The movie salesman was selling jihad to the converted.
The buyers thronging his stall on the sidelines of a late-night rally in the Pakistani capital belonged to a crowd organised by a sectarian Sunni Muslim group.
“This is the latest video of the beheadings,” he told his customers, as they pored over titles including “Slaughter of Americans in Iraq”, “Slaughter of Traitors in Afghanistan” and “Taliban Celebrations”.
In Pakistan, compelled to join a U.S.-led global war on terrorism after al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the United States, anger has risen over what many see as an attempt by the West to suppress Muslims around the world.
But that is only part of the story. Pakistan is also locked in a long struggle with its own demons, particularly sectarian violence that has killed thousands.
Three weeks ago, a suicide bomber killed at least 57 people at a prayer meeting in Karachi celebrating the birth of the Prophet Mohammad.
At the other end of the country, in the Waziristan tribal area bordering Afghanistan, the toll from weeks of fighting between security forces and pro-Taliban and al Qaeda tribesmen pushed towards 300.
The video seller didn’t have the latest action from the conflict on the Afghan border, but he had something just as gruesome.
“This one is about the activities of mujahideen in Waziristan and Afghanistan,” the seller said.
Dated in December, and supposedly shot in Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan, it had footage of hangings ordered by influential militant clerics.
The bodies of the hanged men, described as criminals and bandits, were then dragged through the streets by pick-up trucks, in a grisly demonstration of rough justice in an area where the civil administration has, according to tribesmen, collapsed.
“The commentary in them makes no bones about who is producing them — they are Pakistani Talibs,” said Samina Ahmed, the Islamabad-based director of the International Crisis Group’s South Asia project.
For less than a dollar apiece, some VCDs glorify the exploits of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, promise 72 heavenly virgins for prospective suicide bombers and prescribe beheadings for informers.
There are also training films on how to run a guerrilla war, based on Islamist militants fighting the Russian army in Chechnya.
Messages in the films put Presidents George W. Bush, Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan at the top of a hit list for would-be assassins in a war against what are described as the American “crusader forces”.
Musharraf has banned several militant organisations since 2002, and just last year he launched yet another campaign against groups stirring sectarian violence between Pakistan’s majority Sunni Muslims and minority Shi’ites.
But some, such as Sipah-e-Sahaba (Soldiers of Companions of the Prophet), keep bouncing back, although they seem to be getting less space to put their message across. The group organised the recent late-night rally in Islamabad but under another name.
BAD FOR BUSINESS
Irfan Ali runs an Islamic bookshop in Karachi and says Musharraf’s policies since Sept. 11, 2001, have definitely been bad for business.
“The fact is our business was doing very well when we were selling jihadi literature,” Ali lamented. “Now our sales have come down drastically.”
The owner of another bookshop in Karachi said such material could always be arranged for trusted customers.
“Jihadi literature, cassettes and VCDs are still available but you will not find it openly. This business has gone underground. It is only sold to known acquaintances or reliable people,” he said.
That said, it is not too hard to find the leader of one of the most feared militant groups in Pakistan. His message of radical Islam can be heard outside a number of well-known mosques.
Maulana Masood Azhar, head of Jaish-i-Mohammad, has kept a low profile for some time because of pressure from Pakistan’s security apparatus, according to some analysts.
But outside Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, his voice blares out from speakers from among the stalls selling perfumes, skull caps, religious texts, cassettes and videos after Friday prayers.
“Curse on the face of the Americans … Mullah Omar and Osama are the light of our eyes. Whoever tries to steal this light, we will rob them of their peace,” Azhar shouts.
“Spread the message of Jihad in every street.”
Not all Pakistani preachers of militant jihad are such shadowy figures. Some are members of the National Assembly, representatives of Islamist parties that form the largest opposition block. Maulana Mairaj-ud-Din, a legislator from South Waziristan, is captured on a video titled “Ghadaran”, or Traitors, inciting tribesmen to take up arms for the cause.