A hero emerges from the Peshawar massacre

A hero emerges from the Peshawar massacre

KARACHI - The Taleban attack on an army school in Peshawar that killed more than 140 people led to an outpouring of grief throughout the country. It also spawned a civil movement against the powerful Islamist cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz, who is seen as a sympathiser of the outlawed Pakistani Taleban.

The charge is led by lawyer Jibran Nasir, 27, who has emerged as an unlikely hero in the weeks following the Peshawar massacre on Dec 16.

The Karachi native was in the national capital Islamabad when the incident happened, and he went to a vigil there the same day to mourn the dead.

There, he told the crowd that Mr Aziz, who heads the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), had refused to condemn the Taleban for the massacre, and urged the people to join him in lighting a lantern to the victims in front of the mosque. Five people from the crowd went with him. Mr Nasir took photos of the small protest and uploaded them on Facebook.

The following day, hundreds turned up at the mosque. So did 50 police officers, instructing the crowd to disperse, warning that if Mr Aziz's followers came out from the mosque, the police would not be able to control what happened. Mr Nasir and his comrades stood firm.

When Mr Aziz told his followers that Mr Nasir and the other protesters in front of his mosque were there to fuel sectarian hatred against mosques, Mr Nasir and his supporters filed a police report against the cleric, alleging hate speech. A court has issued an arrest warrant for the cleric but the police have yet to take him in.

Mr Aziz is no stranger to controversy. In 2007, a military operation took place against Lal Masjid after students of his seminary occupied a children's library to protest against the government's planned demolition of illegal mosques in the capital.

A stand-off ensued, which resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people. Mr Aziz was detained for two years and, since his release, has given fiery speeches in favour of the Taleban and other right-wing organisations. He has also vowed to resist arrest.

A key goal of Mr Nasir's campaign against Mr Aziz is to make mosques a place of worship and not a source from where terror emanates. His campaign on social media carries the hashtag "reclaim your mosques".

For his efforts, Mr Nasir and his family have been threatened by the Taleban. It came in the form of a phone call from Taleban spokesman Ehsanullah: "If you don't take your actions back, and if you don't stop harassing the imam of the Red Mosque, then you are putting yourself, your family and your people at risk."

Mr Nasir has also been denounced by members of the Lal Masjid as an atheist.

But he is taking it in his stride. He appears calm as he says: "I'm scared of losing my parents. I'm scared of roller coasters and deep- sea diving, but not of these goons."

What he will not tolerate is their hate speech, which continues unabated.

He says that he is considering suing the government of Pakistan as "the administration of Lal Masjid is paid for by the government and (the mosque's members) spread hate on social media from government property".

For now, however, he is keeping a low profile. While back in Karachi, he is not living at home but with friends, at different locations, away from his parents.

Although worried about his safety, his parents support his cause without hesitation, Mr Nasir says, adding that this was not always the case.

When he stood for the 2013 General Election, he had to sleep in his car for three weeks during campaigning because he did not have his parents' support.

Today, his mother lives with her father in Karachi, in a neighbourhood which is not considered safe for him, which is why her son does not live with her. She cannot live with her husband as he has taken a job in Lahore that does not come with family housing.

Unlike political leaders in Pakistan, the young Nasir cannot afford to hire security guards.

Pakistan's religious-political divide is seen in Mr Nasir's own extended family, with some relatives taking a different stance from him and his parents.

Take the case of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, who made headlines when he advocated on behalf of Ms Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. Mr Taseer was a vocal opponent of the country's blasphemy laws, but many said he was a blasphemer for suggesting any changes. He was assassinated in January 2011 by his own guard, Mumtaz Qadri, who was hailed as a hero for murdering a "blasphemer".

"A few minutes after Governor Salmaan Taseer died in 2011, my paternal uncle called me and said he had a case for me," says Mr Nasir. "He wanted me to defend a hero: Mumtaz Qadri. That's the divide that exists in my family."

With Mr Aziz still free, it is easy for those Pakistanis who think he should be behind bars to feel dejected and to think that the anti-Aziz movement will fizzle out like other civil society movements against religious extremism. But Mr Nasir does not think so.

"We have pushed harder, farther than anyone else.

"We have seen the media discussing Lal Masjid in some shape or form since the protest began. We are planning a big rally for Jan 16 in front of Lal Masjid to mark the one-month anniversary of the Peshawar attack.

"This is a Pakistani narrative. I do not come from a privileged background. And I have made it this far. If I can do it, anyone can."


No fear "I'm scared of losing my parents. I'm scared of roller coasters and deep-sea diving, but not of these goons." LAWYER JIBRAN NASI

This article was first published on Jan 11, 2015.
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