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Will Public Anger Prod Pakistani Officials Into Action?

A policeman stands guard as female polio workers wait to administer polio vaccines to children in Lahore, Pakistan, on December 20.
A policeman stands guard as female polio workers wait to administer polio vaccines to children in Lahore, Pakistan, on December 20.
In October, militants attacked a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Pakistan's Swat Valley for speaking out against their medieval practice of locking girls and women in the four walls of their houses.

The near-fatal shooting was met with nearly universal revulsion. In an unprecedented display of resentment, Pakistanis excoriated the Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack, and stood behind young child activist Malala Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, an education and peace activist.

This past week, a similar response has emerged from Pakistan's civil society and intelligentsia following attacks on polio-eradication teams in Peshawar and Karachi that claimed nine lives -- six women and three men.

The level of public anger has been such that virtually no one -- not even Taliban sympathizers and apologists or the so-called anti-American groups that include Jamat-e-Islami, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), Difa-e-Pakistan Council, or the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) of Malana Fazlur Rahman -- dared to publicly challenge the outrage. (They did, however, stop short of naming the Taliban and instead issued a general condemnation of the gory incidents).

On December 20, 30 religious scholars of the Sunni Ittehad Council, a group comprising Sunni religious leaders, condemned the attacks on the polio workers and issued a fatwa emphasizing that administering polio drops and vaccines is not un-Islamic.

The head of Pakistan's Ulema Council, Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, on the other hand, requested that all affiliated religious seminaries and mosques in their Friday sermons condemn the attacks and highlight the importance of a healthy life in light of the teachings of Islam.

"We've raised our voice both in [the] Rimsha Masih and Malala Yousafzai cases and once again we are leading the protest against attacks on polio workers. This barbarity [in the name of Islam] is no more acceptable and this voice will now ring from each and every mosque and madrasah," Maulana Ashrafi told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal on December 21.

So where do Pakistanis stand?

A vast majority of observers appear to believe that the reactions of Pakistani civil society, the intelligentsia, the media, and the religious right are a harbinger of change.

The unity shown by Pakistanis following the attacks on polio staff and child activist Malala are reminiscent of the mammoth gatherings and rallies once staged by Kashmir-focused religious parties to highlight Pakistan enmity toward India. A shift, as it were, away from jihadists and in favor of peace.

"Of course, this is pointing to the change and shift from the Taliban narrative," writer and analyst Khadim Hussain told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. Hussain suggests that support for the jihadist agendas of right-wing parties by previous governments coupled with deliberate efforts to influence school curricula deepened the roots of radicalism and extremism in the society.

Many Pakistanis see their country at a crossroad and expect incidents like the recent attacks on polio workers and Malala to eventually catapult the Pakistani security establishment into drastic and decisive action against the Taliban.

"The solution, as always, is to eliminate the Taliban so that their narrative, too, is destroyed," writes Pakistan's leading English-language newspaper "The Express Tribune" in a December 19 editorial.

But it is important to remember that similar expectations were expressed and suggestions forwarded following the attack on Malala, who remains in a U.K. hospital. Although Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani pointed in recent statements to landmark changes in Islamabad's policies toward, India, Afghanistan, and the Taliban, there don't appear to have been any practical steps taken in that direction.

Many of those so appalled by the attacks on the polio workers and on Malala must be hoping that the current media war is just a first step -- one that is followed by determined action.

-- Daud Khattak