When the United Nations declared November 10 "Malala Day," people across the globe, from Hong Kong to Islamabad, took to the streets in an outpouring of support for Malala Yousufzai, calling for reforms in access to education for girls in Pakistan. Many political parties in Pakistan took to politicking in commemorating the day, sponsoring vigils and demonstrations. But one party had already taken a commanding lead in grand public affirmations of support for Malala last month.
On Sunday, October 14, nearly a month before "Malala Day" over 20,000 people flooded the streets of Karachi in support of the young activist, who had survived a murder attempt by the Taliban just a few days earlier. A sea of photos of Malala fluttered amongst the throng of fervent supporters, united in their seething frustration with the Taliban's violent agenda and the state's status quo. The demonstration, the largest for Malala in Pakistan to date, was also dotted with images of Altaf Hussain, Chief of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the powerful political party responsible for organizing the rally. Hussain, who pulls the MQM's strings from London where he is in self-imposed exile, addressed the rally by telephone, urging the people to stand up against the Taliban for their attack against "the daughter of our nation."
The MQM's timing was impeccable. The party channeled the public's outrage over Malala's shooting into a massive demonstration garnering worldwide media attention. The rally served as a catalyst for the MQM to wedge itself back into the political limelight, where opposition frontrunner Imran Khan had been comfortably residing for nearly a year. Khan, who heads the political party Pakistan Tehrik E-Insaaf (PTI), has emerged as a dynamic force in Pakistan's fractious politics, embodying hope and change for those in Pakistan who are concerned about the upsurge in violence, corruption, and poverty under Pakistan's current administration.
The MQM's successful and opportunistic rally overshadowed Khan's wave of rallies against the U.S. drone campaign, in which he has led thousands of his supporters and some U.S. anti-war activists in marches through the treacherous tribal regions in the north. While Khan's growing popularity and reformist reputation have drawn thousands in colossal rallies, his response to the Malala crisis fell tragically short. Khan has condemned the violence against Malala while avoiding hardline rhetoric against the Taliban, instead maintaining his position against military operations and U.S. drone strikes in the tribal regions and favoring a political solution to extremism.
Of Pakistan's prominent political parties, the MQM has taken the boldest and most precarious stance against the Taliban, fostering goodwill for the party across the nation. "MQM is trying to convey that it's a political party which is relatively liberal and progressive, unlike some of the criticism of the party as authoritarian, fascist and mafia style," said Dr. Saeed Shafqat, Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, and a former Columbia University Professor. "This provided MQM with an opportunity to put forth an effort to dispel that kind of view against them if there was one."
The MQM's strategic positioning has effectively moved the political party to center stage just months before Pakistan's national elections. The party's role in Pakistani politics has always been complex, however, and its sudden resurgence as Malala's story unfolds suggests motives other than championing education rights for women.
The MQM has an uncanny knack for mobilizing residents of Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, where it enjoys an unparalleled stronghold in local government. A year ago MQM orchestrated an enormous rally in support of sitting President Asif Zardari of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), after he was publicly disparaged by members of another party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N). The demonstration was rumored to have been the prize in a tradeoff arranged by the MQM and Zardari's administration. In exchange for the public endorsement, the government allegedly promised leniency in the trials of four MQM members accused of heinous crimes and the relaxing of police operations in the MQM's hub of Karachi for three days.
MQM's capacity to galvanize Karachi's citizens for a PPP public image makeover validated the party as a power player in Pakistan's politics. Yet the MQM and PPP have not always been allies, and the MQM's past involvement in political violence makes it a curious new proponent for human rights. In May 2007, a political clash between the PPP and then-President Pervez Musharraf resulted in deadly riots and violence that consumed the city, leaving at least 39 dead. At the time MQM aligned itself with Musharraf, and a Wikileaks cable later revealed that MQM may have had a hand in instigating the riots. Later that year, the murder of an MQM provincial lawmaker set off a series of revenge attacks in Karachi, where gangs torched vehicles and buildings and engaged in gunfire that killed at least 45 people. While the unrest might be attributed to ethnic and political tensions that pre-existed in the city, MQM militants were accused of fueling the explosion of violence.
Perhaps the most contentious and bloody incident in Pakistan's recent history was the raid on Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July 2007. The Pakistani military stormed a mosque they suspected of radicalism, using brute force and killing over 100 people and injuring close to 300, many of them women and children. The MQM backed Musharraf's bloody siege of the mosque and still defends the military action at Lal Masjid as questions regarding civilian deaths have recently resurfaced.
In 2010, assassinations of MQM party leaders bred more violence in the streets of Karachi. The riots stemmed from friction between the PPP and MQM, whose organized and armed paramilitary runs the city. Later the same year, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan criticized the MQM for calling for martial law and for urging "patriotic army generals" to act out against politicians. The party's consistent policy of strong-arming radical groups and the Taliban by military force is undoubtedly a motivating factor in its aggressive positions in the wake of Malala's attack.
In subsequent meetings with army commanders following the October 14th rally, MQM leaders have continued to insist on military action against the Taliban. And MQM leader Hussain issued an order that government collect information on religious leaders and institutions to be monitored by the government, a belligerent declaration that could curb religious freedom and widen the rift between religious factions and leading political groups. As Malala struggles through recovery in London, the MQM have employed their brawn, influence and resources to once again sow the seeds of divisiveness in the country. Today, in Pakistan's volatile socio-political climate, the MQM's political ploy could have a role in further aggravating ethnic tension or triggering political violence.
Some accuse the PPP and MQM of using the attack on Malala to try to portray a military operation in northern Pakistan as a strategy that serves the country's own interests, instead of one that fulfills requests by the United States for cooperation in the region. Whatever the incentive, the MQM's deft response to Malala's tragedy could in fact steer Pakistan in the direction of another war in Waziristan. And with increased military presence in the region, the Zardari administration could be opening an even wider door to U.S. intervention in northern Pakistan.
So, while most Pakistanis are staunchly opposed to the U.S. drone campaign, the unnerving reality is that launching a military campaign in Pakistan's tribal area could mean deeper U.S. entanglement, an escalation of violence against civilians, and catastrophic consequences for the already volatile region. The prospect of a bleak and turbulent future has now settled in the land where Malala so diligently planted seeds of progress and peace.
Uzma Kolsy is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She is the former Managing Editor of InFocus News, the largest newspaper in California serving the Muslim American community. Her pieces have appeared in Salon, The Nation, The American Prospect and Raw Story.
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