The strength of the human spirit and the stories of incredible sacrifice and bravery are the residue of great tragedies. This attack has brought unity to the national discourse on counterterrorism (sans elements with religious affiliations and certain political interests), and given rise to a citizen’s movement against Taliban sympathizers and apologists. This movement was founded by Muhammad Jibran Nasir.
Jibran was in Islamabad on the day of the attack, and felt the blow like everyone else. Abdul Aziz, cleric for the infamous Red Mosque in Islamabad refused to condemn the attack on children, blaming Pakistan’s counterterrorism operations in the FATA belt. Jibran put out a call to action, mobilizing the civil society for a demonstration against the firebrand cleric and his statements. This has since swelled into a national movement with demonstrations in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Sialkot and Sargodha, and an FIR has been registered against the cleric, with the police requesting a few days to complete their investigation.
Jibran is a lawyer, humanitarian and political activist from the southern port city of Karachi. He serves as Director Sindh Operations for Khudi, a youth-led initiative that serves to counter extremism and promote tolerance in society. He also ran his own show Izhaar on Dawn News. In the May 2013 elections he also ran as an independent candidate from NA-250 and PS-113, and has always maintained a non-partisan stance despite membership offers from senior leadership of major political parties.
The Taliban and their sympathizers are not just among us, they are within us
A lot has been said about the purpose of this protest, and the thought process behind it. What is the next logical step in this movement, and after Abdul Aziz, where does this go?
The protest is not about the arrest of Abdul Aziz. His arrest and prosecution is the first step of a journey towards reclaiming our country. It is a message to all quarters that the civil society in Pakistan will not stand any support of Taliban or their sympathizers or their apologists from any state or non-state institutions, including the military, clergy and even the media. We have to be very clear on the ideology of our country, this confused narrative that blurs the lines needs to be systematically eliminated.
This is Pakistan’s movement. The Taliban and their sympathizers are not just among us, they are within us. Three and a half decades of conditioning the country with a certain mentality has resulted in these ideologies and individuals becoming a part of our social structure and fiber. This is why we have Taliban apologists in all state institutions, even in the highest echelons of power. Law-abiding and peaceful Pakistanis need to identify and throw out these apologists from their ranks, and reclaim our state institutions, much like we are trying to reclaim our mosque.
There is a sense that this movement is against mosques. Protesters are on record remanding the demolition of the mosque. Is this one of the end objectives?
None of our protestors have demanded its demolition. We have time and again said, we have to free the mosque, not demolish it. It is a house of God. Cherish it, nurture it, and be concerned deeply about what goes on in the mosque. We do not want state interference to be a norm, but we must take cognizance of the times we are living in, and Pakistan is living with a serious security threats. Without state oversight and coordination with the security and intelligence quarters, we cannot accomplish this goal of eradicating extremist elements and ideology from a house which is supposed to be a symbol of peace and tolerance.
Are you at all concerned with the backlash? Are you concerned about the safety of the individuals that show up to every call for the protests?
As a citizen of Pakistan, I feel that our lives are already at risk when people like Abdul Aziz support the killers of my country’s children. I don’t think I have invited any special attention to myself. We have made public the threats made to the civil society whenever we receive them, so that whosoever shows up to the protest has all the facts and can make an informed decision, like I have, to make ourselves heard and to stand firm in the face of oppression and retaliation. I believe this retaliation can only come from elements who do not wish to see a peaceful Pakistan.
You have emerged as the figurehead in the campaign, do you feel you have the ownership?
I have as much ownership as my generation does, just like Aitzaz Hussain of Hangu took it before us. They need to express it with as much vigor as I am or those brave individuals who stand with me every day. You are either with the Taliban or with Pakistan. This is the people’s movement, this is Pakistan’s movement. I am always dispensable to Pakistan and to this movement. If I falter, someone else has to be there to pick up the torch, it cannot collapse if I am no longer in the picture. The idea is to give encouragement to others and empower them.
I believe I am not the only Pakistani with access to a webcam, a phone and the internet. I have received thousands of messages from people asking how they can help. The simple answer to that is, record a video message, register your protest, demand the arrest of Abdul Aziz, own this campaign, make it your campaign, make it Pakistan’s campaign.
How will you ensure this movement will not be hijacked by political parties?
The word hijacked has a very negative connotation. If I could rephrase the question, I would ask: when will this movement be owned by the political parties in Pakistan? They need to step forward, they need to claim responsibility, they need to own this movement and its narrative. They are our leaders, they have the resources, the advisors, the capability. All they lack is the will. And we are waiting. This should be Imran Khan’s campaign. This should be Asif Zardari’s campaign. This should be Nawaz Sharif’s campaign. This should be Siraj-ul-Haq’s campaign. This should be Fazl-ur-Rehman’s campaign. This should be Altaf Hussain’s campaign. They are also Pakistans.
The Prime Minister has lifted the moratorium on executions. What is your stance on the death penalty, especially public executions, and how do you justify them?
As a human rights activist, I am principally against and I abhor the death penalty. I see no pleasure in seeing any human being of any allegiance suffer to death. The death penalty is a last resort and should only be used for those terrorists who have left us with no options, who continue to spread extremism and instigate attacks on our country, and for who’s sake jail are attacked across Pakistan. If their cause is the annihilation of our country and our children, and they refuse to renounce their ways, I believe it is not us who making a choice about hangings, I believe it is them who are leaving us with no other option.
As for public executions, we trust our media to be the torchbearers of truth. We don’t want to see footage of people dying. If we have proof that no deal was made, that these killers were not exchanged or pardoned, the gatekeeper of this information is the media. Then it is up to the media to establish that credibility with the public. In a frenzy, media often breaks news that turns out to be false and at such a sensitive time we cannot afford such mistakes.
There is a lot of flak from religious quarters, claiming you are NGO-funded, or that there are sectarian elements involved in this movement. Could you set the record straight?
My parents identify themselves as Sunnis, however I find it contrary to the teachings of Islam to divulge in sectarian debate and define each other in other sects and create further divisions, especially when my God never addressed us as Shia or Sunni. We have no funding or organizational affiliations. This is the fed up civil society of Pakistan, the lifeblood of our nation. Why do we always assume that civil society has secular views or western ideology? Isn’t a child who goes to a madrassa as much a part of civil society as a kid who goes to a posh school in Islamabad? We have people who show up at the protests who are moderates, left-wing, right-wing. We have people who are anti-establishment, pro-establishment. It is a clear cross-section of society. We have only one thing in common. We wish to see our mosques, our pulpits, our madrassas freed from extremist ideologies.
The author is a journalist and a development professional, and holds a Master’s degree in strategic communications from Ithaca College, NY, USA.