On Sunday, a picture of a young girl not more than seven or eight years old, made it to this newspaper. She was wearing a black head scarf and around it was a head band with “la ilaha illallah – there is no God but Allah” written on it. In her right hand, she held a big black toy gun pointed towards the sky.
The girl was among many other children attending a rally near Banaras Chowk, where Ameer Jamaat-e-Islami Syed Munawar Hasan declared that only bearded men and veiled women could change the future of this country.
On December 20, 2011, a similar rally was organised by the same party in response to Nato’s cross-border attack on the Salala check-post. The rally was attended by uniform-clad schoolchildren. They wore yellow badges which sported the words: “No to the USA and Nato, Yes to Pakistan and Islam”.
A picture of a child screaming his lungs out was printed the next day. He held a placard, which read “Get lost USA”. At the bottom of the placard was written: “From the students of Usman Public School”.
Addressing the protest rally, JI Karachi chief Muhammad Hussain Mehanti said that Pakistani children were ready to fight against the aggressors alongside the Pakistan Army.
Is this the kind of image of our children that we want to portray to the wider world? And is it right to ‘use’ these innocent young children, who are usually too young to make up their own minds, to further a particular ideology?
When asked about the appropriateness of the practice, Sarfaraz Ahmed, JI’s Information Secretary, said that schools under the JI administration — more than 200 in all — are informed before a rally on any such “national issue”. Willing children join in, he claims.
Answering a question on the suitability of their age and understanding of complex issues, such as diplomatic relations with the USA, he says: “It is only the youth aged 18-25 who can bring about a change in the country.” But pictures speak louder than words. Some of the students attending the rally were hardly 10 years old.
The JI leader refused to condemn the message which young children with toy guns give to the world, justifying the practice on religious grounds, that are contested even by many Muslims and Islamic scholars. “Doing so would be disrespecting the Prophet (PBUH) and Jihad. When a teenager tried to become part of the Muslim army in a war, by trying to appear tall, our Prophet (PBUH) allowed him to take part, respecting his religious fervour.”
He added in the same breath that Jihad with the sword is not the only type of Jihad. “We should all keep guns for defence, you should keep a gun too, considering the law and order situation of the city.”
But such tactics have also been used by mainstream political parties too. On November 22, 2011 in Gujranwala, government school students were allegedly forced to attend a rally of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz in normal clothes. The plan was exposed when students who forgot to change their school uniform turned up at the event. The children later confessed to allegedly being threatened that they would be marked absent if they did not show up.
However, like many Islamist groups worldwide, the Jamaat-e-Islami has a history of encouraging children to participate in rallies, where, their opponents allege that anti-US sentiments are ‘hammered into their heads’ and ‘conspiracy theories are glorified’. Some extremist groups, unlike the more mainstream Jamaat-i-Islami, go much further and frequently deploy brainwashed young boys as suicide bombers as part of their strategy.
Abbas Hussain, an educationist and Islamic scholar, known for his out-of-the-box ideas, condemns the act, for he believes using children to tell the USA to go away will not serve the purpose.