Wellesley in Politics: Interview with Farahnaz Ispahani ‘85 – @fispahani

Farahnaz Ispahani ‘85 has been a leading voice for women and religious minorities in Pakistan for over two decades, working as a journalist, member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, and most recently as a United States-based scholar. 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 Foreign Affairs and Human Rights committees and the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. In 2013 and 2014 she was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where she completed “Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities” (2016), 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.

What led you to Wellesley?

I arrived at Wellesley through family connections to the college. My grandfather, M.A.H Ispahani had spoken at Wellesley when he was Pakistan’s first Ambassador to the United States. My eldest sister attended Wellesley in the late 70s. I had never been to the United States before and I wanted to go to school in a warmer part of the country but I got in and the choice was made for me!

However, once I got to Wellesley I appreciated its unique and very special education and community and made it mine. Wellesley changed my life.

How did your childhood and family influence your work as an adult? Â Who was your biggest role model growing up?

Growing up in Pakistan in the 1970s I attended a convent school run by a teaching order of nuns from Ireland. My class was made up of girls from every religious and ethnic community of my city Karachi. We never knew who was a Christian or Shia or Sunni Muslim or a Hindu or a Parsi. The nuns ensured an atmosphere of inclusion. I started understanding that I belonged to a religious minority when my mother, siblings and I used to attend majlises or religious gatherings in the month of mourning which is called Muharram. We saw a city and country where we could commemorate this month in peace and our Sunni neighbors would acknowledge the solemnity and respect us to a point where our places of worship are surrounded by tanks and armed police or army men and we are frisked for metal objects and guns when we enter in case we are terrorist wanting to blow us up.

My career in journalism, politics and as a scholar was deeply influenced by what we as a family witnessed and experienced.

My greatest role model was my Iranian grandmother. She was an amazing woman who made Pakistan her home and founded and ran the first day care center in Karachi that enabled middle class and poor women to work and have their children in a safe environment where they were taught and fed. She also founded and ran an orphanage for unwanted children. Some were left outside in the dead of the night in a basket. In a society that rejects illegitimate children Kashana e Atfal and Naunehal took in and educated thousands of girls and still does. Some of the young women who were adopted from Kashana attended Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne.

Khanumjoon, as we called her lovingly, spoke 5 languages including Farsi, Urdu, French, German and Turkish. She also attended London University and got a social science degree during WW11.

Her affection, love, guidance and time were a constant for us throughout her life.

With Pakistan being Sunni run and about 77 percent Sunni, does that lead to distrust towards them from religious minorities? Based on the number of claims of blasphemy and harsh penalties for it, is it hard to people of different religions (and within Muslims for Shi’ites and Ahmadis) to trust each other?

The founder of Pakistan, M.A. Jinnah was a Shia Muslim and he was supported in the creation of Pakistan by the head of the Ahmadi Muslim community. Unfortunately, Mr. Jinnah died a year after the birth of Pakistan. The downward descent of what I call ‘communal majoritarianism’ kicked in immediately and anti-Shia and anti-Ahmadi movements gained strength. Today, we see sectarian terrorist groups that kill those of Muslim minority and Christian and Hindu minority faiths and blow up their places of worship. The leaders of these groups are known to the authorities but remain free to address open public rallies and travel. The Blasphemy Law in Pakistan is considered the toughest in the world and carries a death penalty if convicted. Once this law was passed it gave the general public of Pakistan a sort of license to judge and convict anyone they feel has blasphemed.

You said in a paper in 2013 for the Hudson Institute that Ahmadis make up only 0.22 percent of the population of Pakistan. How much of a change is that since the Partition? I saw an article recently in Dawnthat another Ahmadi Muslim was killed. Do you think they’ll ever be safe in Pakistan?

Members of Ahmadi sect forbidden to call themselves Muslim. Ahmadis are some of the most common defendants in criminal charges of blasphemy, which in Pakistan can carry the death penalty. By law they cannot call their place of worship mosques or distribute religious literature, recite the Koran or use traditional Islamic greetings, measures that they say criminalize their daily lives.

The legal restrictions began in 1974, when the then-Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto passed a constitutional amendment declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim. A decade later military dictator General Zia ul Haq barred Ahmadis from identifying themselves as Muslim.

The exact percentage is hard to calculate as though many Ahmadis have fled the country and gained asylum in the US, Canada, UK and Australia the constant increase of the Pakistani population which is not easily attainable as many Ahmadis have to hide their faith to be able to work and ensure the safety of their families.

I do not think they will be safe in Pakistan in my lifetime. In the month of November alone, nuclear armed Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad has been taken hostage by thousands of religious extremists demanding further restrictions on the county’s Ahmadi Muslims & praising convicted criminals like Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of our former governor, Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer.

Also, The National Assembly (Parliament) has passed the new Elections (Amendment) Bill 2017 challenging the voter registration of anyone accused of being an Ahmadi.

The bill relates to the fresh delimitation of constituencies keeping in view the provisional results of the recently conducted census with respect to the upcoming general elections in 2018.

Speaking on the new law ‘Elections Amendment Bill 2017′ Senate Deputy Chairman Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, who belongs to the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F, said that the Ahmadis’ status is the same as it was back in the 1973 Constitution. Reinforcing the Ahmadis vulnerable position and demonstrating that the parliament and government consider them non-Muslims.

Can Pakistan ever be a place where all feel safe and welcome regardless of religion?

In my lifetime only former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf had the power during his ten year rule to change the laws and ensure prosecution of those who attacked minority groups. And, to disband sectarian terrorist organizations. But he did not. I am not hopeful in the rational sense but one has to keep hope alive to ensure change one day.

Can social media be freely used or is it regulated as part of the blasphemy laws?

It is regulated to some extent. People have been arrested for blasphemy because of blasphemy allegations of online comments and killed as university student Mashal Khan was. But, like others, his family has not received justice. Journalists and bloggers speaking freely on social media have disappeared, been tortured and fled the country.

Especially after writing Purifying the Land of the Pure can you safely return to Pakistan? If not what would have to change for that to be possible?

I have gone back on a handful of occasions – but in a very low key manner and with a full understanding of the risks. Anyone who has written and spoken as much about the issues I do can never be safe in Pakistan. Vigilante justice continues unimpeded.

Do you think it’s possible to have a country based on a religion that’s welcoming to those who don’t follow that religion?

No. There has to be a separation of church and state and all citizens must be considered equal under the constitution. Religion or ethnicity cannot be a part of any modern and civilized nation.

Your work has largely focused on bringing Pakistan back to democracy. How do you hold onto hope for a country with such a history of violence?

Hope does spring eternal. However, as Pakistan is a relatively young country one can only work for a better tomorrow. But, I know how ugly the lives of those of minority community faiths are. That spurs me on. The country belongs to every single Pakistani and they deserve that.

I can’t even imagine getting to work with Benazir Bhutto as you did both when she was in exile and when she returned to Pakistan in September 2007. What is your favorite story about her?

Benazir Bhutto, was human and had faults but what a great leader she was. I still miss her every day. She had political intelligence, knowledge of her country and the world and a deep compassion and empathy for women, the disadvantaged and the persecuted. She was hated by the religious right wing forces.

My favorite story about Bibi as any of us referred to her was the day after her arrival. Estimates say that 1 million supporters gathered to welcome her arrival. As her caravan slowly inched through Karachi terrorists set off two bombs to kill her. Many died but she managed to survive.

The following day Benazir Bhutto held a press conference in her small garden at her Karachi home. It was packed with PPP party officials and reporters. Benazir arrived in a old pair of glasses from her bedside drawer as the ones she had on were shattered in the blast. The audio didn’t work. Bibi picked up a hand mike and without missing a stride spoke so clearly and with an unshaken sense of mission.

She answered every question although she was mourning those who had lost their lives and been up all night talking to her family and party people.

That was Benazir. Brilliant and unbowed. And, kind..Finding a bond with every woman she met. Rich or poor, educated or not. Privately her humor, and love of chocolate and ice cream, and escaping to a movie or a having a cozy chat for a brief respite from her lifetime of heavy responsibility. I always thought of her as the perfect Wellesley woman though she went to Radcliffe!

Link to the original: https://wellesleyunderground-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/wellesleyunderground.com/post/167942290642/wellesley-in-politics-interview-with-farahnaz/amp

Kim Ghattas piece ‘How the Muslim World List the Freedom to Choose’ quotes Farahnaz Ispahani & her book.

A brave new book describes how Pakistan unraveled — and provides a blueprint for understanding declining pluralism across the Middle East.


When national security advisor H.R. McMaster wanted to convince U.S. President Donald Trump that Afghanistan was not hopeless, he whipped out a 1972 black-and-white picture of women in miniskirts on the streets of Kabul.

The point of this exercise was presumably to show that the country once embraced Western ideals and could do so again with America’s assistance. McMaster’s trick worked: Trump ultimately reversed his earlier skepticism about the war effort and decided to raise troop levels. But it also showed the continued limits of America’s understanding of the countries it has sought to remake in its image. The snapshot depicts Kabul’s urban elite — an elite that was unrepresentative, even back then, of the wider Afghan population. Not everyone was walking around in a skirt before the Taliban imposed the burqa.

The photograph, however, does capture something that has been lost not just in Afghanistan since the rise of the Taliban, but also across much of the Muslim world in recent decades: the freedom to choose.

Not every Afghan woman wore a miniskirt in the 1970s, but they could do so without fear of an acid attack or a flogging. Other pictures from that era depict the educational and professional opportunities available to Afghan women. But it’s always the clothes that get the most attention. Pictures of Saudi Arabia from the 1960s and 1970s are also making the rounds these days in the Middle East, showing men and women in bathing suits by the pool and on the jetty of a famous beach resort. Most of those in the pictures look like foreigners — some are airline staff on a break in Jeddah. But Saudis also patronized these beaches, and even if some shook their head with disapproval, the option to go to the beach without fear of violence was there.

Beyond skirts and beaches, the 1960s and 1970s were also a time of vigorous intellectual debate about the role of religion in society. Debates between leftists, secularists, capitalists, Marxists, and Islamists raged across the region, from Egypt to Pakistan. Militant Islamists will dismiss those decades of more progressive, diverse thought and culture as decadent Western imports — the lingering after-effects of colonial influence. But if some of it was certainly emulation, much of it was also indigenous. One of the Arab world’s most famous feminists of the early 20th century was Nazira Zain al-Dine, from Lebanon, who had no connection to the Western feminist movement of the time.

Yet over the course of the last few decades, the space for debate and freedom of choice has become increasingly narrow. Pakistan provides a stark and cautionary tale for other countries about how intolerance gets legitimized. It’s not only when a group like the Taliban seizes power violently that a country loses its more diverse, vibrant past. A slow erosion of progressive norms, a slow shift in beliefs can be just as devastating.

In Pakistan from 1927 to 1985, only 10 blasphemy cases were reportedly heard in court. Between 1985 and 2011, more than 4,000 cases were handled. Even worse, blasphemy, real or alleged, can get you killed in today’s Pakistan. In January 2011, Punjab governor Salman Taseer was killed by his bodyguard for coming to the aide of a young Christian woman who had been charged with blasphemy. Taseer’s killer was sentenced to death, but he was celebrated as a hero by tens of thousands who attended his funeral, and a mosque was built in his name in Islamabad.

The assassination of Taseer — as well as that of Pakistan’s first Christian federal minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, just two months later — shocked Farahnaz Ispahani, a friend of both men. Ispahani, a former journalist, was at the time a member of Pakistan’s parliament serving on the Human Rights Committee. Together, the small group had repeatedly tried to raise the issue of minority rights. In parliament, Ispahani had access to more information than the general public and was shocked about the extent of daily violence against minorities — and that none of her colleagues were willing to discuss the issue.

The assassination of her two friends prompted Ispahani to write “Purifying the Land of the Pure.” The book, published last year, charts the slow death of minority rights and pluralism in Pakistan, and what it means for the future of democracy. The result is a sweeping but concise chronicle of how things unraveled. A minority herself, as a Shiite, Ispahani was careful to avoid polemic and opinion by delivering a thorough, methodically researched work. She and her husband, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, have both faced death threats for their work and live in self-imposed exile in Washington.

In her book, Ispahani tracks the unraveling to within a few years of the independence of Pakistan. The country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah — a secular Shiite — envisioned a country where “you are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship.” But Ispahani writes that “his hopeful declaration of religious pluralism” remains unfulfilled.

The trend toward making Islam a central tenet of life in Pakistan started soon after independence in 1947, a result of Muslim feelings of being victimized by both Hindus and British colonialism in India. By 1973, Islam was declared as the state religion of Pakistan. In 1974, under the ostensibly progressive Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto, parliament declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims. A Muslim movement that started in the late 19th century, Ahmadis follow the teachings of the Quran and consider their founder to be a prophet, upsetting orthodox Muslims who believe Muhammad is the final prophet.

Bhutto found it hard to redefine Pakistani nationalism away from Islamic ideology. He was, Ispahani writes, unable to manage the “delicate balancing act of implementing liberal ideas and appeasing Islamist sentiments.”

By the mid-1980s, hate literature targeting Shiites was proliferating. It fanned the narrative that they were not Muslims, a dangerous charge in a Sunni-majority nation where Shiites made up around 15 percent of the population. Military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq acquiesced to Sunni militant attacks on Shiites, paving the way for a systematic campaign to eliminate Shiite doctors, engineers, and teachers in Karachi and elsewhere. Today, Shiites and their mosques are still regular targets of deadly attacks: Since 2003, an estimated 2,558 Shiites have been killed in sectarian violence.

Ispahani identifies four stages in Pakistan’s loss of minority rights and growing intolerance. The first stage was the “Muslimization” of society, with transfer of non-Muslim populations out of Pakistan around the time of independence, followed by the rise of an Islamic identity with the loss of East Pakistan. Then came the Islamization of laws under Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, and finally the rise of militant, organized violence.

While there was no sudden, overnight transformation, Ispahani nevertheless identifies Zia’s rule as the point of no return. The military ruler Islamized the laws of the country, introducing sharia courts and new Islamic laws known as hudood ordinances, which apply strict Sharia punishments for specific offenses. It was during his time that the blasphemy laws were strengthened, adding life sentences and the death penalty as punishment.

No aspect of culture was spared from the Islamization drive, as movie theaters were shut from Karachi to Peshawar, artists were driven underground and school curricula redesigned to create a “monolithic image of Pakistan as an Islamic state and taught students to view only Muslims as Pakistani citizens.”

Zia’s legacy remains, entrenched in the system and people’s daily lives. Pakistanis under the age of 40 have never experienced any other lifestyle, while the older generations reminisce about a more diverse past — even as they also gloss over some of that past’s shortcomings. But however it came about, Pakistan’s growing intolerance has taken its toll on diversity: Between 1947 and today, minorities went from 25 percent of the population to 3 percent.

“Its about pluralism, that can only happen when there is room for many kinds of people,” Ispahani said. “You cannot have a pluralistic, democratic state when you believe in the purity of your religion.”

The picture that McMaster showed Trump is a good reminder of what once was, but it does not provide a strategy to restore the pluralism that was once an accepted part of life in Pakistan or other countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Egypt. Ispahani’s book serves as a reminder that something far more profound than miniskirts has been lost in these countries. Washington’s counterterrorism policies, which help curb groups like the Taliban, are a good start, but they often fail to go any further toward restoring basic norms like respect for diversity. That will ultimately depend on the efforts of the local population themselves.

Those efforts may be able to draw on the power of nostalgia. When people in Pakistan, Egypt, or Afghanistan rifle through the photo albums of their parents and grandparents and wonder what happened to their country, they see skirts or cleavage — but they desire diversity and freedom of choice.


Link to the original article. How the Muslim World Lost the Freedom to Choose


Farahnaz Ispahani’s book “Purifying the Land of the Pure”


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:

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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’