In the past week, civil society members have made several strides against extremism that are worth noting. At a symposium this past Thursday, journalists, editors, and civil society representatives expressed a deep concern with the rising extremism in Pakistan. At the event, hosted by the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), media professionals strongly condemned threats on two leading newspapers and their chief editors. According to the The News, the representatives said in their speeches, “This trend of intolerance had been gaining strength for quite a while, showing up in the bombing and closure of girls’ schools, video and barber shops and the suicide attacks on the unarmed citizens.”
The meeting last week supported the protest held in Lahore today. On Monday, the Daily Times reported that Pakistan’s “civil society representatives, journalists and lawyers protested against intolerance and extremism in the country at the Lahore Press Club.” The news agency noted, “Dozens of people, carrying placards inscribed with slogans against extremism, intolerance and suicide attacks, attended the protest and shouted slogans against religious rigidity.” The Daily Times and Aaj Kaal Editor-in-Chief Najam Sethi asserted, “No one has the right to suffocate the voice of the media. The media has always raised its voice against extremism and it will continue to do so.”
This is not the first time that such protests have occurred. In April 2007, thousands of Pakistanis staged rallies in the country’s major cities of Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar to condemn extremism and the exploitation of Islam. According to the Daily Times, the protests, particularly in Lahore, marked “the first time a large crowd has rallied against religious extremism…” The news agency added, “The protesters – including civil society and human rights activists, minority groups, political workers, lawyers, trade unions, journalists and students – gathered at the Lahore High Court building” and began marching towards the Punjab Assembly.
Although the Pakistani government has publicly denounced extremism and has indicated their resolve in solving the militancy problem, efforts by members of the country’s civil society and media to counter this threat are arguably more significant. The fight against religious militancy, a force that perpetrates acts of violence and intimidation against innocent Pakistanis, cannot only be tackled through a top-down approach. Instead, support for these hardline elements must be marginalized by Pakistan’s people, particularly by those civil society representatives and journalists who have effected change in the country. These people are not only legitimate actors in Pakistani society, but they possess the voice and the medium necessary to foster support for the government and military’s policies in the NWFP and tribal areas. Despite what many think, this is not the United States’ war. This is not the military’s war. It is also not the government’s war. This is our battle against extremism, against those who have hijacked our religion to justify violence, and against those who preach intolerance and hatred in order to legitimize their actions.