At a time when Muslim-majority nations are struggling with increasing terrorism, it is crucial for the world to recognize the organic voices that rise to confront this challenge. It is these individuals who are establishing the counter-narrative that will be the inevitable end of terrorism in their countries. The crafting of such a vital narrative is underway in Pakistan, where national headlines recently covered “Sindh Festival,” a two week long celebration throughout the Sindh province. The Sindh Festival was spearheaded by Patron-in-Chief of the progressive Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Mr. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and former President Asif Ali Zardari.

Mr. Bhutto Zardari’s elegant salute to Sindh’s history showcased a rich tradition of music, art, fashion and architecture while also serving as a sharp rebuke to the insidious ideology of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).  The Sindh Festival drew people from around the country to Sindh, highlighting the strong sense of pride Pakistanis feel for their diverse culture and history. It was an unequivocal condemnation of those who would warp this vibrant identity into something sinister, and that too under the guise of Islam. Taking place in the same days leading up to official peace talks with the TTP, Mr. Bhutto Zardari’s efforts skillfully made clear culture and religion were not up for negotiation.

During the closing ceremony of Sindh Festival, Mr. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari delivered what this author believes to be a seminal political speech of our time. Speaking in Urdu, a language understood by the diverse ethnicities within Pakistan, Mr. Bhutto Zardari stated, “We have our own identity but sadly it is being snatched away from us. Sindh Festival has shown the world we are not terrorists, but rather are ourselves the victims of terror…They wanted to break us down, but we did not break…Through violence, they want to take us back to the Stone Age and make us barbarians just like they are. However, they do not know that we were far more civilized 5,000 years ago than they are today. They do not know who we are, but we know who we are and what our destiny is.” Referencing ongoing talks with the TTP, he went on to say, “There are a few people who are talking about negotiations and peace talks. What will be the result of these talks? Our nation’s daughters will be treated the same way as Malala [Yousafzai], while our sons will be targeted just the way Aitzaz [Hasan] was targeted.”

The long-term success of the country on political, economic, social and security issues depends on the strength of a united response to terrorism. Former Ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman emphasized the PPP’s determination going forward, “There is a clear politics to the reclaiming of social and cultural space from extremism. An assertion of Pakistan’s eclectic, inclusive and ancient heritage sends a powerful message of plural goalposts for the future.”

Here was an exercise in metacognitive awareness, the chance for Pakistanis to think about thinking who they aspire to be as a people. The opportunity to celebrate the past and decide the future is not readily available in Pakistan, explained Ali Aftab Saeed, a dynamic lead singer and journalist who recorded a song for the Sindh Festival:

“When I learned the provincial government of Punjab had canceled all their cultural activities, I realized how difficult it is for an individual or even government to hold such events in the face of terrorists’ threats. No one wants to risk taking a stand against the Taliban, who would never approve of these things, but we did it in Sindh. I am glad I was part of that.”

The ideas, values and sense of pride exhibited in the last several weeks will not go unnoticed by the TTP, but then neither will the message of Sindh Festival fade away. Mr. Bhutto Zardari’s courageous words are more than directives to his supporters; they seek to rally an increasingly brutalized public to rise as one voice against the TTP and the atmosphere of extremism wherein it thrives. It is no coincidence the TTP have ramped up efforts to take Mr. Bhutto Zardari’s life, with a brazen attempt taking place just days ago. Media reports declared the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency, arrested a TTP handler with 120 kg of explosives. Mr. Bhutto Zardari continues on undaunted, as progressives must, and though they may be few in number now, a national conversation centered around faith and identity has just begun, and it is precisely this sort of awakening that poses the gravest threat to terrorist ideology.


Image: Aamir Qureshi-AFP, Getty

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