It was a small gathering on a cold winter night. Just over 100 people stood in Dupont Circle to recite poems, light candles and chant slogans in Urdu that few passersby would understand. “Pakistan Zindabad, Taliban Murdabad,” they repeated. Long life to Pakistan, death to the Taliban.
But the modest event, held in the District in response to the terrorist slaughter of 148 students and teachers at a school in Pakistan, marked a sea change in the nation’s large, mostly middle-class Pakistani American population. Similar vigils were held by Pakistanis in Boston, Houston, Los Angeles and other cities.
After decades of watching and worrying about developments in their troubled Muslim homeland, thousands of Pakistanis across the United States — propelled by a network of young professionals adept at using social media — are joining a nascent international campaign to fight the threat of violent Islamist extremism in Pakistan and beyond.
The turning point was the Dec. 16 siege on an army-run school in Peshawar, carried out by a brutal Islamist militia, which outraged the world and shook Pakistani society to the core. It came just a week after Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, who survived being shot by the Taliban for promoting girls’ education, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
“This is the first time in my life I have seen Pakistanis get so involved,” said Madiha Qureshi, 33, an international development worker in Rockville, Md., who helped organize the vigil. “In Pakistan, people never demonstrated. We were not taught about Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela,” she said. “But now, attitudes are changing, social media is connecting us, and Peshawar gave people impetus to act.”
The effort goes beyond rallies and petitions. One ex-pat group is raising funds to start 141 schools in Pakistan, each named after a victim of the siege at the school in Peshawar. Psychologists with expertise in post-traumatic stress disorder offered to help counsel survivors. Some activists are pushing for Congress to cut off aid unless Pakistani authorities crack down on Islamist militant groups.
Abdullah Jafari, a retired Pakistani airline employee in Houston, works with a foundation that has established several hundred private schools in Pakistan. Their curriculum, he said, is designed to counter years of Islamist rhetoric in public school texts that has influenced a generation of young Pakistanis.
“We have to answer this extremism because it is not only bad for Pakistan, but it is spilling into the rest of the world,” said Jafari, 68. “The Taliban are trying to take society back 1,500 years, and we cannot let that happen.”
Like several other activists, however, he expressed frustration that even now, in cities with tens of thousands of Pakistani immigrants, it is hard to gather more than a few hundred at vigils and rallies. “We need to galvanize people in larger numbers, or I fear the Peshawar incident will just become a part of history like other attacks,” Jafari said.
The diaspora’s fitful response is in part a reflection of the confused state of affairs in Pakistan, where conservative religious groups are gaining influence, the army is battling some Islamist militias but nurtures others to fight as proxies abroad, and the civilian political elite has remained disengaged from religious and military policies.
As a result, until recently, there was little public outcry in Pakistan against Islamist violence, even though it had taken many thousands of lives. Similarly, while the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Yousafzai was hailed worldwide as a proud day for Pakistan, she was reviled by a variety of Muslim groups in Pakistan as a traitor to Islam.
But the Peshawar attack unified public opinion and sparked a small but unprecedented civic uprising in Pakistan. A few days afterward, protesters surrounded a notorious radical mosque in Islamabad, demanding that the government arrest its firebrand leader Maulana Abdul Aziz — who refused to denounce the massacre — and launch a crackdown on all Islamic extremism.
The protest leader, a young lawyer named Mohammad Jibran Nasir, has quickly become a role model and mentor to Pakistani activists in the United States, and they are in constant touch with him on Facebook and Skype. Nadia Naviwala, 30, a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service who works as a representative of the U.S. Institute for Peace, participated in Jibran’s mosque protest, an experience she described as exhilarating and disheartening.
“The police were guarding the mosque, and there were about 300 of us outside,” she recounted. “Abdul Aziz came out and threatened us. We went to the police station trying to get a case registered against him, but they told us they could do nothing because of political pressure. We threatened to sleep there in the street. It took hours to get a case filed, and by night, the crowd was down to about 50 people.”
At the vigils in Washington and other cities, protesters circulated a petition listing Jibran’s demands, which urge officials in Pakistan to rein in sectarian and extremist Muslim groups, end abuse of the country’s blasphemy laws and take control of rogue seminaries that teach jihad against the West. In Washington, an official from the Embassy of Pakistan joined the vigil.
Despite limited turnouts at rallies in Pakistan and the United States, activists here said the demand for change is spreading steadily in the diaspora, with networks of young volunteers growing in key cities and staying in touch via social media and conference calls.
While many older immigrants have long been cut off from events in their homeland, younger students and professionals who grew up there have witnessed religious violence and intimidation firsthand, especially against minorities including Shiite Muslims, Ahmedis and Christians. Speakers at several of the Jan. 16 vigils told of relatives back home who had been killed or persecuted.
Zainab Majoka, 28, a World Bank employee in the District who is active in the anti-extremist movement, said many Pakistani Americans were especially shocked by news stories in November about a Christian couple who were burned to death in a brick kiln by a mob after being falsely accused of blasphemy against Islam.
“That really resonated with people here,” Majoka said. She recalled that when she was growing up in Pakistan, the textbooks were full of messages “glorifying jihad,” and young people never questioned Islamic authority. Now, she said, younger immigrants from various religious minorities are starting to work together for the first time. “I really hope this movement gives people food for thought,” she said.
Among the older generation of immigrants, which includes many doctors, engineers and business owners, there is a dawning sense of having been too comfortable for too long. Some began to come out of their “apolitical bubbles” after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, noted Beena Sarwar, a Pakistani journalist based in Boston, but many were averse to public life and watched their homeland careen from one catastrophe to another with silent dismay.
“We are the middle class who sit around and talk about things and do nothing,” said Syed Javed Qamer of Vienna, Va., president of the nonprofit Organization of Pakistani Entrepreneurs, who came to the Dupont Circle vigil and urged his group’s members to get involved. “There are horrible things going on, and we need to jump in and do something, but it is the young people who are out there getting involved and pulling us into it.”