An Interview with Mohammad Jibran Nasir, Pakistani Counter-Terrorism Activist
Mohammad Jibran Nasir is a 28-year-old lawyer, blogger and civil rights activist from Pakistan. He contested the 2013 general elections as an independent candidate in the city of Karachi. He has appeared on a number of mainstream TV channels as an anchor and analyst as the past. He runs NGOs and leads movements and protests against extremism and sectarian violence. His movement shot to increased fame and prominence in the wake of the December 16, 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar by the Taliban, when he led a protest against an infamous religious cleric who refused to condemn the attack. He visited Yale as part of a tour of US universities to rally support for his anti-extremism movement and sat down with The Politic prior to his talk. His work has been profiled by The Independent and Foreign Policy. Read more about his movement at www.facebook.com/MohammadJibranNasir and at www.neverforgetpakistan.com.
The Politic: Well, first of all, thank you so much for doing this interview with us — The Politic — and for visiting Yale. It’s a pleasure having you here.
It’s an honor being here.
The Politic: First of all I would like to ask you: What pushed you to get involved with the anti-terrorist movement?
Well it is affecting my home—I’m a Pakistani, and it is affecting Pakistan—and for me every Pakistani who is being affected by terrorism belongs to the Pakistani family, my family. However, why things are still bad in Pakistan, is because perhaps every Pakistani doesn’t feel that pain. Apathy is eating us from within, and it is leading to a further disintegration of society. And, my movement and my work is primarily to create awareness about how terrorism affects people; it is not just one death, or one blast, or one wound, it’s how lives are reformed after that, and what is left behind. The effect is being reduced to numbers. “Thousands have died”, and “so many injuries, and so many blasts,” have been sustained but what are their names? What are their personalities like? What did these people do? What were their family nexus? I mean a family has been robbed of its very nucleus within seconds because of a blast. And their fault was just that they are upright Pakistanis who love Pakistan. They were going about their business, working in market places, serving in hospitals, getting education in schools… and suddenly they are being killed. And they do all of those things that my family does. I haven not lost any kin because of terrorism, by the way, I am not a direct victim – but my understanding is that I am already a direct victim because if a Pakistani is being killed, then I am being killed. So this is why I got involved.
The Politic: Yeah, I think that’s incredibly accurate, everyone feels it to a certain extent. So, you have received a lot more attention since the Peshawar School Massacre of December 16. Why do you think that was the case?
It’s because I’ve been talking about these things in universities and having these discussions in auditoriums, and other safe spaces. There I can talk about most persecuted communities like Ahmadis or non-Muslims and remind them of their rights, and no one would get up and give me a reaction. There may be dissent, but there is no threat of violence. However, a mosque in Islamabad called the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) has in the past spread fear, to the extent that it even tried to take over the Pakistani state in 2007. The military dictator at that time had to step in to stop the operations of Lal Masjid because it was actively recruiting people, and it had forces in the thousands. So when Peshawar happened, Lal Masjid refused to condemn the attack. And nobody bothered highlighting this fact or raising a voice against it, because people are living in fear. But I was so frustrated, feeling helpless, feeling like I had lost 140 of my kids. And I remember that what I did with that feeling is not something one would describe as rational, because putting your life out on a plate for anyone to take is not the wisest thing to do. But out of that sheer desperation I thought that if not now, then every second that I am going to stay quiet about it, I am going to become a dead person as well. My conscience, my education, my wisdom, my knowledge, my information, my sensitivities, or everything that makes me human and a thinking human at that, and that makes me a part of the human race is already dead if I’m going to stay silent.
I gathered people outside the mosque through a Facebook event and I took the battle to them. I took the battle out of these posh universities, out onto the street, in front of that Mosque. I wanted to say that this is a house of God that you have corrupted and manipulated, and turned into an organization, which propagates and advocates terrorism. This is a house of God where God’s message is supposed to be preached, and as far as I’m concerned—because I am a practicing Muslim— God talked about empathy, God talked about humanity, God talked about human rights and civil liberties. And my Prophet talked about peace. And you are corrupting that message, you are first perverting my religion, and then spreading it in a way that actually instigates further violence, and you are defending the murder of our children … this is a government mosque! Paid for with taxpayers’ money! My money is actually funding these activities!
On the first day (of protest) there was a complete media blackout. It was only the social media audience that spread the word online. And we were able to get some protesters and march down to a police station and get an FIR (First Information Report) registered (against the cleric of the mosque) just by putting pressure on the police, by rallying for the cause, and creating a ruckus on social media. This is how Internet activism is becoming important in Pakistan. Perhaps having that first criminal case being registered against a Taliban sympathizer and the defender of the killers of our children brought tangible closure. Perhaps I was the one who in a way got people together and became a catalyst, and I considered myself changed, I consider myself a catalyst, or one of many catalysts. That’s just what made people identify with me, and show me the love and support they had. For example, Yalies for Pakistan is the organization hosting me here and setting up my talk today. I only communicated with them through e-mail. They saw on my Facebook that I was coming to America and they said “Why don’t you come to Yale?” The filmmaker who is documenting my trip, I met him three days ago. Another lady helping me with some planning and logistics has been in touch with me for the past four months, every day on [the] phone. I only met her yesterday for the first time since she is based in the US. We are not related, we don’t work together, we have no economic interest, but she’s like family to me now. I see the Pakistani students here as family, I see my filmmaker as part of this family.
The Politic: If you had to describe your movement in just a few words to a non-Pakistani audience, what would you say?
This is a movement to reclaim Pakistan. And when we say reclaim Pakistan, we are assuming that we have lost something, and what we have lost is the progressivism and liberalism in Pakistan, which means that we are assuming that progressive and liberal values were inherent to Pakistan. It was who we were. And we were corrupted. We are trying to stop and reverse that process, and reclaim Pakistan.
We are not talking about a revolution here. We are talking about evolution, and about going back to our roots. And I don’t know if you will be able to come to the talk, but there is an excerpt that I have been reading [in my talks] to let people know that if someone here wants to showcase Pakistan, they would perhaps go to YouTube and show you something like a Coke Studio (popular music TV show) video, or a pop band singing, and all these big music productions going on. But that is not Pakistan. That is corporate media. That is Pepsi and Coke sponsoring things around the world. That’s not culture and values. Values and human emotions, and rituals and traditions are what make a country.
Right now, one militant organization, which happens to be one of the biggest supporters of the Red Mosque, the Sipah-e-Sahaba, the biggest militant organization, stems out of a town called Jhang in the Pakistani province of Punjab. And the founder of Sipah-e-Sahaba is Haq Nawaz – the town he lived in in Jhang is now named after him. If you read his biography – an excerpt of which I will read at the talk later – it says clearly that when he started his mission in the late 1970’s to create a sectarian divide and tell the people about the differences between Shia and Sunni, the people of the town described him as undesirable, unwelcomed, and said that “you are actually spreading discord and we don’t want you in this area.” That is what I’m trying to reclaim, those heuristic secular values and tolerance. That is my culture, not the big musical bands —they are one way of celebrating and exposing things – but down to a basic level, I’m talking about the lower-income families, where we loved each other just because we were Pakistanis.
The Politic: Has there ever been a moment when you wanted to give up? And how did you overcome it?
If I give up, then perhaps I would be already expecting someone else to carry on the battle. But then I believe that the person who has to carry on this battle might as well be someone more educated, someone wiser, and more youthful. Then I see myself, and I see what my country has given me: I received an education. I’m communicating with you in English, this international language, whereas my national language is Urdu. How many people in Pakistan are literate, have attended school, can speak English, can move around in their own transport, don’t have to work two jobs to put three meals or two meals on the table, are living under their own or rented roof, have travelled the world and are exposed to different cultures? More than 90% of Pakistan does not experience or enjoy all of these things together. So I’m in the privileged lot, right? I’m the one that my country invested in, without even knowing.
I happened to have been born to a family in an urban area, and happened to have been born to an ambitious father. And yet, everything that I am, I am because of Pakistan. My country has invested so much in me, and if I give up, then it must be for someone even more privileged than me to take up the job. People who are equipped like I am are supposed to lead these movements. I cannot expect someone who did not even have the luxury of a basic education, basic amenities, of having two meals a day or cannot even drive his own car or live under his own roof to come into this battle.
The Politic: Okay, so you want to give back?
This is just me doing my duty. This is what every country does: they invest in their individuals. If you become a big corporate giant, the idea is to pay taxes and to provide employment, and that’s how you give back. And that’s what connects us. If you are not giving back, then how are you connected?
The Politic: Speaking about this whole movement and giving back, you said in an interview to the Political Indian: “We want to instill the belief in every child, man and woman in Pakistan, that they too can fight this war against terrorism.” So in your opinion, what are the most relevant advances that have been made in this regard?
I’m very glad to hear that you’ve actually read up on the movement. “Advances” are that we have been growing in numbers. We started with one protest outside of the Red Mosque; after one month we were in 22 cities: 7 in Pakistan and 15 across the world. Pakistani communities stepped out – again, all of these people that I have never physically met, were rallying behind the same cause and protesting in unison with us. In America alone, people came out in New York, Boston, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Toronto, and York in Canada; as well as London, Nairobi, Perth, Adelaide and Berlin. So we’ve grown in numbers. And those people are not even in Pakistan. So how did they become part of the circle? I simply told them that, if you have a Counselor or Ambassador from Pakistan in your city, just go outside their office and protest. Give them a charter of your demands, and through them put pressure on the government of Pakistan to cut down and to speed up the process of cutting down the terrorism networks, and stopping their support and patronage. And now we are seeing self-propelled Pakistani community leaders involving in all these cities.
And, in Pakistan, I can’t expect everybody to leave his or her work to come out on the street and protest 24 hours every day. That is not how change would come. I also don’t resort to violence at all. Even while protesting the most violent criminals in the world, I will not ask anybody to take the law in their own hands. Yes, I am for the military operation, and for the government cracking down on the militants, because laws are in place for that. How am I supposed to take law in my own hands?
Even though people are suffering from illiteracy, Pakistan is one of the fastest growing telecom industries in the world. We’ve got 35 million Internet users, 15 million Facebook users, and 10 million twitter users. In some villages there are poor facilities for drinking safe water, but telecom is there with some cellphones and apps. And the idea is: telecom is there to connect people because people want to connect with their relatives in the urban centers. But this connectivity could actually be used to formalize and channelize public and political opinion against terrorism. As far as extremists are concerned – they go through every nook and corner of Pakistan, to schools, bazaars, and the madrassah systems. They cultivate, propagate and advocate their own agenda, and spread their own literature, and deliver their own sermons. We have not been able to use technology. Perhaps we may not have the funds, or the government has not given clearance to build our own schools everywhere. But, to send a message to someone through a cellphone, you don’t need government permission. An app, or a website, or a [service?] could work like that. We are trying to provide a forum that sends the message that Pakistanis and progressive forces around the world can be free, can hear each other’s voices, can rally together and connect to become a big force.
The Politic: You’ve almost responded to my next question – about how important has social media been for you and your political movement.
I am a big supporter of social media. I rose to – if I can use the word, prominence – due to social media. People started hearing about me when I contested the 2013 general elections as an independent candidate. Legally, a candidate is allowed to invest 1.5 million rupees ($15000) for the National Assembly, and 1 million ($10000) for the Provincial Assembly, and I participated in both. So my budget, legally, was 2.5 million ($25000). But just because you have a budget doesn’t mean you have the funding. I only had 50,000 rupees ($500), which were my monthly savings from the job I temporarily had to leave. I could not afford big billboards, ads on television or in print media, but I did know that if I paid Facebook $100, it would throw my message out to 300,000 viewers. So if I paid $300, it would send the message to 1.2 million people – and that’s exactly what happened. With 50,000 dollars I contested the elections, and for the provincial assembly seat—for which there were 35 candidates—I came in fifth, the four big political parties in Pakistan being the first four. Amongst the parties I was able to defeat there were actually militant right-wing parties, as well as some less mainstream political parties. This was all because of social media. It is a cheap resource that makes it very easy to communicate with people, and I didn’t have to hold big rallies in convention halls or be on the road. I was campaigning on your timeline, on your newsfeed. You didn’t have to follow me in daytime—If you’re free at 2 am in the morning or 2 pm in the afternoon, you can just go to your newsfeed and see my message. And my contact information was there in case you wanted a personal meeting.. And with 50 thousand rupees I was able to get such a big following, because all those four big parties who were ahead of me, all four of them, separately, called me and asked me to join their parties for the future, and I said no to all of them. And these are all big national parties, and big leaders who run the country, and I am not from a political family and had no social or monetary influence, a nobody compared to them. I am an average Pakistani who had managed to break into mainstream, something everyone can do if they aspire to. The most fascinating thing I’ve come across as far as technologies are concerned, is the example of Argentina, where there’s an app called “Democracy OS”. The app allows you to register as a constituent. So whenever anything that is going to be legislated upon in Parliament, they are going to break the legislation down into bullet points that a layman can understand in the app. The app has information in it so you can know which constituency is voting which way for the bill, and each respective member of parliament from that constituency is going to get to know what people think about the incoming law. Existing parliamentarians don’t want you to employ that app, because it would actually give people control over law and order. So the people who made the app contested elections to make the app more relevant. And they rallied that their manifesto was something to the tune of “whenever we vote, you vote so we vote.” Through the app you vote, and we are just your mouth-piece in the parliament. And they came second in the elections, and seeing their prominence the mainstream party who won the elections adopted the app. So in two years, social media has changed the whole landscape of Argentina, and if it happened there, why can’t it happen in Pakistan?
Mainstream media is heavily censored. I have been an anchor for 6 months on a mainstream TV channel. And I was I was never allowed to go live. My shows were recorded, edited, and then put out, because my comments against religious extremism and militancy had to be censored.
The Politic: Switching gears a little, what would be the ideal outcome of the movement you’re leading? Or in other words, what is the ultimate goal?
To have a country where you are not judged for the faith you have. To be judged for your deeds, not what you believe in. And by deeds I mean what the constitution and the law expect of you. And I’m not asking everybody to be a philanthropist, an apostle, or a saint; just do your job as a normal citizen, and be judged based on that.
The Politic: Okay. So you’re mentioning the law, and that was what my question was going to be next. You have dedicated part of your career to law, as a lawyer and former parliamentary candidate. How important do you think legal reform will be in counteracting terrorism in Pakistan, and why?
Extremely important. The reason Martin Luther King was able to say “I have a dream” was because there was nothing in the constitution at that time that barred an African American from dreaming about equal opportunity, from even being the head of stat. There was no legal hindrance, there was social hindrance, and his dream was about social change. In Pakistan, because only a Muslim can be the prime minister or the head of state, you’re not even allowed to have that dream about equal opportunity.
Legal reform alone will not mean that change will come, because slavery went away through the 13th Amendment in 1861, and the Americans were able to embrace a man of color as their commander in chief after almost 150 years. It took 150 years for slavery to go away from here [points to his head]. So, social change will take some time but legal reform is important as a catalyst to put things in order, because institutional change comes from there.
The Politic: Is there a moment in your career that you’re the most proud of, and why?
I wouldn’t say that there’s been a single moment in my career that has made me proud, but yes, there have been many moments of gratification. For instance when people have walked up to me, and simply thanked me, for saying things that they have never heard anyone say before. Persecuted minorities in Pakistan reached out to me to say that “we’ve waited our whole lives to hear someone say this”, and I’m not talking about young people, I’m talking about people who are much older. Pakistan is 66 years old. Someone 70 years old is older than Pakistan. And them coming and saying that, “I’ve never seen someone raise their voice publicly, for my cause, or for my family, or for my laws… And you’re not even related to me, you don’t even belong to my sect!” shows that I am able to give them hope. I think I’ll be proud, either when I am able to see that change, or I am able to find the people who can carry on the struggle after me. Because, much like Martin Luther King, I have a dream, but I very well know that that dream may be realized by people far after me. But then again, that ability to dream for people who are not even around you, and that may come much after you, that is what the human spirit is about. That you don’t need to see people [in order] to connect with them; you just need to feel that. If you are going through pain, someone else can go through that pain. And the only thing you’re fighting for is to prevent that someone else from suffering what you have suffered.
The Politic: What would you say is the biggest challenge you have faced in your movement?
Apathy. Ignorance is one thing, but people failing to realize the pain and being comfortable with the fact that someone is being killed in the name of religion – this is a harsh reality and that has been the biggest challenge because it is one thing to raise your voice against something that is wrong, it is another thing to accept what is wrong. The biggest hindrance is making a big part of the Pakistani population realize that what is happening is wrong. And then [the rest of] the process would come, which is to say, to instill the belief in people that they can join the movement. That is the second step. People who join the movement are those who already believe that what is happening is wrong. But the biggest hindrance are those who don’t understand that what is happening is wrong, which is a significant [part of the] population in Pakistan.
The Politic: You’ve talked a little bit about this, but what is the role that foreign-residing Pakistanis can play to contribute to your movement?
If I count every person who has even one parent who is of Pakistani decent, according to the census, until 2013 there are 400,000 in America, much more in Canada, quite a few in the UK, Europe, and some in Africa as well. They are big sources of remittance and funds for Pakistan. In March 2015, just last month, Pakistan received remittance worth of $199 million from the U.S. Those are Pakistani-Americans sending money back home to their families. So they are a big monetary force. Furthermore, even those Pakistani-Americans who no longer define themselves as Pakistani anymore because their parents are Americans, and they were born here, and live here, and want to embrace the American identity—there’s nothing wrong with them. But even when they pass through an airport, they’re racially profiled. Even people who don’t know anything about Pakistan were getting condolences after the Peshawar tragedy. And in America, given that this is a pluralistic society, they are still talking about African-Americans and Hispanic Americans, and browns and blacks, because the structure and the institution is still not completely able to accept the heterogeneous society. So the fact that you all have this baggage that you will always carry, and the fact that you also have families and ties and connections back home, can cause you to do two things:
First of all, when you are supporting political parties back home—because every politician who comes here asks for funding for parties—you need to realize that all political parties are actually having a very complex nexus with terrorist outfits. So, before you fund them because they talk about economic prosperity, first ask them to do something about this ideological corruption and extremism.
Besides that, what is the one thing—if I ask anybody here in Yale who has not had a Pakistani friend – that comes to your mind when you think of Pakistan? Some may even say “Palestine?” But most of them may say “Taliban” or “terrorism” or “extremism.” This is because they don’t see enough Pakistani-Americans in the public sphere here. They don’t see a Pakistani mayor, a Pakistani governor, a Pakistani advisor, a policy maker… They don’t see someone of Pakistani origin serving them. So, when they think of Pakistan, they think of Taliban. But, what if Connecticut had a Pakistani governor? If you see a lot of the Pakistani-Americans who are living here, the majority of them prefer to go into medicine, or IT, and very few are becoming lawyers, and politicians, or get into public policy—And they need to do that. They need to be mainstream.
And second, you can get to be a policy maker in America and you can also get to influence American policy towards Pakistan. So if America exploited Pakistan for its own means, and involved us in this war on terror; then that is inevitable because Americans are going to do, what is in America’s interest. America is not supposed to care about the interests of Pakistanis. But if you had Pakistanis sitting in that policy board, they could perhaps empathize more with people in Pakistan.
Pakistan has a few terrorist outfits, but the one terror outfit, which engages in Kashmir (Lashkar-e-Taiba) was singled out by America and Pakistan was told to ban Lashkar-e-Taiba otherwise our military aid from the US would be stopped. However, all of those bad military outfits that do not attack India – but attack Pakistanis within Pakistan – were not put in that list. The only reason Lashkar-e-Taiba was put in that list was because Indians had been lobbying for it. And then again, I am not pitching Pakistan against India here, I am just saying Indian-Americans are able to lobby about the issues which concerns them—because they have stakes back home in India. So once you are in the public sphere and in public policy, you can do so many things. So the idea is: get a seat on the table, serving people in the United States.
The Politic: Perfect. And, last question: What is your message for the Yale community?
Read up. Don’t read about us, read us. There is a big difference there. I was just having this conversation with one of the members of Yalies for Pakistan about what she knew regarding one of the sects back home. She said “I’ve read about it.” I said, when you read about something you are reading someone else’s narrative of it. But you should read someone’s own literature. If you had been interviewing an expert on Pakistan who had never even lived in Pakistan long enough, then you would know about Pakistan but would you know Pakistan? So, in educational institutions you’re supposed to reach enlightenment, but you should read the people as well, not just the books. And that’s important. Human knowledge is something you cannot replace with just books. My story—the story you’re hearing because of my presence here—I’m emoting it to you, you’re not just reading it. You can put a face to the story. Because of my presence here, it is humanized.
So, if Yalies want to do something about Pakistan and know about Pakistan, well then communicate with the Yalies from Pakistan here, and talk to them about this—not just with your professors and your textbooks. Books will always carry a political agenda or a narrative. If you can’t meet a person, then read his autobiography. Read how he lived his life, as opposed to reading someone who is talking about other people’s lives. That is my message, I mean, you are already receiving an education; the next thing is how you focus your education, and make it more holistic.
The Politic: Yeah, I think that’s very important and we’ll be sure to share this insight so people can start knowing Pakistan, and not only read about Pakistan. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us, and you leave us as great admirers of your movement. Count on us with our support.
Thank you so much, it was a pleasure to meet you.