Blasphemous Rumors

August 31, 2012

stop discrimination against religious minoritiesThe blasphemy case against a young Pakistani girl known as Rimsha increasingly appears to be less about the alleged acts of a young girl than it is about a larger struggle for power in defining the future of Pakistan.

Rimsha’s arrest made international headlines almost immediately following reports that the accused was “a mentally disabled 11-year-old girl.” The case appeared to be following a disturbing path of injustice when subsequent news reports indicated that the accused was denied meetings with her lawyer.  An independent medical board determined that the girl’s age is between 13 and 14, and that her mental state did not correspond with her age, but that she is not mentally ill. The Pakistani court hearing the case has postponed a decision on whether or not to grant the girl bail in order to review the report.

Questions about the girl’s age and intellectual capabilities, though, may be the wrong questions.

Pakistani journalist and Member of Parliament (PML-N), Ayaz Amir, traveled to the scene of the alleged incident to get the facts. What he found, is troubling.

What is this case about? Groping for an answer I went into the maze of rundown streets which is the old locality of Mehra Jaffer just outside Islamabad where this supposed blasphemy occurred, and there met Amad the complainant in this case. In my mind I had imagined the glittering eye of the fanatic. What I found was a friendly guy slightly confused at the sudden attention he was getting. I asked him his education and he said he had studied up to class five, could read a bit but knew not how to write.

Amad runs a CNG car-fitting shop in the G-11 Market. In a room upstairs I sat with him and a few other car mechanics and put a few questions. Amad said he had spotted Rimsha carrying a few burnt pages in a plastic shopping bag which on closer inspection turned out to be pages from the Nurani Qaida, a helpful primer for mastering the Arabic alphabet, preparatory to reading the Quran…pages not from the Quran then, and spotted by a person who could not read.

Forget for a moment the technicalities of what was burnt, I said. Did he think the girl Rimsha had any quarrel with Islam? No, he said, the others too nodding their heads in agreement. So what was all the fuss about and how was the glory of Islam affected? They all looked pretty blank. Had Rimsha meant to hurt anyone’s sentiments? Again silence. Amad looked a well-meaning person but clearly out of his depth.

If the complainant in the case could not read the texts alleged to be from the Quran and did not believe the accused to have any quarrel with religion, how did Rimsha end up jailed under suspicion of blasphemy? This is what Ayaz Amir found.

The imam held a council of war and Rimsha’s family was told to leave the locality within an hour. The police were also informed. Mercifully, no announcement was made on the mosque loudspeaker but matters took an ugly turn when news of the supposed outrage spread to the nearby bazaar. From most accounts it was Muhammad Amir Kazmi, an Urdu-speaking migrant from Karachi who runs his small Mashallah General Store, who was in the forefront of the agitation. After repeated announcements from the local mosque, a crowd gathered and the road was blocked. The crowd then marched to the Ramna police station where, discretion triumphing over valour, a blasphemy case on Amad’s complaint was registered against Rimsha and she was arrested.

While the Imam, Hafiz Chishti, denies instigating the incident, he openly accuses the local Christian community of conspiring against Islam and readily accepts that he has encouraged his followers to strike back.

Despite backtracking from his earlier stance, Hafiz Chishti was still scathing of the alleged blasphemy committed by Rimsha Masih, saying what she did was a “conspiracy” to insult Muslims.

He told AFP that “The girl who burnt the Holy Quran has no mental illness and is a normal girl. She did it knowingly; this is a conspiracy and not a mistake. She confessed what she did.”

Chishti claimed that the local Christian community had previously caused antagonism by playing music in services at their makeshift church during Muslim prayer time and said burning the pages was deliberate.

“They committed this crime to insult us further. This happened because we did not stop their anti-Islam activities before,” he said.

“Last Christmas, they played musical instruments and there was vulgarity in the streets during our prayers time. I warned them but they did not stop.”

During his sermon at Friday prayers, Chishti told worshippers it was “time for Muslims to wake up” and protect the Holy Quran.

Hafiz Chishti’s position, however, is by no means representative of the Muslim community. Earlier this week, Pakistan’s leading body of Muslim clerics, the All Pakistan Ulema Council urged protection of the Christian community and demanded an impartial investigation and accountability for anyone making false allegations under the blasphemy law. Still, this might be small comfort for local Christians who face the threat of vigilante violence regardless of the outcome of the case.

Rao Abdur Raheem, the lawyer representing Rimsha’s accuser, threatened on Thursday that if the girl is not convicted, Muslims could “take the law into their own hands,” and made reference to Mumtaz Qadri, the man who murdered Salmaan Taseer for supporting reforms to the blasphemy laws, and locals have reportedly “constituted a committee to expel Christians from the area.”

Supporters of the accused girl point to her age and the possibility of deficiencies in her intellect as reasons why she should be granted clemency in the case. But the few facts that have been reported suggest that this is missing the larger context of the case. There are some in Pakistan who believe the country needs to be “cleansed” – and not just of non-Muslims, but anyone considered the wrong type of Muslim including Ahmadis,  Shias, and Sufis.

Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, Chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, warned this week that religious violence threatens the very existence of Pakistan and urged the government to crack down on militant religious groups. Viewed in this context, the blasphemy charges against Rimsha are but the latest battle in a larger war over whether Pakistan will be a tolerant and inclusive nation.

Acting U.S Chief of Mission Richard Hoagland Speaks to ARY’s Beenish Javed

August 29, 2012

Acting Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Richard Hoagland, recently sat down with ARY News Foreign Affairs correspondent, Beenish Javed, to discuss key issues in US-Pakistan relations including shared counter-terrorism operations, drones, and how American economic assistance can be better used to improve Pakistani sentiments towards the US in the future.

Video: The Pakistanis

August 28, 2012

In celebration of Pakistan’s Independence Day earlier this month, a group of Pakistani students produced this short video that provides a glimpse into a Pakistan that too many Americans don’t get an opportunity to see – one of pride, hope, joy, and love.

It’s an important reminder that, despite facing the challenge of a global economic crisis and the threat of extremist violence, the vast majority of Pakistanis are working hard to provide their families a better tomorrow.

US Media Representations of Pakistan

August 24, 2012

During discussions with Pakistani friends and acquaintances on Twitter and Facebook, a few subjects invariably arise. The most common is the CIA’s use of drones, but another regular topic is the way Pakistan is represented in the US media. There seems to be a common misperception that CNN is an official government media channel, and that American media more generally is a dominated by anti-Pakistan propaganda. As many of the Pakistanis that I engage with online seem to share these misunderstandings about American media, I wanted to offer some insights into American news media and how Pakistan is portrayed.

First, we should do away with the misperception that CNN is an official government channel like PTV, or that CNN is representative of American media more broadly. Just because something is reported by CNN, it doesn’t mean that it is the position of the US government. It doesn’t even mean that it’s true. Recently, CNN found itself in a rather embarrassing situation after it reported that the US Supreme Court had struck down President Obama’s health care law. This was certainly not the position of the US government, and neither was it true. CNN is a private cable channel like Geo TV, only with lower ratings. In fact, CNN’s ratings have been declining for decades, and it currently rates third below both FOX News and MSNBC.

There are about 27 news channels in the US. Much more prominent are entertainment channels, of which there are hundreds. News channels including broadcasts produced overseas such as RT, which is funded by the Russian government, and, yes, even Al Jazeera. While it’s true that Al Jazeera is only broadcast in a few media markets, one of those is Washington, DC. If you’re looking to get a message in the halls of power, that’s the media market you want to be in. Several other news channels serve specific communities such as Spanish language Mundovision, or report on specific issues such as the weather.

As in many countries, different news channels are often perceived to provide a slightly different political perspective on the issues they are reporting. FOX News is widely considered a conservative news network, and MNBC is widely viewed as more liberal. Each channel reports on a wide variety of topics, from local human interest stories, to sports, to international news and events and everything in between. Reports on international stories cover every corner of the globe, and though Pakistan is an important US ally, it only makes up a portion of the reporting on international issues. It is not unusual for the media to go for days without reporting a single story about Pakistan.

While it’s true that security issues are the subject of many news reports about Pakistan, they are by no means one-sided. Prominent Pakistani figures are often invited to present to the American audience different Pakistani perspectives. These include Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman:

As well as opposition politicians like Imran Khan:

And even private individuals like former Director General of the ISI, Gen. Hamid Gul:

But issues of national security are not the only frame through which American media consumers see Pakistan. Cable news channels, including CNN, have and continue to produce positive stories about the people and culture of Pakistan. These include programs that describe Pakistan not as the leading exporter of terror, but of footballs.

And not just footballs, but bagpipes!

And not just footballs, and bagpipes, but fashion!

And not just footballs, bagpipes, and fasion…but beer!

Pakistan’s military is also shown in a positive light, such as this report on Pakistan Air Force fighter pilots:

Even the lighter side of Pakistani politics is shown in America, such as this report on a popular Pakistani political satire show:

American media also seeks to better understand Pakistan through exploring Pakistani film and journalism.

And the beauty of traditional Pakistani art is also reported by American media.

American media reports also look at more domestic issues in foreign countries, such as efforts to improve access to education for the poorest children in Pakistan

As you can see, American media is not a mouthpiece for anti-Pakistan propaganda. Though far from perfect, American new channels do try to find a balanced and representative view of international issues, including reaching out to a variety of voices to represent the diversity of opinions both in the US and in the countries on which they are reporting. Likewise, Americans have access to different channels, including those produced abroad. On the whole, Americans probably know very little about Pakistan. Some of the positive things they do know may come from friendships with the more than 700,000 Pakistani-Americans who live in the US, and some, believe it or not, may come from the media.

 

Pakistan Political Report: Freedom of Speech and the Judiciary

August 20, 2012

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Speaking at the inauguration of a new judicial complex in Rawalpindi last month, Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, emphasized that judges “must be in a position to render transparent and impartial decisions,” noting that, while judges cannot legislate, their judgments set standards that serve as guidelines for lawmakers and regulators.[1] One area in which Pakistan does not have well-established jurisprudence or regulatory framework is freedom of speech. As such, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has an opportunity to establish clear and coherent guidelines for the constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech.

 
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LUMS program gives educational opportunities to rural and underprivileged students

August 17, 2012

Over the past decade, Lahore University of Management Sciences’ (LUMS) National Outreach Program (NOP) has grown into a huge success, providing advanced educational opportunities to students from remote parts of the country and from underprivileged families. The students who have participated in the program have excelled,

The performance of the NOP scholars has been extremely encouraging as most have done exceptionally well both academically and in extracurricular activities, which reflects their ambitious drive. Of the 518 NOP scholars inducted to date, 145 have graduated and 11 have been awarded the Fulbright scholarship. Amongst those who have graduated, some have received fellowships to join top universities such as Harvard University, National University of Singapore, Cornell University, Columbia University, Georgia Tech, and Ohio Lakehead University. Those who have opted to work have been recruited by leading companies like Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Bank Alfalah, United Bank Limited, Standard Chartered Bank, Deloitte, UK and Alghanim Industries (Kuwait). They are not only eager to turn this opportunity into a life changing experience for themselves, but are also keen on improving the conditions of their families and communities in the process.

LUMS’s NOP program is one way that Pakistanis are working to improve educational opportunities and preparing citizens across the country to address critical issues facing the nation. By helping students achieve their potential, the NOP program is helping Pakistan achieve its own potential.

Sec. Clinton Statement on Pakistan’s Independence Day

August 13, 2012

Secretary Hillary ClintonOn behalf of President Obama and the people of the United States, I am delighted to send best wishes to the government and people of Pakistan as you celebrate the anniversary of your independence this August 14. Since 1947, Pakistan has persevered in the face of immense challenges to build upon the democratic ideals of your country’s founders. Today, we take time to honor your sacrifices and renew our support for a stable and secure Pakistan for generations to come.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah dreamt of a vibrant, self-reliant Pakistan – a goal we all share. As Muslims around the world reflect upon the meaning of community and sacrifice during this holy month of Ramadan, the United States celebrates the hardworking Pakistanis who strive to fulfill Jinnah’s vision of a stable, secure, and prosperous Pakistan.

–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Pakistan Political Report: Voter Registration – Obstacles and Opportunities

August 3, 2012

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) released new voter rolls last week after extensive review and comparison against national databases.[1] The ECP claims that during the process it removed 35 million unverifiable voters and added 36 million new voters to a national electronic database.[2] Civil groups and the media have expressed concern that the voter rolls do not include a significant number of eligible voters, especially women and the rural poor.[3]

These concerns notwithstanding, the government of Pakistan does appear to be making honest and transparent efforts to reduce vote fraud and increase legitimate voter participation in the upcoming general elections.  That this process is being carried out transparently and in cooperation with opposition political parties suggests that, while the outcome of next year’s elections may be hard to predict, their legitimacy will likely be difficult to question.

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