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

Religious Fanaticism Prevails Over Pakistan’s Court by By FARAHNAZ ISPAHANI & NINA SHEA

The country’s Supreme Court dodges a decision by adjourning a high-profile blasphemy case.

The fate of an illiterate berry picker on death row for blasphemy has gripped Pakistan in a furor of religious fanaticism. Few examples better illustrate the misplaced priorities of the Pakistani government and the country’s Islamist ideologues.

Asia Bibi was scheduled to appear before Pakistan’s Supreme Court last week. She was arrested in 2009 following an angry dispute with her fellow field hands over whether she, a Christian, was too impure to sip from a cup of water she had fetched for them. The mother of five denies that she blasphemed, and has testified that she was merely professing her Christian faith.At her initial trial, Ms. Bibi’s inexperienced lawyer failed to cross-examine the two witnesses or object to errors in the proceedings. Ms. Bibi was convicted under Pakistan’s 1986 blasphemy law and sentenced to death by hanging.

Since then, Ms. Bibi has been on death row and placed in solitary confinement, ostensibly for her own protection. Though Pakistan has never carried out the death penalty for blasphemy, some defendants in prior cases were murdered by cellmates and guards. Ms. Bibi’s was the first capital blasphemy conviction against a woman to be affirmed by a Pakistani appellate court.

In this photograph taken on Sept. 27, Ashiq Masih, husband of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman facing death sentence for blasphemy, points to a poster bearing an image of his wife Asia at a living area in Lahore.

When one of us met with Ms. Bibi’s husband,Ashiq Masih, at a New York conference in April, Mr. Masih said through an Urdu translator that the family was hopeful Ms. Bibi would soon be exonerated. He said that a court official told him her appeal would be heard as soon as things “cooled down” after the judicial execution in February of Mumtaz Qadri.

Qadri, a bodyguard for Salman Taseer, who was at the time the governor of Punjab, was convicted in 2011 of murdering Taseer for publicly defending Ms. Bibi. After Qadri’s execution, mobs rioted in Islamabad for four days, calling for Ms. Bibi’s blood.

That fanaticism returned to full boil last week as the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear Ms. Bibi’s case. Perhaps that’s why one of the three judges recused himself for a conflict of interest, waiting until the last minute to explain that he had also presided over the Qadri case.

“Many Sunni Muslim groups in the country have jointly held mass demonstrations across Pakistan, chanting slogans and displaying signs that read ‘#HangAsia,’” the Catholic outlet AsiaNews.it reported. Some praise Qadri as a martyr.

Among them are the Barelvi Sunni sub-sect, which the media has described as relatively moderate due to its association with the syncretic Sufi tradition. But there seems to be little moderation when it comes to the blasphemy law, which is wielded as a weapon, particularly against minority faiths, whether Ahmadiyas, Christians, Hindus, Shiites or even Sunni reformers.

The protests have even called for anyone who rescues or assists those accused of blasphemy to be viewed as blasphemers and executed too. This is a view shared by preachers at the notorious Red Mosque in Islamabad and one that has led to the murders of defense lawyers, journalists and human-rights advocates. In addition to Taseer, victims include Shahbaz Bhatti,Pakistan’s minister of minority affairs, an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws who was assassinated in 2011.

Ms  Farahnaz Ispahani’s book “Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities”

The clerics of the Red Mosque, the scene of a pitched battle between its militants and the Pakistani army a few years ago, have threatened “dire consequences” if Ms. Bibi is spared. Its spokesmen vowed to lay siege to Parliament, and one reportedly threatened to issue a fatwa against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The affiliated Shuhuda (Martyrs) Foundation warned that its supporters would take to the streets and become “a centre for the anti-government movement.”

In the past, the judiciary has thrown out charges of criminal conduct against the Red Mosque leadership, validating the leaders’ belief that they—and their religious interpretations—are above the law. The blasphemy code is empowering them and their ilk to spread extremism.

Saif-ul-Mulook, a Muslim lawyer braving death threats to defend Ms. Bibi before the Supreme Court, has said it could take months for the appeal to be rescheduled. But if Pakistan’s government remains paralyzed in the face of blasphemy-law vigilantism, the decision will be between the judges’ lives and Ms. Bibi’s. Realistically, she may never get her day in court. And Pakistan would take a step closer to the edge of political and cultural chaos.

Ms. Ispahani, a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament, is the author of “Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities” (HarperCollins India, 2016). She is Global Fellow,  Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars,  Washington DC.

Ms. Shea is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, and co-author of “Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide” (Oxford, 2011).

The article was published by Wall Street Journal on Oct. 20, 2016 and the link to the original article is Religious Fanaticism Prevails Over Pakistan’s Court

A national psyche of fear By Farahnaz Ispahani




From the day that Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, I have felt the escalation of the mindset of hate. Our country has been hijacked — not politically but through the psychology of hate and fear. It is obvious that those who cannot win the argument about contrasting visions for Pakistan try to intimidate others with the gun. The most recent example of this phenomenon was the armed attack on progressive activists Marvi Sirmed and Sirmed Manzoor. It was not an attack to kill but an attack to silence them.

I was born and raised in a country where it was rare to be asked your religion or about your religious practices. I attended a convent school where the nuns ensured that there was no way to tell whether a girl student was from a rich or poorer household. Our uniforms were strictly enforced and no jewellery or expensive shoes were allowed.

Some scholars say that what started, very soon after the death of the Quaid-e-Azam, was the use of Islam as a political tool and was later militarised and mainstreamed by Dictator Ziaul Haq, which has now become the tyrannising force in all aspects of daily life in Pakistan.

Today, regardless of whether one is Sunni, Shia, Ahmadi, Christian, Hindu or Parsi, he sends his children to school worried, every day. People are careful at workplaces about sharing their personal beliefs. Since 1989, 4,051 people have been killed in 2,800 incidents of sectarian terrorism up until October 2012, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal database. Most of those were targeted killings.

The majority of Pakistanis may not subscribe to it but a national psyche of fear that has been mainstreamed into every aspect of our lives has become almost overwhelming. We are constantly fed conspiracy theories so that we fear foreign powers or the beliefs of others. It is as if our sect, our ethnic group, our nation or our religion is constantly under attack and we must fear and attack the ‘other’ before being attacked ourselves. The fight to regain control of our lives is on. Whether it is the establishment or the Sipah-e-Sahaba, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, there is a constant source of violence in our midst. Our lives are no longer ours to live.

The manifestations of the rising violence and the accompanying fear it generates are many: the rise in incidents of blasphemy cases; the violent and sometimes armed mobs that mysteriously appear outside a school in Lahore over a teacher’s alleged blasphemy; the threats against young Rimsha Masih; the killing of Ahmadis with impunity all over Pakistan; the targeted killing of Shias from Karachi to Quetta to Parachinar and Dera Ismail Khan in what is becoming a virtual genocide. The attackers are almost never apprehended. Even if the state manages to arrest the perpetrators, they are out on bail before you know it and yet, those accused of blasphemy or murdered for simply being Shia receive no justice.

As a child and later as a teenager, Sunni friends would occasionally attend majlises with us during Muharram. Today, when I go to an imambargah in Karachi, police trucks, metal detectors and youth guards serve as a reminder of the looming threats.

The deafening silence of the political class over the killing of Salmaan Taseer should have been a wakeup call that mobilised the nation but where were the leaders?

Chairman of the  PPP, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, was the only politician who publicly condemned Governor Taseer’s murder and in the case of Malala Yousufzai, again it was only Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and MQM leader Altaf Hussain and his party that spoke out strongly.

What is the answer then? Do we continue to be killed or intimidated into silence? No. It is time to hold our leadership accountable. As every Pakistani knows, the civilian government is easy to blame. But, until the military and intelligence services round up, disarm and put away the terrorists and the courts comply and refuse them bail, things will not change.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 13th, 2012.