Interview: Javed Jabbar

A former Pakistani information minister on local extremism, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and regional threats.

By Zareen Muzaffar for
Interview: Javed Jabbar
Credit: Xi Jinping and Nawaz Sharid via Asianet-Pakistan /

Javed Jabbar is a prominent writer, filmmaker, policy analyst, and former senator and federal minister of Pakistan. He is the chairman and chief executive of Karachi communications firm JJ Media (Pvt.) Ltd. He is associated with conflict resolution and cooperation initiatives between Pakistan and India and in South Asia, and is a member of the longest-running Pakistan-India Track-II process, known as the Neemrana Dialogue (since 1992). He is also the author of Pakistan- Unique Origins; Unique Destiny? He spoke recently with Zareen Muzaffar for The Diplomat. 

Would you say there’s a growing trend of political parties partnering with extremist religious groups?

I would not say “partnership,” but they have failed to take strong preventative action when they should and could have. By being overly inhibited in the name of religion the parties have failed to protect the people from this menace. I would not say they have consciously partnered with them, because for all their flaws and demerits, the political parties also recognize the dangers that come with violent extremism. And you find these new violent extremists are separate structurally and operationally from political parties, they have their own leaders and offices, own operational forms, or they adopt schemes and programs ostensibly of public welfare to ingratiate themselves with people and undermine the standing of political parties.

Instead of being partners, [extremist groups] are actually competitors. They are trying to divert the focus of people from being non-violent members of political parties to supporters of violent extremism through charity work and social welfare work, which they organize themselves. With the rise in violence in the last five years, political parties are now openly condemning and trying to curb these extremist tendencies.

In your opinion, how will the recent China-Pakistan Economic Corridor affect Pakistan’s ties with the United States and India?

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In theory there should be no impact on Pakistan’s relations with the U.S. In the case of India, we know unfortunately that it has taken a very regressive and reactionary view by conveying to China that this pact is unacceptable.

The U.S. may be cautious from the point of view of how [the corridor] may impinge on the presence of U.S. forces in the Gulf, the proximity of China to bases in Qatar and other parts of the Gulf where there is a U.S. presence. They may fear that this is the beginning of a potential Chinese military presence in the waters of the Arabian Sea or the Persian Gulf, but that could also be paranoia. China would not want to create such a strong presence as to cause concern to Americans.

India continues to see itself in a militaristically competitive equation with Pakistan. On the one hand, it states it’s a regional or global power, yet about 70 percent of India’s armed forces are deployed in a Pakistan-specific direction, which is very strange. Why would they be worried about Pakistan, which is one sixth the size of India and with armed forces one fourth the size. It is for India to recognize that our friendship with China is not going to change as a result of Indian reservations. It will have the opposite effect because Pakistan played a pioneering role in introducing the reality of China to the contemporary world, back in the early 1960s. Pakistan-China friendship is strongly rooted, and can’t be undermined by Indian reservations.

To the contrary, I think the relationship will help improve the environment and infrastructure for regional trade. India should welcome this as it will enable Pakistan to become more efficient and competent, ultimately encouraging growth in trade between India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. 

What are some of the greatest threats to regional security?

I would classify them in two categories: military and non-military threats. National security is much larger than military security. The impact of population growth, the environmental dimensions of climate change, and its impact on the region are some contributing factors. Pakistan also has a higher rate of population growth, creating a huge demographic challenge. To give an indicator, the use of contraceptives amongst married couples is lower than in Iran, Bangladesh, or India. We are growing at a faster rate in a country that is beset by acute water scarcity. According to the UN classification of water stressed countries, Pakistan is now second in the entire region. Per capita availability of water is declining, so security from a pure survival point of view is going to be the most critical challenge.

We also need a transformation of our educational systems from discriminatory, unequal segments of education to a more equitable system. The content segmentation (English medium, Cambridge level, Urdu medium) has a huge security dimension because we are simultaneously raising about seven different kinds of Pakistanis.

The military aspect of security is that we have to deal with a conventional arms situation in which we are outnumbered by India 3:1. In conventional terms, for every three soldiers of your adversary you should have one soldier, and so because India insists on having armed forces of over 1.5 million people, either in the military or paramilitary, Pakistan is obliged to keep at least 500,000 in its own armed forces. To be able to sustain this we have to improve our economy so that our budget can support that many people in uniform. For that, we need to increase our GDP growth rate, which is one of the lowest in the region.

Then there is another form of security, which is nuclear weapons, and that is the most abominable aspect. Both countries are building up their arsenals of nuclear weapons – weapons that should never be used – raising the possibility of accidental use, misunderstanding, panic, and alarm. And to gauge how easily that can happen, I recommend Drift, The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow. She has written a well-researched analysis to show how the world’s most advanced military has committed horrendous blunders in its storage of nuclear weapons. It’s imperative to discuss these aspects. An agreement was signed when I was in cabinet with Benazir Bhutto in December 1988. Every December we exchange information on the location of our respective nuclear facilities. This was signed during the SAARC summit and Rajiv Gandhi happened to be representing India at that time.

In your opinion, what are some of the greatest misconceptions regarding Pakistan?

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The first misconception that comes to mind is that Pakistan is the world’s most dangerous country.  That is a title bestowed upon us by Newsweek and The Economist. In fact, Pakistan is very hospitable and friendly to outsiders. There are some mad extremists in our country and our state needs to work on security and safety not just for foreigners but for citizens also. But it is a fundamental misconception to brand Pakistan as the most dangerous country. There is no lack of pandemonium and chaos in so many other countries.

The second misconception is that Pakistan is a society excessively obsessed with religion. I think Pakistani society is very “showy” when it comes to religiosity but intrinsically it is very relaxed about religion. All you have to do is travel through the country and you will see women working in the fields, moving about visibly; you see a very sufi approach to Islam, which is very pluralist, inclusive, tolerant, respectful. Even if women are segregated, that does not mean intolerance, it is just a convention.

The third misconception is that Pakistanis tend to be poor at certain skills or levels of proficiency and that this country is a backward society with illegal migrants and semi-skilled manual workers. The reality is that Britain’s national health service can’t function for a single day without Pakistani doctors and paramedics. Overall, we might be far behind many countries, but we also have a large number of people who are highly skilled, entrepreneurial, and inventive.

Zareen Muzaffar is an independent journalist. She can be reached at [email protected]