How a stronger regional identity can strengthen our national identity

Lahore Literary Festival

I am a daughter, a sister, a student, a friend, a Muslim, and a human being. Someday I hope to be a wife, a mother, a writer…and who knows what else the future will bring. Each of these is and will be part of my identity, and it is the combination that makes me who I am. And just as I am a proud Pakistani, I am also a proud South Asian. Losing one would be like losing a part of my body, making me incomplete.

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Can Jilani mend broken relations with the US?

Mamnoon Hussain and Jalil Jilani

Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US has been termed as ‘toughest job in the world’. Much more than a mere ceremonial position, the Ambassador has the unenviable task of not only explaining Pakistan’s positions, but trying to negotiate with the world’s sole superpower that too often has a hard time appreciating a view other than its own. Having been without a permanent representative since the past seven months, our new representative, Jalil Abbas Jilani, arrived this week in Washington, DC to try to mend a relationship that many fear is rapidly approaching a breaking point. The question is, does he have the credibility to do it?

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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.

Pakistan’s Real Heroines

Imran Khan’s latest publicity stunt is, ironically, to increase the number of Americans operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Imran won’t risk being called a traitor, though, because the Americans he’s importing are anti-drone activists. Actually, I have no problem with Imran inviting Americans to Pakistan. I wish more Americans were able to come and see the Pakistan I know – one that I think has very little in common with what they see on CNN. But I’ll leave aside for the moment the blatant hypocrisy of Imran Khan chanting ‘Go America Go’ on one day and ‘Come Americans Come’ when it suits his politics. What has really upset me is the way these American activist are being treated by the media, and what it says about how much we value (or don’t) our own brave women.

Picking up a copy of Dawn on Wednesday, my attention was grabbed by the headline, ‘Pakistan’s Rachel Corrie’. Rachel Corrie, in case you don’t remember, was an American woman who was killed in Gaza trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes. It is a tragic story of someone who is willing to sacrifice her own life to defend the rights of the oppressed. So who was this woman that Dawn declared as ‘Pakistan’s Rachel Corrie’?

Suzie Gilbert, a tall American woman with endless strands of curly long hair, immediately recognises the reference — the importance and its history. She informs that a lot of American delegates that have come to Pakistan have also been involved in peace activities in Gaza and Iraq.

Suzie Gilbert adds to the diversity of the delegation visiting Pakistan. She lives in Los Angeles and works in Hollywood. She has worked in various anti-war movies and knows the famous movie director Oliver Stone quite well.

So ‘Pakistan’s Rachel Corrie’ is a wealthy American woman? I disagree. Actually, Pakistan has not one, but many ‘Rachel Corries’, and none of them are from Hollywood. Here are just a few:

Farida Afridi

A woman, who anxiously awaited to be posted in a no-go area to serve those women and children of her community who have no access to basic rights and do not know how to raise their voices for these rights, was killed on the road in broad daylight.

The assassination of Farida Afridi, who was a member of an organisation working for women’s welfare in Jamrud, Khyber Agency, is one brutal example of this mindset which does not accept women out of the boundaries of their homes.

Sherry Rehman

All Sherry Rehman wants is to go out – for a coffee, a stroll, lunch, anything. But that’s not possible. Death threats flood her email inbox and mobile phone; armed police are squatted at the gate of her Karachi mansion; government ministers advise her to flee.

“I get two types of advice about leaving,” says the steely politician. “One from concerned friends, the other from those who want me out so I’ll stop making trouble. But I’m going nowhere.” She pauses, then adds quietly: “At least for now.”

It’s been almost three weeks since Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned down outside an Islamabad cafe. As the country plunged into crisis, Rehman became a prisoner in her own home. Having championed the same issue that caused Taseer’s death – reform of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws – she is, by popular consensus, next on the extremists’ list.

Benazir Bhutto

I welcome Suzie Gilbert and her colleagues to Pakistan, and I hope that they are permitted to see beyond the narrow view they are certain to get from Imran Khan and his Taliban security. But, please, don’t call them ‘Rachel Corrie’. We have our own heroines who have really risked everything to stand up for the oppressed, and they can never be replaced.

PPP’s Losing Strategy

PPP Supporters Protest Blasphemy

A famous quotation attributed to the British political philosopher Edmund Burke says that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. That may be the least that is necessary, but it’s not the only path. Evil can also triumph when good men undermine their own cause by taking a page out of evil’s playbook. Unfortunately, that seems to be happening among some in PPP, and it’s a losing strategy.

As elections draw near, politics naturally takes a turn for the worst. Disgust at the now well-known YouTube video was justified, but the hijacking of the people’s sentiments by religious parties and banned groups was not. By calling for a national holiday, PPP’s strategy to limit these group’s ability to exploit the situation was not only too clever by half, it actually played into the hands of extremist groups.

While most people have focused on the holiday’s giving legitimacy to the demonstrations, what has been largely overlooked is that the national holiday gave extremist groups cover to carry out violent attacks. By nightfall on Friday, groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ud-Dawa took to the media to proclaim that any acts of violence were not carried out by their organisations who protested peacefully. As proof, they dared anyone to provide evidence of JI or JuD supporters doing such acts while they provided photos and videos of their supporters waving flags and chanting peacefully.

Of course this is a classic smoke and mirrors operation. All these groups had to do is make sure to document their supporters with flags acting peacefully, while their supporters without flags created mayhem. With the entire nation on holiday, it would be impossible to sort out who is who. Before you think this is going a step too far, keep in mind that we’re talking about groups that claim they don’t engage in violence and believe they’re telling the truth because they have redefined violence.

Unfortunately, some PPP leaders didn’t stop with the passive strategy of declaring the national holiday that gave cover to the extremists, they started parroting them themselves in order to appeal to the national mood.

Headlines reporting Rehman Malik’s telling the West to stop supporting Pakistan’s enemies sounded more like a speech at a DPC rally than the statements of a Federal Minister. Of course, this isn’t the first time that Rehman Malik has ventured off of his script in an attempt to appease the right wing – the worst episode being when he threatened to kill blasphemers with his own hands following the murder of one of his own party leaders by a crazed lunatic.

Then there’s Ghulam Ahmed Bilour who sounded more like Mullah Yousaf Qureshi than a Federal Minister when he announced a bounty of $100,000 for murder of the maker of the offensive video. Granted Bilour is ANP and not PPP, but as the leader of a coalition government, the PPP must take responsibility for his presence in the Cabinet.

That these statements and the national holiday are poorly thought out should be obvious. Not only do they undermine the PPP’s position as a modern, progressive political party, they also gain nothing. Let’s face reality – no matter how much support PPP leaders give for right-wing issues, they will never be enough to win the support of the right-wing.

Munawar Hasan and Hafiz Saeed attack the PPP as irreligious not because they want PPP to accept their positions. They do it because they have nothing to offer the people and therefore have to rely on attacks. Giving in to their demands will not neutralise their attacks, it will only make their demands more extreme. Today it is protests against an internet video clip, tomorrow its funding for jihad…then what? Continue down this path for very long and at a certain point, the PPP becomes completely irrelevant.

And this brings us to the point. If the PPP leadership does not have the courage of conviction to sack Federal Ministers who cross the line to openly advocate murder, on what moral authority are they asking for our support?

The PPP became the most popular political party across the nation not because it campaigned on religious symbols, but because it campaigned on the substance of our religion. What is ‘Roti, Kapra aur Makan’ if not the command of almighty Allah to care for the poor of society? Just as Islam was spread across the region not at the tip of a sword but by the demonstration of tolerance and love that was shown by earlier Muslims, the PPP’s popularity was gained not through threats and intimidation but by fighting for the rights of the country’s poorest and least powerful.

Bilawal’s passionate speech on the martyrdom of Salmaan Taseer Shaheed exemplified the type of courageous and inspirational leadership that the people are desperate for – one that stands up for justice without fear, not when it is toeing the popular line, but when it stands out. In this, he has reminded the people of his mother who never pretended to be an extremist to gain popular support, but rather watered the roots of tolerance and democracy with her own life’s blood.

We have seen this courage in other recent PPP leaders, also: Salmaan Taseer Shaheed, Shahbaz Bhatti Shaheed, Sherry Rehman, Farahnaz Ispahani. We have heard it in the statements of Ahmad Mukhtar and Nadeem Afzal Chan, both of them unwavering in speaking out against the sectarianism that is ripping our nation apart at the seams. This should be the public face of what is supposed to be the nation’s largest liberal party, not appeasement and parroting.

There is another, less popular quotation from Mr Edmund Burke that bears remembering as well: “I take toleration to be a part of religion. I do not know which I would sacrifice; I would keep them both: it is not necessary that I should sacrifice either.” The PPP does not need to sacrifice tolerance to align itself with the religion of the masses, it only needs to faithfully stick to its founding principles. Doing otherwise is a losing strategy.