Pakistan’s Peaceniks


ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN—“This is not the dawn we had dreamed of, this blood-stained dawn,” wrote the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz of his nation’s violent birth. In 1947, when British India was divided into Muslim Pakistan and the largely Hindu India, the trains arrived silently at their destinations—their cargo a bumper crop of death; thousands of Muslims shot and stabbed by maddened crowds as they fled west. Half a million people would die on both sides before the carnage ended.

Pakistan was born in strife; in strife it remains, engaged in a nuclear standoff with India, deeply enmeshed in military actions in Afghanistan and the disputed province of Kashmir, and spending $2.9 billion a year on guns and soldiers. Today the populace takes comfort in the machine-gun toting soldiers that loiter in public places and street corners across the country.

The country’s minuscule peace movement has its work cut out for it. “I don’t know if I would even call it a peace movement. It is something—maybe an initiative?” says Saba Gul Khattak of the Citizens’ Peace Committee, a group of 100 or so activists in Islamabad. The CPC is part of a large coalition, the Pakistan Peace Committee, an umbrella organization of about 1000 peace activists in this nation of 140 million.

The political views of this small group are wildly divergent from those of the average Pakistani, who could be described as pro-military, pro-nuclear, deeply hostile towards India, and content with Pakistan’s military dictatorship. The peace activists conduct community workshops and hold small demonstrations and press conferences in the face of skepticism from the populace and harassment from the authorities. Their goal, they say, is to raise awareness about what they see as the dangers of Pakistan’s massive militarization, its lack of democratic government, and the effects of economic globalization.

Faiza Mirza (right), with her daughter Fariha, supports militarism: “You
have to fight back.” (Photograph by Michael Kamber)

If there was a catalyzing event for Pakistan’s antiwar movement, it was the country’s first nuclear tests, which took place in 1998. Arch-rival India had provocatively detonated five nuclear devices. A wave of near hysteria swept Pakistan; the press and public demanded a response to the saber rattling. Faced with U.S. sanctions that would cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars, Pakistan nevertheless went ahead with its own series of trials; six bombs were exploded, doing India one better. Citizens celebrated in the streets and the government made May 28, the day of the first successful trial, a national holiday. (Simultaneously, it declared that May 2, the worldwide labor holiday, would no longer be celebrated.) Echoing the sentiment of many, an Islamabad resident explained recently, “We never felt secure until we had our own bomb.”

A small group of academics and NGO (nongovernmental organization) employees—policy planners, aid workers, and union organizers—was stunned by these sentiments and banded together to form the CPC. “We don’t need nuclear bombs in our country,” said Roshan, a CPC member who asked that her real name not be used. “If we stop making bombs, all that money can be spent on schools, hospitals, and development.”

CPC member Saba Gul Khattak is the daughter and granddaughter of army officers. She is now researching Pakistan’s history of militarization, as well the peace movements of its early years. She vividly remembers the 1965 and 1971 wars with India, the bombs exploding, the roar of airplanes and tracers filling the night sky. She argues that there has always been a peace movement in Pakistan, but that much of it occurred in literature and poetry, which was banned by the government, allowing no consciousness to take root. “In a state-sanctioned discourse these thoughts were wiped out, and so there is no collective memory,” she explains. “If the state bans your voice, then your words become just a solitary event that takes place, and with time, it fades from memory.”

Today, state-sanctioned obstacles to peace organizing continue. Aasim Sajjad, a CPC mainstay and union organizer, can’t remember how many times he has been jailed here. “Maybe a dozen,” he says. His crime? Publicly criticizing—and demonstrating against—the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf. “All the power in Pakistan is in one man,” says Izmat Shahjehan, a fiery, outspoken CPC member. “He’s the president, the chief of the army, the prime minister. Parliament has been dissolved. He has no constituency—he’s never been elected—and now he alone sits down with Bush and makes all decisions in the name of the people of Pakistan. We know this military government is going to stay—the U.S. supports it—but democracy has never been more important for us.”

Yet most Pakistanis much prefer General Musharraf to the man from whom he seized control, the elected but unpopular Nawaz Sharif. “For most Pakistanis, the concept of peace and democracy is meaningless,” says Sajjad. “It does not really mean anything unless linked to people putting food on the table. There was a military coup almost exactly two years ago [in which Musharraf took power]. Nobody said a word. Democracy in and of itself is irrelevant to these people.”

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

Yet she agrees with the peace activists on one point. General Musharraf speaks without a mandate. If there were a democracy, she and other fundamentalists could elect a more conservative politician, one who shares her and her family’s views. If Pakistan’s leader were elected, she says, he or she never would have sided with the U.S. against the Taliban. And Faiza’s democracy has one caveat. “Only those of sufficient moral standing should be allowed to vote,” she says.

Both mother and daughter are well-educated and intelligent—they come across as reasonable people. “People are the same the world over, we all want the same thing,” she says. Then she reminds a visitor that Islam literally means peace.

It is Pakistanis like Faiza that the peace activists would like to reach. Yet the gaps between the two groups are immense. Part of the problem, some peace activists say, is that they have not found a way to explain their movement in a way that emphasizes Islam, an issue that is so central to the lives of many Pakistanis. As Roshan said recently, “There is no movement per se. We have not been able to link our cause to that of the ordinary Pakistani.”