Why I Criticised Tahir Ashrafi

I have taken a lot of criticism for my last piece about Tahir Ashrafi. I expected the abuse from intolerant fanatics who subscribe to an extremist ideology. What I did not expect was the criticism from respected intellectuals who understand the problems inherent to the blasphemy laws as they exist. After re-reading my original piece, I realised that this should have been expected. In making one point clearly, I failed to address clearly the broader reason why we should not take comfort in the statements of people like Tahir Ashrafi. Please allow me to explain.

The problem I have with guys like Tahir Ashrafi is that they are playing us for fools. The case against Rimsha was so obscene that it threatened to expose the blasphemy laws as they exist for what they are – a tool of intimidation and persecution that serves to perpetuate the power of the right-wing Mullahstocracy.

When Tahir Ashrafi came out in defence of Rimsha, many took this as a sign of progress. I understand how natural it is to respond to a piece like Tahir Ashrafi’s by saying that such words should be encouraged. But, because of his (recent) past, it would be irresponsible to accept Ashrafi’s words without some scepticism. Nadir Hassan explains why:

Let us not delude ourselves into believing that the PUC can be even a temporary ally. Sure, when arguing the case for Rimsha’s release we can use the “even the PUC agrees with us” line as a debating point. But the focus should remain on the injustice of the blasphemy laws themselves, not the abuse of the laws.

Focusing on the way the laws are supposedly misused is being used as a utilitarian tactic to slowly change minds. What this approach ignores is that abuse is inherent to any law that criminalises speech and conduct. As long as we buy into the logic that the majority group deserves to be protected from any offense or criticism, we will continue to see minority groups be repressed for their beliefs. And when cases aren’t as clear-cut as that of Rimsha’s, we will be left speechless because there will be no obvious ‘abuse’ of these laws.

Let us for a moment consider how this whole drama could play out. For Ashrafi and the right-wing Mullahstocracy, the case against Rimsha was a PR disaster. The entire world was focused on the story of a mentally-disabled 11-year-old girl who was being threatened with death for a crime she could not possibly comprehend. The case reignited questions about how the blasphemy laws are used to intimidate, threaten, and persecute people for personal and political ends. In order to protect this tool of power, the Mullahs had to change the subject. So they started talking about how ‘abuse’ of the law should be stopped. This sounds reasonable, but only if it is considered outside the reality of history.

What Ashrafi and the rest of the Mullahstocracy realise is that, in the grander scheme, Rimsha and Imam Khalid Jadoon are mere pawns who can be sacrificed. By letting her go scot free and punishing the Imam, they will have set a precedent that strengthens their weapons against future criticism. After all, if Rimsha is set free and the Imam is punished, does this not prove that the laws are not being abused, and therefore any conviction must be legitimate?

This will be their argument the next time there is an Asia Bibi, or an Ranjah Masih or a Naushad Valiyani. Mohammad Hanif provides a sad and disturbing list of the victims of the Mullahstocracy’s weapon. Where was Tahir Ashrafi when these cases were taking place? He sat silently on the sidelines. The next time this weapon is used, however, he and the rest of the right-wing Mullahs will not have to sit silent. Their defence will be an 11-year-old girl named Rimsha. “See, we saved her from stoning. This proves that our decisions are just. Today we demand death.” Anyone defending the accused will be met with quick retorts of, “If he is innocent, why doesn’t even Tahir Ashrafi defend him?” And the persecution will go on as it has been.

Farahnaz Ispahani explained this, too, in a recent piece for Daily Times:

Mr Ashrafi and his colleagues want this case to be used to end discussion about the need to reform the Blasphemy Laws. They want Rimsha Masih’s case to be investigated and decided under a law that has been so massively abused that it needs fundamental review. But they would rather get mercy for Rimsha without challenging the structure and process that makes oppression of religious minorities possible.

This is why I do not greet these newly found words of Maulana Ashrafi with joy. Not because I resent his previous silence, or his speeches inciting hatred and violence against Pakistanis who do not subscribe to his personal ideology. It is because underneath the honey in his recent words is a razor dripping with the blood of innocents. And that, I cannot ignore.

Dual Citizenship Cases Raise Questions of Due Process

It seems the first wave of petitions alleging parliamentarians holding dual citizenship was just a testing of the waters, and having found a friendly Court, the floodgates are beginning to open. Media reports that more than 14 more lawmakers have been targeted in a new petition to the Supreme Court, with even more expected soon. I have written about substantive questions that are raised by the substance of the petitions as well as the political questions that arise from using a law added under a brutal military dictatorship to disqualify democratically-elected officials. Today, however, I want to explore some procedural questions raised by these petitions.

The first question is, what is required to bring such a case? When petitioners approach the Court claiming that a member of parliament is ineligible due to holding dual citizenship, what do they have to show for the Court to take their claim seriously? Is the mere suggestion by a barrister using flowery legal language sufficient to attract the Court’s attention? In the words of Newsweek editor David Frum, “Can you really stand up in front of a Pakistani tribunal and spout whatever fool nonsense pops into your head?”

In the case of MNA Farahnaz Ispahani, the petitioner may have presented as evidence media reports that a US State Department list included an asterisk next to her name, suggesting she was a US national. But is one punctuation mark sufficient to bring a case, or was the petitioner required to show more evidence backing his claim?

The case of Interior Minister Rehman Malik is even more interesting. What evidence was presented that the Minister was a British national? Bloggers at Cafe Pyala say that Malik was seen using a red passport recently, but later updated the post noting that cabinet members actually carry red – not green – Pakistani passports. Was a case brought on a mistake? The real question, though, is whether some proof is required beyond what someone claims to have seen. If someone tells the Court that they saw Chief Minister Sindh change his form into a cat, is the CM obliged to prove he is not a jinn?

That the Interior Minister did have British nationality at one point is irrelevant to the procedural question raised above, but it actually raises another more troubling question. In the case of Farahnaz Ispahani, media reports alleging her dual nationality are well known. But in the case of Rehman Malik, I don’t remember any media reports claiming to have found public documents suggesting his British citizenship. In that case, how did the petitioner come to know about it? If the petitioner has documentary evidence that some or all of the accused parliamentarians are dual citizens, where did he get these documents? Is it possible for private citizens to check the nationality of other private citizens in foreign countries? Could someone, for example, ask the UK to confirm or deny if Imran Khan is now or ever has been a UK national?

On Monday, The News published an image of a document from the petition that appears to include foreign passport numbers for certain lawmakers.

Image from The News - Alleged dual nationality holders

How did the petitioner get these alleged passport numbers? Has the Court asked this question?

These questions have nothing to do with whether or not dual citizens should be allowed to hold office. These are questions related to fundamental rights of due process and justice. Surely bringing a petition against anyone – regardless of whether they are a member of parliament or a chai wallah – should require more than just “standing up in front of a Pakistani tribunal and spouting whatever fool nonsense pops into your head”, and if documentary evidence is provided, surely the Court should ask where the documents came from. While the media is buzzing about whether or not this or that MNA has dual citizenship, the real question that should be asked is where this story came from in the first place.

Justice for Balochistan

The US Congress held a hearing on Balochistan this week. If this seems strange, that’s because it is. The US holding hearings on Balochistan seems rather like the National Assembly holding hearings on racism and human rights violations in the US – the right issue, but the wrong forum. After all, what do American Congressmen know about the situation in Balochistan? Isn’t it possible that they could be manipulated and actually make things worse? The Foreign Office has taken notice of the hearing and Foreign Office Spokesman Abdul Basit told the media that “Our concerns have been forcefully conveyed in Washington”. But while concerns are conveyed about hearings on Baluchistan being held in Washington, we should also be expressing concerns that so little attention is being paid in Islamabad.

The day before the American hearing, an informal debate on Balochistan situation took place at the National Assembly, and several MNAs gave passionate statements about the situation.

“A volcano is active in Balochistan and can explode anytime,” warned Gul Mohammad Jhakrani, a ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) lawmaker who was of the view that Balochistan had been ruled by the Inspector General Frontier Constabulary instead of civilian government.

“The FC is the ‘de facto master’ of Balochistan while on the contrary the chief minister seems helpless to control the provincial affairs,” he said, adding that ‘some elements’ were deliberately creating law and order situation in the province which he warned might create another “Bangladesh” if problems of Baloch people were not addressed seriously.

Unfortunately, attendance at this important discussion was disturbingly low. Only 54 members were present at the start and the number was reduced to 48 when the sitting was adjourned. This is turning a blind eye to an important issue of national security.

Watching the online video of the American hearing on Balochistan, I was not surprised by comments that seemed, well, crazy. This is to be expected. What struck me was seeing the attendance at the event. In addition to the American Congressmen present on the panel, there were no less than five official speakers who were allowed to give statements including Christine Fair (who I have criticised in the past but actually gave one of the more thoughtful statements) and Pakistan Director Human Rights Watch Ali Dayan Hasan.

When the cameras showed the speakers, I could see behind them a room filled with Pakistani faces. This made me think, why should we have to go to Washington to have an open discussion about such important issues at home.

Amnesty International has released a new report highlighting the danger of ignoring the growing security threat in Balochistan. As their report notes, this is not a one-sided security threat but the combination of military abuses, armed Baloch groups targeting civilians, militant groups, sectarian groups, and criminal gangs.

“Balochistan is one of the most militarised regions of Pakistan, with the military, paramilitary Frontier Corp and levies, and police stationed across this vast province,” the Amnesty briefing said. “Despite this presence, or perhaps because of it, Balochistan is one of the most dangerous parts of Pakistan, with armed groups affiliated with the state, sectarian armed groups, armed groups hostile to the state, and criminal gangs operating with near complete impunity,” noted the briefing paper.

It warned that the province is “gradually heading to a state of perpetual conflict that threatens stability not only in Pakistan but also in the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan and Iran, and throughout the region”.

Just as the threat is internal, though, so is the solution. By raising the issue in National Assembly, MNAs like Gul Mohammad Jhakrani, Humayun Aziz Kurd, Farahnaz Ispahani, and Abdul Qadir Baloch are leading the way towards peace.

Pakistan researcher at Amnesty International Mustafa Qadri Tweeted on Wednesday, ‘International attention of Balochistan is welcome but must not be used for selfish point scoring. This is a matter of justice not politics.’ It should be noted that the MNAs who addressed the issue in parliament were from coalition and opposition parties also. Human rights is not a political issue. Neither should the situation in Balochistan be considered one.

MNA Farahnaz Ispahani: Shaheed Salmaan Taseer: we miss you Governor

I wanted to celebrate Salmaan Taseer today. His immense love for Pakistan, his passion for life, his loyalty for and joy in the company of his friends, his brilliance as a businessman and most importantly his tremendous affection for his family. His great sense of humour, sometimes a little colourful but always very clever. His ability to enjoy every moment of every day – relax when he could and work very hard when needed. A really intelligent, well read man who had been jailed and tortured in General Ziaul Haq’s days. His family was educated and urbane though not moneyed. But the lack of financial resources was more than made up by his father’s erudition and his Uncle Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s brilliance.

But what is the need of the hour today is to remember why he died. Why each and every patriotic Pakistani who wants to live in a democratic nation with freedom and equality for all its citizens has been eliminated one by one.

Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan was a modern Muslim country where each and every citizen irrespective of religion, race or sex had an equal right. Unfortunately, we are still very far from that vision today. Anti-democratic forces have eliminated every leader and intellectual who has attempted to take Pakistan down the path of the Quaid’s vision.

Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto attempted to fulfil the Quaid’s vision but was rewarded by judicial murder. Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto followed in the path of the Quaid and her father.

Throughout her life Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto struggled against regressive forces to make Pakistan a better place for the members of every sect, religion, linguistic group and community. People of every creed, race, language and colour loved her. From Parachinar to Karachi she was the only voice of the oppressed people of Pakistan. She was and still is the symbol of the federation of Pakistan.

Shaheed Salmaan Taseer followed her and the Quaid’s vision. He was born in Simla, British India. His father, Muhammad Din ‘M D’ Taseer, obtained his PhD in England and was a close friend of Allama Muhammad Iqbal. His late mother, Bilqis Christobel Taseer, an Englishwoman, was the sister of late Alys Faiz. Mrs Faiz was herself a writer and poet and was married to Pakistan’s brilliant and beloved and also very political Urdu poet late Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Salmaan’s father died when he was only six and he and his sisters were brought up by their mother.

Salmaan Taseer believed in the Quaid’s vision and fought for those who did not have a voice. Salmaan Taseer’s services for the freedom of minorities and democracy are unrivalled. His was a bold voice ruthlessly silenced by elements desirous of making Pakistan an extremist theocratic state. These elements have always worked to hinder the process of democracy and harmonisation of religious sects in Pakistan. A sick zealot who thought he was doing God’s work murdered him in the cold light of day!

Till the day that Salmaan Taseer laid down his life he remained steadfast in his principles, emphatically raising his voice against oppression and religious intolerance. Mr Taseer’s assassination was aimed at creating an environment of fear and lawlessness and preventing others from speaking out as he did.

Apparently this was not enough for the extremists – PPP Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti – who I worked with on many issues and was one of the most hard working and respected members of the cabinet and of the National Assembly was shot dead on March 2, 2011. Mr Bhatti was the first Christian federal minister. He was also one of the founding members of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), an organisation set up in 1985. As someone who believed in the democratic system, Mr Bhatti constantly encouraged minority groups to fight for their rights through the political system instead of using violence. An admirer and believer in the Quaid’s vision, Mr Bhatti was a true patriot.

Today we see leaders and members of banned extremist groups in Pakistan openly attending and speaking at political rallies of supposedly mainstream parties. Guests on talk shows continue to support such candidates from across the political spectrum at election time.

Only the Quaid’s vision for Pakistan will save our beloved country. We need to fight for the very soul of Pakistan. That is what Salmaan Taseer and others did and they paid for it with their lives. We owe it to them to continue the struggle and to never give in.

This article appeared in the 4th January 2011 edition of Daily Times. Please click here to read the original article. The writer is a member of Pakistan’s parliament and spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari

Pakistan’s education emergency

By MNA Farahnaz Ispahani

MNA Farahnaz Ispahani

Pakistan faces an education emergency — a fact known widely but discussed insufficiently by Pakistan’s political and media elite. The inadequacy of quality education renders our country incapable of dealing with the challenges of the 21st century. Redressing weaknesses of our education sector are a prerequisite for building a progressive, tolerant, enlightened and non-violent society. We can begin by talking candidly about the magnitude of the problem.

The Pakistan Education Task Force’s report, Education Emergency Pakistan 2011, highlights the crisis. This year has been declared education year in the country. But national awareness about the depth of the crisis remains low. Our discourse is focused more on issues of power politics and real, or perceived, flaws of those in public life, than on the disaster that is looming on account of our poverty in education. Those who raise their voice over even the slightest imagined threat to national honour, fail to recognise that having the second largest number of children out of school in the world (next to Afghanistan), probably brings greater dishonour to the country than any other issue.

So let us recall the basic facts: One of every 10 children not in school in the world lives in Pakistan. The country is far from meeting the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of providing universal education by 2015. Only 23 per cent of our children under the age of 16 attend secondary school and almost one-third of Pakistanis live in extreme educational poverty — having received less than two years of education. It is also distressing that 50 per cent of school children (aged 6-16 years) in Pakistan can neither read nor write. Appointing low qualified teachers at the primary level is among the main reasons for falling standards of education that renders this age group illiterate.

In a recent briefing, President Zardari was informed that out of 11 million school age children in Sindh, only 6.4 million are enrolled — leaving over 4.5 million children out of schools. Twenty per cent of schools have no building at all, 45 per cent encompass only one or two rooms and over 60 per cent schools have just one or two teachers. Sixty per cent of schools in the province of Sindh have no access to safe drinking water.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, which received presidential assent on April 19, 2010, states, “The state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to 16 years in such a manner as may be determined by law.” Along with the rest of the world, Pakistan is also pledged to meeting the MDG for education, promising that, by 2015, “children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling and that girls and boys will have equal access to all levels of education.” But neither our constitutional obligation nor the MDG objective is within sight of fulfilment.

A swift decrease in dropout rate and boost in enrolment rate is possible through provision of a monthly stipend for students from poor families, along with free books and uniforms. But this would require allocating more money for education in the federal and provincial budgets, possible only if education is accorded the priority it deserves. Once education receives the necessary investment, forcing children to drop out from school could be declared a criminal act and legal action should be taken against those parents who urge their child to work at the expense of attending school.

Education must be made a national priority no less important than national defence. Unfortunately, while most Pakistanis can proudly recount measures taken to protect national security, few know the state of education in Pakistan.

This piece was originally published in Express Tribune on 19 April 2011.