Written By:Thomas J. Morrisey
Edited By: Dave Talmage
As Pakistan continues to suffer from the violent actions of religious extremists, a coalition of students, lawyers, trade unions, and many others has stepped forward, dedicated to countering them by trying to wake up a populace they view as simultaneously fearful and apathetic.
Taking a stand
This January, several small political parties, non-government organizations united to form Citizens for Democracy, with the common goal of trying to fight extremism through popular protest.
Ali Kazmi is a psychology student at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, very close to Pakistan’s border with India. Kazmi has been attending meetings of Citizens for Democracy.
“Even though things are really bad, it’s also important to know that work is being done to improve Pakistan,” Kazmi said.
Kazmi said that the group has started to fight the powerful extremists through such actions as filing legal complaints against clerics who make violent threats and pressuring news channels that give airtime to extremist hosts. “It’s a one point agenda – to separate church from state,” Kazmi said.
Citizens for Democracy is stymied by a population that commonly views secularism as advocating the repression or elimination of Islam, a viewpoint Kazmi said he did not agree with.
He blamed the Pakistani educational system for portraying politics as a black-and-white dichotomy, with the only choices being an atheist state that abolishes religion and political Islam.
“Nonpolitical Islam and a secular government could very easily coexist,” he said, pointing to the historical example of Sufism, a mystical tradition of worship within Islam, and its opposition to tyrants without making any claims on political power itself.
Kazmi said that the group is still small, but said that its existence alone has resulted in increased news coverage for secular political movements. He said that this was an important step forward, as he saw much of the media as being cowed and unwilling to challenge powerful mullahs directly.
Apathy and external enemies steal focus of many in Pakistan
Kazmi said that groups like Citizens for Democracy’s worst enemy is one that is far more widespread than extremists – apathy.
“The people have lots of ideas, but they’re all ideas that have been fed to them,” he said. Trying to get people to begin thinking critically is one of the most difficult challenges his group faces.
He was especially critical of Pakistan’s middle class, a group that he described by paraphrasing a famous line from John Lennon’s Working Class Hero. “They’re doped with religion and sex and TV,” Kazmi said.
Kazmi said that the coalition’s other great challenge is dealing with many Pakistanis’ focus on perceived external enemies. Many Pakistanis are focused on the United States as an enemy, due to its ongoing incursions into Pakistan’s border regions. Kazmi said that these attacks are counter-productive and stir up more support for extremism.
In fact, Kazmi said that even when extremists strike within Pakistan, many people are convinced that the attacks are actually “false flag” operations carried out by foreign intelligence agencies like the US Central Intelligence Agency and the Israeli Mossad.
Kaiser Khan, a tour guide operator, mountain climber and hunter based in Islamabad, agreed that one of the greatest challenges to stability in Pakistan was dealing with the negative fallout from US intervention.“Ever since the US has entered Afghanistan, we have suffered from this negative campaign,” Khan said. “We’ve lost more people, civilians, soldiers, and more collateral damage.”
Lacking central government
Khan voiced his agreement on government’s ineptitude, pointing out that the central government hasn’t even been able to consistently get informative material printed up and posted for distribution at his country’s embassies.
In its most recent effort to focus attention on the need for secularism in Pakistan, Citizens for Democracy held a vigil outside of the Lahore Press Club in memory of Shahbaz Bhatti, an opponent of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws who was assassinated on March 2, 2011. Bhatti was the federal Minister for Minorities and a member of Pakistan’s Christian minority.