Liberals rally to ‘Reclaim’ nation in Pakistan

AP AND AFP, KABUL AND ISLAMABAD

Sun, Jan 18, 2015 - Page 5

Afghan officials say that security forces have arrested five people suspected of being involved in a massacre last month that saw extremists attack a military school in Pakistan, killing 148 people, most of them children, as liberals in Pakistan mobilize to “Reclaim” their nation.

The three officials on Saturday said that the men helped support the assault at the Army Public School and College in the city of Peshawar. They say the men, all foreigners, were arrested in recent weeks near Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief journalists about the arrests.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on the school on Dec. 16. The militant group is active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One month on from the Taliban school massacre, a new movement is growing among marginalized urban liberals rallying to “Reclaim Pakistan” from violent extremism.

Carrying placards and candles, their stand against religious fanaticism is an unusual sight in a nation more used to mass demonstrations by Islamic groups filled with chants against the West or India.

Muhammad Jibran Nasir, a 27-year-old lawyer who has played a key role in organizing demonstrations, said he and others felt they could no longer stand by following the brutal killings of schoolchildren in the nation’s northwest.

“I never felt so overwhelmed. I felt pathetic as a human being, as a Muslim, as a Pakistani. I felt very, very small,” he said.

While Pakistan’s military has been engaged in heavy offensives in the nation’s northwestern tribal areas, progressive critics believe the state — including both the army and political parties — must do more to tackle those Islamic groups that have traditionally received official backing.

In an effort to highlight the discrepancy, Nasir, who happened to be visiting Islamabad at the time of the Peshawar assault, led like-minded activists to protest outside the radical Red Mosque, whose imam is known for his pro-Taliban views and who has refused to condemn the attack on the school.

Maulana Abdul Aziz led an armed insurrection against the military in 2007, but was acquitted of all charges against him by 2013 in a case which analysts say highlights weaknesses in Pakistan’s judicial system and sympathies for militants among parts of the security establishment.

The “Reclaim” movement’s first small victory was the re-opening of an investigation against Aziz, Nasir said.

“There’s an arrest warrant out, police say they are doing their own investigation,” he said, adding that he was hopeful that more pressure could result in firm action.

He said he has been threatened not just by Aziz, but by the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of the Pakistani Taliban over the phone. However, as someone who considers himself an observant Muslim, he felt he could no longer see his faith hijacked.

“I’ve got some views on my religion, I read on it, I research on it to an extent. I can’t seem to reconcile the preachings of my imam and the teachings of the Koran,” he said.

The movement has spread over social media, particularly Facebook, with like-minded groups in the major cities of Lahore and Karachi coordinating their protests and condemning local militant groups that operate in those areas.

Analysts believe some militant groups receive backing from the state because they can be used as assets by Pakistan to exert influence in India and Afghanistan — a strategy which progressives are keen to see ended.

“We are basically people who are concerned for our own humanity. If we do not take some kind of stance we may very well stay alive, but we lose our own humanity by being lazy. It makes us complicit,” said 36-year-old Taimur Khan, an entrepreneur who is part of the Reclaim movement in Islamabad.

Progressives remain a relatively small minority, confined to the educated upper and middle-classes — a fact bemoaned by Nasir.

He contrasted the crowds of hundreds at Reclaim rallies with the estimated 1.6 million Parisians who took to the streets to condemn the deadly attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

“Pakistan is desensitized, but in Paris millions came out. That has made those 12 lives the center of attention for the entire world,” he said.

“We have lost 55,000 people to terrorism, but we struggle to justify our case to the world that we are doing enough to curb terrorism,” he added.