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From #ReclaimYourMosques to #ReclaimPakistan, Pakistanis Call for an End to Extremism

The people of Lahore held a protest against hate-monger cleric Abdul Aziz, who runs a militant school in Islamabad and refuses to condemn the Taliban and their attack on the Peshawar school.

The people of Lahore held a protest against hate-monger cleric Abdul Aziz, who runs a militant school in Islamabad and refuses to condemn the Taliban and their attack on the Peshawar school. Image by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh. Copyright Demotix (22/12/2014)

Sorrow and anger gripped Pakistanis more severely than ever after an attack on a school in Peshawar killed mostly young students. The horrific assault, one of the bloodiest instances of terrorism in Pakistan, has not only shocked the country but also the global community, which has responded to Pakistanis with messages of solidarity and hope.

The brazen attack is a stark reminder of the frequent terrorist attacks, by different militant groups, over the past 11 years in Pakistan, which have claimed the lives of more than 55,000 Pakistanis. The massacre of more than 130 innocent school children and 10 teachers at Army Public School (APS) by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) gunmen has amazingly unified Pakistan's government, major political and religious parties, military leadership, and the masses against terrorism.

But amidst the discourse on counter-terrorism, a much stronger and much-needed voice has emerged from the capital of Pakistan aiming to ‘reclaim Pakistan’ from radicalism.

“Reclaim Your Mosques” campaign

The Reclaim movement first began with spontaneous protests two days after the Peshawar attack outside the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad against the infamous cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz, who refused to condemn the killers, arguing that the school attack was the ramification of the government’s policies against the Taliban. The demonstrations, spearheaded by lawyer-turned-activist Muhammad Jibran Nasir, rapidly grew from a handful of protesters, demanding the arrest of Abdul Aziz to a national movement with protests in Karachi, Lahore, Sialkot and Sargodha for a common cause:

We wish to see our mosques, our pulpits, our madrassas freed from extremist ideologies.

Protestors Holding banner against cleric Abdul Aziz.  Copyright Demotix (22/12/2014)

Protestors holding a banner against cleric Abdul Aziz. Image by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh. Copyright Demotix (22/12/2014)

The rage against the cleric and mosque administration goes beyond current stance of Abdul Aziz as the mosque already had a reputation for radicalism. In response to pressure from society, Abdul Aziz apologized and condemned the killing of children. But the activists persist that their movement is after much more than just an apology and arrest of Abdul Aziz:

A non-bailable arrest warrant has been issued against Abdul Aziz, but the momentum of public protests has not dwindled as sit-ins continue outside the Red Mosque and Aabpara police station.

From “Reclaim Your Mosques” to “Reclaim Pakistan”

The recent brutal act of terror galvanized Pakistanis from all beliefs and regions against extremism to show solidarity for the young victims. The protests that began with candle vigils, prayers, soon turned into the Reclaim Your Mosques protest, which has now transformed into Reclaim Pakistan, a movement against the Taliban, to take back Pakistan from militant groups and extremist mindsets.

Although the arrest warrant for Abdul Aziz is being hailed by the campaigners, it was not the sole objective of the campaign. Jibran explained this transformation in an interview:

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. This is Pakistan’s movement. The Taliban and their sympathizers are not just among us, they are within us. 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.

The anti-Taliban demonstrations across Pakistan depict a change in public attitude towards radicalism. Nabi Malik, a lawyer, highlights this realization:

The protests outside Lal Masjid, although limited in nature, represent a realization in at least a segment of society that Pakistan needs to reclaim the space lost to the clergy. Participants appear to want to “reclaim their mosques”, or have their opinions represented in the narrative of not only the country, but their religion as well.

Movement against Taliban as well as their supporters

The gut-wrenching tragedy at the Peshawar school is not the country's first atrocity the country has experienced, as Pakistan has been frequently struck by acts of terror since 2002. But it is the first time that the country is witnessing strong reaction against Taliban and Taliban apologists from citizens as well as government. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has also made it clear that Pakistan would not differentiate between the good and bad Taliban and the country is united in fight against terrorism. 

The protests against Taliban supporters highlights a counter-extremist narrative and a significant shift in the way Pakistanis are thinking as they are no longer consider apologists free from blame. 

Ali Raza Abidi, a Pakistani politician reminded why it is important for Pakistan to unite against extremism right now:

Mina Sohail, a journalist in Islamabad, wrote:

We are at war with the Taliban, whose agenda is to destabilize Pakistan and create its own state that eschews international rules of logic and humanity. This school massacre is our Sept. 11. This time, Pakistanis have come out galvanized to say we will “never forget.”

“Never Forget” campaign

Never Forget” is an online campaign that began after the Peshawar attack. Zero tolerance for extremists is the aim of its campaigners, who have set forth a charter of demands that insists effective implementation of following demands:

  • Zero tolerance for extremists and terrorists should be adopted by all state institutions, political parties, religious councils/bodies.
  • No terrorist outfit and their supporters should be given any airtime on Pakistani broadcast, print and digital media. 
  • Monitoring of sermons in all mosques/madrassas and seminaries throughout Pakistan to restrict hate speech/incitement or promotion of extremist ideologies.
  • All ghost schools across Pakistan should be reopened in memory of the fallen students and teachers of the Army Public School and College, Peshawar.

The Reclaim Pakistan movement is an endeavor by concerned Pakistanis who wish to live peacefully in their homeland. Their thoughts are well represented in these words by Ahmad Qazi,a son who lost her mother (Principal of APS) in Peshawar school attack: 

I wish for the Pakistan I once saw, where we could go out all night without bothering about security, where relationship mattered more than money, where living in harmony was all that we knew, where my school was safe and neighborhood calm, where blood shed was rare, where kidnappings and killing was a crime…. I wish for the Pakistan that we once knew.. I just wish for my Pakistan to rise once again.

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