The South Asia Channel
Protesting Against Terrorism in Pakistan
Civil society activists and a pro-Taliban group protest each other in an escalating cycle.
Silent majority or threatened minority? Pakistan’s progressives are angry. Finally, it shows, and they are being arrested for it.
Civil society protests demanding meaningful government action against the Taliban and its supporters were sparked by the gruesome Dec. 16 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. While British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Gayle Tzemach Lemmon misconstrued the massacre as “children … being killed simply for going to school,” the attack was not about education. Pakistanis named the culprit: the state’s acquiescence of ‘good’ terrorist outfits that target India and Afghanistan — groups that also deploy violence against Pakistani civilians, especially Shiites and minorities, in the name of making Pakistan more Sunni and more sharia-compliant.
On the night of the Peshawar attack, Islamabad’s radical cleric Abdul Aziz, leader of the Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, refused to condemn the Peshawar school attack on national television and said the children were not martyrs, justifying the attack as a response to children killed in Pakistani army operations. The next day, outraged Pakistanis gathered on the street outside the mosque calling for an apology. The protest resulted in a confrontation between mullahs from the mosque and the protesters. The police registered a case against over one hundred protesters, led by Mohammad Jibran Nasir, on grounds of blasphemy and civil disobedience. The case was filed by Sunni militant group Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) — a banned political offshoot of the Sipah-e-Sihaba militant group.
Aziz condemned the incident the next day but also prayed in his Friday sermon that the Pakistani military, the Pakistani Taliban, and the Afghan Taliban would unite. Outside the mosque, ASWJ held a demonstration in solidarity with Aziz to condemn the massacre, but were agnostic on condemning the Taliban and questioned who the “real” perpetrators of the massacre were. Civil society protesters who returned to protest the police case against them were arrested, including women who men with ASWJ tried to attack.
Hundreds of peaceful protesters and journalists returned to the Red Mosque for a third day to find the mosque cordoned off and protected by police. When Aziz threatened to attack the protesters, Jibran led the protesters to nearby Aabpara police station to register a case against Aziz. After hours of demonstration and threatening to sleep outside the station, a case was successfully registered. At the heart of the campaign is now a demand that Aziz be arrested.
Currently, the case against Aziz stands as a First Information Report (FIR), meaning that police must investigate the complaint before producing a charge sheet against the individual. In Pakistan, FIRs are not a serious threat for those with political protection, like Aziz; the police have admitted to being under political pressure not to even register it. Aziz has since bragged about having a series of much more serious cases against him relating to kidnapping, murder, treason, and terrorism dropped. On the morning after the protesters successfully lodged the FIR, he warned that there would be suicide attacks across the country if he were arrested, and Jibran received a telephone threat from TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan.
The Red Mosque is an icon of religious militancy that the state either tolerates or is not strong enough to act against. In 2007, elite commandos under the direction of then-President Pervez Musharraf stormed the mosque after students there burned a government building, kidnapped police officers, and carried out a vigilante campaign to enforce sharia law in Islamabad. Stockpiles of weapons were found inside the mosque. Aziz himself escaped the raid in a burka while his brother and scores of his followers were killed.
Aziz and his followers have deepened their ties to radicalism since the 2007 raid. Recently, Aziz renamed the library at the women’s madrasa within the Red Mosque complex after Osama bin Laden. The 4,000-student madrasa, often referred to as a brigade for carrying out Aziz’s militant campaigns, has published an Arabic-language video message declaring allegiance to their ISIS brothers and imploring God to spread the Islamic caliphate to Pakistan. The video is suggestive of jihad al-nikah, or sexual jihad, which ISIS has called for. Aziz also justifies the killing of Shiites, rejects the Pakistani constitution, and believes that Pakistan should be ruled by Islamic law. It is rumored that several politicians pay Aziz protection money for safety against the militant groups he is linked to.
Protesters have vowed to demonstrate on the 16th of every month — the anniversary of the Peshawar school attack — until Aziz is arrested. On Jan. 16, Pakistanis demonstrated in 27 cities across the world. The current complaint is admittedly minor but the campaign is also trying to lodge much more serious charges under the Anti-Terrorism Act of Pakistan (ATA). Charges filed under the ATA do not permit bail. Even if the legal battle against Aziz fails, the lawyers on the campaign hope that it will provide the government with the political space to act against Aziz on other grounds. Since the protests began, stories have leaked of intelligence agencies circulating a report detailing Aziz as a threat and rumors of his house arrest have spread after he has failed to appear for two Friday sermons.
With resolve to put an end to apathy and fear in the face of terrorism, the campaign has recharged after the Jan. 30 attack on a Shiite shrine in Shikarpur, Sindh. The attack killed at least 58, making it the bloodiest sectarian attack since a March 2013 bombing in Abbas Town, Karachi. After a 31-hour sit-in on Feb. 1, with a water cannon and riot police posted nearby the remaining 20 protesters, the Sindh government, represented by politician Sharmila Farooqi, agreed to the protesters’ demands including shutting down the open activities of ASWJ.
On Feb. 5, mere days after Farooqi’s promise was made, ASWJ held a rally in Karachi with police protection. Jibran tweeted: “In this democracy if elected govt cant stop a banned outfit from taking out a rally then who should the citizens seek help from? #PPP #PMLN.” When the civil society protest was revived that day, Jibran and 28 others were arrested. ASWJ has called for another rally — this time province-wide and directly against Jibran.
Jibran is Pakistan’s David facing the Taliban’s Goliath. He is a 28-year-old firebrand activist, independent politician (he ran for a seat in Parliament in Karachi in 2013, without party affiliation), and lawyer. His co-leader, Shaan Taseer, is the son of slain former governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer. Jibran’s movement started after the September 2013 twin blasts on a church in Peshawar — the bloodiest attack on a church to date. The following two Sundays, he organized Pakistanis to form human chains around churches in Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore to protect church-goers. He called the movement ‘Pakistan for All.’
With only a few hundred demonstrators, the protests seem small. But since the advent of television media and now social media, it seems that physical numbers are not as important to movements as the hope and outrage they inspire among the viewers and internet clickers at home. Imran Khan’s protest march in Islamabad consistently surprised journalists for being small — estimated at 20,000 to 60,000 people — relative to the panned images shown on TV. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic Selma to Montgomery marches that ultimately secured voting rights for blacks in Alabama started with only 600 marchers. When they faced police brutality on live television, their cause shook America into action.
The protests have also been amplified on social media, which shows 5,300 people ‘joining’ the protest ‘event.’ One video, in which Jibran asks the state to prosecute Aziz and calls for building a memorial for the Peshawar attack next to the Red Mosque, has over 122,000 views and 5,600 shares. Another protest video called “A Message to the Taliban” has almost 200,000 views and 20,000 shares.
The current campaign goes by many names, all hashtags. The most prominent have been #ArrestAbdulAziz, #PeshawarAttack, #ReclaimYourMosques, #NeverForget, #PakistanForAll, and now #ShikarpurBlastSitIn. Their Charter of Demands has been expanded beyond arresting Aziz to stopping airtime for terrorists and their sympathizers; monitoring and ending hate speech by mosques, especially against polio workers; and protecting citizens from clerics that misuse the blasphemy law. With the Shikarpur blast, the demands included the arrest of ASWJ party leader Aurangzeb Farooqi and erasing graffiti promoting ASWJ in Karachi.
Between Urdu videos and motley demands, the campaign is not easy for outsiders to follow. But the diversity of the demands reflect the breadth of frustration inspired by a complex, layered threat: the military’s discrimination between ‘good’ terrorists that target India and Afghanistan and ‘bad’ terrorists that target Pakistan; the government’s vote-seeking alliance with ASWJ in Punjab; the lax or negligent attitude of security and intelligence agencies that led to the failure to prevent the Peshawar attack despite warning and a painfully delayed response once it started; governance failures resulting in most victims of the Shikarpur blast being sent to hospitals at least an hour away; mosques, media, and madrasa that amplify intolerant and hateful messages; and a society paralyzed by fear of blasphemy, takfirism (declaring of certain groups as non-Muslim), and terrorism. Westerners sum it up as violent extremism.
On Feb. 16, the Islamabad police filed a FIR against the ASWJ for spreading religious hatred, misusing a loud speaker, and interfering with government functions. The incident happened on the way to Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Feb. 15, after ASWJ’s Rawalpindi spokesman was shot six times by “unknown gunmen” that morning. When ASWJ protesters were stopped by police from carrying the slain body to a sit-in in front of the court, they snatched police batons and broke into scuffles, chanting “Shia kafir” (Shia non-Muslim). They defied police and held the sit-in. The protesters dispersed when a close aide to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with the chief of the ASWJ, Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, and promised to form a committee to investigate the killing.
The night before the Rawalpindi leader was shot, there was an assassination attempt on party leader Aurangzeb Farooqi in Karachi by “unknown gunmen.” Farooqi said that his state security had been withdrawn just days earlier. A Karachi ASWJ sit-in protested the withdrawal and only dispersed when the police agreed to file a FIR against Jibran for the murder attempt.
Pakistan has dark days ahead. ISIS is allegedly setting up a branch in Pakistan, with hundreds of disappointed TPP fighters diverting to it. Attacks against civilians, especially minorities, are becoming more frequent and bloodier, including another attack on Feb. 18 on a Shiite mosque in Rawalpindi. The only hopeful news is that Pakistan’s silent minority — youth, activists, writers, religious minorities, survivors, party workers, and polio vaccinators — have found their voice. At the moment, 1,200 people, led by the survivors of Shikarpur who marched for two days to Karachi, are holding a peaceful sit-in, demanding serious action against sectarian groups. The government has declared participation in the protest a criminal offense and is considering police action as the protesters try to reach the chief minister’s home.
Jibran’s campaign is giving incidents of terror in Pakistan the attention they deserve and reminding Pakistanis of the government’s responsibilities. The international community can help by taking note and pressing the Pakistani government to ensure Pakistanis the right to peaceful congregation and protest and providing police protection for Jibran and the protesters, as they have for militant organizations like ASWJ that they tell the world are shut down.
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images