|Pakistanis rally to the religious
By Muddassir Rizvi
ISLAMABAD - The looming United States-led attack
against Iraq is turning out to be a litmus test of the
strength of secular peace movement in Pakistan, in
comparison to the one spearheaded by right-wingers.
In recent weeks, peace campaigners have been
looking with envy at the multitude of people that the
religious parties have been able to gather in rallies
against the expected attack against Iraq.
latest such rally in Rawalpindi, the twin city of the
Pakistani capital, Islamabad, drew up to 500,000 people
under the banner of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) -
an alliance of six religious parties - gathering at the
same venue where less than 100 marchers belonging to
various public interest groups had gathered on February
15 anti-war protests around the world.
It is not
just the numbers that made the two protests different
but the ideology of the protesters - the MMA marchers
called the American war ambitions a war against Islam
while the February 15 protesters represented the secular
peace movement that opposes war for its devastation,
irrationality and human and economic costs.
low number of people who attended the February 15 rally
in Islamabad and Rawalpindi as anywhere else in the
country was shocking for us, but at the same time it has
given us reason to identify the causes that restricted
people from coming out," says Asim Sajjad Akhtar, who
heads the Pakistan Rights Movement (PRM) and was one of
the organizers of last month's anti-war protest.
These are uncomfortable times for the secular
peace movement, which got a boost after it adopted an
anti-nuclear position after Pakistan and India's testing
of nuclear weapons in 1998. The nuclearization of South
Asia prompted some non-government groups to organize
peace groups with a view to creating a critical mass
supporting peace and nuclear disarmament, while others
initiated permanent projects on peace education.
The Citizens' Peace Committee in Islamabad
organized a 1,000-strong peace rally in the capital on
Hiroshima Day in 1998, one of the biggest ever held by
NGOs. The local peace groups were later knit into a
national group called the Pakistan Peace Coalition
However, the PPC proved to be non-starter
as it relied on non-government groups than creating
linkages with the political parties and people. Instead
of making inroads in public and expanding its membership
to make itself politically and financially, it organized
conferences using money from the much-criticized Western
"However much good work the NGOs are
engaged in, there are many who question their legitimacy
on several counts - whether it is their sources of
funding or their way of working. NGOs can never be a
replacement to political parties and cannot mobilize
public opinion in the same fashion as a political party
does," said Kaneez Zehra, a peace activist based in
The PRM chief agrees, saying that the
secular peace movement in Pakistan is a political orphan
and peace issues are generally not on the list of
priorities of political parties. He said that one of the
important reasons for an abysmally low number of people
who turned out last month, on the day when millions
protested against the impending Iraq attack throughout
the world, was lack of interest by non-religious
political parties in the Iraq issue - or probably
wariness in taking a categorical stand on an issue
sensitive in this mainly Muslim country.
vigorous peace movement needs political support, but
secular political parties in the country are too
embroiled in power politics that they have no time to
take up issues that are close to people's hearts,"
Akhtar said. He was referring to the Pakistan People's
Party (PPP) which polled the highest number - almost 26
percent of total votes - in last October's elections. It
is second largest party in parliament.
which has championed a progressive agenda since its
inception in the late 1960s, has, however, adopted a
policy of silence over the Iraq issue as it did in the
case of the US-led military attacks on Afghanistan after
September 11. The PPP and other mainstream non-religious
political parties have so far not organized protests
opposing the US attack on Iraq.
While the ruling
Q League would stay away from what its leaders call
"street theatrics" for understandable reasons, many
non-religious parties, like cricketer-turn-politician
Imran Khan's Pakistan Justice Party, have aligned
themselves with the MMA on the issue. Khan even
addressed the MMA rally in Rawalpindi.
Pakistan Muslim League, led by exiled former prime
minister Nawaz Sharif, has organized some protest
rallies in some cities, but adopted a line close to that
of the religious parties.
say that the PPP and other non-religious parties -
having a stake in power - are abstaining from adopting
any clear-cut policy on issues involving US interests,
due to great US-influence in the country's politics.
"The PPP, being the main anti-establishment
party, will not want to take an anti-US position at a
time when the Pakistani military is drawing closer to
Washington by virtue of the growing anti-Americanism in
the country," observed a researcher at the
government-run Institute of Regional Studies, requesting
"If the PPP goes to the opposition
camp, it will be assumed in American official circles
that the Pakistani military is the only choice for
protecting American interests in Pakistan and the
adjoining region," he added. "I personally went to the
PPP office in Islamabad and requested them to call the
party workers to attend the February 15 protests, but
officials there said there is no such order from the
party leadership," said Sarwar Bari, head of the Pattan
Development Foundation that has been organizing street
theaters to sensitize people on the political dimension
of US war designs.
Still, Bari said that people
must be educated about the real reasons for US
expansionism. "The MMA is mobilizing people around a
religious agenda that breeds intolerance and hatred. The
silence of non-religious parties is creating space for
the religious right to further their extremist agenda
and consolidate their political position," he said.
Bari said that people must know the facts, and
the facts are that the US war designs against Iraq have
nothing to do with Islam, but are in pursuit of its
geo-strategic objectives. "People must know that the US
has initiated some 34 major wars around the world since
1945 and Muslims constitute a very small fraction of its
How the secular peace movement can
be strengthened and its message brought across in these
very divided times boggles activists' minds. To them, it
points out the need for more organization among people's
groups, inroads into the political parties and peace
education programs, especially directed toward children.
But until that time, they have to live with
groups like the MMA, which may also be against war on
Iraq but which peace activists believe is advocating
views more damaging in the end to peace.