This is in continuation of Part 1 of this post that I published just over a week ago, in response to (and with the gracious permission of) an article by a fellow tweeter, Usmann Rana, entitled Our Inane Leader (Thoughts on Imran Khan’s NDTV Interview).
Having addressed Imran’s views on reconciliation and trying to bring extremist groups into the mainstream, I want to now move to a very important question that many, including Usmann, have raised. Isn’t it true, they ask, that Hafiz Saeed is the political face, perhaps even the leader, of a terrorist organisation that is responsible for many atrocities and acts of violence, both in and outside Pakistan? And, even if you ignored that for a while, isn’t it true that he (and others like him) hold extreme and fundamentalist views and their goal is the rigid implementation of Shari’ah law, as they interpret it, in Pakistan? What good will talking to them do?
These are good questions and need to be answered. Assuming that claims related to terrorism are true and given that these organisations do hold extremist views, there are two factors to consider in arriving at a conclusion on what policies mainstream political leadership should formulate about engagement with them, whether that takes the form of conflict or conciliation.
First, there are many examples in the world where groups holding extremist positions and were using acts of violence and terror to further what they saw as a legitimate agenda, when brought into the mainstream, relaxed their extreme positions and were willing to move towards the centre in order to achieve peace and prosperity for the constituencies they represented. One example is that of the BJP in India, which Imran spoke about himself in the interview with Barkha Dutt. Another, perhaps more pertinent, example is that of Sinn Fein, the Irish republican party that was associated with and accepted widely as the political face of the IRA, just as Hafiz Saeed’s Jama’at-ud-Da’wah is considered to be the face of Lashkar-e-Taiba. Another similarity is that of a religious context to the “struggle”, with the IRA proponents of, arguably the more fundamentalist, catholic sect as opposed to the protestant Church of England more predominant in the rest of Great Britain.
For many years, the British government refused to enter into dialogue with Irish nationalists, and used heavily armed paramilitary security forces to maintain order and fight a guerilla war with IRA “terrorists” in the streets of Belfast. After decades of violent struggle to gain independence from the UK, including bombings, attacks with heavy weapons, targeted killings, demonstrations, robberies and protest, the British government brought them to the negotiating table and then to mainstream politics. Through negotiations and concessions, Sinn Fein are now the second largest political party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, holding four ministerial posts. Most importantly, there is now peace in Ireland and, while the IRA still exists, and certain splinter groups still hold extreme positions and advocate militancy and violence, by and large, peace has been achieved and this has led to prosperity for Northern Ireland.
Second, the underlying support for these outfits comes from uneducated and deprived sections of society, who use their faith in God to draw the strength they need to survive from day to day and who believe that Islam has all the solutions to the numerous problems they face. Taking advantage of these poor, uninformed populations is easy for power hungry “religious leaders” who are able to convince them that the only reason they are facing this daily struggle for survival and dignity is that rulers in Islamabad are not following the commands of Allah. If Shari’ah law was imposed, they claim, all the problems that people face would be solved and they are the valiant warriors who are fighting the government (which is clearly controlled by US interests and the Jewish lobby, of course!) to secure their children’s future. The “good fight” requires violence, supporters of the government are legitimate targets in this jihad and, yes, sacrifices are needed in the form of suicide bombers.
The resulting acts of terror lead to military action by the army, and what the common people see is heavily armed soldiers conducting door to door operations, picking up and taking away their neighbours, fighter jets bearing the Pakistan flag bombing their villages, large scale military operations leading to millions of displaced people living in misery in makeshift camps with little or nothing done to alleviate their suffering. In its 2011 Annual Report on Pakistan, Amnesty International has stated:
“The Pakistani army pushed Taleban forces out of the Swat Valley and South Waziristan in 2009, and out of the Bajaur and Orakzai agencies in 2010. Despite successes on the battlefield, military and civilian authorities failed to address the underlying causes of the conflict. They did nothing to improve the area’s significant underdevelopment, failing to re-build basic infrastructure, including schools, and neglecting to restore businesses. Humanitarian relief for the displaced remained inadequate. Humanitarian organizations and independent monitors were barred from effectively operating in conflict areas.”
What Imran is advocating is based precisely on these two arguments: bring those who claim to represent the people to the table, don’t alienate them, and make some concessions while being firm on not tolerating violence. As they slowly edge towards the centre, having had their backs against the walls for so long, invest in infrastructure development, education and creating opportunities for employment and trade in the areas that have been ignored for so long. Reinforce the association, in the minds of common people, between peaceful negotiation and public welfare. In other words, give the people an option, show them the way forward and trust them to make the right choice.
The problems in Pakistan do not begin and end with the PPP and PML-N. Usmann is right that the establishment has played a key role in bringing us where we are today and that the balance of power between civilian and military leaders is, perhaps, at the core of where we are today. In a democratic setup, however, authority rests with civilian leadership and, with that authority, comes accountability. The trouble is, though, that each and every one of those leaders either came to power with the help of the army and the ISI, or had been involved in major corruption that the establishment was able to threaten them with exposing.
What Imran Khan brings to the table, which is drastically different from anyone ever in the past, are two key points of principle. One is his stated goal to reduce the influence of the army and to establish civilian control over foreign and defense policy. The other is an untainted record, free of corruption and a single-minded, persistent determination to pursue his vision, regardless of how idealistic and impractical it seems to be. With these, Imran is the only leader who has any credibility when he says he will never enter into a compromise with the ISI, and he understands that to make the army truly our very own the civilian leadership needs to be up-front and transparent that the COAS and DG ISI report to the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Defence, not the other way round.
One thing that I do agree with Usmann on is that Imran Khan and the PTI have not been successful in explicitly articulating their fundamental position on where they stand with respect to religious equality, minorities and the centre-right (and sometimes more centre than right) position that Imran described in his interview. I also agree that Imran’s, dare I say it, “spiritual” views about religion, his inclusive and tolerant approach as a student of Javed Ghamdi, are not widely accepted and understood by his supporters. When Imran talks about an Islamic Welfare State, when he prays on stage, when photographs of him performing Umrah appear on social media, there is a risk that they are being misunderstood. Not only by his supporters but also by those towards to the left of the spectrum. It may be (and I’m just guessing, here) that, in an effort to avoid “polarization” and maintain political appeal for this party, Imran is choosing to keep some of it deliberately vague, but the party’s constitution and manifesto are both very clear when it comes to religious freedom.
In the preamble to the PTI manifesto, the vision being articulated is one of “a modern Islamic republic that advocates tolerance, moderation and freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice“. All three concepts, tolerance, moderation and religious freedom, are exactly what secular, liberal, Pakistanis have been fighting for so many years. Here is a political party that talks about all three as being at the core of its vision of Pakistan in literally the first paragraph of its manifesto! Similarly, the constitution of the party states that one of its primary objectives is “to protect the rights and interests of the minorities and to respect their aspirations“.
With respect to the Women’s Protection Bill, Imran’s opposition to the Musharraf led sham-democratic parliament passing this bill is presented by many as evidence of Imran’s conservative and right wing views. In fact, what Imran was advocating was abolition of the Hudood Ordinance by a democratically elected parliament. What Imran Khan said at the time was, “This bill doesn’t protect women, neither does it remove anomalies. It’s just an eyewash by President Musharraf to tell Washington that I’m your moderate man here. It’s nothing more than a projection of his own personal image in the eyes of the West. Instead of amending it by a rubber stamp parliament as was the case with this bill, the Hudood Ordinances should be repealed by a democratically elected, legitimate government.”
What this bill actually achieved was to make procedural changes to the Hudood Ordinance, allowing a victim of rape to be a witness without becoming liable to prosecution. Whereas previously, a woman alleging rape needed four Muslim male witnesses, through the amendments made by the Women’s Protection Bill, the number was reduced to two and women charged with adultery are now allowed bail. “We did not touch punishment under Hadd and amended man-made laws like tazir which has been incorporated into the Pakistan Penal Code,” explained Ms Mehnaz Rafi, a PML(Q) MNA, at the time. She did state her ultimate goal was to repeal the Hudood Ordinance, but said that she believed in taking things “one step at a time”. In the words of Syed Afzal Haider, a lawyer who later became a Justice of the Federal Shariat Court, “It’s a misleading and highly confused amended version of a section of the Hudood Ordinances, especially those parts which deal with zina and zina bil jabr.”
What criticism there is of this “triumph” of a legislation that pretends to further the rights of women in Pakistan should be targeted to those who pushed it through, instead of those, like Imran Khan, who called it out for what it was: a sham and an eyewash.
In the end, I would like to echo what Usmann says to PTI supporters: continue to ask questions and encourage others who ask them, too. For those who criticise, do not react emotionally and defensively. Welcome their questions, because they will help you find your answers. In that spirit, I thank you, Usmann, for your permission to refer to your material and for your positivity in engaging in constructive debate. If I have made any mistakes in representing or interpreting your views, please reach out to me and I will make the necessary corrections.
The bottom line is this: Imran, with all his flaws and weaknesses, is the one and only beacon of hope that the moths of our desperation are being drawn to. He offers hope and the only other available option is despair. The others, whether it be PPP, PML-N, MQM or any of the alternatives, offer only corruption, mismanagement, ineptitude, nepotism, cronyism, economic ruin, inflation, unemployment, an energy crisis, global isolation and, ultimately, a failed state.