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Former Islamist seeks to turn the tide of religious extremism in Pakistan

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"It's a very difficult thing to do, but when I first started this I thought if we don't do it, who the hell is going to?" Nawaz told AlertNet. "This opportunity only comes around once every so often when you've got someone who's got that experience and who knows the Islamist arguments and is able to put them forward and then critique them.

"Bit of a burden," he said with a laugh.

In 2010, he founded Khudi, the first social movement in Pakistan to challenge extremist religious ideas and instead promote democratic culture among the country's youths.

Its aim is to spread democratic values in every area of Pakistani life as its members become journalists, judges, politicians, and activists.

"It's a very grandiose and long-term ambition, but already we're beginning to see fruits," he said.

Tens of thousands follow Khudi on social media. They've organized national and international conferences, and local television station Express News TV is airing a series of debates on extremism.

Extremism in Pakistan exists not just in the Taliban strongholds in Pakistan's northwestern states bordering Afghanistan – where schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot for standing up for girls' education – but also in the country's heartland, Nawaz said.

"Our analysis is that Pakistani society has been affected by extremism to an unacceptable level," Nawaz said.

He cited the example of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab and a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, who was shot dead in January 2011 by his bodyguard for suggesting Pakistan's blasphemy law be reformed.

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