Anti-Taliban protesters put their lives on the line

The first thing you notice about the protest is the protesters. They’re all men.

Given the conservative nature of the group and the charged nature of the issue, women are not taking part, even if they have a great stake in the outcome.

The second thing you notice are the signs. “Go Taliban Go!” they exclaim, like some high school cheerleader.

Wait a minute. Isn’t this an anti-Taliban demonstration, being staged in front of a posh Islamabad shopping center? It takes a few seconds to realize that the signs are missing a word or two after the “Go,” as in “away” or “to hell” or “get lost.” As in “Go away, Taliban, Go Away.”

And lest there be any misconception that this crowd of scruffy, wild-eyed men in white shalwar kameez is aligned with some Western fight against extremism, another set of signs are given equal prominence: “Go America Go.” And that’s not a cheer, either.


Nearby, a man with a bullhorn drives home the point, yelling, “We must get rid of American and Indian spies and agents in our midst!”

And finally there’s the third thing you notice: that the protest is being held at all.

While pundits and social critics quite freely attack extremism from the relative safety of Pakistani television studios or opinion pages, hitting the streets, where you’re vulnerable to a real attack, is rarer.

The men and boys lined up in crooked rows total a few hundred protesters at most, hardly enough to shake the body politic, especially given the crisis the country finds itself in. Pakistanis, for years relatively unconcerned about the spread of the local Taliban in the frontier areas, have become increasingly concerned as the movement’s control has extended into areas closer to the capital, Islamabad.

But these are dangerous times, and Taliban spies are everywhere, or they like you to think they are. And with the Pakistani army on the offensive against Taliban extremists in the Swat Valley, militants have increasingly staged retaliatory bombings in Pakistan’s cities.

Furthermore, the extremists have a history of remembering who has openly criticized them, analyzing TV footage, identifying faces and taking their revenge, sometimes years later, commentators say. You find yourself looking around at ostensibly innocent bystanders with video cameras or camera phones wondering whether one of them has a hidden agenda.

“Foreigners sometimes complain that few people in Pakistan get out and demonstrate,” says Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director with the International Crisis Group. “People don’t realize how much courage it takes to do this.”

Several of those marching say that this is not a time for fear. “This rally is against the Taliban,” says Ilyas Zaki, a leader of the march. “We’re not afraid. If we are afraid, we can’t save the country.”

As the group turns off a side road into the wide Constitution Avenue, however, a small incident suggests that the group is not quite as fearless as it seems, that it is aware that scores among extremists are settled by the bomb, not the ballot.

A bystander, an old man, jumps off the sidewalk, apparently carried away by the excitement, and heads into the street between two groups of marchers with the slightly goofy look of someone who wants to be part of the excitement.

Within seconds, he is surrounded by three men who are patrolling the perimeter of the marching phalanx in black shirts with long sticks. They wrestle him away from the main body of marchers, frisk him, apparently looking for a suicide vest, then push him unceremoniously away from the marchers, all in a matter of seconds.

After a few minutes, the ragtag band starts walking, its banners reading, “Terrorists should be destroyed,” and “Terrorists leave, don’t interfere.”

As momentum builds, a protest leader on the back of a large truck leads the group in sloganeering: “God is Great,” followed by the raising of a few hundred fists, and, “People who’ve given their life to the prophet, their blood is not wasted.”

Although many pedestrians flee, apparently fearful that this sort of gathering is a recipe for trouble, others stop to watch.

“This speaking out can help,” says Nasreen, 50, a tailor who only uses one name. “The Taliban claim to know Islam, but they are giving Pakistan a bad name. We can’t make women sit at home, without their wages. How are we going to make ends meet?”

The organizer Zaki has gotten a bit worked up. “We need to kill all the Taliban,” he says. “Kill them, kill them.”