Wellesley in Politics: A personal profile interview.

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 Dawn that 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!

Farahnaz’s blog is https://farahnazispahani.com/ and her writings can also be found in various news outlets.

Photo by Elliott O’Donovan Photography

Muslims Must Ostracize Anti-Semitic Imams by Farahnaz Ispahani

American Muslims, justifiably worried about increasing attacks on our community, must react strongly to the anti-Semitic sermons by two California Imams. Although one of them has since apologized, his call to “annihilate” Jews cannot be ignored just because of a statement of contrition.
If Muslims want wider support for their concerns about threats to their community, they must also ostracize the Imams and other Muslims engaging in hate speech against other communities.
Ammar Shahin, Imam of the Islamic Center at Davis, called on Allah to “liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the Jews” and to “Count them one by one and annihilate them down to the very last one.” Syrian-born Sheikh Mahmoud Harmoush said at the Islamic Center of Riverside, “Oh Allah, liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and all the Muslim lands from the unjust tyrants and the occupiers,” he prayed, “Oh Allah, destroy them, they are no match for You. Oh Allah, disperse them, and rend them asunder. Turn them into booty in the hands of the Muslims.” Imam Shahin says he was reacting to the turmoil in Jerusalem that had led to the shutting down of the Al-Aqsa mosque. His statement of apology says he now recognizes his words were “hurtful” and that he was referring only to the group of Jews that had taken over the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and not to Jews in general. This is effectively an apology for the hurt caused by the remarks but not the hate behind them. Sheikh Harmoush, who has taught at several California universities and is still leading the congregation in Riverside, can be expected to make a similar ‘apology.’ The current polarization in America benefits people with extreme views as they secure the support of one side in the political divide to help gloss over their conduct. The anti-Semitic remarks of the two imams have been underplayed in the national media and by liberal politicians as no one wants to add fuel to the fire of anti-Muslim sentiment already being encouraged by the other side.
California’s Muslims, feeling under attack from the right wing, seem to have allied themselves with elements in the State that blocked speaking events of ultra-conservative columnist Ann Coulter and British scientist and anti-religion campaigner, Richard Dawkins.
But Muslims would do better by standing up against all bigotry and seek protection for themselves by defending the principles of free speech as well as the value of religious toleration. Muslims must not act against intolerance only when they are its victims. Nor should they react to others’ criticism of their religion by seeking shutting down of debate.
Dawkins has described Islam as “the greatest force for evil in the world today.” Muslims could help refute that characterization more by refusing to support Imams Shahin and Harmoush than they accomplished by refusing Dawkins an opportunity to make his case to a California audience.
That the Muslim community is under attack is well known. According to the FBI, anti-Muslim hate crimes have surged 67 percent over the last year. 2545 incidents targeting 3,052 Muslims were reported in the U.S. between 2001 and 2015 but violence has now reached a level similar to that in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Muslims number only 3.3 million out of a total U.S. population of 323 million. More than 60 percent of Americans have seldom or never had a conversation with a Muslim, according to a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute. 57 percent Americans say they know little while 26 percent acknowledge they know nothing at all about Islam.
Muslims believe their community under-reports hate crimes –ranging from assault on individuals to attacks on mosques — which some say are not pursued vigorously by police and prosecutors, especially in small towns.
In such an environment it is especially important for Muslims to speak out against hate crimes across-the-board and disavow prayers for the destruction of other faith traditions. Anti-Antisemitism, imported by immigrant Imams from the Middle East, must be particularly checked.
America’s Jews have supported Muslims in the aftermath of hateful attacks. When a mosque in Texas burned down, for example, the local Jewish community handed the keys of their synagogue to enable Muslims to pray.
It is time for America’s Muslims to demonstrate that they appreciate being woven into the fabric of America’s diversity. Allowing Imams to get away with hateful comments against Jews from the pulpit will do little to demonstrate the American Muslim community’s commitment to universal values of tolerance and religious freedom. The community must weed out its own bigots if it wants fair-minded Jews and Christians to support it against the bigotry of others.
The correct stance for American Muslims over the hateful comments of Imams Shahin and Harmoush would be to demand their removal from their positions. Next time an Imam makes anti-Semitic comments in a Friday sermon, it should be his congregants that must react well before media reports force a half-hearted apology.

Farahnaz Ispahani, a former members of Pakistan’s parliament, is Global Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Religious Freedom.

The Article is published by Huffpost originally; link Muslims Must Ostracize Anti-Semitic Imams by Farahnaz Ispahani

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.

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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.

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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