On Wednesday, March 5, 2014, this writer-activist arrived at the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan for nine challenging days of advocacy work for a political prisoner, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, currently being held in the southwestern region of the United States. The 9 day mobilization began the moment I set foot outside the terminal in the company of Dr. Fowzia Siddiqui (Aafia’s sister) and two male members of the Pakistan-based Free Aafia Coalition.
As I exited the terminal I encountered a large crowd of men and women who awaited my arrival. Members of the welcoming party draped garlands of flowers around my neck, while others threw rose petals, as I was guided to an area where a number of journalists were waiting to conduct the first interview of this American Muslim who had traveled thousands of miles on behalf of one of their citizens – a prisoner of war affectionately referred to as “the daughter of the nation.”
We then traveled to the Siddiqui family home (in Karachi), where I met the family matriarch, Sr. Ismet, and Aafia’s two oldest children, Ahmad and Maryam. It was here that the first formal interview took place before a large number of print and broadcast reporters, accented by a large crowd of Aafia supporters (both male and female).
The ensuing days would impress upon this writer just how fitting that moniker “Daughter of the nation” is, as everywhere we traveled Pakistanis from every conceivable demographic – from the poorest of the poor, to the most wealthy and well connected – knew who Aafia Siddiqui was, and expressed a deep empathy and urgency toward her plight.
In the days to follow, Dr. Fowzia and I (accompanied by two or three other male Aafia supporters) traveled from Karachi to Islamabad and Lahore, all the way up north to Peshawar - speaking with writers, journalists, politicians, business leaders, and civil society activists. In addition to the meetings there were periodic impromptu public rallies that attracted a lot of attention and support, the largest of which took place in Peshawar where thousands of Aafia supporters (predominantly men) lined the streets to demand Aafia’s freedom and repatriation.
After flying to Islamabad on Thursday we visited the South African Embassy, so that the Pakistan activists could apply for visas for the South Africa leg of the international mobilization (visas are not required for U.S. passport holders). Later we had lunch, and then it was off to what for me was the most challenging (both mentally and physically) part of the mobilization – a “march” by pickup truck from Karachi to Lahore. A drive that would normally take about five hours ended up taking 12; because we stopped along the way several times for rallies that were organized by local leaders along the Punjab (who were given advance notice that we would be passing through).
At the end of our sojourn through the Punjab by truck, we were provided with a sumptuous dinner at the home of a large family of Aafia supporters, surrounded by a larger number of additional Aafia supporters (local leaders and civil society activists). We finally arrived at our hotel in Lahore at about 1:30 in the morning. Needless to say, it was a difficult and inspiring journey.
On Friday, March 7, the day began with a memorable visit to the Rakan Grammar School in Lahore, where a special program had been planned for us. The program began with a young female student's moving recitation of the Qur'an, followed by the powerful speeches that were delivered by a number of other students. One of the most memorable lines in one young sister's passionately delivered presentation was, "Did our fathers struggle to establish Pakistan so that our daughters could be sold?!" (It is a rhetorical question that every self-respecting person of Pakistani heritage should ponder.)
From Rakan Grammar School we were off to the Lahore Press Club for a well-attended press conference. At every press club gathering during my visit (in Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar) the core message was always the same. Dr. Fowzia Siddiqui would express her and her family's disappointment with a startling new revelation regarding the Pakistan government's questionable efforts to secure the release of Aafia through a European treaty (a revelation based on a communication from the Council of Europe, and a letter, in response, from the family's attorney, Tina Foster, addressed to Mr. Sartaj Aziz at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). While I would emphasize the importance of the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” doing all that it could to secure the return of its citizen – and of how Pakistan’s image, and its health and welfare as a nation-state, hung in the balance.
The days to follow featured a whirl-wind of activities, involving meetings with a variety of men and women from varying walks of life, all deeply concerned with the welfare of this committed and imprisoned Muslimah, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. We met with a large number of business leaders in Lahore and political leaders in Islamabad.
Among the political leaders we met were Iqbal Zafar Jhagra, Secretary General Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), and a close advisor to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; Siddique Al-Farooq, Press Secretary of the Central Secretariat of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N); Raja Zafar ul Haq (PML-N); Muhammad Talha Mahmood, Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee, Ministry of Interior. (Senator Mahmood was also one of the political officials who visited Aafia not long after she arrived at FMC Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.) We also met with Minister of State Balighur Rahman and Pakistani Senator Mushahidullah Khan.
My most memorable experience in Islamabad was the invitation to present at a 35 year old think tank known as the Institute of Policy Studies. I was invited to speak on the topic “Terrorism: American Policy and People,” it was a well-attended and thought-provoking experience. Going into the session, I was very conscious of the US government’s long standing policy of sponsoring Muslims from America to go abroad and put a pretty face on Americanism – and of the consequent need (according to the Qur’an and Sunnah) to balance out that perceptual equation with truth and an aim toward justice. Needless to say, the presentation – rooted in both love and concern for the health and welfare of my own country of birth – was well received.
While there is much more that I could say about the visit, that ended with a lovely farewell dinner at my hotel the night before I flew out of the country, this I believe should suffice to underscore the significance of this new beginning of an international effort that will eventually take us to several countries (insha’Allah). What is our goal? - To do all that we can to secure the release of our sister before March 30, 2015.
May ALLAH Subhanahu wa ta'ala bless this humble effort, and bless Muslims in America to fulfill their part of this communal obligation.
Mauri Saalakhan is the founder and director of the Peace Through Justice Foundation based in the Washington DC area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.