Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
For all the bad news coming out of Pakistan, you can’t help but admire the courage of two very different women who did what their political leaders failed to do — stood up to the religious right after the killing of Punjab governor Salman Taseer over his call for changes to the country’s blasphemy laws.
One is Sherry Rehman, a politician from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, who first proposed amendments to the laws. The other is actress Veena Malik, who challenged the clerical establishment for criticising her for appearing on Indian reality show Big Boss. I’m slightly uncomfortable about grouping the two together — the fact that both are Pakistani women does not make them any more similar than say, for example, two Pakistani men living in Rawalpindi or London. Yet at the same time, the idea that Pakistan can produce such different and outspoken women says a lot about the diversity and energy of a country which can be too easily written off as a failing state or bastion of the Islamist religious right.
Sherry Rehman is living as a virtual prisoner in her home in Karachi after being threatened over her support for amendments to the blasphemy laws. She has refused to leave the country for her own safety, nor indeed to accept the position adopted by her party leaders — that now is not the time to amend the laws. Their argument appears to be that trying to amend the laws now would just add more fuel to the fire after religious leaders defended Taseer’s killing and organised huge protests in favour of the current legal provisions.
“There’s never a right time,” Britain’s Guardian newspaper quoted her as saying. “Blasphemy cases are continually popping up, more horror stories from the ground. How do you ignore them?”
The New York Times has an intriguing story about the sourcing for a report that did the rounds last week saying that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) rushed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar to Karachi last week after he suffered a heart attack. (h/t Five Rupees)
To recap, the Washington Post said last week that a private intelligence network, the Eclipse Group, had reported that Mullah Omar had a heart attack on Jan. 7 and was treated for several days in a Karachi hospital with the help of the ISI.
The foreign secretaries, or top diplomats, of India and Pakistan are expected to meet on the sidelines of a South Asian summit in Thimpu, Bhutan on Feb 6/7 to try to find a way back into talks which have been stalled since the attack on Mumbai in November 2008. Progress is expected to be limited, perhaps paving the way to a meeting of the foreign ministers, or to deciding how future talks should be structured.
Expectations are running low, all the more so after a meeting between the foreign ministers descended into acrimony last July. And leaders in neither country have the political space to take the kind of risks needed for real peace talks right now. Pakistan is struggling with the fall-out of the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer among many other things, while Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been weakened by a corruption scandal at home.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden made a rather odd comment during his visit to Pakistan this week. “We want what you want: a strong, stable, democratic Pakistan,” he told a news conference, according to the Washington Post. “We wish your success because it’s in our own interest.”
It was not that he was wrong to deny accusations that the United States is out to destabilise Pakistan – a conspiracy theory fuelled by confusion over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which to many Pakistanis seems so irrational that they assume there must be a darker plan behind it. Nor that he was wrong to promote democracy — although the United States has had a track record of backing military rulers in Pakistan when it suits them.
For everyone trying to understand the implications of Salman Taseer’s assassination, this essay from 2007 is good place to start (h/t Abu Muqawama). “The Politics of God” is about why Europe decided, after years of warfare over the correct interpretation of Christianity, to separate church and state. But it is also relevant to Pakistan, where the killing of the Punjab governor over his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws has shown that what was left of Pakistani secularism, is, if not dead, at least in intensive care.
Read the opening paragraph to understand why it resonates:
“For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity — these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.”
In one of the more anguished posts about the murder of provincial governor Salman Taseer, Pakistani blogger Huma Imtiaz wrote that his assassination ”is not the beginning of the end. This is the end. There is no going back from here, there is no miracle cure, there is no magic wand that will one day make everything better. Saying ‘enough is enough’ does not cut it anymore …”
It was a sense that permeated much of the English-language commentary about Taseer’s killing in Islamabad by one of his own security guards. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Taseer, governor of Punjab province and a leading politician in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was killed because of his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. A sense that the forces of religious intolerance are becoming all but unstoppable; and that those who oppose them by promoting a more liberal vision of Pakistan occupy an ever diminishing space.
Not too long ago, you could have predicted relatively easily how regional rivalries would play out in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia would line up alongside Pakistan while Iran and India would coordinate their policies to curb the influence of their main regional rivals.
But that pattern has been shifting for a while — the row over Indian oil payments to Iran is if anything a continuation of that shift rather than a dramatic new departure in global diplomacy. And as two foreign policy crises converge, over Iran’s nuclear programme and the war in Afghanistan, the chances are that those traditional alliances will be dented further. It is no longer a safe bet to assume that rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran will fit neatly into Pakistan-India hostility so that the four countries fall easily into two opposing camps come any final showdown over Afghanistan.
Never in the history of Pakistan has a democratically elected civilian government served out its full term and then been replaced by another one, also through democratic elections. It is that context that makes the latest political crisis in Pakistan so important.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is scrambling to save his PPP-led government after it lost its parliamentary majority when its coalition partner, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), announced it would go into opposition. A smaller religious party, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), already quit the coalition last month. If the government falls and elections are held ahead of schedule in 2013, the opportunity for Pakistan to have a government which serves its full term will be lost.
Last week’s suicide bombing in Pakistan’s Bajaur region, which killed at least 40 people, had a grim predictability to it. The Pakistan Army cleared Pakistani Taliban militants out of their main strongholds in Bajaur, which borders Afghanistan’s Kunar province, after 20 months of intense fighting which ended earlier this year. But as discussed in this post in October the insurgents’ ability to flee to Kunar — where the U.S. military presence has been thinned out — combined with a failure to provide Bajaur with good governance, suggested the security situation in the region was likely to be deteriorating. The bombing appeared to confirm those fears.
The implications go far beyond Bajaur. The Pakistan Army has resisted U.S. pressure to launch a military offensive against militant strongholds in North Waziristan until it has secured gains made elsewhere. Pakistani daily The Express Tribune quoted army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas as reiterating that point after the Bajaur bombing and after fighting in the neighbouring Mohmand region. Until areas “cleared” by the military were consolidated, “it is impossible to rush into another campaign,” it quoted him as saying.
U.S. pressure on Pakistan has always led to deep resentment within the Pakistan Army, which has taken heavy casualties of its own fighting Pakistani Taliban militants on its side of the border with Afghanistan. But there are signs that this resentment is now spiralling in dangerously unpredictable ways.
The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency has denied it was responsible for revealing the name of a senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official in Pakistan, forcing him to flee the country after threats to his life. But the suspicion lingers that the ISI, which falls under the control of the Pakistan Army, is flexing its muscles in response to U.S. pressure.