The five people were Mukhtiar Masih, a worker from a small village in the Punjab province; Mehrin Kauser, a student from Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province; Shaan Taseer, a chartered accountant in Islamabad, the country's capital;Tuba Syed, an auditor in Silicon Valley in the US; and Shehroz Hussain, an undergraduate at Worcester Polytechnic, also in the US.The tragedy that bound them as they participated in this protest in different time zones was the loss of at least oneof their loved onesin Pakistan to violence in the name of Islam.
They were part of a larger, coordinated global event that took place around the world. In Pakistan, the cities included Karachi, Multan, Bahawalpur, Hyderabad, Jhelum, Quetta, Dera Allah Yar, Islamabad, Lahore, Faisalabad (formerly Lyallpur) and Peshawar. Citieselsewhere included Perth, Nairobi, Berlin, London, York, Toronto (Mississauga), New York, Washington DC, Boston, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and San Francisco.
"Protests and vigils about Peshawar were being held before in various cities, but their impact was limited," said Mohammad Hasan in Houston."The fact that we were all connected in the January 16 event gave us strength. We used the same videos, same pictures, the same messages, the same charter of demands and the same press messages."
The global event wasn’t just a commemorative vigil. The charter of demands presented to Pakistani government representatives in many cities includes concrete action points to curb terrorism in the country, including a demand to arrest Abdul Aziz, a cleric associated with Islamabad's notoriously hard-line Lal Masjid, the Red Mosque.
Aziz had refused to condemn the Peshawar killings or to describe the murdered students and teachers as martyrs. The Lal Masjid clerics also openly glorify Osama Bin Ladin, Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the self-proclaimed "Islamic State" group, or ISIL. (The term Islamic State and the abbreviation ISIS have been bestowed by the Western media; many women named Isis have protested against the latter).
A global protest vigil is planned on the 16th of every month from now on until Aziz is arrested, although that is not the final goal of this fluid, spontaneous movement of Pakistanis against terrorism.
"Arresting Abdul Aziz would be a milestone, a step in the right direction," said Muhammad Jibran Nasir, a young lawyer who started the process that led to the global vigil. "In the longer run, we are trying to build a counter-narrative and reclaim Pakistan. 'Never Forget'."
A small start
Nasir was one of those who joined a protest vigil at an upscale Islamabad location the day after the Peshawar school massacre. But the protest, he felt, should have been in front of the Lal Masjid. So he left the vigil, accompanied by four others and went there.
Later, he posted photos on Facebook of the little vigil of five people who stood their ground in the cold outside the mosque. Encouraged by responses to his post, he made a Facebook event for the following day outside Lal Masjid inviting people to #ReclaimYourMosque. The original four who had joined him swelled to four hundred the next day.
Something about #ReclaimYourMosque was bringing out people beyond the usual civil society crowd that attends vigils. Most of them met at the Lal Masjid vigils for the first time. Indeed, what has added a new and more powerful dimension to protests in Pakistan against the Peshawar killings and terrorism in general is the slogan of #ReclaimYourMosque and the dogged courage of those who persisted with it for days outside the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in the heart of Islamabad.
Social media helped increase the momentum in an unprecedented way. Supporting vigils sprang up in other cities as Nasir regularly updated his Facebook page and Twitter feed. He also used a webcam to record video logs that he had posted ─ a tool he had used while campaigning as an independent candidate from Karachi for the 2013 election. Although he lost the election, he learnt some valuable lessons.
As the daily demonstrations outside the Lal Masjid continued, the mosque authorities threatened the protestors. Nasir announced that he would register a case against Abdul Aziz for criminal intimidation and threats of grievous bodily harm. More people joined him. The police initially refused to register the case, citing "pressure from above". It took another week of sustained protests to get the first information report registered.
When the government still did not move to arrest the cleric, the protestors announced that they would hold vigils on January 16 to mark one month of the Peshawar massacre and continue the demand to #ArrestAbdulAziz. Dozens of ordinary Pakistanis, and some celebrities, recorded brief video messages with this demand as part of an 'Arrest Abdul Aziz Challenge'.
“When you add a name and voice to the cause, you give it more credibility because you are willing to publicly take ownership,” said Jibran Nasir.
At a conference call with Nasir on January 7, about two dozen Pakistani Americans and Canadians offered to hold vigils in their own cities as a show of support to the demonstrators who were risking their lives in Pakistan.
Rise of militancy
In the past decade, militants have murdered more than 50,000 civilians and more 10,000 armed forces personnel in Pakistan, according to various estimates. Perpetrators of these crimes can broadly be described as "takfiri" – Muslims who claim the right to declare others non-Muslim or deserving of death for having offended Islam in some way.
For instance, gunmen targeted and killed Tuba’s father in Karachi in 2002 and Shehroz’s father in Peshawar in 2013; both men were prominent members of Pakistan’s Shia Muslim community , whichextremist Sunni Salafis term as apostate.
A year ago, a bomb blast targeted a bus full of Hazara pilgrims, also members of the Shia community, near Mastung on the Pakistan-Iran border. Among the nearly thirty Hazara Shias who died were Mehrin’s mother and younger sister. Mehrin and her father survived but are still undergoing surgeries for injuries.
In 2011, an official bodyguard gunned down Shaan’s father, Salmaan Taseer, then the governor of Punjab, for having allegedly committed blasphemy. Enraged by a similar accusation against Mukhtiar’s pregnant daughter Shama, a mob lynched her and her husband Shahzad, and burnt them in the brick kiln where they worked.
A new era of blasphemy accusations began in 1988, with a Shia cleric’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Today, takfiri ideology lies behind the murder of Shia Muslims and others from non-mainstream sects of Islam as well as non-Muslims. Although the Quran prescribes no punishment for blasphemy, awarped view of Islam is used against those who have allegedly insulted the religion in some way, such as the journalists and cartoonists ofthe French magazine Charlie Hebdo, Christians like Shama and Shahzad and Muslims like Taseer.
The role of US policy
Yet at the same time, let us be clear: the motive underlying such attacks is political even though couched in religious terms. In the age of the fatwa factory, it is easy to generate outrage for a perceived slight to one’s so-called honour, especially in a country like Pakistan, where a conservative religious narrative began to be officially cultivated during the first Afghan war, which went on from 1979 to 1989.
Ironically, this narrative was given impetus not by the religious right, which had been trying unsuccessfully to gain inroads into Pakistani politics, but by American policy makers – a mistake that the Obama administration has admitted to and apologised for.
In 1979 when the Soviets entered Afghanistan, America saw the opportunity to teach the Russians a lesson. The CIA developed the strategy of using Islam as a unifying force.Together with Saudi Arabia and the military dictator General Zia ul Haq, who had usurped power in Pakistan in 1977, they revived the concept of militant jihad, which had disappeared as an international violent phenomenon four hundred years earlier.
This concept was then used to transform the Afghan’s war of national liberation into a holy war. The distinction between the greater jihad, or struggles with the self, and the lesser jihad, involving violence, was obliterated. So eventually were the rules of the lesser jihad, which prohibit targeting unarmed civilians, women or children.
"The US saw a god-sent opportunity to mobilise one billion Muslims against what Reagan called the Evil Empire," said political scientist Eqbal Ahmad, in a prescient talk, in 1998, well before 9/11. "CIA agents started going all over the Muslim world recruiting people to fight in the great jihad. Bin Laden was one of the early prize recruits.”
For years, having borne the brunt of this short-sighted policy, Pakistanis have been struggling to counter this ideology – an uphill task given how deeply the jihadi narrative has been embedded in society since the Zia years ─ through the media, education, legal and other policy changes.
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