By SEBASTIAN ABBOT, Associated Press
KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistani youth leader Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi has a plan to counter the relentless message of violence spewed forth by radical Islamic groups in his country — and he is stealing a gimmick from the hard-liners' own playbook to do it.
His weapon: the three-wheeled motorized rickshaws that buzz along Pakistan's streets carrying paying customers.
Radical Islamists have long used the rickshaws as a canvas to market slogans in support of religious warfare in neighboring India and Afghanistan and to foster hatred against the United States.
Zaidi is turning that strategy on its head with a fleet of rickshaws emblazoned with peace slogans and decorated with colorful designs similar to those found on many trucks and buses in the country.
"We need to take back this romanticized art form and use it for peace sloganeering and conflict resolution," said Zaidi, head of the Pakistan Youth Alliance.
Pakistan could certainly do with more peace. Domestic Taliban militants and their allies have waged a bloody insurgency across the country in recent years that has killed thousands of people. The nation is also home to many militants who have focused their fight on U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and have battled India for control of the disputed territory of Kashmir.
Zaidi chose to begin his "peace rickshaw" project in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, a swirling cauldron of 18 million people wracked by ethnic, political and sectarian violence. Over 2,000 people were murdered last year in the city, located on Pakistan's southern coast.
The Pakistan Youth Alliance held workshops with over 200 students in some of Karachi's most conflict-prone areas to come up with designs and slogans for the rickshaws.
Some take common Urdu street expressions, such as "Hey dude, don't tease," and give them a peaceful twist: "Hey dude, don't fight."
Others cite snippets of Sufi poems, phrases from Islam's holy book, the Quran, or messages of interfaith harmony: "Respecting other religions brings respect for your religion."
One of the most direct is: "I'm driving a rickshaw, not a bullet."
To produce eye-catching designs for the rickshaws, Zaidi's organization enlisted the help of a truck artist in Karachi, Nusrat Iqbal, a celebrity in his field because he once decorated a bus in London and a tram in Sydney.
With initial funding of nearly $25,000 from a donor who did not wish to be credited, the group has decorated five rickshaws so far and has plans for 50 more in Karachi. It hopes to spread the fleet to Pakistan's other major cities as it gets more funding.
"I agreed to work on the program because everyone needs to do their part to spread peace and love in the country," said Iqbal, standing outside his small shop in the middle of a truck yard in Karachi's dusty and poor Sohrab Goth area.
Hard-line Islamic groups such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa have long used rickshaws to promote their message, minus the colorful decorations. The group is believed to be a front for a militant organization that carried out attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008 that killed 166 people.
Many rickshaws in the eastern city of Lahore, where Jamaat-ud-Dawa is based, carry anti-India messages sponsored by the group, such as "War against India will continue until the liberation of Kashmir."
Jamaat-ud-Dawa pays the drivers about $5 each to carry their slogans, said Zaidi.
The Pakistan Youth Alliance pays about $100 to decorate each rickshaw and is appealing to drivers to participate in the campaign by telling them they will attract more customers.
While buses and trucks across Pakistan are often festooned with flowers, tigers, peacocks and other images made with colorful paint, stickers and metalwork, many rickshaws are relatively unadorned. Iqbal, the rickshaw artist, used similarly eye-catching decorations with a pro-peace twist.
One was covered with white and orange peace symbols, with the words "Peace Not Pieces" painted on the front in English. Another has images of local newspaper articles discussing violence in the country that are overlaid with colorful flowers and slogans preaching peace.
Some have signs that light up at night that say "Aman Sawari," or "Peace Rickshaw," along with a steel heart with wings that says "Love, Peace, Tolerance."
Mohammed Salahuddin, a driver of one of the peace rickshaws, says the campaign has been good for his business.
"People like the design and choose my rickshaw over others when they have a choice," he said.
Ironically, Salahuddin and another peace rickshaw driver interviewed by The Associated Press couldn't read the slogans painted on their vehicles because they are illiterate — a common problem in a country where the literacy rate hovers near 50 percent.
Mohammed Younis, a bus driver sipping a cup of tea in the Sohrab Goth truck yard, said he thought the message of peace sent by the rickshaws was vital.
"If people understood the culture of peace, they wouldn't be killing 50 people every day," said Younis.
Zaidi said he is also in discussions with Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., Sherry Rehman, about possibly putting a peace rickshaw in front of the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.
"We know that the rickshaws are not going to solve the problem of violence in Karachi, but hopefully they will play their part in building a culture of peace," said Zaidi. "On the tree of peace building, we hope they will be a leaf."
Associated Press writer Adil Jawad contributed to this report.