. Mehlaqa Samdani's family and my own have grown up together. In the summer of 1976 my husband and I visited them in Pakistan's frontier provinces, the mountainous area from whence the Taliban launched. We were there to study with her great uncle Durrani Sahib. Durrani Sahib, in addition to being the dean of the engineering college in Peshawar, was a great Sufi mystic from whom we were privileged to learn.

Thus as a daughter of both the tribal areas and urban Lahore, Mehlaqa Samdani knows well the Pakistani nation. In addition, her distinguished Islamic lineage brings the Sufi penchant for kindness and love to her work.

Here's Mehlaqa Samdani's proposal:

Pakistan: From Chaos to Calm

A Strategy to Replace the Current Culture of Violence with a Culture of Dialogue

Pakistan's proclivity to resolve domestic and international disputes through violence rather than collaborative dialogue has created a culture in which militant groups have flourished. Until there is a paradigm shift in Pakistan's approach to problem-solving, militancy will continue to pose a threat to Pakistan and, given its nuclear armaments, to the world.

Pakistan is home to a wide range of combative and aggressive, i.e., militant groups. These include anti-India groups operating in Kashmir, sectarian organizations based in southern Punjab, as well as Taliban and non-Taliban militant groups entrenched in the tribal belt.

When and how did Pakistan begin to develop a culture of violence?

A culture of violence began to take root in Pakistan in the late 1970s and 1980s when successive Pakistani governments deliberately radicalized religious identities in the country. The government's goals were a) to consolidate internal political advantage, b) to sponsor militant groups that would advance its foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan and India, and c) to cultivate a nationwide militant mindset and infrastructure that would enable it to achieve these goals.

The government's success in fostering militant religious beliefs stimulated pervasive acceptance of intolerance and violence throughout much of Pakistani society. It then was able to justify its own violence against its citizens, political competitors and neighboring counties via religious idioms, imagery and rhetoric.

What potential strengths could be mobilized to reverse the society's increasing intolerance of differences and violent interactions between groups?

Women participate actively in Pakistani civil society groups.

Women participate actively in many Pakistani civil society groups.

While the Pakistani government has been unable to thwart militancy and at times been directly complicit in promoting it, Pakistan's civil society groups do show potential to advance non-violent problem-solving. In recent years, Pakistani civil society groups such as media organizations, human rights groups, lawyers, student groups, and religious organizations have mobilized peacefully and effectively around various political and humanitarian causes.

With a minimal amount of appropriate external support, these groups could play an enlarged role in reversing Pakistan's proclivity toward violence.

What strategies have been tried thus far?

It is important that Pakistan's relatively weak criminal justice infrastructure be strengthened to successfully apprehend and try militant leaders. Punitive measures alone however have proven ineffective at decreasing militancy.

The cycle of violence continues because three further factors must also be addressed:

1. The underlying concerns and grievances that lead people to joint violent organizations.

2. The lack of an alternative to militancy. There is a general lack of awareness in Pakistani society that win-win dialogue and problem-solving can offer an alternative method for finding solutions to their concerns. Nor do people have the skills to utilize dialogue effectively for addressing intra- or inter-group differences.

3. Some groups, particularly the more extremist Islamic factions, are locked in fixed belief systems that will not be open to hearing others' perspectives and concerns, and that seek dominance, not side-by-side interactions.

What are the main underlying grievances?

While many militant groups have overt religious agendas, socio-economic and political factors have been key in gaining adherence to their dogmas. For instance, in Pakistan's tribal belt, the corruption of the local ruling elite has deprived the local population of basic services. Militants challenge the status quo and fill the governance gap by providing security and justice to local communities.

In southern Punjab, violent, anti-Shiite Deobandi groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are most active where the landed elite are Shiite and landless peasants predominantly Sunni. The apparent complicity of the landed elite with the corrupt and inept local judicial and administrative systems pushes the local population toward those who challenge the system in support of landless peasants. For instance, MaulanaHaq Nawaz, the founder of Sipah-e-Sahaba , was known to spend time at district courthouses, providing financial and moral support to destitute litigants.

What steps could address these grievances in a more collaborative manner?

The following four steps, taken simultaneously rather than sequentially, could significantly impact the transition from a culture of violence to a culture of cooperation.

Step 1: Form networks of leading civil society groups.

Networks of civil society groups from different sides of religious, ideological and socio-economic divides could tackle the various causes of militancy and develop non-violent approaches to address them.

For instance, a network of participating groups could launch advocacy campaigns against discriminatory legislation that promotes intolerance.

Networked groups could advocate for introducing de-radicalization and peace education programs in districts most affected by militancy.

They could launch local media strategies to counter hate messages being propounded by militant groups.

In coordination with local law-enforcement agencies networked groups could organize a 'zone of peace' and other self-organizing mechanisms that maximize their capacity to protect themselves from attacks by militants.

A network of civil society groups could develop initiatives to transform the extreme socio-economic differences between haves and have-nots that has provided fertile soil for the recruitment of militants.

Civil society groups working together also could identify and collectively advocate for political reforms and push for better delivery of services.

Step 2: Train religious leaders.

As a country where Islam plays a dominant role in both the public and private domains, religious leaders influence the mindset of millions through their mosques and madrassahs. These religious leaders however are not necessarily scholars of Islamic jurisprudence. With their limited knowledge of Islam they at times do more harm than good with regard to what they preach in the mosques and teach in madrassahs, the religious schools .

A 2008 study commissioned by the British government found that an important reason for radicalization in Pakistan is the sub-standard quality of education found in public schools as well as in madrassahs, both of which discourage analysis and critical inquiry. The study however found that the problems lay not so much with the curriculum in these institutions but with teachers. It concluded that "(t)eachers with biased sectarian attitudes influence students in both systems. However, madrassa teachers are a particular problem - they have been found to hold much more aggressive attitudes to minorities and other countries than teachers in state schools."

Thus, there needs to be a concerted campaign to expose religious leaders and teachers to the diverse range of opinions within Islamic jurisprudence on critical issues. .

Some noteworthy initiatives are already underway. The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy brings together teachers from all madrassah denominations and convenes teacher training workshops where religious teachers acquire skills in critical analysis and conflict transformation. In addition to conveying skills in critical inquiry and pedagogy, the workshops offer an opportunity for teachers to interact with each other across sectarian lines, exposing the more extremist teachers to other schools of Islamic thought in a non-threatening environment.

Step 3: Teach methods of collaborative dialogue at all levels of education, and particularly in training for government positions.

Where violence has become an accepted method for problem-solving, teaching the processes of collaborative dialogue-which is inclusive and where interests of all parties are taken into account-- can be instrumental in changing society's approach to resolving conflict. These skills are especially critical to facilitating dialogue between warring factions.

Collaborative dialogue skills need to become a mandated component of Pakistani school curricula. They need to be inserted into teacher-training programs and madrassah-reform trainings. They need to be core curriculum elements at training academies for bureaucrats, government ministries and for members of parliament.

Step 4: Change the expectations for family relationships.

Perhaps most importantly, there must be a focus on collaborative dialogue within marriages to foster healthy and less hierarchical dynamics within couples and families. Domestic abuse and violent parenting methods are currently considered acceptable in far too many families.

A campaign driven by women's organizations in Pakistan could foster seminars and workshops to impart new attitudes plus collaborative dialogue skills for spouses and parents. An educative campaign of this type could produce a new generation of families who understand the benefits of dialogue over violence.

Step 5: Subdue and marginalize recalcitrant groups that continue to utilize violence.

Some militant groups will need to be arrested rather than reformed

Militant leaders who do not reform may need to be arrested.

Some groups, especially the most militant, will be likely to prove unwilling to participate in this shift. Like individuals with a fixed belief system who are unable to utilize therapy, these groups may be too locked into a particular ideology to be open to new information and therefore unable to participate meaningfully in collaborative dialogue.

Strengthening Pakistan's criminal justice and security infrastructure is vital to minimize the power of these most change-resistant groups. At the same time, the other steps in this action plan will hopefully contribute to decreasing their popular appeal, marginalizing them within the culture.


A widespread campaign that addresses the very real grievances of the population and simultaneously teaches the skills and benefits of collaborative dialogue could, with gradual but sustained movement, wean Pakistani society away from its current epidemic of violence and towards peaceful problem-solving.

A small amount of external financial and other support for this intervention program could make it possible to implement the plan and accomplish its goals.

Final thoughts from Dr. Heitler:

The outcome hopefully of Samdani's program for bringing civil society groups together, teaching collaborative means of dealing with differences, and strengthening the country's infrastructure for subduing those who continue to espouse violence could well be a radically more emotionally healthy nation for the people of Pakistan. In addition, her program could offer a model for change that other countries beset by sectarian violence could emulate. I do hope that she soon finds funding for implementation of her proposal!

The only way to find out for sure if and how country therapy can work is to try it out.


Mohammad QasimZaman first used the term 'radicalization of Shi'i and Sunni identities' in his article: "Sectarianism in Pakistan: The Radicalization of Shi'i and Sunni Identities': Modern Asian Studies 32, 3 (1998), pp. 689±716. Ó 1998 Cambridge University Press, Printed in the United Kingdom

Muslims in Pakistan are broadly divided into two main sects: the majority Sunni and minority Shiites. The Sunnis are further divided into three main sub-sects: Deobandi, Ahle-Hadith and Barelvis

Muhammad QasimZaman, "The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of change", Princeton University Press, 2002, pg. 125

Sarah Ladbury and MalihaHussain, "Developing the Evidence Bases for Hypotheses on Extremism and Radicalisation in Pakistan", Department for International Development, 2008

[M1]I am wondering whether we could combine points 2 and 3 as both deal with the training of religious teachers.


Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is a marriage skills website,

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