South Asia

Pakistanis rally to the religious right
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.

The 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.

"The 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 (PPC).

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 donors.

"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 Islamabad.

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.

"A 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.

The PPP, 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.

The 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.

Political scientists 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 anonymity.

"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 war victims."

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.

(Inter Press Service)
Mar 15, 2003


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