Every morning, Saif-ul-Islam takes his youngest daughter out for a drive in his van before heading to his job. Working in the transport business, the van is also his livelihood. His daughter, Solaim, who is a year old now, is Islam’s favorite child, he confesses.
The favoritism is not because Solaim is the youngest; it's because a few months ago she contracted the polio virus, which has left her lower body completely paralyzed.
“If I had allowed her to be vaccinated, she would not have lost her legs,” says a visibly agonized Islam, adding that he cannot stop thinking about the day when he said no to the polio team that visited his home a few weeks before his daughter was attacked by the deadly virus. “I regret it every day. I worry about her future. Who will take care of a disabled person if we are not there?”
Saif-ul-Islam lives in Mardan District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province, Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan. This is ground zero in Pakistan’s battle to eradicate polio, which has now spread beyond KP and has put at risk the well-being of millions of children across South Asia.
Islam explains that he refused the vaccine because of what the elders and religious clerics in his village had told him. He speaks of a cleric near his house, a preacher at one the largest mosques in the area. A visit to the mosque is rebuffed; the administrators do not welcome inquiring journalists.
Outside, however, worshippers exiting after offering Friday prayers do not try to hide their spite for the polio vaccination.
“There is pig fat in it,” exclaims a bearded man in his early twenties, wearing a skull cap. Others shout “yes” in unison. “They want to sterilize our children. It is a conspiracy by the West to eradicate the Muslim population,” another adds.
When asked where they heard this from, one of the men replies, “You should check out the Zarb-e-Momin. It contains detailed proof.”
Zarb-e-Momin is a newspaper launched in the 1990s by Al-Rashid Trust, an organization that came into the U.S. crosshairs after 9/11, when Washington declared it to be financing international terrorism. The organization has since gone underground but it continues to publish the newspaper in two languages – English and Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.
Known to be a mouthpiece of Al-Qaeda, Zarb-e-Momin regularly features articles that call for “jihad against the enemies of Islam”. The paper is distributed free outside many mosques and religious seminaries across Pakistan.
Another newspaper that regularly rails against the polio vaccine is the popular Daily Ummat. It is also published in Urdu and is known for its extremist right-wing views. The paper ran an “investigative” series on polio earlier this year, churning out conspiracy theories about the vaccine.
When the newspaper’s editor was contacted, he refused to be interviewed or identified. “There are multiple sources on the internet that verify our claims of the polio vaccine being not good for children,” he said in a telephone conversation before hanging up.
While many mainstream Urdu newspapers are responsible for legitimizing the conspiracy theories about polio vaccine, a blanket ban since last year on the entry of polio teams into the Waziristan region, the tribal belt of Pakistan where terrorist groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda and their affiliates are headquartered, has further strengthened opposition to the vaccine among ordinary Pakistanis.