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How a Pakistani protest song is redefining Islam as anti-terrorist

More than 60 million people have responded to an Islamic protest song. By Photini Philippidou

In a country where religion is capable of suspending war – Pakistan's security forces declared a ceasefire with the Taliban for the holy month of Ramadan – it might also have the power to stop it. That's what the stars behind the song "Ye Hum Naheen" were thinking in their quest to redefine Islam as anti-terrorist.

The song triggered a world-record-breaking petition in which 62.8 million Pakistanis united behind its title-message – Urdu for "This is Not Us". Over the course of five weeks this July and August they have by email, SMS, signature or thumbprint sent an impassioned missive declaring that true Muslims do not support terrorism.

The song's success is largely down to the following of its eight celebrity singers – among them the band Strings, composer Shuja Hyder, pop-diva Hadiqa Kiani and Pakistan's prince of pop, singer Ali Zafar. Their backing propelled it to top spot on MTV Asia and the Pakistani charts within a month of its release in April last year. Then, aided by an all-star video on YouTube, it smashed into the British Asian charts, where demand was so great that Pakistanis and British Asians donated 120 rupees (roughly £1) and £2 respectively and prompted the song's re-release this June. This time, it popularised a petition urging Pakistanis everywhere to sign up to the message.

"The reality is, a few people are distorting Islam to their own agendas, but now, finally, the masses are standing up," declares the campaign's founder, Waseem Mahmood, with a cut-glass English accent, as befits an ex-BBC journalist and a man with an OBE (he was awarded it for his post-war work in 2005 for setting up Radio Kabul and the programme Good Morning Afghanistan).

We're speaking from the opulence of a five-star hotel in Karachi. It's a far cry from the cacophony of beggars and street-children tapping on car windows six storeys below. It's an even further cry from the slums on the edge of Karachi, where a third of the city's population live in abject poverty. But the campaign's overwhelming success could never have been achieved without the support of the poor and the terrorised; almost half of the Pakistan's population have now subscribed to its message. "If we have 60 million plus people, twice as many as voted in the last elections, then how can Pakistan be seen as a nation of extremists?" Mahmood asks.

The campaign was inspired by his children, who, growing up as teenagers in Birmingham, were accused of being un-Islamic for wearing Western clothes and eating Western food. "They wanted me to do something because they were concerned about how the West was stereotyping Muslims, and, more importantly, about how young Muslims were interpreting it." The message had to begin at home in Pakistan, he resolved.

"We felt it was important to put our own house in order first before we could tell the world," he says. "Foreign intervention is a valid reason for why all this is happening," he concedes, "but, at the end of the day, it is a Pakistani who will strap on a vest and will go and blow himself up. We can't alleviate poverty or change foreign policy – that's the job of the politicians – our job is to stop the man in the street from getting involved."

The anti-terror anthem comes at a time when continual power-shifts and the threat of terrorist attack has given way to confusion. "It's now the case that a lot of Pakistanis are frightened of one another," says Mahmood. The song's message plays a crucial role in capturing the fears of a post-September 11 Islamic generation. "As with the coming of night one loses one's way/ We are scared of the dark so much that we are burning our own home/ What is this rising all around us/ The stories that are being spread in our names are lies/ This is not us, this is not us," go the lyrics.

On its relaunch this June, the song was underpinned by the petition carried through every terrestrial, cable and satellite channel in Pakistan. This time it was accompanied by commentary from the country's glitterati, and matched with a new video which used real news footage from 8 December last year, when gunmen stormed into Benazir Bhutto's PPP headquarters on their first, failed, assassination attempt.

So when teams comprising 6,000 razakars (volunteers) took to the streets across 14 regions in Pakistan last month – including Loralai in the North, and rural areas of Bahawalpur and Malakand – the message had already preceded them. Signatures were gathered with lightning speed – the most overwhelming response coming from Peshawar on the North West Frontier, a renowned trouble spot for terrorist activity.

One of the volunteers responsible was 40-year-old mother Jamela Barveen, who for weeks quietly gathered signatures on a corner in one of the city's mid-range shopping districts.

"I tell them I come from a society which is fighting terrorism and if you agree this shouldn't be happening please sign," she says, clutching the petition, with a pen for those are literate enough to sign and an inkpot for those whose thumbprint will suffice.

Go to www.yehhumnaheen.org for free download and petition