Pakistan’s Peaceniks

A Tiny Antiwar Movement Takes on Nukes, Military Spending, and Dictatorship

Sajjad sees the current debate over the war in Afghanistan as a window of opportunity, one he is trying to exploit. He believes unionizing workers is an important step in getting them involved in the democratic process, and he is trying to organize brick-workers, shoemakers, and taxi drivers. "We need to link them to other groups and explain how the democratization of the state will benefit them," he says.

But unionizing here is a difficult process. Only 4 percent of the workforce is unionized, and unions are forbidden in the country's large industrial export zones. Students are forbidden from organizing as well, depriving Pakistan's antiwar movement of a natural source of activists.

A further obstacle is the class divide between the activists and Pakistan's proletariat. Most Pakistanis are agrarian, illiterate, and desperately poor. Per capita income is $480 a year. The CPC is made up of the upper-middle-class city dwellers. There are several Ph.D.'s among its members and many have studied abroad, usually in the United States or England.

Activist Saba Gul Khattak says the state has banned the voices of peace.
photo: Michael Kamber
Activist Saba Gul Khattak says the state has banned the voices of peace.

The class divide was clearly on display at a mid-October press conference held at the Marriott hotel. The group held the briefing in English, in hopes of attracting the foreign press. But the English-language media was otherwise occupied, and only the local Urdu-language press attended, most of whose members know only rudimentary English. "Our speaker was speaking in the most complex academic jargon," recalls Roshan. "Intents are good, but the local journalists couldn't even follow what he was saying. I kept saying, 'Let's switch to Urdu,' but he just kept going." The CPC presentation was followed by a barrage of hostile, accusatory questions from the local press.

Roshan goes on to tell an anecdote about a friend who announced she was planning to take her servant to a CPC demonstration. Was the friend trying to increase consciousness among her employees? asked Roshan. "No," came the reply. "It's hot out, and if I get tired of holding this placard, she can carry it around for me."

Sajjad listened to Roshan talk on a recent evening. "What we're saying is unintelligible to others," he agreed. "Unless we change that, ordinary Pakistanis will never hear our message." Still, the CPC press conferences and demonstrations do occasionally get airtime. Often they are ridiculed, portrayed as unpatriotic, or even subject to veiled threats, yet even the brief television appearances are a valuable outlet for the group's message.

And there have been other successes as well. Shandana Khan, like most members, an employee of one of the dozens of NGOs scattered throughout Islamabad, recently sent out an e-mail to 18 friends and colleagues asking for funds and materials to aid the incoming Afghan refugees. Despite her objections, the e-mail was passed on, eventually arriving in places as far-flung as Singapore and the U.S. She has been deluged with donations and supplies. To date, five truckloads of food and blankets have been sent to Afghan refugees.

Other members see the antiwar efforts as intrinsically tied to an antiglobalization campaign. Pakistan's economy is in tatters; unemployment is rampant among young men, whom the activists see as providing cannon fodder for militant fundamentalist groups that indoctrinate and send teenagers to fight in Kashmir and Afghanistan. "My own cousins say, 'What can I do, our kids are out in the street, getting into trouble, they have nothing to do,' " says Shahjehan. "They say, 'We'll send them to a madrassa (a religious school where many Pakistani youth are taught by fundamentalist teachers), they'll learn the Qur'an. It will pacify them.' Now my brother's three sons have met these recruiters, and they want to go to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. They say, 'We get three thousand rupees as a bonus (about $50), we get to see another country, and if we're killed, we get a one-way ticket to heaven.' "

In various forms, Pakistan has always had a small progressive movement. Yet for many Pakistani peace activists, it was time spent as students in England and America that helped to politicize them—that reinforced their belief in democracy and protest.

And yet today they are fighting against what they regard as the pernicious influences and policies of the West. Anti-American sentiment runs deep among many activists, so deep that it has created schisms within the group. "Who's the real terrorist? America!" was the favored chant at the CPC's last rally, a lackluster affair held last week and attended by perhaps 20 activists, 40 journalists, and 80 police officers. Towards the end of the rally, Pervez Hoodbhoy, a committee member, could take it no more. "I lost my temper," he recalls. "I started yelling, 'If you're going to talk about terrorists, let's shout about Osama first, then America.' "

Hoodbhoy talked about his differences with the majority of CPC members last week as he sat in his modest home on the grounds of Quaid-i-Azam University, where he has spent 28 years as a professor of nuclear physics. "How hard it is that I came back to Pakistan because of the crimes of Vietnam and that I should be here today stopping people from shouting death to America," he says. Hoodbhoy became radicalized during his time at MIT, where he arrived in 1968. He attended SDS rallies, participated in building takeovers, and later spurned job offers in the U.S. "Here in Pakistan, I can make more of a difference," he says. But he is increasingly disturbed by the attitudes of many of his fellow citizens.

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