Mohammad Jibran Nasir, a 27-year-old serial do-gooder from Karachi, has become the inadvertent leader of Pakistan’s post-Peshawar anti-extremist discourse.
Hours after the Dec. 16 attack, Nasir joined a 200-strong vigil for the Peshawar slain in Islamabad. The numbers weren’t exactly bad, but the venue caused him some concern. “Why do people in Islamabad have to hold vigils at such places where no one can see you and no one can hear you?” he tells Newsweek. So he decided to take his protest to Lal Masjid, a “mosque” linked up with both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and whose cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, brazenly defended the Peshawar attack on TV.
That day, it was just Nasir and three others standing there in the cold, demanding Lal Masjid change course and Aziz apologize. The audacious act caused a stir on social media. The next evening, Nasir had scores by his side, with police keeping an uneasy calm between the unarmed protesters and Lal Masjid’s menacing, stick-wielding supporters. The second day of the protest also failed to get any coverage from Pakistan’s easily frightened media organizations, but Nasir’s crusade would soon become hard to ignore.
Late on Dec. 17, police filed charges against Nasir and others for “disturbing the peace.” The next day, five protesters were arrested. The ensuing outrage became news, and the protest the perfect venue for politicians to make cameos of solidarity. The media coverage helped spread the anti-Lal Masjid protests to other cities. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement party took Nasir’s campaign even further. Its chief, Altaf Hussain, demanded Lal Masjid be razed.
On Dec. 19, Aziz used his Friday sermon to threaten suicide-bombings if any harm came to him. Two days later, with public sentiment having turned so sharply against him and Lal Masjid, Aziz was forced to apologize for his heartless Peshawar comments. Nasir rejected the expedient apology and continued with the protests.
Three days later, Nasir received a warning from Ihsanullah Ihsan, spokesman of the Taliban splinter Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, to back off. He didn’t. “We are standing firm,” he tweeted. The same day, police relented and filed charges against Aziz under the antiterrorism laws. On Dec. 26, a court ordered Aziz’s arrest. Aziz has vowed to resist any attempts to take him into custody.
The job isn’t done yet. “Taliban sympathizers aren’t just in the Army. They are among us—in the media, in society,” he says. “Let’s call them all out at least.” Nasir, who once hosted his own talk show on Dawn News, is appalled by Pakistani news organizations in particular. “The media is no longer in the business of reporting news; they are only in the business of making money. How is a 400-people protest outside Lal Masjid not news?”
Earlier this year, Nasir quit his job as a lawyer and joined the extremism-countering Khudi Pakistan as chief of its Sindh operations. Previously, he launched Pehla Qadam to help flood-ravaged people, and also cofounded Pakistan for All, a forum against state and religious fascism. Using Rs. 150,000 from his savings, he ran as an independent from Karachi in last year’s elections. He polled only 253 votes for his National Assembly bid and 433 votes for his Sindh Assembly seat, losing to candidates from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Nasir has no plans, so far, to join any political party.
He intends to remain focused on his #ReclaimYourMosques campaign, determined not to allow Peshawar to become another missed opportunity to redeem Pakistan’s soul. “Lal Masjid shouldn’t be a house of horrors. It is meant to be a mosque, the house of God,” he says, adding that he wants the federally administered mosque and others like it to function as peaceful places of worship. “What are we afraid of?” he asks.
Through his brave protests, Nasir has shown Pakistan that the time for fear is done.
From our Jan. 10, 2015, issue.