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Project Cleanup For Peace Shows The Other Side Of Pakistan

A single tweet mobilized thousands of young Pakistanis to clean up the streets in some major cities after a wave of extremist violence.
A single tweet mobilized thousands of young Pakistanis to clean up the streets in some major cities after a wave of extremist violence.
As the dust was settling last weekend after violent demonstrations in Pakistan against an anti-Islam film, students and members of civil society could be seen tidying streets and painting damaged walls in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi.

The cleaning of streets and the whitewashing of burnt buildings by scores of Pakistanis, mostly young men, showed an altogether different image of Pakistan than that portrayed by local and international television channels on September 21.

It's a contrast that highlights the existence of two Pakistans. One of these Pakistans was overtaken by a religious frenzy after Friday Prayers on September 21, while the other is a moderate and tolerant country where young men pick up rubble, broken glass and used teargas shells from streets that witnessed daylong running battles between police and protesters expressing their anger over the controversial film.

At least 23 people were reported dead and dozens more injured in several Pakistani cities as angry protesters ransacked property and clashed with police.

The amateur film "Innocence of Muslims" drew widespread condemnation from across the globe -- including the United States, where it was produced -- but the international censure did little to calm the Muslim world.

This was especially true of Pakistan, where the government announced a public holiday to express love for the Prophet Muhammad in a move to appease the religious right.

Twitter Mobilization

Just a day after the violent protests, it took Faran Rafi a single tweet to collect thousands of young men for "Project Cleanup for Peace." Rafi, a student at the Lahore University of Management Science, came up with the idea in order to let the world know about the "other Pakistan."

"I thought that this was the right time for the educated youth to stand up and clean the streets littered with pieces of stones and glass and let the world know that all Pakistanis are not violent," Rafi told Radio Mashaal's Maliha Amirzada. "A five-to-six hour campaign on social media helped gather 5,000 people, including children, men, and women up to 60 years of age."

The violent protests on September 21 were viewed with awe and fear by the international community, but many Pakistanis were equally taken aback by the inability of the state authorities to control a few hundred hooligans and ensure the safety of public and private property.

However, the fact that Project Cleanup for Peace mobilized thousands of people in no time shows that there is hope for the "other Pakistan" and gives grounds for optimism amidst all the gloom and despair that prevailed in the wake of the violence.

While "ratings conscious" Pakistani television channels struggled to get more and more live coverage of the protesters as they went berserk, all the TV commentators, newspaper columnists, and editorials condemned the September 21 protests and deemed it an inappropriate reaction that benefited no one except for the film's producer.

The response from Pakistan's civil society, intelligentsia, and media to the violent protests is not the only indication that voices are now being raised against extremist elements in the country.

Days before the unrest, widespread concern had also been voiced over the arrest of a 13-year-old Christian girl on charges of blasphemy.

Such was the force of the public outcry in support of Rimsha Masih that police arrested the prayer leader who had accused the minor of blasphemy and a court has charged him with fabricating the case.

Glass Half Full?

It seems unlikely that this sort of outcome could have been possible in a sensitive case like this in Pakistan only a year ago, especially as a provincial governor and federal minister sacrificed their lives for speaking out against the country's blasphemy laws in 2011.

These latest developments give us cause to wonder whether the proverbial glass is "half full" or "half empty" with respect to the direction Pakistan is headed.

While the glass may appear half empty for a majority of analysts looking at a nuclear-armed Pakistan from thousands of miles away, it is certainly half full for youths such as Faran Rafi and Miran Rahmat Khan.

Islamabad student Khan was also among hundreds of youths who helped clean the streets on a call from Rafi.

Project Cleanup for Peace gives optimism for the future of Pakistan and the talent its youth possesses.

"Of course, we condemn the film insulting the Prophet, but we need to show patience and calm," he says. "Amid all the darkness, [Pakistan's] youth is carrying a message of hope. With projects like this, we want to show the world that those conveying the extremist image of the country to the world comprise only a fraction of the population."

Khan's assertion is borne out by the fact that religious parties and like-minded extremist elements have never actually won a majority in Pakistan's parliament.

The Pakistan of Rafi and Khan offers an alternative to the vision of the country that is being presented by religious zealots and extremist-jihadists.

Last weekend's cleanup indicates that it does not take much apart from some focused and inspired leadership to mobilize this moderate, civic-minded Pakistan.

Can this sort of leadership come to the fore in Pakistan?

Only the future can answer that question.

-- Daud Khattak