Pakistan’s Progressive Voices Refuse To Be Silenced

Pakistan has taken several important steps forward over the past four years. From President Zardari’s willingly devolving powers that had been consolidated under past military dictators to an elected parliament completing its full tenure, there are, as Peter Bergen recently noted, many reasons to be hopeful about Pakistan’s future. But despite Pakistan’s overall positive trajectory, there remains a disturbing trend that threatens the promise of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Pakistan – the ongoing attempts to silence Pakistan’s progressive voices.

As Pakistan prepares for its historic elections in May, progressive leaders continue to literally be driven from the country by forces of intolerance – a practice that has been a hallmark of political dysfunction in Pakistan for decades. Benazir Bhutto spent years in exile, only to be murdered upon her return. Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were killed for speaking out in support of minority rights. Even a young girl’s demand for an education was considered so great a threat that Taliban militants tried to kill her.

Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, has been an outspoken and unwavering defender of minority rights and it has put her in constant danger. Following the assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011, Rehman lived under self-imposed house arrest as local clerics demanded she be killed. Rehman soon found herself in Washington, DC where she was an ardent advocate for her country, only to have the Supreme Court order police to investigate her on charges of blasphemy – a capital offense, and one that is so prejudicial that the mere accusation can result in vigilante killing.

Ambassador Rehman returned to Pakistan earlier this month in preparation for the transition to an interim government during this year’s elections despite possible threats to her safety, and some are speculating that the Supreme Court’s sudden interest in blasphemy charges against Rehman are part of a high-stakes political campaign to determine the direction of the country. Christopher Dickey reported for Newsweek earlier this week that,

The court’s action appears largely political: an effort by far-right religious and nationalist forces to discredit the government of Rehman’s friend and ally, President Asif Ali Zardari, as it heads into elections this spring. Last year the courts forced out the prime minister, and in January they briefly ordered the arrest of his successor. Rehman’s predecessor as ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani, was accused of treason because of his close relations with U.S. officials before and after the Obama administration killed bin Laden. Haqqani, who vehemently denies the allegation, now lives in Boston, effectively exiled from his homeland.

Even those progressive voices that have been exiled seem to be in the crosshairs of. In a most extraordinary move earlier this month, Pakistan’s Supreme Court said that “If Hussain Haqqani does not come back willingly then he will be brought back forcibly.” Pakistan’s Supreme Court directed that such orders be delivered to Pakistan’s Embassy in the US, raising the specter, however implausible it may sound, of kidnapping under the auspices of “extraordinary rendition.”

Most recently, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – the young Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party – decided not to appear at campaign rallies leading up to the elections, choosing to coordinate campaign efforts from Dubai due to security concerns. Why would a 25-year-old who has never held elected office face security concerns in his home country? Perhaps because the PPP scion has been one of the few Pakistani leaders to consistently speak out against injustice in his country.

Following the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, Bilawal was one of the few to speak out forcefully against religious discrimination, violence, and terrorism. He was quick to condemn the attempted murder of girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai, and has consistently called for the protection of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

While progressives face threats from both vigilantes and the courts, Pakistan’s extremists seem to move about freely – even participating in national elections. The Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) – an offshoot of the anti-Shia terrorist group Sipah-e-Sahabah Pakistan (SSP) has formed an electoral alliance with other right-wing religious parties called the Muttahida Deeni Muhaaz (MDM) which is campaigning on a platform of replacing Pakistan’s parliamentary democracy with an Islamic caliphate, replacing the country’s current laws with an extreme interpretation of Sharia that bans non-Muslims, Shias, and women from holding public office or leading intelligence agencies, and providing “complete moral support” to the Afghan Taliban and Kashmiri militants.

Pakistan has a long and proud tradition of progressive leaders dating back to the nation’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, whose vision of a Pakistan in which “you may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State” was quickly hijacked by religious extremists. Those who worked to move Pakistan forward – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti, Malala Yousafzai, and countless others – have found themselves attacked and killed for speaking out against injustice.

As Pakistanis prepare for elections in May, let us hope that a clear message is sent – that the people of Pakistan will choose their own leaders without fear or intimidation, and that, in the words of Ambassador Rehman, “Pakistan…not be allowed to turn into a country where a person is killed for their beliefs.”

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