The U.N. Needs A Peacekeeping Force, Not Just Words, To Protect Myanmar’s Rohingya by Farahnaz Ispahani

As reports of atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state pour in, one thing is clear: The international community needs to respond more robustly.

The United Nations refugee agency has reported that more than a quarter of the Rohingya in Myanmar — 270,000 people — have fled their homes so far. The horrors we’re seeing in Rakhine are similar to those we witnessed in the 1990s during the slaughter of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats.

Rendered stateless because Myanmar refuses to recognize them as citizens, the Rohingya are being forced to flee as their villages are burned. Reports of rape, murder and arson have increased as refugees arrive by land or sea in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Rohingya refugees flee to Bangladesh. Sept. 10.
Rohingya refugees flee to Bangladesh. Sept. 10.

The horrors we’re seeing in Rakhine are similar to those we witnessed during the Rwandan genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

But the situation demands a stronger response than merely condemning the actions of the Myanmar government. The atrocities in Bosnia did not end without NATO’s involvement, and the genocide in Rwanda did not cease until the U.N. sent in a peacekeeping force.

Much of the world’s response to the Rohingya crisis has centered on well-deserved criticism of Nobel laureate and Myanmar’s de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Public figures have penned newspaper editorials calling to revoke Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize. Two Nobel laureates, Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu, have criticized Suu Kyi’s role in the humanitarian crisis. Tutu came out of retirement to voice his criticism of a woman he described as “a dearly beloved sister” he has long admired but whose behavior he strongly condemns in the “unfolding horror” of this “ethnic cleansing.”

Tutu admonished Suu Kyi, saying it was “incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead” a country that allowed such atrocities. “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep,” he said.

This situation demands a stronger response than merely condemning the actions of the Myanmar government.

Suu Kyi’s attempts to spin the violence against the Rohingya is ingenuous, at best. Reports of attempted genocide and mass exodus of the Rohingya, which began to surface in 2009, are based on eyewitness accounts and are documented on video. Refugees arriving in Bangladesh have recounted matching stories of children being beheaded and men and women being burned to death.

The Rohingya are unwanted in Bangladesh and other neighboring countries as well. With little economic or social standing and virtually no rights even in their homeland, these people have no voice. They are friendless under the might of military guns.

Although the history of the Rohingya can be traced back to the eighth century, Myanmar law does not recognize the ethnic minority as one of its national races. The government’s attitude, as well as silence from the international community, reflects the mistreatment and marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities that have, unfortunately, resurfaced as a global phenomenon today.

It’s shocking. I’ve never encountered a situation like this. Linnea Arvidsson, U.N. investigator

The result of events like the tragedy in Myanmar is communal majoritarianism. As Linnea Arvidsson, a U.N. investigator who met refugees in Bangladesh, put it: “It’s shocking. I’ve never encountered a situation like this, where you do 204 interviews and every single person you speak with has a traumatic story, whether their house was burnt, they’ve been raped or a relative was killed or taken away.”

The U.N. Security Council must heed the advice of Secretary-General António Guterres to step up its response. “The international community has a responsibility to undertake concerted efforts to prevent further escalation of the crisis,” Guterres warned. This might involve sending international forces to protect the Rohingya from Myanmar’s security forces and allied mobs intent on eliminating another minority.

But after the immediate issue has been attended to and international forces have intervened to save the Rohingya from being eliminated or permanently excluded from their homeland, there will remain a need to work on the larger issue of communalism. Majorities must not be allowed to attack minorities to create religiously or ethnically pure societies. Finding a mechanism to prevent future Rwandas and Rakhines will be the real test for our civilization.

Interview: ‘SK Abbasi is to Sharif what Manmohan Singh was to Sonia. Farahnaz Ispahani


With Pakistan also celebrating 70 years of its independence Farahnaz Ispahani, Global Fellow at Washington’s Wilson Centre, former member of Pakistan Parliament (from Pakistan People’s Party) and former media advisor to the Pakistan President, spoke to Rohit E David on the political flux in Islamabad after the ouster of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister, its impact on Kashmir and the nefarious role of Pakistan’s deep state:

Ms. Farahnaz Ispahani

Q. What is your view on the political prospects of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi who has been PM of Pakistan after Nawaz Sharif stepped down?

Farahnaz Ispahani. PM Abbasi has been nominated by Nawaz Sharif from his own party and is seen by all as a loyal placeholder until the next elections, in which Sharif’s nominated prime ministerial candidate will run. Sharif remains the head of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and, as is the subcontinent’s tradition, control of the party is more important than who is officially PM. Abbasi is to Sharif what Manmohan Singh was to Sonia Gandhi.

Q. What is your view on Pakistan Supreme Court barring Nawaz Sharif as PM?

Farahnaz Ispahani. The verdict came as no surprise. Pakistan’s Supreme Court has a long history of political decisions and acts directly instead of waiting for due process through lower courts. Now it has disqualified a three times elected prime minister from holding public office for life, in a corruption inquiry linked to the Panama Papers.

However, Sharif was not named in the Panama leaks, there was no trial, and it has yet to be proved that he abused public office for private gain. The judges disqualified him on what many unbiased observers consider a mere technicality. It is indeed sad that no Pakistani PM is allowed to be voted out by the people and SC judges or generals decide when a PM should be ousted.

Q. Why has no Pakistan PM completed a full five-year term?

Farahnaz Ispahani. It is because of what many call the permanent establishment in Pakistan. This is led by the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies; closely emulated by the Supreme Court and, in many instances, the bureaucracy. This is Pakistan’s constant and consistent power base. They do not accept the right of elected leaders to change the nation’s course.  The Supreme Court of Pakistan and the five high courts have an extremely poor record of defending democracy against authoritarian interventions. The Supreme Court has legalised each one of Pakistan’s three successful military coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999.

Q. What impact will this have on Pakistan’s Kashmir policy?

Farahnaz Ispahani. Kashmir policy, all regional policy and non-regional foreign policy has been directed by the establishment since Pakistan’s founding. Several civilian prime ministers – most recently Sharif – have tried to improve ties with India but the powerful ‘Kashmir first’ lobbies in Islamabad and Rawalpindi have destroyed all these efforts by the elected representatives of the people of Pakistan. India and Pakistan can normalise relations without resolving all disputes first, as many countries have done, but that is not acceptable to the Pakistani establishment. Kashmir policy, anti-India policy and the policy of strategic depth have caused Pakistan to be increasingly isolated in our neighbourhood and around the world. Proponents of that policy do not want to accept that.

Q. Will this make the civilian government weak forever?

Farahnaz Ispahani. Nothing has to be forever. But Pakistan’s permanent establishment and its stranglehold on Pakistan’s media have made it very difficult to stand up to it even as we see today for a hugely popular and elected leader like Nawaz Sharif. Judiciary has become an instrument of the establishment. It responds to media noise rather than sticking to law and legal process.

Q. How do you assess Imran Khan’s role leading up to this court case? Do you foresee Pervez Musharraf and Imran Khan coming out with a third front?

Farahnaz Ispahani. Imran Khan has been in politics for decades but, until now, he has always been a bridesmaid who never made it to being the actual bride. He is thought to be growing more personally unstable and that is making some in the permanent establishment concerned about supporting him in the next elections against Sharif’s powerful PML-N party in the all-important Punjab province. That said, he has some following in urban areas among angry, hyper-nationalist youth and retired military personnel. And he remains a favourite of pro-establishment media.

Q. Do you feel that judicial accountability and judicial independence have become tools of a deep state?

Farahnaz Ispahani. I will only say that judicial accountability must be across the board and not selective to be credible. There is a reason why no general, judge or senior bureaucrat faces the kind of accountability inflicted on politicians. When the process is not transparent, it leads to suspicions about the deep state being at work.

Note; The Interview was published originally by “Time of India” , and can be read;  ‘SK Abbasi is to Sharif what Manmohan Singh was to Sonia … Pakistan’s SC has poor record of defending democracy’

Farahnaz Ispahani- Senior Fellow at Religious Freedom Institute

Farahnaz Ispahani is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC and the author of the book Purifying The Land of The Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford University Press, 2017). In 2015, she was a Reagan-Fascell Scholar at the National Endowment for Democracy, in Washington, DC.  Ispahani was a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center from 2013-2014. A Pakistani politician, Ispahani served as a Member of Parliament and Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 2008-2012.  In Parliament she focused on the issues of terrorism, human rights, gender based violence, minority rights and US-Pakistan relations. She was also a member of the Women’s caucus in the 13th National Assembly. The caucus, which straddled political divides, was instrumental in introducing more legislation on women’s issues than has ever been done before during a single parliamentary term. Ms. Ispahani spent the formative years of her career as a print and television journalist. Her last journalistic position was as Executive Producer and Managing Editor of Voice of America’s Urdu TV. She has also worked at ABC News, CNN and MSNBC.

Link: Farahnaz Ispahani- Senior Fellow at Religious Freedom Institute

Silent majority’s complicity in war on minorities- Egypt & Pakistan

The Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Tanta are still reeling from shock after Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bombers killed 45 people attending Palm Sunday services last week. Last Thursday, a frenzied mob lynched a student accused of blasphemy at a university in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Mardan. Thousands of miles apart, one was an act of well-planned terrorism and the other an instance of mob violence. But both represented growing intolerance and, in some cases, indifference towards religious minorities in majority-Muslim countries.

Non-Muslims as well as members of minority Muslim sects are under attack throughout the Muslim world. Muslim majority nations seem to have assimilated or normalised hatred

The victims of the Palm Sunday massacre in Egypt were Coptic Christians, an ancient sect established by St. Mark the Apostle. Easter is their most sacred holiday and their holiest feast. In recent years, Copts have been targeted with considerable frequency in Egypt. In late March, a bomb had been defused at the same Tanta church where 28 people died on April 9. In December, 30 churchgoers had been killed in Cairo.


The victim of the Mardan University lynching was beaten to death after a debate on religion. As is common in Pakistan, accusations of blasphemy had followed allegedly because he questioned corruption of university officials. Although the deceased in this instance came from a mainstream Muslim family, many blasphemy cases involve Christians and members of the Ahmadiyya community. The latter consider themselves a sect of Islam but they are deemed non-Muslim in Pakistan. The sect was defined outside the pale of Islam by an amendment to Pakistan’s constitution in 1974 and has consistently faced persecution and mob violence with little protection from the state machinery. Since 1990, at least 65 people have been murdered in Pakistan over unproved allegations of blasphemy.

What ties the two seemingly unrelated incidents — one in Egypt and the other in Pakistan — is the apathy of most Muslims to the ethnic cleansing of religious minorities within their countries. Few Muslim Egyptians expressed horror over the Palm Sunday church attacks. In Pakistan, no one tried to save the victim under attack. Those who did not join the attacking mob just made videos of the lynching with their smartphones.

Pakistan had witnessed an attack on Easter festivities last year. A suicide bomber had targeted Christian families gathered at a park in Lahore, capital of the Punjab province. The killer exploded ten kilograms of explosives and metal ball bearings in the area between two rides designed for use of children. The attack was claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban. The attack killed 73 people, including 29 children. The youngest of these children was merely two-years old and the eldest was 16.

Other similar attacks reflect a pattern of ‘purifying’ majority-Muslim countries of minorities. In 2015, ISIS had beheaded 21 Copts in Libya and warned that it would target the “crusaders” — a reference to Christians — and the Coptic Church. ISIS claimed responsibility for the December 2016 bombings in Cairo and vowed to “continue war against the apostates.” In February 2017, ISIS murdered seven Christians in Sinai and described Copts as its favourite “prey,” calling for further killings.

In its statement claiming the Palm Sunday attacks, ISIS again spoke of Egyptian Christians as ‘crusaders’ even though the Copts are a community that predates any conflict between Europeans and Middle Eastern Muslims. After last year’s Easter attack in Pakistan, a Jamaat-ul-Ahrar spokesperson had said that the motive of the attack was to convey a message to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ‘that we have entered Lahore’ — the prime minister’s hometown.

Why attack an ancient indigenous community if the intended target is European ‘crusaders?’ What is the justification of killing Christian women and children to deliver a harsh message to the country’s prime minister?

That the stated objectives of terrorist attacks against religious minorities have little to do with their actual targets reflects how Islamist extremists view religious minorities as sub-human. Terrorists and orchestrators of mob violence alike know that at least within their own countries very few people will even raise a voice at violence against minority communities.

Non-Muslims as well as members of minority Muslim sects are under attack throughout the Muslim world. Muslim majority nations seem to have assimilated or normalised hatred. Islamist extremist groups operate with sympathy and support of extremist citizens, as others acquiesce in the resolve to eliminate religious minorities through their silence.

One measure of the rising tide of intolerance towards non-Muslims in the Muslim world is the declining Christian population in Arab as well as some non-Arab majority-Muslim countries. Before 2003, there were around 1.2 million Christians in Iraq. Within ten years, their number halved to around 500,000. The story is not very different in several other countries.

Attacks on Christians in Egypt or on Ahmadis in Pakistan do not prompt large scale protests by Muslims disassociating themselves from such intolerance.

The media in Muslim-majority countries does not go beyond a few critical comments and we do not hear parliaments resounding with impassioned speeches about the need to protect minority citizens.

There is a great need for Muslims in the West, who are feeling the effects of Islamophobia, to stand up and take on those in the Muslim world who attack those of minority faiths. It is not enough to demand protection in nations where laws protect Muslims thus far. There must be greater moral authority exerted by Muslims in non-Muslim majority states. These Muslims should lend their voice to the plight of minority communities in Muslim-majority countries.

And by far greater lies the responsibility of the governments in the Muslim world. They must take responsibility and stop hiding behind the excuse of public opinion while refusing to change or amend discriminatory laws. The promotion of religious bigotry through school curriculum and media must be put to an end as well. Recognising the precarious position of religious minorities would be the first step towards addressing the issue effectively.

The writer is author of Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford, 2017)

The Article was Published by Pakistan leading English newspaper “Daily Times” on April 17th, 2017

The link to article Silent majority’s complicity in war on minorities by Farahnaz Ispahani

Farahnaz Ispahani book “Purifying the Land of the Pure” won a German Peace Prize at the Karachi Literature Festival 2017.

KLF German Peace Price Winners were announced by Ameena Saiyid

Ali Nobil Ahmad awarded the 3rd KLF Peace Prize for Masculinity, sexuality and illegal migration.

Farahnaz Ispahani’s “Purifying the Land of the Pure; Pakistan Religious Minorities” is slightly to win a German Peace Prize at the Karachi Literature Festival -2017 (KLF2017). Ms Farahnaz Ispahani has written a seminal book on the history of persecution and marginalization of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

Purifying the Land of the Pure & author Ms Farahnaz Ispahani

The first prize goes to Anum Zakaria for Footprints of Partition.

The book weaves together her observations of contemporary Pakistan with memories of four generations of Pakistanis and Indians as they try to reflect and make sense of the past.

We need to talk about American values in a changing America by Farahnaz Ispahani

I felt I could breathe here, in America. I was born in Pakistan, but US citizenship freed me from the burdens of religious tests, dictatorship and the absence of human rights. As I went about my work, I never felt that I was a woman, a person of color, a Muslim or an immigrant.

But more than a quarter-century after becoming an American citizen, I admit I feel a little vulnerable. There is a racial consciousness around me that I did not feel before. I feel Muslim. A woman. Of color. An immigrant. And my female friends are worried their right to choose what they do with their body will be taken away.

America has always been an optimistic country, a place that seemed to feel assured of its greatness. That so many people in this country embraced pessimism, and that the country needs a political novice to reinvent America’s greatness, is disturbing. The hatred and bigotry unleashed in the course of this campaign will not easily be pushed back into the Pandora’s box of stoked resentments.


I became a US citizen at a time when the country of my birth was suffering under a dictatorship. Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, a US ally, was “Islamizing” Pakistan by force, denying human rights to the country’s citizens. Sharia-based Hudood laws enshrined misogyny, while previously afforded rights and safeties for women were curtailed.

Farahnaz Ispahani says that so many people in this country embraced pessimism during the presidential campaign is disturbing

While a student at Wellesley, my Pakistani passport expired and I learned that applications for a new passport required a religious affirmation. Muslim citizens of Pakistan could get a passport only after signing a declaration that we disavowed members of the Ahmadiyya sect as non-Muslims. To me, signing such a declaration felt like being complicit in the marginalization of Ahmadis.

I decided I couldn’t. But fast forward to today, and too many minorities feel they now are being singled out and marginalized.

While working in television news, I traveled the length and breadth of this great country. I covered political party conventions, presidential debates and inaugurations, and even the controversial Florida recount of 2000. I have voted for Republican candidates and Democrats. In America, my sole identity was American.

If Donald Trump is going to make America great again, he will need to be genuinely inclusive of all Americans- Farahnaz Ispahani

More recently, as I campaigned for the Clinton-Kaine ticket, connecting with voters throughout the country, I met Muslim immigrants, Hispanic and black Americans — upstanding citizens, some with family members in the military — who said they feel scared. They feel “otherized.” They wonder what their neighbors think of them.

After it became clear that Donald Trump had been elected, CNN commentator and activist Van Jones spoke of “a nightmare,” describing the fears of Muslims and of families of immigrants. He described the results as, in part, “a whitelash against a changing country and a whitelash against a black president.”

As an optimist, I can only hope the rhetoric we heard will gradually subside now that the campaign is over. But, if Trump is going to make America great again, he will need to be genuinely inclusive of all Americans, especially those who did not vote for him and who do not agree with his vision.

photo (2)
Speaking at Woodrow Wilson center for the rights of religious minorities of Pakistan

More fundamentally, we need to start a discussion on American values in a changing world. Blacks, Muslims and others were not necessarily part of the original “idea” of America. But we are here, and we contribute to America’s greatness.

The reality is that America needs reconciliation and healing, something that both major political parties must contribute toward. Unfortunately, a Democratic Party that veers further to the left will only aggravate the people who elected Trump. The party might consolidate its base, and even win some elections, but it will not bring out the best in this great country. The Republican Party that I voted for in the past, meanwhile, is now unrecognizable. Until it stops being the party of angry white men, there won’t be room for people like me.

Holding on to outdated ideas about American values — and insisting on seeing American greatness through the prism of white men who resemble our Founding Fathers — will only lead to the disintegration of the fabric of our nation. Similarly, a vision of a social-democratic paradise backed primarily by minorities, also won’t work.

I became an American because of the good — and inclusiveness — of this country. I can only hope that America can move past this divisive campaign and ensure that future Americans feel they are exactly that — Americans, and not outsiders.

Farahnaz Ispahani is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of “Purifying The Land of the Pure: A history of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities,” Pakistan Parliament 2008-12, Adviser to President of Pakistan 2008-12 and Foreign Policy Global Thinker.

The article was Published by CNN and the link to original article is We need to talk about American values in a changing America – Farahnaz Isaphani

The flight and fight of political exiles


Three South Asian leaders unpack their experience of living in distant lands with the constant urge to return

The difference between migrants and exiles is that exiles don’t unpack their bags, said Mohamed Nasheed, the former President of the Maldives, who has been living in exile since 2016. “And I don’t want to unpack my bag. I want to return back.”

In the opening panel discussion on “Exile: the challenges of leading from afar” at The Huddle, Mr. Nasheed, Farahnaz Ispahani, a Pakistani politician and human rights activist now living in Washington, DC, and S.C. Chandrahasan, a Sri Lankan human rights activist who worked with refugees who streamed into India since the anti-Tamil violence of 1983, shared their individual stories of flight and the hopes and interventions that keep a leader in exile going.

The exile’s condition is unique. Introducing the subject, the moderator, N. Ram, Chairman of The Hindu Group, noted that a migrant left for a better life, a refugee for safety, and an exile in order to return some day.

In a sense, the possibility of return for the leader of conscience in exile was associated with the cause of his or her disruptive flight being addressed, of the homeland being a better, kinder place.

Indian intervention

For Mr. Nasheed, it’s the eventual triumph of democracy — and with the political crisis deepening in the Maldives, he made a strong pitch for greater Indian intervention.

For Ms. Ispahani, a former MP in Pakistan and author recently of Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities, it’s the safety and enfranchisement of the country’s minorities. This is her second spell in exile, the first being during the regime of Pervez Musharraf, and this time she said, “There will perhaps be no going back.” There has been a “soft coup” in Pakistan, she said, arguing that Nawaz Sharif’s removal as Prime Minister, upon disqualification by the Supreme Court, was “unconstitutional”.

But the call to action remains as valid, she said, of “keeping people’s dreams alive for a better day”. She works with activists and exile-seekers back home: “We are people they turn to when they need visas.”

For Mr. Chandrahasan, who returned to his Colombo home in 2011 after a 27-year exile, that return coincided with the ongoing rehabilitation, post-2010, of refugees and political reconciliation. His time away, in effect, was spent with those hunted out of their homes in Sri Lanka, to work for their care and to insulate them from extremist elements while they were in India.

An exiled leader, however, cannot be insulated from her people back home. If today there is WhatsApp and social media to keep communication going, said Ms. Ispahani, Ayatollah Khomeini used smuggled letters to reach his supporters in Iran, and Benazir Bhutto used her BlackBerry to keep in touch with leaders and workers of her Pakistan People’s Party.

Yet, conceded Mr. Chandrahasan, there is no denying the toll it takes on the exiled leader’s family. That is a “bigger challenge than anything”, added Mr. Nasheed. But he noted: “You get your strength by what’s happening at home … and wishful thinking.” He said he must fight today so that in the future his daughters could not be tortured as he was. Or as Ms. Ispahani pointed out, in exile you must keep alive ideas that are repressed back home.

Link to original post published by The Hindu –

Persecution in the Land of the Pure by FARAHNAZ ISPAHANI

After years of neglect, the State Department is finally responding to Pakistan’s dismal record on religious freedom. The time is ripe for more serious action.

This past Monday, a student in Pakistan shot his high school principal dead after being reprimanded for skipping school to attend a sit-in organized by one of Pakistan’s Islamist parties. The killer argued that the principal had committed blasphemy by questioning his right to attend the sit-in condemning “blasphemers.”

The sit-in had been organized by Tehreek-e-Labaik-ya-Rasool-Allah (TLYR), or the Movement for the Call of Allah’s Prophet—only the latest addition to Pakistan’s pantheon of extremist groups. The party opposes any change in Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws, demands full implementation of sharia law, supports institutionalized discrimination against religious minorities, and describes vigilantes who kill those accused of dishonoring Islam’s prophet as heroes. It was created by clerics supporting the killer of a governor who had spoken up for a poor Christian woman condemned to death for blasphemy, and who had called for reform of the blasphemy laws. And along with the many other extremist groups which share its sympathies, it has morphed into the Frankenstein’s monster of Pakistan, fostering an environment that encourages violence in the name of Islam, exalts those acting against “blasphemers,” and uses the world’s harshest blasphemy laws to mistreat religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadis.

Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department finally included Pakistan on a special watch list for “severe violations” of religious freedom, after years of ignoring recommendations by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) that the country be listed among “Countries of Particular Concern” for its mistreatment of religious minorities. The decision is a step forward, albeit not far enough.

American diplomats have chosen in the past to ignore persecution on religious grounds by strategically important countries like Pakistan. But as the increasing U.S. disillusionment with Pakistan indicates, such concessions do not always advance American interests. When Washington overlooks its values to accommodate authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states, it only emboldens them in defying its strategic interests as well.

The American Congress created USCIRF under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to report violations of religious freedom by other countries to the executive and legislative branches of government. Once designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) by the State Department, the U.S. government can deprive a country of foreign aid and other benefits of partnership with the United States.

Pakistan has repeatedly been found by USCIRF “to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations.” As this year’s report aptly notes, “Religiously discriminatory constitutional provisions and legislation, such as the country’s blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, continue to result in prosecutions and imprisonments.”

The historic roots of this reality run deep. The word Pakistan literally means “the land of the pure.” In their effort to create a “purer” Islamic state, Pakistan’s leaders have allowed extremists to target different minorities at different times. Soon after the country’s creation in 1947, Hindus and Sikhs were driven out, reducing the population of Pakistan’s non-Muslims to around 3 percent. The two wings of the country, which until 1971 included East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), would have included 23 percent non-Muslims had there been no ethnic cleansing amidst communal riots during India’s brutal partition.

Pakistan declared itself an Islamic Republic when it belatedly adopted its first constitution in 1956. Since then, Christians have been victimized by the country’s blasphemy laws, with many of them ending up in prison on false charges. Rivals in property disputes and even spurned lovers have turned to blasphemy accusations to condemn their enemies. Blasphemy is often punishable by death, and attacks by Islamist vigilantes on judges who acquit those accused of blasphemy makes it virtually impossible for victims to secure bail or acquittal under the flawed laws.

Over the years, the ranks of Pakistan’s endangered minorities have only expanded. In 1974, Pakistan’s parliament amended the constitution to pronounce members of the Ahmadiyya movement—who consider themselves a sect within Islam—to be non-Muslims. That amendment created a religious dilemma for the Ahmadis: their faith required them to insist that they were Muslims, but the law would punish them if they did so. Ahmadis were barred from identifying as Muslims on government documents, while later decrees imposed by Islamist military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq further restricted Ahmadis’ use of Islamic symbols and their public practice of the faith.

These days, as several Christians and Ahmadis sit in Pakistani prisons facing blasphemy charges, terrorist groups have also attacked Shi‘a Muslims, who represent almost 20 percent of the populace. Jihadi groups created and trained to fight “infidel” communists in Afghanistan and “Hindu” India pose a growing a threat at home, but no one in a position of power has the will or courage to shut them down. And sectarian violence, including attacks on places of worship, continues to claim innocent lives. Just before Christmas last year, an attack on a Methodist Church in Quetta, Balochistan killed eight people. This came a few weeks after the TLYR sit-in, in which three thousand rabid Sufi-professing Sunni Muslim men—including the high schooler who would later kill his principal—took over Islamabad for almost three weeks, paralyzing the government.

Unfortunately, authorities’ response to this mounting radicalism has been conciliation, not confrontation. Instead of enforcing the law against the small number of protestors, the civilian government was forced to accept their demands. With the country’s army chief acting as negotiator, a truce was signed between the government and the extremists’ leader. Witnesses spotted military officers giving money to some of the protestors, raising suspicions that the protests had been engineered to further undermine the authority of the civilians.

Ironically, one of the protestors’ demands was not to allow Pakistani Ahmadi citizens to vote alongside the majority Muslim population. That reflects a tragic pattern in Pakistani history of political mobilization through intolerance for religious minorities.

In short, Pakistan’s dismal record on religious freedom is longstanding and deeply rooted. USCIRF and other advocates have spent years lamenting this state of affairs, and have repeatedly demanded that the U.S. government exert greater pressure on Islamabad over its lack of religious freedom. But the State Department has repeatedly overlooked these findings to avoid jeopardizing Pakistan’s cooperation on strategic matters.

In 2016, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) added the “Special Watch List” option to the International Religious Freedom Act so that the State Department could protest a lack of religious freedom even when it is reluctant to trigger sanctions for a particular country. The Secretary of State seems to have taken advantage of this halfway house designation in his recent attempt to put Pakistan on notice.

The Special Watch List designation for Pakistan could help Pakistan’s religious minorities, who have received little support within their country. Such is the sway of extremist ideology in Pakistan that the cold-blooded murder of Ahmadis, Shi‘a, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs barely registers within the country, let alone abroad. The State Department’s new designation will hopefully change that reality, by publicly recognizing Pakistan as a violator of the universal norms of religious freedom and raising awareness of the precarious situation of Pakistani citizens persecuted solely for their faith.

Yet the State Department can go beyond naming and shaming Pakistan on the Special Watch List. After the confirmation of former Senator Sam Brownback as the new U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the United States could include religious discrimination as an important plank in its diplomatic interaction with Pakistan. That might mean further relegating Pakistan to the list of Countries of Particular Concern, and thus triggering sanctions, unless Pakistan reforms its discriminatory and dangerous laws.

As U.S. Senator during the 1990s, Mr. Brownback wrote legislation that helped Pakistan partially overcome American sanctions resulting from pursuing a nuclear weapons program. He could use the goodwill he has with Pakistan’s civil and military leaders to remind them of their duties towards religious minorities under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Prioritizing this issue is not simply the right thing to do for Pakistan’s beleaguered minorities. It is also a smart course correction for Washington at a time when the United States is finally reconsidering its strained alliance with Pakistan.

The article was published by “The American Interest” Persecution in the Land of the Pure By Farahnaz Ispahani

on: January 30, 2018

The writer Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament, where she served on the foreign affairs and human rights committees. Her book Purifying The Land of the Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford University Press) was published in 2017. She is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

Afkar-e-Taza Lahore #ThinkFest 2018

Via Destinations Magazine:

Watch one of the most powerful moments of the @Thinkfest with Farahnaz Ispahani on a panel with Jibran Nasir discussing the condition and treatment of minorities in Pakistan. Here Ms Ispahani responds to a disgruntled audience member.

“This is about us standing together and not apart…Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N are standing up for democracy. My husband was jailed by him, but today I stand with Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif because he is standing for democracy and the unity of Pakistan.

All institutions must change the definition, so please do not, with me or anyone else bring this down to petty politics. I am not better than Jibran or Arafat, we all work in different ways inside and outside this society…

You are not an Ahmadi Muslim you are not a Sunni Muslim we are Pakistanis that was Mr. Jinnah’s message and that is what I came here to talk about today. “