By Babar Sattar
The News, Islamabad, May 9, 2009
Last week a conservative schoolteacher in Rawalpindi hailed a cab to get to work in the morning. She wore a gown and had covered her head with a 'dupatta'. A few minutes into the journey the bearded taxi driver asked her if she was Muslim. She said she was. Then why she had not covered her head properly, he asked. She responded by explaining that she ordinarily wears a headscarf, but as she was running late that day she was unable to put it on. Such hurry could invite punishment and result in her being dispatched to the hereafter soon, he retorted. At this point she began to shake with fear and tried to reach for her cell phone to seek help. He turned back and grabbed the cell phone. As the taxi had almost reached the school campus, she insisted that she be let out. The driver obliged, but left her with a chilling message: if the female staff of the school failed to observe proper 'pardah' they would all be sent to God sooner rather than later. Once out of the taxi, this horror-struck woman turned back to see if she could note the registration number of the taxi. The driver was still standing there watching her menacingly. She rushed into the school.
This is no isolated event. Be it warnings delivered to the medical community in NWFP to wear shalwar qameez, or edicts issued to music shops and barbers, or threats communicated to schools, or reports regarding women being harassed in bazaars and public spaces more generally, there has been a surge in vigilante action being carried out by our self-styled moral police. The worst justification for the Nizam-e-Adl regulation comes from liberals within the ANP and the PPP claiming that this legislation doesn't set up a parallel system of justice, as it is merely procedural law adorned with Islamic nomenclature. Accepting the demand to 'enforce' religion legitimizes the discourse of bigots and their obscurantist project of personally stepping into God's shoes to judge fellow Muslims, taking a measure of their sins and delivering divine justice in this world on God's behalf. The growing intolerance that our society is witnessing with mute horror is fuelled by our odious brand of hypocrisy that encourages double-speak in the name of protecting and preserving tradition, culture and religion.
The growing Talibanization of the mind that Kamila Hyat spoke about in her column this week is a real threat to our fundamental rights and liberties. Simply put it is bigotry, intolerance, obscurantism and coercion practiced in the name of religion that feeds on (a) the fear of change being ushered in by modernity, (b) confusion about the role of religion in the society, and (c) the failure of the state to provide for the basic needs of citizens, including means of subsistence the absence of which renders people desperate and a balanced education without which they lack the tools to question and resist extreme intolerant ideas. The message of the Taliban or other religious bigots can be simple and appealing to a majority of the population that is deprived of basic needs, disempowered and consequently disgruntled. The contract between the citizens and the state is not being honoured by the state and thus the system neither provides for the basic needs of a majority of the citizens nor offers them any real prospect for upward social mobility. This problem of governance is then presented by the maulvi as a consequence of lack of religion.
America, the big Satan, has mesmerized the elites of this country, explains the Maulvi. These elites, as agents of the devil, have signed on to modern/western ideas that are taking our society and our country away from our religion. Our miseries are a consequence of our sins and God's vengeance and the solution is a return to a backward lifestyle that shuns modernity. The appeal of this thesis lies in its simplicity. We are unhappy with the performance of the state and the manner in which it is leading to the creation of a predatory society and crave change. And such change is promised by the maulvi in the name of religion.
We have never candidly spoken about the desired role of religion in our country and no sensible distinction has been between the discourses on what religion is and how it should be practiced. Thus, whether or not Sharia prescribes 'pardah' is one question, and whether the state has a right to enforce 'pardah' or citizens have a private right to ensure that others observe 'pardah' is a separate question. Because we don't separate the individual right to freely practice religion from the debate on what constitutes the legitimate prescriptions of Islam, an interpretation of Sharia that favours 'pardah' automatically ends up justifying illegal actions of private citizens coercing and harassing others to abide by an interpretation they prefer.
The Constitution of Pakistan holds out the promise of 'enabling' citizens to order their lives in accordance with the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah. What the Constitution does is create a right and not an obligation. Except laws that regulate our collective lives as a society, that are informed by Islamic injunctions, the Constitution does not empower the state to 'enforce' religion in the private lives of citizens. Should a Muslim choose to order his private life in accordance with his understanding of the edicts of the Quran and Sunnah, the state is under an obligation to 'facilitate' him. And this individual right to freely practice one's religion includes the right not to be goaded into practicing Islam in a manner that one finds disagreeable. This requires the state and the society to differentiate between propagation and intimidation. Where propagation of religion enters the realm of coercion, the right to freely practice religion becomes a casualty. Thus, the individual right to practice religion freely can only be meaningful if it protects against the type of bigotry being practiced by Sufi Mohammad in Swat or Abdul Aziz in Islamabad.
It is imperative that the distinction between virtue/vice and legality/illegality in the country be kept alive. The growth and spread of bigotry in our society is not only blurring the line between sin and crime, but is also arrogating to private citizens the ability to enforce an obscurantist moral code – a right that citizens don't have even when it comes to enforcing the law. As aforesaid, the right to practice religion freely in one's personal life naturally includes the right not to practice religion, just as the right to free speech includes the entitlement not to speak at all. Let people privately judge others for being good or bad Muslims if they so wish. But such judgment must not be allowed to abridge or fetter the constitutionally guaranteed rights and liberties of those being judged. Irrespective of our disagreements over the content and interpretation of Sharia, all those who value the right to profess and practice religion freely can rationally agree that 'enforcing' a certain brand of Sharia neither falls within the province of the state, nor is a private right of any citizen or a group of citizens.
Further, within the discourse on the content of Sharia, it is imperative to resist the propensity of authoritatively determining whether or not someone is Muslim. Here too, the issue of what Islam allows and disallows as understood by human agency must be distinguished from the authority to declare someone a non-Muslim or oust a Muslim from the circle of Islam. Who are we after all to appropriate to ourselves the divine right of judgment that God has reserved for the day of deliverance? The tendency to readily issue decrees denouncing the faith of fellow Muslims not only makes us more intolerant, exclusive and fractured as a community, but also confuses the rationale and the need to act against militant groups. For example, Sufi Mohammad declares that anyone who doesn't abide by his view of Sharia will automatically be ousted from the circle of Islam. In turn, maulvis opposed to Sufi emphasize that anyone who supports the Taliban who plan suicide bombings and slaughter Muslims is an infidel. This discourse is unhelpful. The state and the society need to strengthen their resolve to act against the Taliban terrorizing citizens, not because they are infidels or bad Muslims, but because they are criminals and have usurped the lives and liberties of compatriots.
Talibanization of the mind is finding room in our society either because a majority of our population that is religiously inclined continues to confuse its responsibilities toward God with those toward fellow citizens or because we are too timid to defend a lifestyle that might be judged by the religiously inclined. Unless we shun hypocrisy and stand up to defend a legal and social structure that allows us to order our private lives freely, in a secular fashion or in accordance with our own understanding of religion, freedom of religion will continue to be chipped away and more and more vigilantes will develop the urge to play God within Pakistan.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan for a Crash Plan for IDPS
Press Release, May 07
Lahore: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has called upon the federal government to immediately set up a special task force to implement a crash plan for extending relief to the large number of people displaced in the ongoing conflict in the country's northern part. In a statement issued today, the commission said:
The plight of the people displaced from their homes in Swat, Dir and Buner as a result of militants' activities and the security forces' operations against them is getting more and more serious day by day. The number of these IDPs may soon touch a million mark. The circumstances in which these unfortunate people have been forced to abandon their homes have made it impossible for them to find succour on their own. Many among them, from barbers and musicians to teachers and lawyers, lost their means of income weeks and months ago and are now in dire straits. Their needs for relief are both urgent and substantial.
HRCP believes the NWFP government's plan to set up six camps in Swabi will not touch even a fringe of the problem. The matter is clearly beyond the provincial government's means and capacity. The federal government must take matters into its hands and set up a special task force manned by people skilled in relief work. Since the number of IDPs is likely to grow it is necessary to draw up a master plan for looking after them in the days and weeks ahead. The civil society organisations also must rise to the occasion and convince the innocent victims of conflict that they are not going to be abandoned.
'Nuclear Weapons Are Not Kalashnikovs'
SPIEGEL INTERVIEW WITH PAKISTANI PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI
The West is concerned about the stability of Pakistan. SPIEGEL spoke with President Asif Ali Zardari, 53, about failed peace talks with the Taliban, the possible whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and the safety of his country's nuclear arsenal.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, the Taliban is advancing deeper and deeper into the heart of Pakistan. Does your army lack the will or the capability to effectively combat the extremists?
Pakistani army vehicles moving into the Swat Valley in a recent offensive against the Taliban.
Zardari: Neither the one nor the other. Swat itself has a particular nature -- its physical boundaries limit our action and capabilities. We had a similar situation in Bajaur along the border to Afghanistan. There, too, we went in with F-16s, tanks, heavy artillery and our forces. At the time, 800,000 people lived in the region, and 500,000 were displaced by the fighting. What we really wanted, though, was for the local population to stay and help resist the Taliban on their land. In the case of Swat, the Taliban used the population as human shields. A more aggressive offensive would have caused greater civilian casualties. For us, the concept of a policy of dialogue has always applied. War is not the solution to every kind of problem.
SPIEGEL: The peace agreement you supported with militant Islamists in Swat Valley just failed like others before it. The Taliban didn't give up their arms as agreed to in the deal. Are deals with extremists a realistic strategy for peace?
Zardari: During negotiations, we try to differentiate between copycats or criminals and the hardcore. It is an ongoing insurgency which takes time to finish. We go in with our troops, we talk, we retreat, we pull back, and then the Taliban goes on a new offensive. It is a drawn-out issue and there is no encyclopaedia one can turn to for answers. I would advise you to read about the Afghan wars. It's the way the Taliban, who are Pashtuns, fight: They take you on and then they melt into the mountains. And you often can't tell who is who or what they are up to. These men are like old Indian chiefs in the US who didn't want to recognize the fact that, by then, they were ruled by American laws.
SPIEGEL: The chief Taliban negotiator in Swat, Sufi Mohammed, claims that democracy is opposed to Islam. So what are the foundations for a treaty?
Zardari: When he refuses to recognize Pakistan's constitution, he is breaking the terms of the peace deal. That gives our negotiators and the populace the support they need to take him on. If the deal doesn't work, then parliament will have to decide on it again. That's democracy and, as you can see, it works.
SPIEGEL: In the meantime, the army has entered into battle against the Taliban. Is it not just a bogus operation in order to quiet a concerned West?
Zardari: It is a large-scale operation. Altogether, more than 100,000 Pakistani troops are operating in the region. Of course we also have a comprehensive strategy and a plan for reconstruction.
SPIEGEL: The Taliban is increasingly calling on the poor to follow them and to chase away the landlords and feudal lords. Are the Islamists in the process of transforming themselves into a social movement that pits Pakistan's underprivileged against the rich elite, who have opposed land reform?
Zardari: I don't see that. In regions of the northwest border provinces, there is no feudalism because there is no land available that would be sufficient for agriculture -- it is all mountainous terrain. There are old families and there is a tribal chief system that relies on tribal laws that has been indigenous for centuries. The Taliban have superiority of numbers and arms and are more aggressive, so they sometimes overpower the local authority.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari: "I see no danger of a military coup."
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari: "I see no danger of a military coup."
SPIEGEL: Why don't you move some of the troop divisions you have stationed on the eastern border with India to the northwest border, where there is clearly a greater need?
Zardari: Both borders are of equal importance. The fact that the Indians recently increased their troop presence on the border creates a little concern. We react appropriately and we understand our country better than outsiders. This year we have already killed many foreign fighters and even more local attackers. Our opponents have incurred heavy losses -- this is a serious battle.
SPIEGEL: The Taliban in Swat Valley have invited Osama bin Laden to live with them and they have offered to protect him from the Pakistani army and the Americans. What will you do if he accepts their offer?
Zardari: It would be a great gesture if Osama bin Laden were to come out into the open in order to give us a chance of catching him. The question right now is whether he is alive or dead. The Americans have told me they don't know. They are much better informed and they have been looking for him for a much longer time. They have got more equipment, more intelligence, more satellite eavesdropping equipment and more resources on the ground in Afghanistan, and they say they have no trace of him. Our own intelligence is of the same opinion. Presumably, he does not exist anymore, but that has not been confirmed.
Pakistan's embattled border regions.
SPIEGEL: The relationship between the democratic government in Islamabad and the traditionally dominant army has never been an easy one. Do you trust your army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and the notorious ISI secret service?
Zardari: It is a trustful working relationship and I am well enough informed. My party, the Pakistan People's Party, and its allies have the majority and we will see things through. At the moment I see no danger of a military coup.
SPIEGEL: Why do you leave the elimination of top terrorists in the Pakistani tribal areas to the Americans, whose drone attacks are extremely unpopular amongst the populace? Why don't you handle this yourselves?
Zardari: If we had the drone technology, then we would. It would be a plus. We have always said that we don't appreciate the way the Americans are handling it. We think it is counterproductive. But it is mostly happening in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan -- for all intents and purposes no man's land.
SPIEGEL: What are you hoping will happen during your visit with US President Barack Obama this week?
Zardari: That is a million dollar question. And I am hoping the answer will be billions of dollars, because that is the kind of money I need to fix Pakistan's economy. The idea is to request that the world appreciate the sensitivity of Pakistan and the challenges it faces and to treat us on par with General Motors, Chrysler and Citibank.
SPIEGEL: The Americans currently view a nuclear-armed Pakistan as the world's most dangerous country. Your wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated by terrorists, feared that your country's nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists. Do you share this fear?
Zardari: If democracy in this country fails, if the world doesn't help democracy -- then any eventuality is a possibility. But as long as democracy is there, there is no question of that situation arising. All your important installations and weaponry are always under extra security. Nuclear weapons are not Kalashnikovs -- the technology is complicated, so it is not as if one little Taliban could come down and press a button. There is no little button. I want to assure the world that the nuclear capability of Pakistan is in safe hands.
Interview conducted by Susanne Koelbl