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.
Young Pakistanis are making headlines as they increase their involvement in Pakistan’s democratic political process, taking the reins from an older generation of politicians and government officials. Sherhbano Taseer, the 20-something daughter of Salmaan Taseer who was assassinated earlier this year, has received considerable attention for speaking out for justice and tolerance in Pakistan. But Ms. Taseer is not the only young Pakistani who is devoting her life to public service and the cause of strengthening democracy and justice in Pakistan.
First elected to parliament at the age of 25, Hina Rabbani Khar was last week was sworn in as Pakistan’s youngest and first female Minister for Foreign Affairs. Despite her seemingly young age – she is 34 – Hina Rabbani Khar is 13 years older than the median age in Pakistan. She arrived in Delhi today for talks with her Indian counterpart.
In a profession dominated by seasoned diplomats and older political professionals, Hina Rabbani stands out. But Pakistani journalist Huma Yusuf suggests that rather than a liability, Hina Khar’s youth is an asset for strengthening democracy in Pakistan.
In strong democracies, young politicians are valued for their stamina, gumption and for their ability to mobilise and motivate other youngsters. It is high time that Pakistan, with its youth bulge, caught on to the trend.
The next young Pakistani to make headlines was Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and present Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. Yesterday, English-language daily The Express Tribune reported that Bilawal will compete in Pakistan’s 2013 elections, a claim subsequently rejected by Bilawal himself on Twitter. Pakistani political junkies have long speculated about not how, but when Bilawal would enter politics. It appears they had the equation backwards.
According to a report in April, Bilawal is not interested in assuming the mantle of politics as part of a political dynasty.
“Bilawal has specifically expressed interest in the party’s youth wing, which was very dear to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto,” [PPP spokesperson Farahnaz Ispahani] said. “He will be looking into modernising the Peoples Youth Organisation, and bringing in new ideas, media technology etc through intellectual and practical exercises.”
Bilawal, who turns 23 this September, is two years away from being eligible to run for a provincial or national assembly seat. However, the PPP believes that the idea is not for Bilawal to jump into politics by contesting elections, but to spend time learning about the party.
“He is a keen learner,” said Ispahani. “He has spent time travelling here and meeting party leaders and members. He listens and he takes his time with making comments on issues.”
At 23, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has spent recent years outside the world of politics, concentrating on completing his studies as Oxford University. Earlier this year, though, he did make a notable public appearance when he gave an unflinching speech in response to the assassination of Salmaan Taseer – at the time a rare show of defiance in the face of terrorist threats, and a demonstration of a courage of conviction largely missing from older political figures.
“To the Christian and other minority communities in Pakistan, we will defend you,” he said at a memorial ceremony in London for Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province who was killed by his own security guard last week.
“Those who wish to harm you for a crime you did not commit will have to go through me first.”
Of course, how Bilawal’s political career proceeds – if he even chooses to have one – remains to be seen. But cynicism aside, Bilawal deserves credit for approaching politics from the path of a public servant, and not a dynastic heir.
Americans can appreciate the desire of young adults to serve their country. First elected to Congress when he was only 29 years old, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States at 43 – less than 10 years older than Hina Khar. Current Vice President Joe Biden was first elected to the US Senate at 29 – he had to wait until his 30th birthday to take the oath of office. When Barack Obama entered the White House, he brought not only a youthful spirit, but a group of public servants the New York Times dubbed, “the Obama 20-Somethings.”
However the political careers of Hina Rabbani Khar, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and other young Pakistanis pan out, it is encouraging to see young people in Pakistan taking up the work of strengthening democracy and justice in their country. The next chapter in Pakistan’s history will be written by their youth. They deserve our support.
Citizens for Democracy (CFD), a coalition of Pakistani professional groups, NGOs, trade unions, student unions, political parties and individuals outraged by the consistent misuse and abuse of the ‘blasphemy laws’ and religion in politics, recently held a letter writing campaign in Karachi during which 15,000 letters were posted demanding an end to vigilante violence and justice for the late Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti and Governor Salmaan Taseer.
At a camp set up in front of Jahangir Kothari Parade, opposite Park Towers, Clifton, Karachi, people signed and posted letters addressed to the president, prime minister, interior minister, chief justice of Pakistan, and Chief Ministers, for interfaith harmony and action against calls for violence and vigilante justice. The letter demands that notice and action be taken against the rampant lawlessness in Pakistan, in an atmosphere “in which extremist and militant forces are operating with impunity, and where calls to murder and violence are publicly made, celebrated and rewarded”.
Referring to the murder of Federal Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti and governor Salmaan Taseer, the letter urges the government and its functionaries to swiftly apprehend, charge, try and punish their murderers. It urges political parties, parliamentarians and government functionaries “to take a clear stand” on the blasphemy issue: “no citizen has the right to cast aspersions on the faith and beliefs of any other citizen or to term someone a ‘blasphemer,’ ‘kafir,’ or ‘non-Muslim’.”
The campaign aimed to dissipate the atmosphere of intimidation, draw people out of their homes and enable them to speak up and voice their concerns by directing them to the relevant authorities. The signature campaign will be taken to other parts of the city including North Nazimabad, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Boulton Market etc., as well as to other cities of Pakistan.
Anti-democratic groups in Pakistan such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Jamaat-ud-Dawa may be able to materialize large street protests at short notice, but their nuisance factor is far larger than their actual influence among the public. Most hard working Pakistani families have neither the time nor the inclination to make their voice heard through burning tires and chanting slogans in the streets. Unfortunately, this is too often used to claim that there is no popular support for democracy, justice, and tolerance in Pakistan. Nothing could be further from the truth.
By organizing a family-friendly event where ordinary Pakistani citizens could come out and peacefully express their desire for democracy, justice, and tolerance, ‘Citizens for Democracy’ was able to demonstrate that, despite the often dour headlines, the people of Pakistan have not given up on Jinnah’s vision of a Pakistan “where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another,” a Pakistan based on “this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.”
Members of Congress from both parties sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today urging the Secretary to “show our dedication to peace” and to “increase our diplomatic efforts with the investments the United States is making as we strive for the growth of democracy and tolerance in Pakistan.”
The letter, signed by Rep. Steve Israel (D-New York), Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-New York), Rep. Peter King (R-New York) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) went on to request that Pakistani clerics, journalists and lawyers who have praised the assassination of former Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer have their visas revoked and be denied travel to the United States.
Click here for a PDF of the letter
Pakistan’s blasphemy law has taken center spotlight since the assassination of the former Governor of Punjab last week, his killer claiming that he murdered Taseer because he sought to change the laws. Despite the volume of discussion around these laws, many Americans don’t have a clear understanding of the historical background of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and how are they applied by the state. More problematic, media coverage has tended to highlight demonstrations in favor of the laws organized by Pakistan’s right-wing religious parties, political parties that, while able to organize large street protests, have historically been unpopular at the polls.
The following discussion between Pakistani political analyst Zafar Jaspal and journalist Omar Waraich was featured on Al Jazeera’ Inside Story and provides a more in depth look at the controversial laws – where they came from and the differing opinions among Pakistanis about what should be done to change them.
“We strongly condemn the assassination today in Pakistan of Punjab Provincial Governor Salmaan Taseer. I had the opportunity to meet Governor Taseer in Pakistan and I admired his work to promote tolerance and the education of Pakistan’s future generations. His death is a great loss. Our deepest sympathies are with Governor Taseer’s wife and children.
“The United States remains committed to helping the government and people of Pakistan as they persevere in their campaign to bring peace and stability to their country.”
“I am deeply saddened by the assassination of Governor Taseer. On behalf of the United States, I offer my condolences to his wife and children,” said U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter. Speaking about the assassination of Punjab Provincial Governor Salman Taseer, Ambassador Munter said, “He had the courage of his convictions and was a champion of tolerance. His death is a great loss to the people of Pakistan.”
Today, Pakistan lost an outspoken defender of justice and democracy when Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated in Islamabad. Governor Taseer was a vocal critic of religious extremism and called for the government to reform laws that discriminated against women and religious minorities.
Speaking to Newsweek Pakistan, Governor Taseer spoke about the need for Pakistan’s political leadership to take a strong stand against terrorism.
Dealing with the militants has to be no holds barred. Their lives should be made hell; they should be prosecuted, and sent to hell where they belong. You saw what happened with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal [a coalition of religious parties] government in Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa during the Musharraf years. They turned a blind eye, and in five years the terrorists had established a whole network of safe havens and training camps to launch their campaign of terror. The MMA government never claimed to be with them, but never took them on. If you take the same approach in the Punjab, you’ll get the same results.
Just last week, Governor Taseer reiterated his call to defend Pakistan’s most vulnerable citizens against the forces of religious extremism and intolerance – a principle he took from his own deeply held religious beliefs.
Unfortunately and sadly there are people who feel bigger when they pick on someone who cannot fight back. It’s called bullying. I went to Sheikhupura jail to stand up against a bully and it has encouraged others to do so as well. That’s what taking a moral stance is. I am honestly happy to say that I am heartened by the huge response from ordinary folk. Even people who are deeply religious have spoken out against this black law. Ghamdi, for example, has stated clearly that this has nothing to do with Islam – Islam calls on us to protect minorities, the weak and the vulnerable.
In recent months Governor Taseer took up the fight to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and called for the pardon of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death late last year. His support for justice and democracy was passionate, but always based in reason.
With his quick wit and sharp tongue, Salmaan Taseer was a larger than life figure in Pakistani politics. Our thoughts and our prayers go out to his family and loved ones on this sad day. Far from silencing the call for democracy and justice, though, Salmaan Taseer’s assassins have only strengthened our determination. His words will continue to guide us in the struggle to protect the rights of all Pakistanis.
Yesterday’s New York Times published an article about demonstrations by Islamist parties defending Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Salman Masood, the reporter who covered the story, called the protests “crippling” and suggested that conservative religious forces had Pakistan’s government on the run. But Masood’s report ignores fundamental points, including the fact that the strongest supporters of reform have been from the governing party and that a counter demonstration has already been scheduled for the 15th.
Salman Masood wrote that the demonstrations have put the governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) “on the retreat.” But the officials Masood quotes opposing the blasphemy law – Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab, and Sherry Rehman, Member of the National Assembly – are members of the PPP. In fact, the PPP has been the most vocal and active proponents of changing the law with President Asif Zardari repeatedly calling for the law to be reviewed.
In addition to support for reform by government officials, a group of Pakistani citizens including prominent bloggers and journalists has organized a counter-protest for January 15th as a peaceful demonstration of the nation’s large community of liberals who want to see the law amended or overturned.
From the group’s Facebook page:
For thirty years, Pakistani Muslims and non-Muslims alike have been victimized by our blasphemy laws. We all know that these laws are often grossly misused. They do not account for the intent to commit blasphemy, and are most often used to settle personal or monetary disputes. For no fault of their own, victims end up either in jail for the rest of their lives, or killed by mobs. The victims of this law are almost always poor and powerless, and have no one to speak for them.
Recent developments have brought this issue in the public eye once again. It is time to say enough is enough. For too long, one side has dominated this debate, and drowned out our voices. We must remind them that we too are citizens of this country and that we too have a right to express our opinions.
Those of us against this law will be at Karachi Press Club on Saturday, January 15 at 3:00 p.m. to peacefully protest against it. Join us, stand with us, and let your voice be heard for equality and freedom for all Pakistanis.
Blocking traffic is always easier than getting elected – something right-wing religious parties can’t seem to do in Pakistan when facing open elections. Though it’s true that the government has tempered its rhetoric about amending the law, passing a new law is often far easier than changing one that’s been on the books – especially when the laws in question are wrapped in the emotion of religion.
The outsize media attention given to right-wing groups notwithstanding, Pakistanis are ready to shed the residual traces of past dictatorships. They said so quite loudly when they elected a progressive democratic government in 2008, and they will reiterate this call for reform when they come together on January 15th to call for an end to the religious discrimination enshrined in Zia’s blasphemy laws. The Question is: Will The New York Times be listening?