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”


Farahnaz Ispahani’s book review Pakistan’s Beleaguered Minorities by Abubakar Siddique:

Countries adapted to celebrating their religious, racial, ethnic, and linguist diversity are typically stable and prosperous and face fewer domestic and external threats.

But states obsessed with imposing a militarized uniformity on their diverse societies are prone to instability, secessionism, mounting extremism, violence, external interference, and intolerance.

Former Pakistani lawmaker Farahnaz Ispahani’s book Purifying The Land Of The Pure: A History Of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities is an in-depth analysis of how Islamabad’s policies toward minorities have devastated their fortunes, exacerbated extremism, and hold the country back from realizing its full potential.

Seventy years ago, Pakistan was heralded as a safe haven for South Asia’s largest minority, Muslims. Since then, the country has proved itself to be anything but.

In 1971, a quarter-century after its creation, the numerical majority of Bengalis in Pakistan’s eastern wing seceded to form their new country, Bangladesh. Meanwhile, its other ethnic and religious minorities continue to languish.

Ispahani, a former journalist and current fellow at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center, masterfully captures how Pakistan’s small religious minorities — now estimated to be only 3 percent of the country’s more than 200 million predominantly Muslim population — continue to suffer from escalating violence and discrimination both from the government and private groups.

At the outset, Pakistan was warned of such an eventuality.

“Now you are raising the cry of Pakistan in danger for the purpose of arousing Muslim sentiments and binding them together in order to maintain you in power,” Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a Bengali politician who later became the prime minister of Pakistan, warned in 1948.

He called on Pakistan’s founding leaders “to be fair to the minorities” because intolerance and discrimination would boomerang on the new country’s Muslims majority.

“Those lawless elements that maybe turned today against non-Muslims will be turned later on, once those fratricidal tendencies have been aroused, against the Muslim gentry,” he predicted.

Sadly, his prophesies proved true. While Pakistan’s Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and other non-Muslim minorities still face discriminatory laws, lynching mobs, and forced conversions, the country’s Shi’ite Muslims now bear the brunt of extremist violence. A plethora of jihadists and militant groups are now determined to purify the “land of the pure” (the literal meaning of the name Pakistan) from anyone deviating from their puritanical Sunni Muslim doctrines.

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Within five years of Suhrawardy’s warning, two eminent jurists had a damning verdict. After riots against the Ahmadiyya sect, justices Muhammad Munir and Muhammad Rustam Kiyani noted in 1954 that after listening to scores of clerics in nearly 100 hearings they concluded that “no one who has given serious thought to the introduction of a religious state in Pakistan has failed to notice the tremendous difficulties with which any such scheme must be confronted.”

Indeed, the country’s subsequent history proved them right. After riots and a campaign in the eastern province of Punjab, the Pakistani Parliament enacted a law in September 1974 to declare the Ahmadiyya a non-Muslim minority.

Ispahani says the development was a tragedy as it undermined both secularism and tolerance in the country.

“It was a greater tragedy that this had happened under an otherwise progressive and pluralist government,” she wrote, referring to the administration of the Pakistan Peoples Party populist firebrand founder, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

She notes that such intolerance toward religious minorities hastened after military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq assumed power in 1977. His regime promoted hard-line Sunni Islam at the expense of other Muslim sects and religions. It also actively encouraged and bankrolled its proponents to militaries by forming militant factions.

Decades later, tens of thousands of Pakistanis are paying a heavy toll with their lives and properties while reeling from discriminatory laws. Every year, scores of Muslims and non-Muslim Pakistanis are lynched or imprisoned under the blasphemy laws under which people accused of insulting Islam or religious figures can be sentenced to death.

On September 16, a Christian man in eastern Pakistan was sentenced to death after being arrested in 2016 on blasphemy charges. While no one has officially been executed on blasphemy charges in Pakistan, blasphemy is an emotive issue, and outraged mobs often choose to take justice in their own hands against the accused, who are often from religious minorities.

Precise, well-researched, and eloquent, Ispahani’s Purifying The Land Of The Pure is a must read for policymakers, scholars, and general readers trying to understanding the roots of intolerance and violent extremism in Pakistan.

https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/pakistan-minorities/28739489.html

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.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/myanmar-rohingya-united-nations_us_59b695c3e4b0dfaafcf95e79?ncid=engmodushpmg00000004