Interview: Farahnaz Ispahani

Interview: Farahnaz Ispahani

 
 

Farahnaz Ispahani is a well-known Pakistani writer based in Washington, D.C. She has recently authored a book, Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities. In 2013-2014, she served as a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In 2012, she was listed among Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, as well as Newsweek Pakistan’s Top 100 Women Who Matter. Besides writing for national and international papers, she has also worked at ABC News, CNN and MSNBC as a journalist. She recently spoke with The Diplomat’s Muhammad Akbar Notezai.

What do you mean by “Purifying the Land of the Pure?”

Pakistan was originally conceived of as a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims. Pakistan’s purpose was to protect the subcontinent’s largest religious minority. Over time, however, religious and political leaders declared the objective of Pakistan’s creation to be the setting up of an Islamic state. Much of the prejudice against religious minorities can be traced to the effort by Islamists to make Pakistan “purer” in what they conceive of as Islamic terms.

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What do you think about the role of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in protecting the rights of Pakistan’s religious minorities?

When Pakistan was founded in 1947, Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, clearly stated that non-Muslims would be equal citizens in the new country. In his famous speech of August 11, 1947, Jinnah declared, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” Reflecting his secular views, Jinnah – himself a Shia – nominated a Hindu, several Shias and an Ahmadi to Pakistan’s first cabinet. Today, non-Muslim representation at the Cabinet level is limited to symbolic appointments. Christians, Hindus, Shia Muslims are under attack every day. And the Ahmadis – who were among the most ardent supporters in the quest for a Muslim homeland on the subcontinent – are completely unrepresented; they live as virtual outcasts in Pakistan today. Unfortunately, as part of the gradual Islamization of Pakistan, the average Pakistani is not taught Jinnah’s true vision of a pluralistic and inclusive [society].

Why was the Objectives Resolution brought? And to what extent has the Objectives Resolution affected the rights of religious minorities?

The Objectives Resolution cannot be seen in isolation but rather in the context of partition and post-partition developments. There were those in the Muslim League who considered Pakistan “a laboratory for applying Islamic ideals” in the modern world and as a citadel of Islam. These views meant that non-Muslims were not equal citizens.

Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan although closely associated with Jinnah, led the way in creating a national narrative for Pakistan that perpetuated the sense of Islamic victimhood. Liaquat also embraced Islamic clerics, many of whom had earlier opposed the creation of Pakistan on the grounds that, according to Jinnah’s pronouncements, it was not to be an Islamic state. Discussions about how to transform Pakistan into an Islamic state thus started almost immediately after Independence.

Liaquat described Pakistan as “a moral sheet anchor” for Muslims in India. In a public statement in January 1948, barely five months after Quaid e Azam Jinnah had spoken about religion having nothing to do with the business of the state, Finance Minister and later Governor General Ghulam Mohammad insisted that Pakistan should be established on purely Islamic concepts. With these public statements and political machinations, Pakistan’s early leaders adroitly steered the country away from the Quaid-e-Azam’s vision.

With the discussion of Pakistan as an Islamic State began the denial of the rights of religious minorities along with the official denial of atrocities committed against them. It is in this context that we need to look at the 1949 Objectives Resolution: a declaration of the goals of the new state that would form the basis of its future constitution and laws. The resolution described a vision for Pakistan diametrically opposed to the secular one Jinnah had offered in his August 11, 1947 speech. The net effect of the Objectives Resolution was to define the state in Islamic terms, opening the door for further legislation based on the interpretation of Islam by a parliamentary majority. In the ensuing decades, democracy in Pakistan became intermittent, leaving the authority of inferring the Quran and Sunna (practices of the Prophet Muhammad) for long intervals in the hands of military dictators.

How do you look at religious freedom in Pakistan today?

Religious minorities are targets of legal as well as social discrimination. We have the toughest blasphemy laws in the world.

In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed some of the worst organized violence against religious minorities since Partition on the Pakistan side of the border. Unfortunately religious and communal violence is also a harsh reality in India and Bangladesh.

In Pakistan, over an eighteen-month period covering 2012 and part of 2013, at least 200 incidents of sectarian violence were reported. These incidents led to some 1,800 casualties, including more than 700 deaths. Many of those targeted for violence during this period were Shia Muslim citizens, who are deemed part of Pakistan’s Muslim majority under its constitution and laws. During the same year-and-a-half period in 2012–2013, Shias were subject to 77 attacks, including suicide terrorist bombings during Shia religious observances. Fifty-four lethal attacks were also perpetrated against Ahmadis, 37 against Christians, 16 against Hindus and three against Sikhs. Attackers of religious minorities are seldom prosecuted – and if they are, the courts almost invariably set them free. Members of the majority community, the Sunnis, who dare to question state policies about religious exclusion are just as vulnerable to extremist violence.

What are the motives behind violence against religious minorities in Pakistan?

In 1947 non-Muslim minorities comprised 23 percent of Pakistan’s population, today that number is 3 percent. Religious minorities both Muslim and non-Muslim face discrimination, threats and violence on a regular basis. Over a period of decades there has been a gradual Islamization of Pakistani state and society. We have an educational curriculum that preaches hatred against minorities, a legal system that discriminates against them, and a national identity that is seen by Islamists to emphasize that you are Pakistani only if you are Sunni Muslim has created an environment that has both tolerated and boosted extremism. This radicalization and Islamization has created an environment that condones attacks on minorities.

What are your thoughts on the state’s response towards violence against religious minorities?

The attempted purification of Pakistani society has taken place over decades and the state apparatus and leaders have played a key role in this process. During the 1950s the state acquiesced in an identity based on religion. Every military dictator from Ayub to Musharraf used Islam as a glue to bind Pakistan together and civilian leaders have sometimes been unable [to do anything to stop that process] and at other times complicit in the creation of the Islamic state. During the time of General Zia ul Haq, the state supported the creation and funding of Islamist and sectarian organizations that have attacked both non-Muslim minorities as well as Muslim sects like Shias and Ahmadis.

A positive recent development has been that the rise in extremism has united many important actors in our civil society to push back in a concerted way.

It has also propelled the civilian leaders to begin to act both symbolically and literally against the dangers of extremism. Recently, Pakistan’s political leaders have been publicly celebrating non-Muslim festivals, which is a positive step. The process of changing the educational curriculum in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab has also begun.

Yet the creation of an identity based solely on religion, the influence of Islamist clergy and their organizations, the laws that have already come on the books, the wide array of jihadi groups that indulge in violence, and the belief by some members of the coercive apparatus of the state of the difference between good jihadis and bad jihadis means that we have a long way to go before we see the end of extremism in my country.

As you have also been leading a voice for women, how do you view women’s rights in the country as compared to the conditions for religious minorities?

As Pakistan became an Islamic state not only in the terms of its constitution but also the gradual radicalization of its society women’s rights suffered alongside those of religious minorities. Women who are religious minorities have suffered from being accused of blasphemy (e.g., Asia Bibi), been forcefully converted to Islam (e.g., Rinkle Kumari) and not been allowed to call themselves Muslims (Ahmadi Muslim women). Women have also suffered from the laws enacted during the time of General Zia when the infamous Hudood ordinances came into being and are still on the rulebooks. Women, both those in public life and those who live outside of that are also often the main casualties of terrorist violence and suffer greatly as refugees or internally displaced persons. Women and girls are also the victims of practices like honor killings that continue to be perpetrated in parts of Pakistan.

On this medieval practice Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has just announced that laws that allow families to murder their daughters in the name of “honor” and avoid punishment will be changed as soon as possible. That would be an extremely important and positive development if this promise is acted upon seriously.

In several cases of violence against religious minorities, mob justice has been witnessed in Pakistan. In your opinion, what can the Pakistani government do to fight this?

Mob justice, in many countries of South Asia, is often the result of planning by elements of the state, political factions or organized non-state actors. What the state can do in these cases is first to ensure that the security forces defend the rights of the minorities and not allow the mob to rule. What is even more important is that instigators of violence should not be seen as being allowed to get away with what they have done. Finally, the government must change the educational curriculum and the media narrative so that all Pakistanis are treated as equal citizens.

In Pakistan, some writers say that the Zarb-e-Azb operation carried out by Pakistan’s military has affected the capabilities of Pakistani Taliban that has been behind the atrocious attacks on minority communities. How do you view this? 

Operation Zarb-e-Azb has been fairly successful but it’s a limited operation that does not target all terrorist groups. Until we make the decision to eliminate all terrorists we cannot declare a real and lasting victory. Pakistan and Pakistanis have suffered from selectivity in opposing terrorists for too long. Targeting those responsible for attacks in Pakistan but letting those attacking our neighbors to survive has allowed terrorists to pretend they are in one group while being in another. The same people deemed useful by the state for regional influence have been found involved in sectarian attacks. So, Zarb e Azb is a good first step but it cannot be declared the final step in what is definitely a long battle for Pakistan’s soul.

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