Hundreds of thousands of people in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi have participated in the country's biggest anti-Taliban rally, demanding the government take serious action against the Islamists.
According to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the militant Islamist groups, particularly the Taliban, are tightening their grip on Pakistan's financial capital, Karachi, and extending control over a number of areas in the city, which has become the Taliban's biggest base outside the country's northwestern tribal areas.
The recent WSJ article shows that the Pakistani Taliban - also known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - dominate nearly one-third of the multi-ethnic city, which has a population of over 18 million people.
The New York-based newspaper claims that Karachi is providing "a vital financial lifeline" to extremists, and the money raised from "extortion, land-grabbing and robberies is sent to the Taliban's leadership in the tribal areas along the Afghan border."
To demonstrate against this growing influence of the Islamists, hundreds of thousands of Karachi residents participated in a rally on Sunday, February 23, and demanded that the central government launch a decisive military action to uproot the Islamists from their city.
The so-called "solidarity rally" was organized by the liberal Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party which has dominated the city's politics and administration for three decades but now finds its power diminishing due to the changing demography of the city and the rise of a number of religious groups. The MQM supporters are primarily descendants of Urdu-speaking migrants from India, who are in majority in Karachi and some urban centers of the southern Sindh province.
"It was a praise-worthy effort to organize people against the Taliban. It was a much-needed initiative," Abdul Hai, a veteran human rights activist in Karachi, told DW. "The Taliban threat should be taken seriously. I agree with the findings of the Wall Street Journal report on Karachi. We see the Taliban and their allies everywhere in city. Their influence is certainly growing, and it means that a huge disaster is in the making."
'Now or never'
Saman Jafri, one of the rally organizers and the MQM's member of parliament, told DW that her party chief, Altaf Hussain, had been warning about the "radicalization" of Karachi for more than five years, but no one had taken him seriously. "We have been saying that the members of the Taliban and al Qaeda are coming down to Karachi from the northwestern areas. It started during the 2009 military operations in the north when thousands of internally-displaced persons (IDPs) left their homes in search of secure livelihoods. But they were not the only ones, as a number of militants, who posed themselves as the IDPs, moved to Karachi and other big cities of the country."
Jafri says that Pakistan's progressive parties must unite against the religious fanatics if they want their country to survive. "We are pro-Pakistan and anti-Taliban, and we stand behind the security forces who are fighting the militants and sacrificing their lives. It is now or never, and the people have said no to extremism."
Syed Mahmood, a student at the University of Karachi, believes that the state could easily tame the Islamists if it wanted: "The Taliban are not as powerful as the MQM or the government claim. It is good to be united against fundamentalism but the MQM, too, has a history of violent politics in Karachi. The problem is that now it feels insecure and is using the Taliban threat to get the city back under its control. It is not a fight between liberals and Islamists; it is about who controls the city and its economy."
Others like Jahanzeb Siddiqui, an MQM supporter and a shop-owner in Karachi, disagree. "If we don't stand up against the Taliban now, soon they will turn Karachi into Kabul, flog women and ban music. The Sunday anti-Taliban rally is just a beginning; the whole country should stand up against extremists," he told DW.
Talk or fight?
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's center-right government, however, is not as resolute about how to deal with the TTP and other Islamist groups as the MQM is. He is currently engaged in "peace negotiations" with the Taliban and the members of his administration have already held a round of talks with the militants.
However, the talks are not going smooth. Despite agreeing to a ceasefire last month, the TTP continued to attack civilians and security forces. In response, Pakistani fighter jets targeted the Islamists in the country's restive tribal areas.
On Sunday, February 23, the Pakistani air force bombed the militants' hideouts in the northwestern Tirah Valley, killing at least 38 terrorists.
Experts say that Pakistan has a complex relationship with the Taliban, which it officially supported prior to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US. Hence, to expect Islamabad to start an all-out war against the TTP is wishing too much, they say.
"The TTP could have been routed out militarily or through police actions," Snehal Shingavi, a South Asia expert at the University of Texas, USA, told DW. "Everything indicates that they are not that sophisticated or large. But the Pakistani Army has used them as part of their strategic game in Afghanistan, and will probably continue to do so."