Benazir Bhutto Remembered

by Farahnaz Ispahani

Farahnaz IspahaniToday is the fifth death anniversary of Pakistan’s iconic leader, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. History remembers her as the first elected woman prime minister of a Muslim majority country. For millions of Pakistanis she was the embodiment of their hopes for a democratic, pluralist country and the desire to be free of the scourge of extremism and terrorism. She led and kept the PPP alive against many odds during and after the dark years of the obscurantist dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq.

Benazir Bhutto touched the lives of many Pakistanis by confronting military dictatorship in opposition and through her programmes to address the issues of the poorest and most marginalised during her two short stints in office. She was seen as a threat by those who saw her vision for Pakistan as a challenge to their militarised intrigues. For that reason alone she was hounded during her life and killed by the bigots who have hijacked our beloved country.

Bibi Shaheed firmly believed that women and those who followed other religions were equal Pakistanis in every way. She lived by her convictions and was killed for them. Her vision for Pakistan is summarised in her final book, fittingly titled Reconciliation. Bibi also left the PPP a Manifesto that she had personally worked on and read and reread countless times.

It is hard to forget the day of her assassination, the scenes at the hospital, that endless night carrying Bibi’s coffin in the C-130 with her young children and closest friends and aides on board. The long, terrible drive through the dark, sleeping villages of Sindh, driving behind the ambulance which carried our beloved Bibi home are seared in my memory. Buried next to her father at Garhi Khuda Baksh and close to her two brothers Mir Murtaza and Shahnawaz, Benazir Bhutto was like them, martyred by those who loved power more than Pakistan.

Many of us believed that Bibi Shaheed’s sacrifice of her life would bring change to Pakistan. The country was paralysed and even those who had been her fiercest political opponents during her lifetime grieved for her and her family. There was grief around the world. World leaders who had known Ms Bhutto personally either in her capacity as prime minister or as the leader of the opposition or from her exile years mourned. As did many citizens of countries near and far. In the years since her assassination, many of us have run into countless working people in many countries who express their grief over Bibi’s death the moment they find out that we are from Pakistan.

Today, on the fifth anniversary of her death, we have to ask ourselves whether we understood her ultimate sacrifice. Have the over-reaching powers of the establishment that consistently plotted against her democratic values been curbed? Has democracy and its roots been strengthened? Have the lives of Pakistan’s citizens improved materially and socially or at least been put on the path to improvement? Are Muslims of different denominations and our non-Muslim minorities safer today?

Several excellent laws have been passed by parliament. The visible improvement of Pakistan-India ties are to be celebrated. The Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) — initially conceived by Mohtarma Bhutto herself along with economist Kaisar Bengali — is an extremely successful initiative with many new components. But much still has to be done and many of her ideas are still unfulfilled.

Pakistan remains in the grip of militarism and militancy. The superior courts have failed to expand access to justice, involving themselves in political issues instead. The democratic process continues to be undermined by invisible intrigues and many important issues end up being neglected. The establishment continues to think of ways around the Constitution instead of allowing the country to be run according to its principles. Instead of mourning what we have lost, we must use this occasion for self-reflection. We must remember her indefatigable energy, her love for her homeland, her endless patience and her step-by-step, day-by-day work together to reclaim Pakistan.

We owe Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto no less.

The writer was MNA from 2008-2012 and is media adviser to President Asif Ali Zardari. Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2012.

No tears for children killed

Shia children killed in sectarian attack

The terrible shooting of children in America last week should have brought a moment of reflection between our two nations as we shared an empathy over the senselessness of violence, especially violence targeted against the most innocent. Sadly, however, the attack was quickly turned into a political talking point by claiming that American President Barack Obama doesn’t care about Pakistani children killed by drones. It’s convenient to believe that the American President is a heartless monster, but we should really consider who are the children that are killed without anyone shedding a tear.

British peace activist George Monbiot claims that the American President has heartlessly murdered Pakistani children. Obviously, Mr Monbiot is trading in hyperbole in order to make his point which is that the victims of drone attacks “are just as important, just as real, just as deserving of the world’s concern” as the school children murdered in Newtown. This is a point that should be easily made without resorting to such sensationalism.

According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 176 children have been killed in drone strikes. This is a heartbreaking statistic by any measure. But these are not the only children who have died in Pakistan.

There are Shia children killed in sectarian attacks:

Seven children and an adult have been killed by a roadside bomb near a Shia Muslim procession in north-western Pakistan.

The attacker struck in Dera Ismail Khan, a stronghold of Sunni militant groups who see Shia as non-believers.

Including attacks targeting school buses:

Taliban gunmen in north-west Pakistan have attacked a school bus, killing the driver and injuring three pupils in a sectarian attack, police say.

Sadly, there is no national or international investigative committee that counts these children, so no one knows the total number of innocent children murdered by sectarian killers.

There are also the children who become ‘collateral damage’ in militant attacks, and the Taliban child suicide bombers of which there are believed to be hundreds brainwashed by the Taliban and used as human drones in their ongoing war.

And how many countless children will suffer and die as a result of militants murdering polio workers?

Malala Yousafzai gained international attention after being targeted by Taliban. But there are thousands of children whose names nobody reports, whose numbers no media group counts, whose deaths their families are abandoned to cry over alone. These are our own children. Are they not worth our own tears and our own outrage just because they were not fortunate enough to die in a drone strike?

Former Ambassador to the US Maleeha Lodhi expressed this victim mentality perfectly when she wrote earlier this week that “the tyranny of geography has imposed heavy burdens on Pakistan and its people”. Blaming the American President or “the tyranny of geography” (whatever that is supposed to mean) is a simple-minded and convenient way to ignore our own responsibility for the countless children before our very eyes. As long as we tell ourselves that all of our problems are imposed on us by others and take no responsibility for our own actions, however, how can we ever hope to ease our heavy burdens?

Freedom of Expression

Freedom

Freedom of expression, in my humble opinion, is extremely important for individual and national liberty. No other right is as important as the right to think what you please and then express what you’ve thought, albeit keeping the discourse civil.

Being able to debate on ideas and information is important for a community as well. First of all, a community is made up of a group of people or individuals, so what matters to them matters to the community. Also, the only way to get new ideas and improvements on the status quo is to be able to question the status quo, no matter how offensive others might find it. Even hate speech has a place: when we hear it, we can fight against it and make our own arguments stronger.

As of late we see that in our country, there is little to no room given for debates or discussions and people fear for their lives if a collective “mob” thinks that the particular person has not agreed with its point of view. We have the examples of Javed Ghamidi a liberal Muslim scholar, Sherry Rehman, a female PPP leader voicing concern over blasphemy law, Kamran Shafi, a liberal writer critical of the army, all have been at ne point been threatened for their lives. Not just these people but there are many more people who get death threats and are afraid for their safety simply because they do not agree with the popular ideas or “norms” of the society.

We have to realize that Pakistan is already in a state of crisis, fighting terrorism and extremism. At this critical point in time, imposition of views and opinions on others without proper discussions or debates is one more hurdle towards the progress and prosperity of our country.

I think that US and the international can definitely lend a helping hand in this matter by not just focusing on providing military aid to Pakistan in order to fight the militant insurgents, but by helping Pakistan provide counter narrative to this radicalized ideology we see brewing around us. More influx of money in the social sector (health, education, construction of roads, highways, transportation etc) will also help in the reformation of system in place.

The government can take new and dynamic approaches for creating economic opportunities for the people and make efforts to reform madrassa education so “shaoor” or conscience can be allowed to develop.

Why are we as a society not tolerant of other? Is it because of the homogeneity that is being created in the name of our religion? Why do people have to fear for their lives if they want to express their opinions? And why are they labeled heretics or wajib-ul-qatal if they sway from the cultural norms being portrayed as religious absolutes? These are some of the questions that need answering.

Who will check this terror?

As I’m sure all avid readers are aware, in the past week there have been multiple attacks on Shias, Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus. It seems no one is spared. Just today a christian charity worker was shot dead. In this past month, more than 80 shias alone have been killed, a Hindu temple was destroyed and over hundred Ahmadi graves were desecrated among other incidences of violence. According to a report by Rob Crilly in the Telegraph, human rights campaigners are urging the government to do more in keeping safe the country’s minority Shia population. According to the same report, there have been more than 320 killings in a wave of attacks against the Shias. The same report also mentions that in 2012 more than 100 members of the Shia Hazara community being killed in Baluchistan region as well.

The response to these ongoing attacks against the nation’s minorities has been the almost deafening silence on the part of our elder leaders. It is a handful of young people who are proving to be the real courageous souls. Malala Yousafzai comes to mind, and so does the young 24-year-old Bilawal. In a public response to the recent attacks, Bilawal noted that “our forefathers did not give their lives for an intolerant‚ extremist‚ sectarian and authoritarian Pakistan. I appeal you to rise up to defend Jinnah’s Pakistan and my party will stand by you‚ shoulder to shoulder.”

Compare this to the actions of those who term themselves as self-appointed ‘defenders of Pakistan’. Qazi Hussain Ahmed quickly changed his tune against Taliban violence when he feared for his own safety.

The sad truth is different. We all know that Qazi was threatened by radicals after an interview in which he had criticised the violent policies of the Pakistani Taliban. The Taliban had later issued their rebuttal with a warning of a forthcoming attack on the former Ameer. In that situation, rather than taking the bull by the horns and realising it was time to show courage and resolve, Qazi, a former Senator, has regrettably tried hard to mend his ties with the extremists. Using the anti-American public sentiment and deliberately obfuscating the issue, he has consistently condemned the US for everything that has gone wrong in Pakistan, but has not mustered up the courage to go after the real perpetrators of the attempted assassination of both Malala Yousafzai and himself. In that way, he has stuck to the core ideology of his party where perhaps personal safety is the top priority even when the safety of the nation is compromised. What a shame.

The giants of Pakistani history have never been appeasers. Qaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah could easily have bowed down under pressure against the formation of Pakistan, but he persisted because he knew that the promise that “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State” was a promise that India could not guarantee but must be kept at all costs. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made the promise that we would not bow down under pressure of an Indian bomb but would defend ourselves at all costs. Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto spent years in prison and exiled from her homeland but refused to accept her country in the chains of dictatorship.

Who are today’s giants of Pakistan? Surprisingly they are being found in a 13-year-old school girl and a 24-year-old young man. As we sit quietly while our brothers and sisters are attacked and killed, we must ask whether we deserve these young giants.