x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Middle class rising against the Taliban

As the army steps up its campaign against militants, the people are taking to the streets to save the country from 'a modern Frankenstein'.

Supporters of a Pakistani religious group that opposes the Taliban at a rally in Lahore this month.
Supporters of a Pakistani religious group that opposes the Taliban at a rally in Lahore this month.

LAHORE // Khalid Mahmood, 38, is a graduate of Northwestern University in the US and runs a successful marketing consultancy firm in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. He speaks English with an American accent, leads a life full of parties and travel and regularly reads The New York Times on the internet.

Though Mr Mahmood is most at home on the bustling streets of Karachi, he is at heart a man of Swat: his grandfather was the army commander of the last Wali (ruler) of Swat and Mr Mahmood is one of many Pakistanis who have vowed to restore the "Switzerland of Pakistan" to its former glory and resist the tide of Talibanisation that is threatening to engulf the country. "Swat is where my heart and soul is," he said. "And I will do everything in my power to bring back the valley."

Two weeks ago, Mr Mahmood joined thousands of people in Karachi, Lahore and elsewhere to protest against extremism, hoping that the multitude of voices - students, writers, actors, politicians - would be enough to propel the government into taking action against the Taliban's march across the country. Earlier this week, after months of standing by, the Pakistan military launched a ferocious attack on militants in Swat, where they had seized de facto control of the Malakand Division.

"Far too late the government realised the need to show their muscle in Swat," said Hassan Askari, a political analyst. "The army's actions were late in coming but much needed." As the army fights militants in Dir, Buner and Swat, tens of thousands of civilians are fleeing these areas for temporary shelter in Lahore and Islamabad. The UN said that half a million people had either fled Swat or were on the move. Yesterday, the government sent fresh troops to the area with orders to eliminate the militants.

But even before the army's actions picked up steam, another national campaign was gaining momentum. Students, civil society leaders, politicians and activists united against the Taliban with the hopes they would inspire a movement as strong and effective as the lawyers' campaign which threatened to topple the government if sacked members of the judiciary were not restored. "This is a remarkable change," said Amen Jaffer, a social scientist. "For the longest time, the middle class remained silent as extremists gained attention and power. Now they are fighting back and showing they mean business."

The protests in Lahore two weeks ago were arranged by the Citizens of Lahore, a loose platform of social, political and trade unions groups. Holding up placards saying "No to Talibanisation" and "No to Terrorism", the crowd chanted against religious fundamentalism. Among them was Salima Hashmi, an artist and a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "The Taliban needs to be defeated," she said.

"They are trying to push us back into the pre-Islamic era and their claims of Islam are a sham." Ms Hashmi has been at the forefront of protests, demonstrations and rallies committed to ending the Talibanisation of Pakistan. Both she and Mr Mahmood, the advertising executive, believe it is up to society to challenge the rise of the fundamentalists. "We have to act as watchdogs," said Mr Mahmood. "And we have to also act as the country's conscience."

Besides taking part in rallies, Mr Mahmood has played a pivotal role in gathering support for the movement through blogging, internet forums and letter writing petitions. Yasmeen Rehman, a parliamentarian with the ruling Pakistan People's Party, applauded their work. "The lawyers' movement was one example of how by becoming united the citizens of Pakistan can bring about lasting change," she said. "I believe the anti-Talibanisation movement may be able to do the same."

Other activists, such as Fouzia Minallah, are playing dual roles in their struggle against extremism. When she is not participating in marches denouncing the Taliban, she can be found collecting daily necessities for families who have been displaced by the fighting. "The Taliban, they are the Frankenstein of the modern day. They are using Islam as a façade for their evil," she said. While the protests against the Taliban have drawn attention, some observers are sceptical the movement can really affect change.

"While I support the movement, I am not sure how effective it will be in combating the spread of extremism in Pakistan," said Qasim Arif, a reporter who has been covering the anti-Talibanisation movement for a local television channel. "The movement doesn't seem very organised or well planned so far." But Hamid Zaman, an entrepreneur and the spokesman for Concerned Citizens of Pakistan has more faith in the movement. "We are still in our infancy. And it goes to our credit that we are making our voice heard."

Mr Zaman said one of the biggest challenges is changing the mindset of the middle class. "Often we come across people who believe that Talibanisation is not a threat in Pakistan, it is simply an American created notion," he said. "And then we have to convince them that, no, this is a genuine problem." The movement gained greater public support after a video showing a teenaged girl being flogged by the militants in Swat resulted in a chorus of condemnation both from within Pakistan and internationally.

Politicians such as Saqib Chamkani, who is a member of the Awami National Party which supported the peace deal with militants in North West Frontier Province, says the behaviour of the Taliban in the last couple of months has eroded their support base. "Now, the Taliban have no support and we have all the support," he said. "Now the public opinion is with us and we can defeat them and we will." Meanwhile, in his office, Mr Mahmood is busy putting together another petition to urge Islamabad to take a harder line against the Taliban. "I just want to see a return to the Swat of my grandfather's time," he said.

"When every woman could go to school and justice was speedily dispensed."

* The National