Pakistan’s Peaceniks

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

"September 11 was mass murder," he says, "And it should be condemned. People who talk about peace have no business saying the U.S. brought it upon itself. It's one thing to try to understand the roots, but first you should condemn this mass murder. I'm not finding the condemnation."

Hoodbhoy had a seminar planned for September 12. He changed the topic to a discussion about the attack, seeking to use the event as a catalyst for change. Among many of the students there was a celebratory mood, he recalls. "They said, 'Worse things have happened in the world, many of them perpetrated by the U.S.—why are you making a big deal out of this?' I said, 'Before our eyes, we saw the deaths of thousands of people. This is a defining moment in history.' " Through the seminar, Hoodbhoy believes, he was able to remind a few students about the concept of a shared humanity.

One of only half a dozen nuclear physicists in Pakistan, Hoodbhoy understands better than most the dangers he says are inherent in his country's nuclear program. "In this century we may very well see the use of nuclear weapons," he says. "There are many scenarios. There could be fighting along the line of control (in Kashmir), during which India pursues Jihadis (guerrillas fighting against India) into Pakistan, and there is a conventional war. Pakistan is losing—before the major cities are lost, we use our nuclear weapons. And it would not be just one bomb, it will be many. They will respond. We're talking about tens of millions of people dying."

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.

Hoodbhoy differs from his fellow peace activists in another way as well. Although he is against war on principle, Hoodbhoy is so alarmed by the extremist form of Islam that has swept through Pakistan and Afghanistan that he sees this war as "an opportunity for Pakistan to rid itself of something dangerous. If [the] U.S. does not succeed in driving out the Taliban, we're sunk. [The fundamentalists] have changed the character of Pakistan—they've taken us back and back and back," he says. "In Malakand [a city in western Pakistan], they have established Islamic penal codes. They cut off hands, stone people to death, smash televisions. They're the barbarians of our times. They're against culture, emancipation of women."

Ten years ago, Hoodbhoy says, a woman in a burkah, a full body covering, stood out on the university campus. Today he has three such students in a class with 13 women; seven others wear hijab, which covers their faces, leaving only a slit for their eyes. Only three go about with just a scarf over their heads.

A former dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq planted the seeds of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1970s. His goal was to create a more conservative Islamic state, one that would be stalwart in the fight against India. By all accounts, that vision has come to pass. Over the last 20 years, the public schools have been "Islamicized," the madrassas staffed with fundamentalist mullahs, and the country's mood has shifted far to the right.

Faiza Mirza, a 36-year-old housewife, is part of this wave of fundamentalism. She lives with her husband and four children in a well-appointed concrete house in the city of Rawalpindi, not far from the raucous downtown area where tens of thousands of merchants and shoppers jam the narrow streets.

She does all the things housewives do the world over. She shops, meets with her children's teachers, drives a car. But she is different from most Western women in that Islam is the guiding force in her life, and she believes that after puberty, women should not be seen uncovered by males outside the family. Accordingly, both she and her 15-year-old daughter, Fariha, wear the hijab.

Sitting in the living room recently, with the other children occasionally coming to listen in, Faiza and her oldest daughter spoke about their beliefs. "If a woman is good-looking," explained the outspoken Fariha, "men will treat her like she is important. They act like what is inside does not matter." Now that she has taken the hijab, she said, men treat her with far more respect. "They have to pay attention to what is inside, not just appearances."

Faiza is a supporter of Afghanistan's Taliban government—after all, she says, "under the Taliban, there are no guns [among the population], no drugs, no corruption; they are true believers." A college graduate, she thinks that the Taliban's poor treatment of women has been exaggerated; in any case, their beliefs dovetail to a large degree with her own.

As for her own country, she says, "The founders of Pakistan said, 'What is the meaning of Pakistan? There is but one God: Allah.' There is no point in having Pakistan except to have an Islamic state." (In fact, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the "father of Pakistan," specifically conceived of the country as a secular state.) Like many here, Faiza is fearful of India and in favor of Pakistan's nuclear weapons: "If you have a strong neighbor, and he tries to take part of your house, you have to fight back," she explains.

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