Wanted: Principled Leadership

The Raymond Davis saga took a turn for the worst over the past few days as principled leadership on the issue has been sacrificed on the altar of political ambition and populist groveling. The explosive statements of former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has changed his reputation in the media from an American puppet to a Ghazi almost overnight. We should stop and ask ourselves if what is really going on is as it is being spun in the media (that would be a first) or if perhaps this new story line is once again not exactly as it seems.

FM Qureshi with US Secretary of State ClintonFirst let me say that a lot of people have taken to attacking Mahmood Qureshi, which is unfortunate. He’s not a bad guy. Actually, he’s really smart and capable man, if a little out of his element lately. Trying to define him as a demon does not do anything for the case of reason and rule of law over rule of mobs. Unfortunately, those same people who would demonize him as an American puppet last week are now ready to present him with his very own laal topi and declare him as one of the faithful. So let’s throw out all the self-serving statements and take a look at the facts.

Qureshi’s recent behaviour is unfortunately not out of the ordinary. Between Rehman Malik’s telling that he will kill blasphemers with his own hands and Babar Awan‘s trying to trade Raymond Davis for Aafia Siddiqui as if he were a bakriwallah bartering in a market and not Law Minister – too many of our politicians continue to play to the populist gallery rather than provide real leadership on hard issues.

When I first read Malick’s column in the The News I thought, ‘this is rich’. Suddenly the Americans’ darling Mahmood Qureshi is now their victim? The whole thing seemed a bit too tidy to me. It was just too convenient a headline. But there was more to the article than simply the headline that bothered me.

According to Malick, this supposed story starts in a high level meeting in Islamabad that was attended by President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani, Babar Awan, Rehman Malik, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and the DG ISI Gen Shuja Pasha. Let’s stop here for a minute. If this is the cast of characters who was in attendance, it means that one of them has to be the leak. Reading the rest of the article, it’s clear that the source for Malick’s article is none other than Qureshi himself. This becomes even more clear as more articles begin pouring into the media with quotes from Qureshi which shows that the man whose silence got us into this mess is now incredibly accessible to every journalist in the country. So we must ask what is the purpose of Qureshi leaking his own story to The News which is not exactly a mouthpiece for the government?

And let’s consider Qureshi’s previously impenetrable silence, can we? The shooting that started this whole mess happened three weeks ago. According to Qureshi now, he has “strongly argued the case that Raymond did not enjoy unlimited diplomatic immunity under law, flatly refused and even said that if need be, he’d rather resign”.

Really? Since when? Because everyone has been demanding that the FO decide the question of diplomatic immunity for weeks and Qureshi was nowhere to be found. If he was really being pressurized to act against his convictions and was so adamant about resigning rather than facing the tune, why did he never resign? In fact, it’s only since he’s been sacked that Qureshi has suddenly found this adamant conviction on the issue.

And then there’s the issue of Qureshi’s sacking, which wasn’t really a sacking at all. When the PM dissolved the cabinet in order to reduce the bloated number of ministers and began making reappointments, it was decided to offer Qureshi a new portfolio – Water and Power. Unfortunately, Qureshi felt that he deserved foreign affairs, and if he wasn’t given the position he wanted, he was going to take his ball and his bat and leave the game. In fact when he was supposed to be sworn in as a cabinet minister, he didn’t bother to show up at all, rather he sent a terse note saying, “I am not interested in water and power ministry in place of foreign affairs”. This is a curious response to the offer of a cabinet portfolio, a position for which only a handful of people are selected out of the 180 million citizens. Could it be that Mr Qureshi’s reason has fallen prey to his personal ambitions?

And rather than a punishment, offering a cabinet position to Qureshi was actually something of a token. After all, has there not been constant frustration with his performance as FM over the past years? Manmohan Singh blamed Qureshi personally for his poor handling of talks last summer. This was an ongoing problem that Qureshi had, pushing his Indian counterparts away when it was his job to hold talks and find solutions to issues. And it was under Qureshi’s guard that India has become considered for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, while Pakistan remains without a civilian nuclear deal. Also he has taken great criticism from diplomats such as Tayyab Siddiqui for his comments on Iran.

He skipped the SAARC meeting in Bhutan last month, and in the midst of the negotiations over Raymond Davis, he even skipped a meeting with an American delegation last week. More on that point: As I stated earlier, if Shah Mahmood Qureshi truly felt so  adamant about Raymond Davis’s status, why was he silent and missing in action for the past weeks? Why did he not make statements when it could have mattered? If he was actually being pressurized, why did he not resign then? He said himself that he would have kept his position of FM if it was offered, so don’t try to have it both ways please.

And let’s not forget that it was only a few short days ago that the Foreign Office under the leadership of FM Qureshi stated that Raymond Davis at a minimum does enjoy at a minimum “partial immunity”. Then Salman Bashir calls the newspapers and says that if he committed some immoral act, he would not request diplomatic immunity for himself, which is essentially admitting that Raymond Davis does have diplomatic immunity, but it is annoying to the FO. This is another example of the failure of the foreign office by trying to have everything both ways. Whether or not Salman Bashir would invoke diplomatic immunity is irrelevant – Raymond Davis has invoked it. If Qureshi was unable to make a decision one way or the other, the country needed someone in the Foreign Office who could.

But the problem is not just Qureshi’s failure to act on principle. We’re also seeing other leaders like Babar Awan trying to barter Raymond Davis for Aafia Siddiqui as if Islamabad was filled with goat traders at a market, or Altaf Hussain comparing apples to peaches by saying that “Just the way US court gave the decision of Dr. Aafia’s case, US must also wait for Pakistani court’s decision on Raymond’s case”. Whether or not Aafia should be repatriated, she has no claim to diplomatic immunity, so her case is nothing like that of Raymond Davis.

Last fall, Shah Mahmood Qureshi warned against being influenced by concocted messages sent through media over Pak-US relationships. He now seems to be playing the same game. Unfortunately, he is not the only one doing so. It is now three weeks since the tragic incident that has brought diplomatic relations with the US to stand still. As Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi could have ended this mess weeks ago by declaring Raymond Davis’s status one way or another. But when Qureshi had the opportunity to speak, he was silent. Now that his opinion carries no consequences to his own skin, suddenly he has found his voice. Elsewhere, our political leaders are asking the courts to help them out of a difficult situation and making populist speeches and goat trading to protect their own hides. The courts are telling those responsible in government to please do their jobs. Outside in the street it is the same as in the media – we are blinded by ghairat when the situation requires objective reason.

Again let me state that I do not think any of these are bad, dishonest, or incompetent people. I think the problem is one that is a larger problem in society. We allow issues to be hijacked by people who use emotional blackmail to keep us from using our brains. As a result,  good and capable men lose all sense of reason and proportion.

At present, everyone appears to be playing hearts and demanding to take the trick. But spades are trumps in this game, and diplomatic immunity is the ace of spades. If Raymond Davis plays the trump card, he takes the trick no matter how many hearts are thrown. But we should also keep a sense of proportion. The Raymond Davis case is only one trick and it is not for game. We need to stop acting like it is for all the chits. We need leaders with the courage and principles to play by the rules instead of trying to upend the table when they don’t like their hand.

Salmaan Taseer: “This is a man-made law, not a God-made one.”

The following discussion between Governor Salmaan Taseer and Ayesha Tammy Haq was published on a few short weeks ago by Newsline Magazine. As you can see, Salmaan Taseer approached the topic with reason, tolerance, and intellectualism. He advocates working within the political and legal system to protect the rights of the nation’s minorities.

Q: Why did you take up Aasiya Bibi’s case?

Salmaan TaseerA: Aasiya Bibi’s case is particularly relevant. She is a woman who has been incarcerated for a year-and-a half on a charge trumped up against her five days after an incident where people who gave evidence against her were not even present. So this is a blatant violation against a member of a minority community. I, like a lot of right-minded people, was outraged, and all I did was to show my solidarity. It is the first time in the history of the Punjab that a governor has gone inside a district jail, held a press conference and stated clearly that this is a blatant miscarriage of justice and that the sentence that has been passed is cruel and inhumane. I wanted to take a mercy petition to the president, and he agreed, saying he would pardon Aasiya Bibi if there had indeed been a miscarriage of justice.

Q: When do you expect the president to issue the pardon?

A: The case will come before the High Court and be heard, and if for any grotesque reason the judgement of the Sheikhupura district judge is upheld, then she will be given a presidential pardon.

Q: You have been criticised for circumventing the legal process.

A: Yes, particularly by a television talk show host. I would like to ask that host if some maulvi accused her of blasphemy and she spent a year-and-a half in jail and was then offered a presidential pardon, would she turn around and say, “no wait until my appeal has been heard.” This kind of ‘mummy daddy’ approach is probably fine for others, but I wonder if she would apply it to herself. I don’t think I have circumvented anything; all I have done is to draw everyone’s attention to this case. I have also showed my solidarity with minority communities who are being targeted by this law and, in doing so, I have sent across a strong message.

I have received thousands of messages from people from all walks of life. The result can only be good. This law that no one dared speak about is now being discussed, criticised and its repeal sought. I have heard anchors, journalists, members of civil society, people like Ghamdi, Imran Khan even Rana Sanaullah and many more saying amendments are required. The important thing to remember is that this is a man-made law, not a God-made one. What I find particularly distasteful is that when you speak of amendment, people assume you condone the crime. If I am against the death sentence, it does not mean I condone murder.

Q: Do you advocate repeal of those provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code better known as the Blasphemy Law?

A: If you want my personal opinion, I don’t like this law at all. I understand we are working in a coalition government and that being the case what we can do is to amend the law in such a way that the maker of a false accusation is tried under the same law. There should also be a proper filtration process where someone like a DCO should confirm that there is a case to answer. This will help ensure that pressure from maulvis and fanatics does not result in the victimisation of helpless people. One of the maulvis demonstrating against me said that they killed Arif Iqbal Bhatti, a judge who released someone accused of blasphemy. Surely, at the very least, he should be tried for incitement to murder.

Q: Yes, but the perpetrators get away…

A: The real problem is that the government is not prepared to face religious fanaticism head on. This also gives us a bad name in the world.

Q: Babar Awan, the federal law minister, has said there is no question of repealing the law on his watch. How do you respond to that?

A: Well, I do not agree with Babar Awan, it is as simple as that. That opinion is not a majority opinion in the party. Sherry Rehman has tabled a bill to amend the PPC. Most people in this country – and I am not talking about the lunatic fringe – are moderate. They do not like this law and have demonstrated against it.

Q: Will the PPP support Sherry Rehman’s effort?

A: President Zardari is a liberal, modern man; most people I know in the PPP are liberal and modern. I think the MQM, ANP and most of those in the PML-Q have the same point of view. So if push came to shove and there is no bowing to pressure from the lunatic maulvi, then it can very easily go through. And I think if Nawaz Sharif will show a little bit of moral courage for a change and keep away from his constituency of religious fundamentalism and place himself on middle ground, that too would be a very positive thing. This amendment should come through not on a party basis but across party lines. So you vote with your conscience.

Q: People may have demonstrated against Aasiya Bibi’s sentence, but fatwas have been issued against you.

A: People also issued fatwas against Benazir Bhutto and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. They issued fatwas against basant. These are a bunch of self-appointed maulvis who no one takes seriously. The thing I find disturbing is that if you examine the cases of the hundreds tried under this law, you have to ask how many of them are well-to-do? How many businessmen? Why is it that only the poor and defenceless are targeted? How come over 50% of them are Christians when they form less than 2% of the country’s population. This points clearly to the fact that the law is misused to target minorities.

Q: How do you think the media has handled this issue?

A: I am very impressed. Nearly 90% of the media in Pakistan has spoken out against this. I have watched talk shows, spoken to anchors, read numerous columns and opinions, and barring those with a deliberate agenda, not just every media person but also guests on talk shows have openly condemned the Blasphemy Law. They all say it should be amended, which is something which has been the most encouraging result of my move. Because I took a stand, many people have lined up and taken a stand and that, in turn, will empower judges and law-enforcement agencies to the extent that they may not bow to pressure. I think that now a policeman registering a case of blasphemy or a judge hearing a case will investigate before registering or at least think twice before hearing such as case.

Q: What kind of perverse pleasure is there in oppressing the weak and vulnerable?

A: Unfortunately and sadly there are people who feel bigger when they pick on someone who cannot fight back. It’s called bullying. I went to Sheikhupura jail to stand up against a bully and it has encouraged others to do so as well. That’s what taking a moral stance is. I am honestly happy to say that I am heartened by the huge response from ordinary folk. Even people who are deeply religious have spoken out against this black law. Ghamdi, for example, has stated clearly that this has nothing to do with Islam – Islam calls on us to protect minorities, the weak and the vulnerable.

Lathi Politics

A visitor from another planet would be forgiven if he dropped in today and believed that Iftikhar Chaudhry and Babar Awan are the national pop stars. It seems like they spend more time on TV and on the front page of the newspapers than anyone else in the country. Which is really quite strange if you stop to consider it for a moment. As everyone knows, the story is the ongoing feud between the executive and the judiciary. But again this seems strange. For all the predictions about the court overreaching and throwing out Zardari or the executive overreaching and withdrawing judicial reinstatements – nothing ever happens. So what’s all the yelling about?

Cyril Almeida has an interesting perspective. He sees the behavior of the executive and the court as a type of political jockeying that can be explained largely as a leftover from the past.

The government’s strategy is quite obvious: stall. Buy time, somehow, anyhow, and let the clock wind down on the government’s term as far as possible. The why isn’t hard to figure out. Zardari & co are convinced the robes are getting their cues from Raiwind and/or Rawalpindi. Which means they fear the ultimate goal may be the government’s ouster, or of Zardari and his circle.

If there is a judicial trend that is discernible, it is this: carve out and fiercely protect an institutional space for a judiciary that has historically been trampled by the other institutions and powers-that-be.

The biggest fight to date — not in terms of fireworks, but in substance — has been over the appointment of superior court judges, first over the fate of justices Ramday, Saqib Nisar and Khwaja Sharif and now over the 18th Amendment appointment process. That’s not very surprising. The goal of a hermetically sealed judiciary, wherein the judges dictate who can become a member of their fraternity, is perhaps the single biggest step towards a judiciary which can assert itself as the constitutional framework aspired for it to do.

Remember, the judges are fighting the weight of history, not legal theory. If they err on the side of excess — pushing back on the appointment issue even when there are genuine concerns of jurisprudential overreach — they can justify it as necessary to throw off the executive’s yoke. In a deterministic sense, they are probably right.

Now slot the NRO saga into this framework. Keeping the government on the defensive, keeping it mired in controversy and muck works to the court’s advantage. If the government tries to create fissures and divisions in the superior judiciary, as the judges must surely suspect some in the government would love to do, the court can cry foul — activating the media, public and opposition combine of true believers and opportunists waving the flag of the heroic Court of CJ Iftikhar against the villainy of the rule of Zardari.

So the NRO/NAB stick is looking less and less like a knife meant to be plunged into the heart of the government and more and more like a blunt object to rap the government’s knuckles and thwart any clever ideas about undermining or dominating the judiciary.

Unlike most of the conspiracy theories and rumours being peddled on TV, this actually does make some sense.

Pakistan does not have a power vacuum, we have a power stalemate. Everyone is paralyzed because everyone is suspecting the other of some subterfuge. Zardari cannot trust the judiciary because he has already served so many years in jail without ever being convicted, and now he continues to see judges holding threats over his head. The CJ cannot trust Zardari because he has already been treated badly in the past by Musharraf who threw him out and had him detained on house arrest.

We have a real problem with trust in this country. Jis ki lathi, us ki bhens. It’s a lesson that has been too deeply ingrained in our national psyche. But this is no way to live, in constant suspicion and fear. If we are going to save this country, we must being learning to trust one another.

There are two sad ironies in this case. The first is that these two men could probably be a most powerful force for moving the country forward if only they could learn to trust one another.

The second sad irony is that, even though the men who held the lathis have been gone for some years, they are still wielding this awful power of fear over the country.

Our problem is not Kalashnikov politics, it is lathi politics. It’s time to put an end to the power of Zia, of Musharraf, of the corrupt judges of the past and all the other lathi wielders that have left scars on our nation. It’s time to unclench our fists and join hands. It’s time to heal.

Divided, we are doomed. Together, anything is possible.