I cannot see her face, or even her eyes, but I can tell you that Ayman is an impressive young woman. She wears glasses under a black veil and speaks in short, eruptive bursts of English that sound like well-rehearsed lines in a school play. She and a group of 200 female religious students have taken over a public children's library in Islamabad. They are protesting the destruction of mosques run by radical clerics that the government says were built without permits. Riot police, bristling with sidearms and batons, have encircled the library and ordered the students to leave. But Ayman is in no mood to listen.
"We are not terrorists," she says. "We are students. We wish to spread Islam over all the world. If America wants to end Islam, then we are prepared to die defending our faith. We have said our goodbyes." Ayman and the other women sit around the library's circular tables in tiny chairs meant for children. Amid shelves lined with children's storybooks, they have posted signs reading "Allah is for Muslims, not infidels." Across the street, their parents have been holding an anxious vigil for weeks.
"Our fate is with Allah," Ayman says, as other protesters gather around, "but if the government grants our demands, there will be no problem." And what are those demands? "To rebuild the mosques and to make Pakistan an Islamic state." Half a dozen veiled heads bob in agreement.
From the start, the founders of Pakistan intended their nation to be a refuge for Muslims, not an Islamic state. Pakistan was created when India, a British colony for nearly a hundred years, gained its independence and was partitioned into two countries along a hastily drawn border. Pakistan's first leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and his brain trust of secular intellectuals created a fledgling democracy that gave Islam a cultural, rather than political, role in national life. Their Pakistan was to be a model of how Islam, merged with democratic ideals, could embrace the modern world. "Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense," Jinnah said in his inaugural address, but "as citizens of the state."
Sixty years later, having been educated in schools that teach mainly the Koran, the young women in the library are stunned when I mention Jinnah's secular vision for Pakistan. "That is a lie," Ayman says, her voice shaking with fury. "Everyone knows Pakistan was created as an Islamic state, according to the will of Allah. Where did you read this thing?" Such is the certainty of Pakistan's Islamists, whose loud assertions give them political influence far beyond their numbers.