Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, said on Friday that the people’s freedoms cannot be violated or limited in the interests of national security, adding that human rights cannot be ignored at any cost.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R–Calif.) caused a diplomatic mess recently when he held a hearing about human rights in Balochistan and then introduced a bill supporting independence for the Pakistani province. While Balochistan is plagued with questions of serious human rights abuses, Rep. Rohrabacher’s actions are not an effective way of addressing these questions. The inappropriateness of his actions notwithstanding, though, Pakistan should not see Rohrabacher’s bill for more than it is. Just as the US should not treat the statements of a single Pakistani parliamentarian as indicative of national policy, Pakistan should not mistake the actions of one Congressman with official policy of the United States government.
Every year, Americans of varying political persuasions work themselves into a frenzy over one or another bill introduced in the House of Representatives that portends the end of our democracy. But whether it is a bill to allow children to carry guns or to forbid women from buying birth control, none of these bills ever has a chance of becoming law. A 2009 Sunlight Foundation report found that in any two-year session of Congress, only about 4 percent of introduced bills actually become law. This may seem like a failure of democracy, but it’s actually a function of it.
Each of the 535 members of Congress can propose any kind of bill they want. They don’t need consent or support from anyone – they just drop a piece of legislation in a box, called “the hopper,” and congressional workers assign it an official bill number and file it away with all the others bills. The only test a proposal has to pass before becoming a bill in Congress is the judgment of the individual member of Congress who introduced it.
In fact, the government issued a rare comment on Rep. Rohrabacher’s bill clarifying that it does not represent the official policy of the United States.
The United States respects the territorial integrity of Pakistan. Members of Congress introduce legislation on numerous foreign affairs topics and these bills do not in any way imply U.S. government endorsement of any particular policy. The Department of State does not typically comment on pending legislation, but it is not the policy of the Administration to support independence for Balochistan.
While the US and Pakistan are in the process of redefining the terms of bilateral relations, they don’t need unnecessary distractions. Though the US government has publicly distanced itself from Rep. Rohrabacher’s bill, it remains in the headlines of Pakistan’s media. Rep. Rohrabacher’s act has wasted the time of government officials in both countries, interfering with serious issues like improving trade. But let’s be realistic – the US is not going to support any policy that does not respect the territorial integrity of Pakistan.
Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, had his passport seized and is restricted from leaving the country. An investigation into accusations that he sought US help to avert a military coup has bypassed all preliminary hearings and is being taken up directly by Pakistan’s Supreme Court – an institution that many fear has itself been working to unseat the democratically-elected government.
Today, Husain Haqqani is receiving credible death threats, as are his lawyer, sympathetic journalists and public supporters. Coming so soon after the assassinations of Gov Salmaan Taseer, Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, and journalist Saleem Shahzad some fear a systematic effort is underway to silence critics of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies.
Ambassador Haqqani’s wife, Pakistani parliamentarian Farahnaz Ispahani, spoke with Wolf Blitzer recently to explain the gravity of the situation in Pakistan, and what it means for her husband’s safety and basic human rights.
The headline of a recent AP article declares that “Pakistani Muslims condemn US gay rights meeting“. But according to AFP, the protest was attended by “around 100 demonstrators”. If only 100 people show up to protest in a nation of 180 million, can this really be said to represent the views of “Pakistani Muslims”?
Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) may be, as the AP notes, “Pakistan’s largest Islamic party,” but they could only muster up 100 demonstrators in Karachi – a city of over 14 million. In fact, JI’s electoral success has only been noteworthy when subsidized by military regimes as a means of establishing a facade of democratic elections. Following the free and open elections in 2008, the current makeup of the National Assembly includes no JI representation*. In the Senate, JI was only able to secure 3 seats – fewer than independents. Simply put, JI represents a tiny minority of Pakistani’s views.
In 2009, Pakistan’s supreme court ruled that ‘hijras’ (transgendered people) should be further integrated into society following a petition by an Islamic jurist who wanted to “save them from a life of shame.” As with many countries in the world – including the US – Pakistani attitudes about sexuality are complex and changing.
Jamaat-i-Islami is no more representative of Pakistan and Pakistani Muslims than Pastor Terry Jones or Westboro Baptist Church are to America or American Christians. To equate a small rally of JI demonstrators with the attitudes of Pakistanis or Pakistani Muslims more generally is to create an inference where none exists.
Stories about street demonstrations by radical religious groups may provide sensational headlines for a struggling news industry, but they only confuse Americans about what’s really going on in Pakistan. Jamaat-i-Islami’s power comes from its ability to organize loud and colorful street demonstrations, and to have these protests covered widely in the domestic and international media. By falling for this ploy and giving outsized attention to these made-for-TV events, American media is undermining the hard work of civil society groups in Pakistan that are promoting greater freedom and tolerance.
* JI boycotted the 2008 general elections. The only religious party to participate, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), won only 2.2 percent of the vote and secured only 6 seats.