Pakistan’s war on peace activists

The arrest of the leader of a Pakistani movement trying to end military killings of civilians only shows the legitimacy of pro-democracy protests in many Muslim countries.

People protest for the release of activist Manzoor Pashteen in Karachi, Pakistan, Jan. 28.

Trained as a veterinarian, Manzoor Pashteen looks as if he wouldn’t hurt a flea. As the young founder of a civil rights group in Pakistan known as the Pashtun Protection Movement, he is also dedicated to keeping protests peaceful. In fact, after dozens of mass rallies over the past two years, his movement has bravely challenged the country’s powerful military to stop killing civilians in its war on armed groups.

Mr. Pashteen wants the army to honor the civic values of the constitution and protect the rights of the innocent in Pakistan’s battle with terrorists. Thousands of civilians have been lost through extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, or land mines installed by the military. His pacifist tactics not only speak to his civic demands but also draw popular support beyond his Pashtun community, Pakistan’s second-largest ethnic minority.

For all this, the military arrested Mr. Pashteen Monday on charges widely seen as bogus. He now faces the possibility of a life sentence.

Across much of the Muslim world, from Algeria to Iraq to Sudan, young people like Mr. Pashteen have taken to the streets over the past two years to demand better democracy from ruling elites and to change their country’s national identity. They generally want governance that is both inclusive and equal but also less corrupt and incompetent.

In Pakistan, that would require the military to stop holding itself up as the sole protector of Islamic nationalism and instead allow true civilian rule and basic rights. In Iraq and Lebanon, it means an end to divvying up political power by religious or ethnic groups. In Sudan and Algeria, it simply means getting the military to return to the barracks.

As the arrest of Mr. Pashteen shows, the pushback from these longtime rulers can be strong. In Iran and Iraq, hundreds of protesters have been killed over the past year. Yet the pushback also shows that the core ideas of the protesters – such as civilian protection or secular rule – are gaining legitimacy.

Rejecting the use of violence to defend their ideas, these movements are sustained by the appeal of their demand for a civic identity that promotes peace and unity across social divides. For people such as Mr. Pashteen, a person who has known only civilian killings for most of his life in Pakistan, that is the only choice.

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