Thursday, May 28, 2009

LAHORE, Pakistan | Khalid Mahmood is a graduate of Northwestern University and runs a flourishing marketing consultancy firm in Karachi. He speaks English fluently, leads a charmed life crammed with parties and globe-trotting, and regularly reads U.S. newspapers on the Internet.

At heart, however, Mr. Mahmood, 38, is a man of the Swat Valley: His grandfather was the army commander of the last wali, or ruler, of the region now under the control of Islamist Taliban militants. Mr. Mahmood has vowed to restore the Switzerland of Pakistan to its former glory.

“Swat is where my heart and soul is,” he said. “And I will do everything in my power to bring back the valley.”

Mr. Mahmood is part of a growing movement of students, civil society leaders, politicians and activists who have joined hands against the Talibanization of their country, inspired to a great extent by a nationwide movement of lawyers that led to the reinstatement of the Supreme Court chief justice earlier this year.

As residents in Lahore, Karachi and other major Pakistani cities raise their voices against Talibanization, the Pakistani military has been attacking militants across a 50-mile arc northwest of the capital, Islamabad. After reports of policemen being beheaded and girls being flogged in Swat made their way across the world and horrified potential aid-givers in Washington, Pakistan’s government finally sent the army in to do battle.

The coming together of middle-class Pakistanis against Talibanization is a recent phenomenon.

“This is a remarkable change,” social scientist Amen Jaffer said. “For the longest [time], the middle class remained silent as extremists gained attention and power. Now, they are fighting back and showing they mean business.”

Through public meetings, Internet forums and meetings with politicians, the anti-Taliban activists hope to prompt the government to come down heavily on extremists.

“Every other day, I am involved in a protest, a letter-writing campaign, a rally, et cetera,” Mr. Mahmood said, speaking rapidly as he made his way from one meeting to another. “I have been raising my voice against what’s happening in Swat for months now, but finally it seems others have also realized the urgency of the situation.”

The activists achieved a small moral victory in early May. Kinnaird College, one of Lahores premier institutions for the education of women, had banned jeans and body-hugging clothes after officials reportedly received threats from extremists.

Protests by the anti-Taliban brigade forced the college administration to defend the decision by asserting that the dress code was in line with government regulations and was not the result of militants’ threats.

“It’s a first step,” Mr. Mahmood said. “We have put Kinnaird on the defensive and soon we will be able to make them retract their orders.”

In April, more than 2,000 people joined a rally in Lahore to protest Talibanization and terrorism. The event was arranged by the Citizens of Lahore, a loose coalition of social, political and trade union organizations. Behind massive placards bearing slogans such as “No to Talibanisation” and “No to Terrorism,” a crowd of mostly women and students chanted against Islamic fundamentalism.

Mr. Mahmood and his compatriots are also drumming up support for rallies in New York City and London, both of which are home to many Pakistani expatriates.

Concerns have mounted about a potential backlash against the government and Taliban opponents, however, as the military crackdown in Buner and Swat has forced more than 2.5 million people from their homes. Many have found temporary shelter in Lahore and Islamabad.

While Mr. Mahmood and fellow activists wholeheartedly support the army’s actions, they say a nationwide condemnation of the Taliban is required for the campaign to be effective.

The recent criticism of the Taliban by the ruling Awami National Party in the North West Frontier Province, which had earlier signed a peace deal with the Islamists, helped strengthen the campaign. So have condemnations by mainstream Muslim groups.

“The Taliban need to be defeated,” said Salima Hashmi, a noted artist and member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “They are trying to push us back into the pre-Islamic era, and their claims of Islam are a sham.”

Ms. Hashmi and Mr. Mahmood said it is up to Pakistani society to challenge the writ of the Taliban.

“We have to act as watchdogs,” Mr. Mahmood said. “And we have to also act as the country’s conscience.”

The protests by thousands of lawyers after then-President Pervez Musharraf replaced Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry succeeded in forcing Mr. Musharraf’s successor as president, Asif Ali Zardari, to reinstate the jurist.

“The lawyers movement was one example about how by becoming united the citizens of Pakistan can bring about lasting change,” said Yasmeen Rehman, a parliamentarian from the governing Pakistan Peoples Party. “I believe the anti-Talibanization movement may be able to do the same.”

Though the anti-Talibanization movement has attracted a good deal of attention, many observers are still skeptical about its effect on the government’s will to root out the militants.

“The movement doesn’t seem very organized or well-planned so far,” said Qasim Arif, a reporter who has been covering the movement for a local television channel. “I am not sure how effective it will be in combating the spread of extremism in Pakistan.”

Hamid Zaman, a businessman and spokesman for Concerned Citizens of Pakistan, said one of challenges facing their work is the mind-set of the middle class. “Often, we come across people who believe that Talibanization is not a threat in Pakistan, it is simply an American-created notion,” he said. “And then we have to convince them that … this is a genuine problem.”

Meanwhile, in his office on a busy street in Karachi, Mr. Mahmood is putting together yet another petition to cajole Islamabad into exerting even more force against the Taliban.

“I just want to see a return to the Swat of my grandfathers time,” he said, “when every woman could go to school and justice was speedily dispensed.”

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