First Person– Farahnaz Ispahani’s interview with Pragati

There is an attempt in Pakistan to really become “pak-i-istan”, the land of the pure

by Sarah Farooqui — February 22, 2013 5:13 pm

Farahnaz Ispahani served as the member of Pakistan’s Parliament, representing the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) from 2008 to 2012. She is at present, Media Advisor to Co-Chairman PPP and President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari. She is also PPP’s International Media Coordinator and Chairperson of PPP Scholars Wing. In the past, she has served as Pakistan National Assembly’s Member of Standing Committee on Human Rights, Foreign Affairs, Information and Broadcasting. Her grandfather was Pakistan’s first ambassador to the United States, Mirza Abol Hassan Ispahani and her uncle Zia Ispahani has also served as a former Ambassador of Pakistan. In this interview to Sarah Farooqui of Pragati, Mrs Ispahani talks about the media, minorities, and the government in Pakistan and her own aspirations for her country.

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Pragati: You come from an illustrious family, which was closely involved in the creation of Pakistan. It must be pretty painful to see where Pakistan is today. Where did it all go so wrong?

Farahnaz Ispahani: I think that Pakistan has had many difficulties just like Bangladesh and Afghanistan have. Many countries in the region have had to deal with difficulties because of external factors and internal factors. But if I were to name one person or one entity that changed the face of the Pakistani society and politics and who we are still battling today, it was the man, General Zia ul Haq and the ideology of General Zia ul Haq. Today in Pakistan, progressives like myself have come together and have understood that this is our country, Pakistan is our country, no one can push us out, no one can silence our voices and I believe that we can succeed. It is in this — there is no other home for us but Pakistan.

Pragati: The elections are just around the corner. It must be gratifying to see your party’s government complete full five years in office, the first democratically elected government to do so. Any predictions for the forthcoming polls? Will PPP be able to fight the anti-incumbency sentiment?

Farahnaz Ispahani: Well, we are very proud of two things. First, that we have been the first democratic government to finish a five-year term inspite of having to work with a coalition government, which is always complicated. Second, that we have also done a lot of major legislation. We feel that we have accomplished a great deal. But at the end of the day, the beauty of democracy is that voters are going to vote — let the best party win or the best coalition come forward and I think that in itself is something absolutely historic and that is what the PPP is extremely proud of.

Pragati: Besides the old institutions, two new ones — the media and the judiciary — have come to exert power in Pakistan. You and the Ambassador have been particularly at the receiving end of these new centres of power. What does their rise mean for Pakistan? How is this new balance of power going to affect Pakistan?

Farahnaz Ispahani: We now have a very vibrant and free media on one hand. On the other hand the vibrant and free media is owned very much by Seths or by individuals. Unfortunately, in certain locations there has been evidence that they take directions from external forces and external players in Pakistan and that is a very dangerous trend. If Pakistan’s media is to have credibility in the future, they have to work on sticking to the facts and keeping a narrative that is based on the truth as opposed to a spin that is generated out of a power sector.

On the judiciary on the other hand, as we know there has been a great deal of disappointment with the highest judiciary because for people like myself who marched on the streets for the reinstitution of chief justice Ifthikar Choudhury and his bench and helped therefore bring the military dictator Parvez Musharraf down. We have seen that he has let down the judiciary and the people of Pakistan because his biggest promise was that the people would have justice, but instead of giving the common people of Pakistan speedy justice, disposing off their cases, looking at their issues, he is seen as doing very much of a witch hunt against certain political figures and certain political parties. He, and also the high judiciary in general, seem to pick up high profile media cases rather than cases which will work towards cleaning up the judiciary, speeding up the judiciary and making it into an institution Pakistan can and should be proud of.

Pragati: The persecution of minorities in Pakistan has now reached alarming proportions. Ahmedis, Shias, Balochs are being targeted by militant group with impunity. Why is the Pakistani state unable to act against the perpetrators?

Farahnaz Ispahani: I served on the human rights standing committee in parliament and so I dealt very closely with these issues, to do with the persecution and the targeted killings of both Muslim minorities –  sects like the Ahmedis, the Shias and non Muslims like Hindus, Sikhs and the Christians. What is happening in Pakistan today is unparalleled in our history. There is basically an attempt to really become “pak-i-istan”, the land of the pure – it is almost like a cleansing. The institutions of both government and also the police and the Pakistan military in different ways have been trying to deal with this rising menace. But I believe until there is one policy, in terms of the external and the internal, until Pakistan and all its power brokers put Pakistan and Pakistani interests first, we are going to see this collateral damage, these deaths and these victimisations at home.

Written by Farahnaz Ispahani

Farahnaz Ispahani is a Global Fellow, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. She is the author of the recently published book "Purifying the Land of the Pure: The History of Pakistan's Religious Minorities. Oxford University Press, 2017. Ms. Farahnaz Ispahani has been a leading voice for women and religious minorities in Pakistan for the past twenty five years, first as a journalist, then as a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, and most recently as a scholar based in the United States. An advocate of Pakistan’s return to democracy during the military regime of Pervez Musharraf, she served as a spokesperson and international media coordinator for the Pakistan People’s Party, working alongside the late Benazir Bhutto. During her tenure in parliament (2008–2012), she was a member of the Human Rights Committee and the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. In 2013–2014, she served as a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where she completed a book on the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan. In 2012, she was listed among Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, as well as Newsweek Pakistan’s Top 100 Women Who Matter. During her fellowship, Ms. Ispahani is exploring women’s political participation in the Muslim world, both in terms of their progress toward gender equality under democratic systems and the converse rise of women as agents of extremist propaganda within the world of the Islamic State. FARAHNAZ ISPAHANI is Senior Fellow, South and South East Asia Action Team at Religious Freedom Institute also.

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