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In Pakistan's largest city, 'Old Glory' is flammable and profitable

Fareed Khan / AP, file

Protesters burn a U.S. flag during an anti-American rally in Karachi, Pakistan, on Sept. 28, 2011.

KARACHI, Pakistan – They call it Pakistan's melting pot. Karachi, estimated to be home to over 18 million people, is the Islamic Republic's largest and perhaps most cosmopolitan city. Skyscrapers stand next to paramilitary barracks and slums encroach upon semi-constructed expressways, as mosques unite neighborhoods and golf courses divide other communities in this sprawling metropolis which is complicated by militant-run enclaves as well as women-owned banks.

But if anti-Americanism is rife in Pakistan, which currently faces the lowest point of its fractious relationship with the United States, then it is manifested, physically, almost every week in Karachi – more so than in any other city in Pakistan. After the weekly afternoon prayers on Friday, different hardline religious groups, many with political affiliations and some with militant ties, organize protest rallies with clockwork precision that range from a few hundred to throngs of thousands. But many rallies end in the same way: the burning of an American flag.

The points of contention with the United States may differ: the CIA contractor who shot and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city; the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound by Navy SEALs in suburban Abbotabad; the mistaken yet fatal attack on a Pakistani military checkpoint in the volatile northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas by NATO/ISAF forces; or the now almost weekly drone strike.

The man who dominates much of the supply chain of American flags to religious groups, 30-year-old Mamoon-ur-Rasheed – who's been publishing anti-American placards and hand-made stars and stripes since his school days, when he was angered by the Clinton administration's sanctions on Pakistan following its nuclear weapons testing in 1998 – is now remarkably dispassionate about his services, as well as about the short shelf-life of his flammable goods.

"We work hard for our product, and we get paid for our product," says Rasheed, clad in a camouflage baseball cap and seated behind a desk that takes up most of the space in his eight-by-six-foot office in Gulashan-e-Iqbal, one of the city's oldest working class neighborhood.

"So what if it burns? The purpose of the flag is to last for an hour. It's unfortunate, but if the demand is for an hour, then the supplier must meet such demand too," he says.

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'If things get better, we will suffer'
The front entrance to the five-story plaza where Rasheed maintains his office and workshop is strewn with litter – and serves as a lair for stray cats that seem to co-exist with the prize roosters raised by local residents. Once inside the hallway, my cellphone's flashlight comes in handy as there is no power (Pakistan has been experiencing acute energy shortages for several years, which have now resulted in hours-long electricity blackouts, mainly depriving households and small businesses across the country).

Most of the shops' entrances have been shuttered down, either because of the power outages or the receding economy, or the linkage between the two. But Rasheed's shop is well lit, with a small generator rattling to make him and his business independent and functional. There is no sign, except for a massive, hand-painted verse from the Quran sitting atop frosted-glass doors: "What Allah willed, had occurred. There is no power except in Allah".

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Mamoon-ur-Rasheed has been publishing anti-American placards and hand-made stars and stripes since his school days. The Israeli flag is another top-seller.

His team is small: a painter, a graphic designer, and an all-purpose errand boy helping everyone along and serving us lukewarm Mountain Dew. Rasheed's cellphone keeps ringing. Clients request orders. He's not just a flag maker. He has expanded into banners, billboards, shields, trophies and even motorized floats. But like any ambitious entrepreneur, he uses his networks to propel sales forward.

"I started as a student. Protesting and printing went side-by-side for me. My networks with political organizations helped. And they will probably continue to help," he says.

As a manufacturer who claims to be doing better than last year because he has diversified, Rasheed keeps an eye out for the drivers of his popular flags' demand as well as keeping checks on potential sales busters.

"Raymond Davis [the CIA contractor], Osama, Salala [the military checkpost attack], NATO ban [by the Pakistani government on NATO's ground supply routes that run through Pakistan], drones ... there will be yet another issue with America, and yet another spike in demand," says Rasheed, listing the recent crises between Pakistan and the United States.

"If things get better, we will suffer. Honestly. A quarter of my business is based on these tensions. ... But only a quarter."

Afghan war, Denmark cartoon furor 'good for us'
Even as the tense bilateral ties between Islamabad and Washington are dependent on a slow thaw between the two countries, Rasheed says that the glory days of flag burning belong to another era.

"The American attack on Afghanistan after 9/11 was the most booming business for us, ever. That's never been done again. Denmark, where the Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, was insulted, was also good for us," says Rasheed, referring to the widespread furor in Pakistan after the 2005 publication by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of several editorial cartoons of the Islam's messenger, traditionally not encouraged to be drawn or depicted in any form.

"Personally, I believe in limits. If they [Americans] have crossed their limits, the least we can do is stay civilized. Flag burning has become an international way of protesting," he maintains.

"The message must be passed, though. There's nothing wrong with flag burning. Nothing," Rasheed says.

But he also implements editorial control over product requests that may be too graphic.

"There are requests, especially by younger members from political parties, for inappropriate language to be used in banners and placards. ... Very inappropriate requests. But I have to say no. In fact, I often give them suggestions that are more appropriate and civilized, as I don't think an insult resolves an insult," Rasheed says.

The art and science of burning a flag
Like most manufacturers, Rasheed is also a firm believer in economies of scale. He prefers bigger orders for flags, for he can then deploy his newer screen-printing versus the traditional and tedious hand-painted techniques. But if stuck with a smaller order of fifty or less, he prefers making the less popular – but still staple Pakistani choices, Israel and India – rather than Old Glory.

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The stars and stripes hangs alongside the flags of India and Israel at Mamoon-ur-Rasheed's workshop in Karachi.

"American flags take time. The stripes and stars demand a lot of attention. Israel and India are simpler. Just a couple of lines on the edges, their symbols in the middle, and that's it," says Rasheed, who sells his wares from between 80 rupees (90 cents) to 200 rupees ($2.20), depending on dimensions and order quantities.

"But the American stars, especially the stars, are more difficult than the stripes. So we've now resorted to stenciling!"

And then, there are the consumers.

The Jamaat-e-Islami, or the Party of Islam, is the oldest religious party in Pakistan, dating back to the colonial days before the partition that divided the Indian subcontinent into Muslim Pakistan and secular India.

Then, the Jamaat didn't believe much in Muslim nationalism, the source of inspiration for Pakistan's founders, fearing it would make the country just another secular but Muslim dominated version of India.

Today, Jamaat's leaders repeatedly say they represent traditional Muslim values to which they believe all Pakistanis must adhere. It is also one of the leading protest organizers in the country, with the ability to turn out thousands of participants on the streets within an afternoon through social media, text messaging, neighborhood announcements, even prayer-time appeals from mosques.

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While it denies having any official policy of burning flags, and shuns militancy, its executives and activists defend flag burning as a emotive way of protesting what they claim is American wrongdoing.

"No, we're not supposed to be burning anything. We don't have the policy to insult any country. But if an individual wants to do it, he will," explains Riaz Ahmed Siddiqui, the deputy information chief of the Jamaat's Karachi wing, Pakistan's largest.

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Riaz Ahmed Siddiqui, the deputy information chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, says he has tried to stop the burning of American flags during protests.

We are at a KFC in Millenium Mall, in relatively affluent northern Karachi. The Backstreet Boys' "My Way" is playing along to Siddiqui's chicken sandwich, which was just served to him by a waitress wearing a KFC polo shirt and baseball cap rather than traditional garb. He picks on his food and remains focused on his point.

"When we know someone is doing it, we try to stop it. I've personally grabbed flags away from people wanting to burn them. But remember that the entire process takes seconds. We can't stop spontaneity."

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'We're not killing anyone'
One of those spontaneous flag-burners is 21-year old Mohammad Yusuf Abulkhairi. Still completing his bachelors in mass communications, Abulkhairi is a member of Jamaat-e-Islami's powerful – and reputedly sometimes violent – student wing, the Islami Jamiat-e-Tuleba, or the Islamic Collective of Students.

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Mohammad Yusuf Abulkhairi is a member of Jamaat-e-Islami's powerful student wing. "We're not killing anyone" he says. "We're just burning flags."

We caught up with Abulkhairi in the newly built bookstore at Idara-e-Noor-e-Haq, or the Institution of the Light of Righteousness, the official name of the Jamaat's headquarters in Karachi. He was browsing through an Urdu translation of "Fighting Dirty: The Inside Story of Covert Operations From Ho Chi Minh to Osama Bin Laden," a book about the CIA by Peter Harclerode.

Immediately, Abulkhairi admitted to having burned American flags, and asserted that this method destruction is actually constructive.

"Isn't flag burning positive, compared to American atrocities? And also compared to the Taliban? We're not attacking mosques. ... We're not targeting American embassies. We're not killing anyone. Nor are we flying drones around," he says. "We're just burning flags, mere pieces of cloth, and then we're done. It's over."

Siddiqui, the Jamaat executive, technically disagrees.

"We've never ordered a flag, officially. Not at the central level. If our students or units [area-based collectives] order flags for burning, that's different."

Official policies applicable or not, the Jamaat's rallies remain nationally famous for American, Israeli and Indian flag burnings and sloganeering. There have been no reported investigations of members like Abulkhairi who break the rules. Siddiqui, for his part, accuses the news media, especially international networks, for fanning the hype and actually asking rally participants to stage flag burnings so that they make headlines. 

Anjum Naveed / AP

Images of daily life, political pursuits, religious rites and deadly violence.

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The flagmaker, Rasheed, casually explains the way it all works on a day-to-day level.

"The flags are simple. You can't really be creative with them. But banners and placards are different. Orders for them are given over the phone. We sometimes add our own content if we feel it can improve their message," he says.

And a special order?

"Once in a while, we make effigies too. Ariel Sharon was rather popular, back when he was around. [George W.] Bush was very popular too. But now, increasingly, we are seeing more orders for Obama too. This wasn't the case earlier. He had a better reputation in Pakistan."

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