Recent election violence in Pakistan has been called unprecedented. But Pakistan's 2008 elections were bloodier. The electoral death toll in this election has crossed 100, but in 2008, over 150 were killed and 400 injured.
If Pakistan's experience is like that of other countries around the world, then Saturday, Election Day, will be violent. But when perpetrated by political actors -- candidates, parties, party workers, and supporters -- that violence can be taken as a sign that electoral administration is getting stronger and that democracy is maturing.
While the Pakistani and international press have expressed alarm at the vehemence of electoral violence perpetrated by the Pakistani Taliban and other extremist groups, Islamist parties have never won more than about five percent of the vote in any of Pakistan's elections. This election will be no different.
The apparent increase in the extremists' use of violence in this historic election is a sign, not of their strength, but of their increasing irrelevance in a society that is moving forward with regular, competitive elections between mainstream parties.
As William McCants has argued in reference to the rise in militant violence in the Middle East, when moderate Islamists and other opposition parties begin to compete successfully in increasingly democratic elections, attacks by extremists who could not take power through political participation escalate. It is thus more important than ever for voters and parties to participate peacefully and for citizens, international observers, and other electoral stakeholders to resist the temptation to conclude that election violence implies that Pakistan, or any country, for that matter, is not suited or ready for democracy.
Data on violent incidents collected during Pakistan's 2008 elections show that the dynamics here are consistent with those in many other parts of the world. Electoral violence is correlated strongly with two things: uncertainty and reform. The more uncertainty there is in an election -- whether because of the entrance of new candidates or shifting strength of parties -- the higher the risk of violence. And the more reform -- electoral reforms or strengthening institutions that conduct oversight -- the greater the incentives for competitors to add violence to their tactics as their support bases become less reliable and fraud gets more difficult.
Many transitions to democracy since 1945 have been accompanied by an increase in political violence. This phenomenon, however, is not unique to Africa, Pakistan, or even new democracies. French political scientist Patrick Quantin, for example, compares African election violence with tumultuous elections in 19th-century France in order to illustrate how messy the consolidation of democracy can be.
Similarly, Rapoport and Weinberg document episodes of election violence that erupted during phases of electoral reform and political liberalization in ancient Greece, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Case study evidence suggests that at least 198 countries or territories and more than 22 U.S. states have experienced at least one episode of election violence at some point in their electoral histories. As a 2001 U.S. Agency for International Development report notes, "some violence is likely in nearly all elections.
Contested, competitive elections have been associated with violence or the threat of violence in polities as diverse as the United States (Colfax County, Louisiana, 1873; Wilmington, North Carolina, 1898; Florida, 1920; U.S. Presidential elections in 1860 and 1876), Costa Rica (1945), Algeria (1991/92), Colombia (1875), and Côte d'Ivoire (2011), to name a few. All occurred not during founding elections, but later in the process, as electoral administration improved, multiple parties were allowed to compete on a more even playing field, new electoral coalitions formed, voter sophistication and participation increased, and other factors made incumbents less certain of winning.
These patterns at first seem counterintuitive, but are plainly logical. Violence is on the menu of options that parties and candidates have to win elections. But there is a natural disincentive to deploy violence. It is easy to detect, makes the perpetrators look bad, and can result in sanctions. So what are the preferred alternatives? Fraud, intimidation, negative campaigning, slander, fear creation -- the quieter the means of coercion, the better.
But reforms disrupt the usual pathways and make fraud more difficult. So throughout history and across countries, reform tends to be correlated with violence.
Take, for example, Kentucky. Prior to the introduction of the secret ballot in Louisville in 1888, the Democratic political machine would pay clerks to mark blank ballots and buy votes from white and African-American voters alike.
In his research on the effects of electoral reform on political violence, historian Tracy Campbell finds that ballot secrecy undercut these strategies and forced the machine to resort to more flagrant means to manipulate the outcome-threatening jobs, using police to suppress turnout in the African American neighborhoods that tended to vote Republican, and moving polling stations after long lines formed. Seventeen years later, when the new Fusionist party, which had multi-ethnic support, entered the scene and threatened its dominance, the machine intensified its use of police violence and intimidation. Those attending Fusionist rallies were "whacked with sticks," Fusionist candidates and voters were thrown out of polling stations, ballot boxes were taken at gunpoint by armed thugs, and those seeking to document the tactics with cameras were driven "off the streets."
When the Democrats won, the Fusionists challenged the results with the evidence they had amassed, and Kentucky's high court ruled in 1907 that extensive fraud and violence had disenfranchised 6,296 voters and overturned the result because it had been "designed in fraud, backed up by vilification and abuse." While Kentucky and other states would still witness both fraud and intimidation, the decision was the first of its kind and would not have been possible had the rise in violence not drawn attention to the problem and bolstered the voices of those calling for reform.
But this example is only one among many, indicating that electoral violence is intrinsic to the process of democratization.
Violence is a symptom and a sign of a strengthened electoral system. At the same time, it creates the outrage necessary for further reform. Violence and reform feed into each other cyclically.
Increased instances of violence in modern elections is not a sign that these countries cannot cope with democratization. Instead, it is because international norms and pressure have condensed the process of democratization for contemporary nascent democracies -- versus in the 1800s when the process could be more incremental -- that we see more electoral violence across the world today.
Thanks to a growing body of research on election violence in a variety of contexts, including data from Pakistan's 2008 elections, the dynamics of violence driven by parties, candidates, and their supporters are well understood. What remains for Pakistan to figure out is what the intensification of militant violence directed at the political process means for the future.
For candidates, violence is a means of winning within the democratic system. For militants, electoral violence is a strategy meant to re-engineer that system or seek its very demise because it is a form of government in which they cannot compete and win based on the merits of their policy ideas and vision for society.
Megan Reif is an assistant professor of political science and international studies at the University of Colorado, Denver. Her work on election violence is based on case study analysis and data collected in Pakistan during the 2008 elections, as well as data from Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Sri Lanka, and the United States (Newark, NJ) during the same period. Nadia Naviwala is Country Representative in Pakistan for the United States Institute of Peace.
The authors are grateful to Mathieu Mérino and the election violence prevention training team at the European Centre for Electoral Support (ECES) for drawing their attention to the work done on this subject by Quantin.
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With just hours left before voters begin casting their votes for Pakistan's next leaders, political posters are plastered across markets, convoys of motorcycles and cars flying party flags clog major thoroughfares, and raspy-voiced candidates make their final appeals to throngs of people.
Election fever runs high everywhere, it seems, but in Rabwah.
The city nestled alongside the Chenab River in Punjab is home to an estimated 40,000 potential voters, but the vast majority of them will not be voting in the upcoming election due to their faith. Rabwah is a haven for Ahmedis, who make up over 95 percent of its population. While Ahmedis consider themselves Muslims, the Pakistani government has officially declared them otherwise.
The groups' adherence to Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, a man they see as a prophet, is heretical to most Muslims, who hold that the Prophet Muhammad was the last messenger of God. This difference of beliefs has made Ahmedis the subject of scorn in Pakistan, where they could be subject to death for practicing their faith since doing so would mean engaging in the illegal act of "posing as a Muslim."
While they aren't officially barred from voting, Ahmedis must sign a statement renouncing their faith in order to cast a ballot.
"I'm 37 years old and I've never voted in my life," says Amir Mehmood, a lifelong resident of Rabwah.
Mehmood says that he follows politics closely, but having to deny his beliefs to vote is more of a sacrifice than he is willing to bear.
"If the state thinks that I'm not a Muslim, that's fine. I can't change the state. But how can I say that I'm a non-Muslim just because the state tells me to? I consider myself to be a Muslim."
A 1974 amendment to the Pakistani Constitution explicitly declared Ahmedis to be non-Muslims, and a few years later separate faith-based electorates were created that forced Ahmedis to vote as non-Muslims. Instead of doing so, most Ahmedis refused to cast a ballot-and have maintained their non-participation in the country's politics ever since.
While President Pervez Musharraf unified the electorate in 2002, he soon bowed to religious extremists by inserting one glaring exception to the rule: Ahmedis would have a distinct voter list. All those who tick the box "Muslim" in the religious affiliation column of their election ballot must sign a statement certifying that they are not Ahmedi.
Due to this requirement, the upcoming election will be the eighth one in which Ahmedis refuse to take part. But Saleemuddin, a spokesperson for the Ahmedi community who uses only his first name, says this does not amount to a boycott.
"We don't approve of the word ‘boycott.' We're not boycotting. We've been so clearly discriminated against that we've been essentially prevented from casting votes in these elections."
Saleemuddin says by phone from Rabwah, "Like anywhere in the world, voting rights should be based on citizenship. In fact, they are in Pakistan too, but one executive order has brought in religion and kept my community from voting."
He says every government has continued to propagate a second-class status for Ahmedis because of the power that religious extremists and powerful clerics exercise over the country's political arena. While this election will mark the first time one democratically-elected government will pass the mantle to another, for Saleemuddin, this milestone is undermined by the state's unwillingness to let Ahmedis vote in a free and fair manner.
And few candidates are willing to address the issue of religious freedom.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, an independent political analyst told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, "The elections will hardly bring any respite to religious minorities because the societal groups and parties that target them do not get their votes."
According to Rizvi, politicians don't have much to gain from courting the votes of religious groups like Ahmedis, Christians, or Hindus. "These votes which are small and scattered cannot generate enough political clout to pressure political parties effectively."
This amounts to a sort of catch-22 for Ahmedis since politicians do not feel politically bound to respond to their plight, something they cannot address without allies in the government. Saleemuddin says he had some hope that the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan might herald in a new era of religious freedom but Khan overtly declared his accord for the status quo saying in a video statement, "I have read the Qur'an very closely and I know that those who do not recognize Muhammad as the last prophet are not Muslims."
"Imran Khan has claimed that he's going to create a ‘New Pakistan,' but before he's even had the chance to do so, he's declared that Ahmedis will be stuck in the same ‘Old Pakistan' that we've known for too long," Saleemuddin laments.
Many Ahmedis feel that Khan's statements shamed his party's name-Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf or the "Justice Party" -but Bilal Haider, an Ahmedi living in Karachi, says Khan is no different than other politicians.
"All of these parties have written into their agendas that they want equal rights but none of them actually [do away with discriminatory laws] once they get into power," he says.
While there are an estimated four million Ahmedis in the country, most politicians think appealing for their vote will do more harm than good since bias against the sect is widespread-and it isn't limited to election season or political rights, says Haider.
"Each and every Ahmedi family is now connected to someone who was martyred. It's not only about silent discrimination, it's about literal attacks."
One of Haider's uncles, along with his wife's father, was killed in May 2010 in synchronized attacks on two Ahmedi mosques in Lahore, which resulted in the deaths of over 80 worshippers.
Haider is hopeful that when he has children, they'll be born into a more tolerant Pakistan.
But for Saleemuddin, the current situation is vexing enough. "My daughter watches TV and sees all of the political advertisements and news of the election," he says. "She asks me which candidate our family supports. She's only in 6th grade and it's really hard to explain to her why we're not voting. ‘Our town is so big,' she says, ‘So how come there isn't a single political poster or party banner here?'"
He says it's difficult to tell her that no politician is willing to change the laws so that his community in Rabwah can cast ballots without having to cast aside their faith.
Beenish Ahmed is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. She is reporting on education there through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crises Reporting.
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There seems to be some disagreement between Pakistan's extremists over participation in the May 11 elections. Pakistani Taliban spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan recently told Pakistanis to boycott the elections because democracy is un-Islamic, while Maulana Sami ul-Haq, a conservative cleric who runs a religious seminary that trained many Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, said in a follow-up statement that voting is a religious obligation.
Could it be that the Taliban's brutal attacks on politicians belonging to the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) coalition have actually been detrimental to the wider extremist movement in Pakistan? The attacks definitely handicap religious parties, who often share sympathies and ideologies with the Taliban, at a time when they could potentially capitalize on staunch public disappointment with the outgoing government's performance.
While religious parties lost big in the 2008 elections, they probably anticipated some role for themselves in the next government, which is likely to be led by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, a conservative political party known for its own "special relationship" with extremists. Religious parties were further bolstered by a survey conducted by the British Council earlier this year revealing that 38 percent of Pakistani youth surveyed believed Islamic law is better suited for Pakistan than democracy.
Instead, Taliban attacks have likely increased chances of a high sympathy vote for the secular parties, a dynamic that helped usher in the PPP coalition in 2008 following the tragic death of Benazir Bhutto.
Why is it, though, that the extremists are not speaking with one voice? The commonsense - and most likely - argument is that they are just plain unorganized. Even though many of Haq's students joined the Taliban movement, it's doubtful that he has direct influence over the Taliban command and control structure - hence the very public statements contradicting the official Taliban position.
Let's not forget that Haq is a politician who leads his own political party and previously served in the Senate. His statements are more a warning for his former students than anyone else to not ruin his chances or those of the others who have been sitting on the sidelines for several years. A return to politics means a chance to advance the ideological agenda of the religious right, but it also allows individuals like Haq and his friends to benefit from state resources, foreign aid flows, and other "perks" of being in power.
No one expects the religious right to take over...yet. Religious parties never have much success in Pakistani elections. Furthermore, the likelihood of a General Zia ul-Haq figure emerging on the scene is low. Zia, the military dictator who introduced a conservative interpretation of shariah law in several areas of Pakistani culture and law, began the trend of mixing religion with politics as a tool of state power. The approach engendered a vast network of militants that fought mostly Pakistan's battles while invoking the name of Islam; some were also used by the United States in pushing the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, while others advanced their own sectarian agendas.
While no one can compete with Zia's quasi-theocratic feat at the moment, religion and politics still mix - and badly. Pakistan's long relationship with militants and its cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001 have engendered a new breed of religious right - those against the state, namely the Pakistani Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
It is because of this shift in the state's relationship with militants that the Pakistani military has a clear interest in strengthening the religious right's political chances. Could the likes of Sami ul-Haq and other religious political parties convince the Pakistani Taliban to stop attacking the Pakistani military, secular politicians, and ordinary citizens? Don't bet money on it, but in February the Taliban did say they would participate in talks with the military if they would be mediated by one of the following individuals: Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz President Nawaz Sharif, Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Munawar Hasan, or Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman.
The talks did not happen. Instead, the Pakistani military began an operation in the Tirah Valley where numerous security officials and militants have died. It is becoming harder and harder for the Pakistani military to respond to battlefield challenges by militants who now want access to the ballot box too. In addition to militant leader Hafeez Saeed's new "political career," dozens of individuals with alleged links to militant organizations have filed papers for the elections.
The entrée of such unsavory characters into Pakistani politics would not be a first, but it would be the wrong direction for a country that is still testing a rapidly evolving democratic culture and also trying to clarify the role of religion in politics. Islam, after all, is inextricable from Pakistan's history. The country was formed in 1947 as part of a political push by Muhammad Ali Jinnah to establish a homeland for the Indian subcontinent's impoverished Muslims. General Kayani, Chief of Army Staff, reiterated this point last week when he told the country's premier military academy that "Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and Islam can never be taken out of Pakistan."
Many believed Kayani's remarks justified religious extremism. This can hardly be the whole truth given the losses the military has suffered fighting the Pakistani Taliban. But the skepticism provoked by his remarks illustrates just how damaged religion and politics has become in Pakistan.
If extremists can take advantage of this characterization of Pakistan to advance their violent agendas, then surely the country's secular parties and government institutions can strengthen themselves against the militant threat in the name of Islam as well. But with extremists such as the members of the banned sectarian group, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, fielding candidates in this week's elections, such progress does not appear imminent.
Shamila N. Chaudhary is a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010-2011.
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As the United States continues to withdraw troops and materiel from Afghanistan, the rhetoric from President Hamid Karzai's administration wavers between being fairly pro-American and caustically anti-American, and speculation about reconciliatory negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgent groups abound, it is difficult to remain optimistic about the durability of institutions America has helped build in Afghanistan. However, there is one institution that stands out amongst its peers as a clear success story.
Southwest of Kabul's beautiful Babur Gardens, home of the Mughal Empire founder's tomb, a nondescript maroon door is set back into cream blast walls. Although they look no different than the other concrete walls surrounding compounds along the main road to the battered Darul Aman palace, what happens inside those walls is changing the minds and lives of individuals from all over the country who have the opportunity to attend. Just over the hill from the center of Kabul and past the old city wall, the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) may be on the outskirts of the capital city, but it is quickly sinking roots into the town and making connections around the country.
It is changing the way that Afghans view and access higher education. Mrs. Sultana Hakimi, wife of Afghan ambassador to the United States Eklil Ahmad Hakimi, spoke of the importance of the university's activities when she observed that, "With such a dynamic society [in which] 60 percent is under the age of 20, Afghanistan will rely heavily on the emerging generations." These young Afghans have no small task ahead of them, even if they seek only to restore their country to a level of stability and security similar to that it last enjoyed in the mid twentieth century.
Since it opened in 2006 with an initial enrollment of 53 students, AUAF has had great success.
AUAF graduated its first class in 2011 and currently has just under a thousand undergraduate students, with the student body nearly doubling during seasonal classes that focus on adult education programs. These adult education programs focus on teaching the GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) ministry staff, which dovetails with other U.S Government efforts to build professional capacity across Afghanistan's administrative bodies.
The university's campus is housed in a series of buildings that was originally constructed as the American International School of Kabul from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s, and the campus has long been the center of learning, including the brief period during which it served
as the Soviet intelligence headquarters during their occupation of Afghanistan through the 1980s. The five-acre campus is currently near its maximum capacity of one thousand undergraduate students, and houses administrative offices, classrooms, science and information technology (IT) labs, a teleconferencing suite, athletic facilities, and a state-of-the-art library that receives Western publications a mere two weeks after their official release.
Across the road is another 80 acres-recently acquired by the university-which will accommodate a women's center and another IT center, as well as staff and faculty housing. The International Center for Afghan Women's Economic Development, the first center of its kind to facilitate both international and Afghan public and private sector efforts to advance the role of women in the economic stabilization of the country, is only the first of many new resources planned for student use on the new campus. It is slated to open just 13 months after groundbreaking, demonstrating an unheard of rate of construction for a complex of that size pretty much anywhere in the world, let alone in the middle of a conflict zone.
Said Jawad, former Afghan Ambassador to the United States and President of the Foundation for Afghanistan, remarked of the center that, "True economic prosperity and peace can only come from harnessing the myriad talents and courage of Afghan women... the lessons we have learned in the last decade teach us to avoid duplication of efforts but, rather, be force multipliers." Like many other supporters of the AUAF, the Foundation for Afghanistan stands ready to connect rural and urban women and their respective projects with the work of the university and its new women's center. The center will open on May 25, 2013, in conjunction with the graduation of AUAF's third undergraduate class and first cohort of business school students.
Needless to say, the security situation in Kabul is a concern for the students, faculty, and staff of AUAF. In October 2011, a massive suicide car bomb was driven into a military shuttle bus just beyond the gates of the university. The attack took 13 American lives, as well as those of at least half a dozen bystanders. That event was the second largest single loss of American lives since the war began, behind only the tragic helicopter crash that killed 30 U.S. troops a few short months earlier.
As Matt Trevithick-who worked for two and a half years as the university's Media Relations Manager-remarked, "We don't forget where we are, [and we] provide the safest environment we can." Visitors are screened prior to entry through the main gate, and are vetted and searched thoroughly before proceeding through metal detectors to the campus grounds. Armed guards keep watch over the campus and quickly blend away into the sense of normalcy that blankets the university's goings-on.
Within the perimeter of the blast walls is a safe zone, and at the heart of the campus is a grass quad where students are free to act as they like and voice their own thoughts. Building a community in which students feel comfortable engaging in free discourse is important to the university's academic environment, and plays a foundational role in building a strong civil society that students will export outside the university's walls following their graduation.
Aspects of pedagogy and thought that are central to many Western educational experiences can prove to be revelatory to new students at AUAF. Given Afghanistan's highly hierarchical social structure where elders make almost all of the most important decisions, the idea that it is the young students' responsibility to take ownership of fixing the country's problems is often intriguing to them. As Trevithick observed, "We're always telling them to ‘Identify the problem, propose a solution, and try to fix it.' Amazingly, students will come up to staff and professors here later and let us know that they have never been told this before."
In addition to exporting knowledge to villages far from the capital city, the university offers a rare
forum in which individuals from across the country can openly discuss events and debate ideas. As Trevithick explained, "We're the only school in Afghanistan that has the country's name in our name, and we have students from 33 of the 34 provinces. So, if there's an uprising in, say Ghazni, there's a good chance we have a student from that village that we can ask about it." In a country that is still in the nascent stages of redeveloping its national character, a place like AUAF is pivotal in building shared relationships and common identities.
Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who was awarded an honorary degree of humane letters by the university at the Friends of AUAF gala in March of this year at Washington, D.C.'s Museum of Women in the Arts, has said that he is a "strong believer in the power of education to change our world... at its best, education is a great equalizer. It unites us."
The value of education that both Afghans and Americans share is important to remember at times like this, when rhetoric can easily overtake reality. As Mrs. Shamim Jawad, also an AUAF Board of Trustees member (and wife of Amb. Jawad) said of the university's role in advancing Afghan-American relations: "The people of Afghanistan will never forget your sacrifices and count on your continued support and friendship...Afghan people have come a long way in building a peaceful, pluralistic, and prosperous society, and are determined to finish the journey that we have started jointly with you a decade ago. I can assure you that Afghans will never return to the dark days of repression."
The marked success of the independent university blazes a trail for other private entities to assume the risk and reward of pursuing their own ventures. As there is a move from coalition-led projects to Afghan-led initiatives, so too is it time to transition from government-led efforts to private sector-provided services like tertiary education. The university has already proven to be innovative and successful in a number of valuable ways, and its outlook for the future is equally promising.
CBS reporter Lara Logan summed up the university's value at the Friends of AUAF gala succinctly when she remarked, "There's stuff born in those classrooms that can outlast a war." If there is anything that the people of Afghanistan need right now, it's the durability of an education that students can never thereafter be deprived of.
Whitney Grespin/Author Photo
Today, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its 2013 Annual Report, focusing on Pakistan and 28 other countries around the world, including Afghanistan. As an independent U.S. government advisory body separate from the State Department, USCIRF's Annual Report identifies violations of religious freedom, as defined by international conventions, and provides policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress.
Based on our monitoring over the past year, we have concluded that the situation in Pakistan is one of the worst in the world.
The report found that "sectarian and religiously-motivated violence is chronic, especially against Shi'a Muslims, and the government has failed to protect members of religious minority communities, as well as the majority faith." An array of repressive laws, including the much abused blasphemy law and religiously discriminatory anti-Ahmadi laws, foster an atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism. The growth of militant groups espousing a violent religious ideology that undertake attacks impact all Pakistanis and threatens the country's security and stability.
In the face of increasing attacks against Shi'as and consistent violence against other minorities, Pakistani authorities have failed to provide protection and have not consistently brought perpetrators to justice or taken action against societal actors who incite violence.
In light of these particularly severe violations, USCIRF recommends that Pakistan be designated a "country of particular concern," or CPC, by the U.S. Department of State for these systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom. The CPC designation is a special blacklist created when Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed in 1998 the International Religious Freedom Act. Unlike some other ‘blacklists,' the CPC designation does not carry any specific penalties for the countries on the list. What it does do is assign a framework through which U.S. officials can encourage the designated country's government to address the egregious violations of religious freedom. This can come in the form of a binding roadmap of agreed actions, a waiver, or punitive steps if progress is lacking.
Countries currently named by the State Department include: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. Pakistan represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated as "countries of particular concern," and USCIRF has concluded it overwhelmingly meets the threshold established in the Act.
The facts speak for themselves. As the report states:
The Pakistani government failed to effectively intervene against a spike in targeted violence against the Shi'a Muslim minority community, as well as violence against other minorities. With elections scheduled for May 2013, additional attacks against religious minorities and candidates deemed "unIslamic" will likely occur. Chronic conditions remain, including the poor social and legal status of non-Muslim religious minorities and the severe obstacles to free discussion of sensitive religious and social issues faced by the majority Muslim community. The country's blasphemy law, used predominantly in Punjab province but also nationwide, targets members of religious minority communities and dissenting Muslims and frequently results in imprisonment. USCIRF is aware of at least 16 individuals on death row and 20 more serving life sentences. The blasphemy law, along with anti-Ahmadi laws that effectively criminalize various practices of their faith, has created a climate of vigilante violence. Hindus have suffered from the climate of violence and hundreds have fled Pakistan for India. Human rights and religious freedom are increasingly under assault, particularly women, members of religious minority communities, and those in the majority Muslim community whose views deemed "un-Islamic." The government has proven unwilling or unable to confront militants perpetrating acts of violence against other Muslims and religious minorities.
Designating Pakistan as a CPC would make religious freedom a key element in the bilateral relationship and start a process to encourage Islamabad to undertake needed reforms.
There are a range of issues that should be on the bilateral agenda, whether or not Pakistan is designated a CPC. The U.S. government should include discussions on religious freedom and religious tolerance in U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogues and summits, as well as urge Pakistan to protect religious minorities from violence and actively prosecute those committing acts of violence against Shi'as, Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, and others; unconditionally release individuals currently jailed for blasphemy; repeal or reform the blasphemy law; and repeal anti-Ahmadi laws. The United States can also highlight to the new government how the Federal Ministry for National Harmony is an institution unique among other nations, and maintaining it would keep a partner to discuss ways to promote religious tolerance and freedom. For sure, none of these are easy, so naming as a CPC would cut through the distractions and help create the political will to act.
The situation in Pakistan is acute, with the increasing violence against diverse religious communities and a system of laws that violate human rights. With a new government soon coming to power, there is a unique opportunity to work together to confront these threats to Pakistan. At the same time, negative pressures could tilt the new government in the wrong direction. For instance, the Pakistani Taliban's targeting of "secular politicians" could give traction to their offer from late 2012 to cease violence in exchange for constitutional amendments to install their religious vision over the country. The CPC process would support Pakistanis who want a better future for their country and counterbalance these pressures -- if the Pakistani government fails to address these issues concretely, penalties could follow after a CPC designation.
The United States is Pakistan's only friend that has the heft and desire to encourage it to tackle these difficult challenges. For sure, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is complicated and designating a CPC would likely complicate things further. However, to protect all Pakistanis, these issues cannot be ignored and must be confronted and addressed.
Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Any personal views expressed are his own and may or may not reflect the views of the commission. He can be followed on Twitter @thames22.
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Pakistan's security and economic woes are frequently discussed in policy circles in Washington, D.C. and Islamabad. Little attention, however, is given to the country's youth population which, at a staggering 50 million, comprises more than 25 percent of Pakistan's population (in the United States, youth account for only 13 percent).
When practitioners and pundits speak about Pakistani youth -- defined by the Ministry of Youth Affairs as the population within the age bracket of 15-29 years -- they often depict the demographic as a potential security threat or as a misguided group that is unable to move the country forward.
For instance, when talking about Pakistan's youth population to a global news agency, the United Nations Population Fund Country Representative warned that "If young people do not find their expectations met, their energies may be directed towards undesirable activities, like radicalization." This is a view held by most development practitioners and analysts. However, the declaration of the "International Year of Youth" in 2010-2011, and the October 2012 release of the U.S Agency for International Development's first Policy on Youth in Development reveal a growing international consensus on the importance of youth integration in development initiatives. As a result, the time to pivot the conversation from Pakistani youth as a security threat to them as viable partners is now.
To help prepare the youth in Pakistan to be better leaders, there must be a concentrated effort to create channels that go beyond simply providing a platform to voice concerns. Programs must enable youth leaders to shape and contribute to national development efforts. The United States AmeriCorps program, which offers youth of all backgrounds to serve communities through partnerships with local and national nonprofit groups, is one such example.
If analysts and practitioners continue to adhere to the ongoing negative narrative about youth, which assumes that young Pakistanis are prone to violence, radicalization, or simply disinterest, they block youth's access to positions in political parties, government institutions, and private and public decision-making bodies that build their capacity to effectively lead national development efforts.
This is unfortunate given that close to half of Pakistan's voters are considered youth by Pakistan's government standards. Local youth feel disengaged with the national and provincial policymaking process, as revealed by a recent roundtable on youth participation organized by the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. The roundtable further noted that when youth--particularly those from rural constituencies--do vote, it is largely along the lines of traditional allegiances and biradari (tribal) affiliations. This is a reality check for pundits who feel that youth as a demographic entity in and of itself will affect change. It will take well-defined policy measures and serious resource allocation to transform the country's youth into a demographic dividend.
One obvious step is greater investment in education and job training for Pakistan's youth. The World Bank's 2007 World Development Report suggested that developing countries which invest in better education, healthcare, and job training for their young people are better equipped to take advantage of their demographic dividend to accelerate economic growth. This is corroborated by a recent report by the Population Reference Bureau, a data-focused international non-profit organization, which states that large numbers of young people can represent great economic potential, but only if families and governments invest in their health and education, and provide them with economic opportunities.
Macro-economic benefits aside, investment in education and job training provide both urban and rural youth with greater options, such as moving to another town, finding alternate and better sources of livelihood, and setting their own values and priorities, which will ultimately influence voting patterns.
A recent United States Institute of Peace paper, "Prospects of Youth Radicalization in Pakistan" highlighted how growing inequality in Pakistan has manifested itself in the high level of underemployment among youth from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Although the labor market has expanded, its growth is not commensurate with the size of the youth cohort. Therefore, a majority of non-elite young graduates can only find relatively blue-collar jobs. Graduates from a vast majority of Pakistan's public sector institutions are simply not considered competitive by Pakistan's private sector firms that seek English-speaking individuals with diverse exposure, a broad knowledge base, and robust analytical ability.
Sobia Nusrat, Manager of Academics and Admission at the Institute for Career and Personal Development, a new organization that specifically aims to equip middle-class university graduates with the skills needed to succeed professionally, states that one of the major challenges faced by the students she and her team work with is their inability to communicate in English, both written and verbal. "Their thinking and problem solving skills are quite weak due to Pakistan's academic institutions' focus on rote learning." She adds that in order to help address this challenge, in addition to greater investment in education and job training, "There is need for more collaboration between the industry and education providers in terms of not only increasing the skills of youth but also linking them to Pakistan's economic needs."
Some government agencies are making an effort to address this issue. The Punjab Government-through its Youth Affairs, Sports, Tourism and Archaeology Department-announced the establishment of the Job Bank-Online under its first-ever youth policy. The portal aims to conduct job market surveys, build a database to inform Punjab's youth about potential openings, and guide educational and vocational training institutes regarding industry trends. Under the new policy, the Department also announced the establishment of the Youth Venture Capital Fund, which will support new business ideas and entrepreneurship amongst young men and women.
Local-level initiatives like this are a welcome approach to a complex, widespread issue. That said, close monitoring and evaluation must be done to measure the Punjab Government's progress in meeting its goals. If effective, there is potential for scaling and replication elsewhere in Pakistan.
And while providing Pakistani youth with meaningful livelihood opportunities is important to national economic growth, parallel efforts must be pursued to develop their soft skills and competencies such as effective communication skills, teamwork, problem solving, and critical thinking, all which will make them more workplace ready and equip them to lead Pakistan's local and national institutions in the future.
Young Pakistani leaders have already launched a large number of promising local programs that work to create social and political awareness among youth, and encourage youth participation in development efforts. That said, many of these organizations are centered around a vague notion of ‘change' and general disillusionment with Pakistani politics, and are largely disconnected from Pakistan's mainstream political parties and government bodies. While the passions of dedicated citizens instill hope in the future of Pakistan, the isolation from policymaking and disconnect from implementing institutions impede their ability to expand and scale. They also hinder the youth leaders' abilities to sustainably build capacity later as policy professionals working within Pakistan's institutional system.
To that end, efforts such as the Youth Parliament Pakistan-established by the local non-profit Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency to educate and train youth in the norms of politics and democracy in the country-are critical and deserve national government and international donor support. Haider A. H. Mullick, a former adjunct fellow at Spearhead Pakistan, a non-partisan think tank, has put forth a few thoughtful recommendations including expanding the voting rights of political parties' youth-wing members and introducing leadership and civic education courses on campuses.
With Pakistan's general election taking place this May, the time for the country's civil society organizations and political parties to begin constructively engaging youth in the campaigning and election process is now. One hopes that the Pakistani youth's professional and civic growth will not be held hostage by the adult populace's failure to recognize their value and role in Pakistan's development.
Maryam Jillani is a youth development specialist at an international non-profit organization in Washington D.C. She received her MPA from Cornell University, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Most people remember the harrowing cover of TIME in late July 2010 depicting the 18-year-old Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off following a Taliban sentence for her attempt to flee from an abusive husband. Many can recall the penetrating glare of the green-eyed Afghan girl in a refugee camp on the cover of National Geographic. Both images are powerful reminders of the past atrocities, present humanitarian strife, and future aspirations of millions in Afghanistan as the international military presence draws down. Many Afghans ask, "Can my country avoid a relapse into civil war?" Even those who assess this question with some optimism still find themselves asking, "Will Afghanistan be safe enough to raise my children and build a livelihood?"
Preventing an outright civil war is directly related to the national interests of the coalition countries engaged in Afghanistan. A civil war would strengthen the hands of the numerous terrorist groups that operate on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Moreover, destabilizing spill-over effects would weaken an already fragile Pakistan, exacerbating the internal cleavages and security threats confronting the state with the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenal. Therefore, the primary objective of the U.S.-led coalition is to ensure a stable and cooperative Afghan political order that denies terrorist groups the capacity and opportunity to conduct large-scale attacks against Western interests.
Human rights perspectives, beyond those necessary to achieve this primary objective, are at best second order issues. If human rights were a primary objective, the international community would have intervened earlier and stayed longer-something that is unfeasible and not in the interest of any of the coalition countries currently engaged in Afghanistan. But this does not and should not preclude an effort to advance human rights in Afghanistan while the international coalition is present. Though a second-tier objective, the international community has an interest in and a moral duty to improve human rights, or at least to do no harm.
The problem is that the human rights agenda has been undermined by unrealistic goals and ineffective efforts, too often driven by a desire to please domestic, Western audiences rather than to help the Afghan population. International rhetoric has often elevated the drive to promote human rights-in particular the equality of women-as a goal on par with the primary security agenda. This reflects measures of both idealism and cynicism. Some have held sincere yet naïve visions of Afghanistan's social and political transformation. Others have simply used the human rights agenda as an instrument to garner political legitimacy and justify the human and material costs.
Both views have led to vast amounts of foreign aid and political attention being squandered. Many schools and clinics have been built irrespective of the local demand. Foreign aid has been conditioned by counterproductive gender quotas. Incredible amounts of time and resources have been spent on largely symbolic cases such as legislation on women's shelters or on Shiite marriages or the recent appointment of the new intelligence chief, Asadullah Khalid. But battling atrocious laws or a controversial appointment is the wrong fight. What matters is what affects the human rights that Afghan's exercise in their daily lives.
This raises the question: What is the right fight? What is the realist perspective on human rights in Afghanistan? Without reverting to naïve aspirations and while maintaining a realistic order of objectives, how can the international community more effectively advance human rights?
The single most effective thing the international community has done to promote human rights in Afghanistan and empower women is to send Afghan boys to school. This should certainly not be understood as an argument against girls' schools or female education in general. But under conditions tantamount to patriarchal totalitarianism, the key to promoting human rights resides in the hands of Afghan men. Save a rebellion by Afghan women, only a voluntary shift in the attitudes of Afghan men can empower women and advance the human rights of every Afghan. All Afghan girls should get an education, but unless the men ease their repressive dominance, half of the population will never have the opportunity to exercise their human rights. Such attitudinal shifts are more sustainable if nurtured indigenously and voluntarily through education. Conditioning aid on gender quotas and human rights principles mostly leads to counterproductive tension or symbolic gestures by Afghan counterparts.
In theory, conditioning aid could perhaps entice a shift in Afghan behavior but unless the international community is ready to withhold aid entirely if conditions are unmet-and be willing to jeopardize their national interests at stake-it is very unlikely to occur in practice. Afghans know this. Besides, once the international presence in Afghanistan recedes, human rights gains will erode in the absence of the indigenous preference shifts necessary to sustain them. For change to last, Afghans must want it.
The good news is that primary education is one of the greatest legacies of the international effort in Afghanistan since 2001. Fewer than 1 million children were in school before the intervention and virtually no girls received primary education. Today, some 9 million children receive primary education and about 40 percent are girls. This is a monumental achievement. Unfortunately, it is not mirrored in the higher education sector. Although progress has undoubtedly occurred-Kabul, for instance, has witnessed a surge in newly established universities-the capacity of the higher education sector is still far from sufficient to absorb the influx of students from the primary sector. A more concerted international effort to improve the higher education sector would significantly increase the opportunity of the youth to fulfill their potential and, in doing so, improve conditions for advancing human rights and greater gender equality.
A realistic time horizon is also important to establishing an effective human rights effort. Too much, too soon is too risky. Some say clocks tick slower in Afghanistan. It is safe to say, at least, that past attempts to quickly roll out vast social reforms have triggered civil unrest. Modernizing efforts by King Amanullah Khan ignited revolts and eventually a civil war in 1928. He was forced to abdicate the next year. Only the Soviet intervention in 1979 kept the Communist rule from the same fate after it had introduced its radical reform agenda in 1978.
The lesson is that sustainable social change in Afghanistan is slow. The human rights agenda must therefore be attuned to a long-term perspective. Here is great potential. Navigating between currents of modernization and conservatism, between forces of societal change, tradition, and stagnation, Afghans will chart their own course on human rights after 2014. In doing so, the Afghan youth can be decisive. In a country stricken by an adult illiteracy rate around 70 percent, and where 43 percent of its 30 million inhabitants are aged 14 or younger, the 9 million children currently in school have truly transformative potential.
Surely the lives of too many Afghans can still be described in Hobbesian terms as brutish, nasty, and short. Immediate and concerted action remains necessary as human rights violations and humanitarian strife across the country must be addressed. It is because of this that many international actors take a short-term view when assessing how to advance human rights and show legible results. This has a persuasive logic, but it also has counterproductive implications. In particular, this short-term lens has led to a strong inclination in the international community to focus on the near-term ebbs and flows of the human rights agenda in insulated Kabul.
International pushback against proposed legislation and specific cabinet appointments has often dominated the human rights agenda. Highly visible international intervention in a specific political or legal case may resonate well with Western audiences, but through Afghan eyes it risks tainting the human rights agenda as an avenue of international social engineering and a principle question of Afghan sovereignty. Such perceptions render Afghan advocates of human rights much less effective and undermine the local ownership which is so difficult to nurture, but so important in order to sustain change.
An incremental, low-profile, long-term international effort holds the greatest chance of success in the promotion of human rights in Afghanistan. A more realistic and effective approach must cultivate and support Afghan agents of change, particularly the educated youth. But their potential can only be unleashed if they are given the opportunity to do so by a stable environment. As security is the basis of any human rights progress in Afghanistan, the primary objective of a stable country bereft of terrorist havens both meets and complements the human rights agenda.
Christian Bayer Tygesen is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at Copenhagen University. He conducted field research and diplomatic assignments in Kabul in 2011 and 2012.
Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s latest vague and controversial anti-U.S. remarks were puzzling to many people both inside and outside Afghanistan, as they implied that the United States is inadvertently colluding with the Taliban. Despite the fact that he later accused the media of misinterpreting his comments and tried to clarify his remarks during a press conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Kabul, his comments generated a lot of noise, confusion, and varied interpretations by political commentators.
The most popular interpretations explained that Karzai’s bizarre remarks were likely aimed at cementing his patriotic image. Others believed his comments were attempts to rebuild his legacy as he nears the end of his term in office. Some speculated that they were a result of “bad advice” from his political cronies.
All of these interpretations may have shades of truth to them, yet there is another unnoticed nuance to Karzai’s remarks. Karzai is displaying his influence over the U.S. because of two important matters: peace talks with the Taliban and the 2014 presidential elections.
With regard to the peace talks, Karzai wants to take the lead on the process, undermine any existing secret negotiation channels that have excluded him, and at a minimum, reduce Kabul’s dependence on Pakistan’s cooperation for the success of any future peace talks. Having felt excluded from the “secret channels” allegedly opened by the United States to hold negotiations with the Taliban, Karzai also wants the Taliban to know that approaching the Americans for peace talks will end up nowhere if his government is not involved.
To be able to dominate the political landscape, Karzai needed to showcase his power and authority to the Taliban and counter the militants’ long-running accusations that he is a “powerless” “puppet” of the Americans and that he does not have authority over major decisions in the country So he staged the recent political drama by ratcheting up his demands on the transfer of the Parwan Detention Facility from the U.S. military to the Afghan government and the expulsion of U.S. Special Forces from parts of Wardak province. He also stepped up his anti-U.S. rhetoric to ensure his demands were met despite widespread opposition from influential political and social groups in the country. To add weight to his demands, he even involved the Council of Religious Scholars, a body widely considered to be a tool for advancing Karzai’s personal political goals. While he achieved both demands, it was a political gamble that brought Afghan-U.S. relations to their lowest point in the last decade. Yet for Karzai, the end result was that he managed to display his authority and influence over a major international player, though it has yet to produce any breakthroughs in terms of holding direct talks with the Taliban.
The second issue on Karzai’s mind is the 2014 presidential election. He is constitutionally barred from running for another term, and the Afghan president knows well that his survival and his family’s and clan’s statuses in post-2014 Afghanistan depend on whomever becomes the next leader of the country. Karzai’s anti-U.S. rhetoric and what it achieved will reinforce his position as a “Kingmaker” in the upcoming elections. This is likely to mobilize powerbrokers around him and make it easier for his handpicked candidate to win the election because in Afghanistan, the perception of power is more important than actual power.
For Karzai, having a handpicked successor who ensures the continuation of his and his family’s interest and political survival is more a matter of necessity than choice. This is because, in the incredible tale of Afghan history, many rulers of the country and their families have either been brutally killed or have faced permanent exile in foreign lands. This unfortunate historical precedent has become even more prominent as five out of nine Afghan leaders and their immediate families have been murdered since the Communist revolution in 1978. For Karzai, the stakes are even higher if he loses power or if he becomes politically irrelevant. After all, members of the Karzai family and tribe have enjoyed incredible riches and political domination of southern Afghanistan over the last 12 years, sometimes at the cost of other tribes and political rivals. Since 2001, his relatives and tribe have ruled the south of the country–where Afghan kings have historically hailed from–more like the Sopranos of Kandahar than the Kennedys of Afghanistan.
With the Afghan election date fast approaching, the United States should expect more such erratic statements from Karzai. But they should also understand that Karzai’s anti-U.S. statements neither reflect nor speak for the wider Afghan public view of the United States. In fact, Karzai was taken aback by the harsh criticism he faced from majority in the country, including members of his own government. This backlash stemmed from the anxiety that has gripped the country over the widespread belief that a premature withdrawal of the U.S.-led NATO troops will mark the beginning of a civil war in the country. Many Afghans see their leader’s frantic and bizarre statements as not only damaging to the national interests of the country, but also further throwing the country into the arms of Afghanistan’s two rapacious neighbors: Pakistan and Iran.
Najib Sharifi is the Director of Afghanistan New Generation Organization—a youth empowerment body based in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Ahmad Shafi is an Afghan journalist and a former NPR producer.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Image
Despite cultural differences, the countries of South Asia share a strong connection through trade, history, and, of course, Indian film. Bollywood is no stranger to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Posters of Indian actors adorn streets from Kabul to Karachi, and bootleg movies are widely available.
But Indian cinema is a male-dominated industry, meaning the portrayal of women in films is a reflection of the woman's role in Indian society from a man's viewpoint. These films mold opinions, and often encourage the poor treatment of women. Often, Bollywood productions focus on the plight of wealthy women, whose treatment at the hands of the men in their lives is offset by their comfortable lifestyles. At the same time, though, most of them omit the difficulties that women of lower socio-economic backgrounds face on a daily basis, such as the harassment on buses and streets that showed itself at its worst in the recent mob rape of two young women. While Bollywood seems to have no problem showing men how women should be treated, it has so far shied away from investigating the repercussions of this behavior.
As a woman of Afghan descent, I watched from a young age as heroines suffered at the hands of the patriarchal society. Even the "good" or "virtuous" women, the traditional housewives, were second-class citizens. The good woman would argue with her husband begging him not to force their daughter to marry a man she didn't love, but he would tell his wife to stay out of matters that didn't concern her. His word was final.
The "bad women," the courtesans that entertained members of the high society, would dance the night away and recite poetry only to be sold to the highest bidder at the end of the night. Sought after for their beauty; they are shown to intoxicate men with their skills, dancing in such a way that would only be seen in such settings. Countless movies display this, such as Umraoo Jaan, Pakeezah, Sharafat and Mughal-e-Azam. They depict men who sitting on cushions, smoking, and chewing betel leaves. The only women in their scenes were the courtesans and the madame who gives her prized possession, the courtesan, to the man offering the most money, displayed in gold coins.
The madame in these films loves her young possessions and raises them as daughters. She appears to do the girls a favor by taking them off the streets where they would otherwise beg for food and shelter. Instead, they become dancers for elite men, regaled with gifts and beautiful clothes. Most of these women were trafficked domestically as young girls and then raised to dance and entertain with a poise not found in other areas of society.
Powerful men in these films visit such establishments with little repercussion, but it is the women who are left to face the real blowback. The men still marry well, hold high ranks in society, and have their lawful wives accept the fact that they have a second life with other women. The most a woman could do was approach the courtesan dancer and ask her to stop luring her husband.
Deemed unclean, these courtesans were not even permitted to enter places of worship. In movies like Mehbooba, the townspeople react with public outcry when the dancer enters the temple to pray. Another movie, Suhaag, portrays a young girl who kills a man about to rape her. She recognizes the realities of the local judiciary procedures where, should she be found out, she would have no due process or justice, given that she was both poor and a female. She escapes her village only to be taken in by a "motherly woman" to become a dancer. Luckily for her, she does not sell her body at the end of the night. Although the main character's story in this movie has a happy ending, women who find themselves in her situation in reality do not share her fate.
According to a New York Times blog post published last December, India has the highest number of human trafficking victims in the world. While authorities have closed hundreds of brothels where occurrences of human trafficking of underage females have been found, prostitution and trafficking continues. Because of the stigma, women who have been forced to live and work in brothels aren't able to escape that life even if given an opportunity. Were they to return to their villages, they would most likely be rejected by their families. .
But with regard to other women's issues, Bollywood has done a much better job of portraying reality. Prostitution and brothels are not the only way Indian women fall victim to the patriarchal society. Widows in India are ostracized and deemed financial burdens. Their presence is considered bad luck. According to tradition they have to flee to the holy city of Vrindivan where they live until they die. Several Bollywood movies, such as the 2005 film Water, portray the lives of such widows. At Vrindivan, they must live a life without pleasure of any sort in order to abide by the traditions. This lifestyle begins with the shaving of their heads. Vrindivan is said to have about 15,000 widows that have been forced to reside there.
In India and parts of Pakistan, female feticide, the act of aborting a fetus because it's a female, is practiced. When medical technology made it possible to determine the sex of a fetus, clinics across the country advertised their ability to perform sex-related abortions. Before the advent of such technology, female babies were often left at doorstops or murdered upon birth. A national census reveals a shocking ratio of 914 girls to 1000 boys under the age of seven. The 2004 film Mathruboomi: A Nation without Women, examines the impact of female feticide and infanticide.
Bollywood movies have shed light on the plight of Afghan and Pakistani women as well (though they continue to play to the stereotypes). The Afghan woman is often portrayed as a warrior, able to fight next to a man. On the other hand, she is still a prize to be won. In the movie Khuda Gawa, the heroine, an Afghan woman, promised her hand in marriage to the hero if he would kill her worst enemy, the man who murdered her father. She was a Buzkash, a champion of the extreme Afghan sport of buzkashi; she had power within her community. Yet, at the end, she was still weaker because she needed this man to carry out her mission, and she was willing to give herself to him should he be successful.
Veer Zaara provides a classic example of the subjugation of Pakistani women. It portrays a loud and quirky girl whose father listens to all her demands in other facets of life, yet her outgoing character cannot overpower her father's decision to marry her off to the son of an influential figure whose election depends on the marriage. When, as a Muslim, she falls in love with a Hindu man, she is ordered not to see him again.
In Indian circles it is common to hear women saying that their daughter's wedding costs their life's savings. According to tradition, the bride's family is to pay a dowry to the groom's family. Women are often criticized, ridiculed and even beaten for not having a large enough dowry. Although India outlawed dowries in 1961, they still exist, and the exchange of the dowry is a common scene in Bollywood films. Lajja is the perfect example of a movie that portrays the pressure a family is under to pay a dowry.
Pakistan has a similar problem with the burdens of the dowry, mostly among the Urdu-speaking communities or those of Punjabi origin, who can trace their lineages back to India. Many women are left unwed simply because their parents aren't able to afford the increasing demands from the groom's family. In Afghanistan, and amongst the Pashtun cultures of Pakistan, there is a reverse dowry system, or the mehr, which is to be paid to the female's family. With it comes the cost of the wedding and all expenses thereof. Thus, females are not a financial burden in Pashtun Pakistani communities, nor throughout Afghanistan.
That doesn't mean that females are necessarily better off. Many families negotiate their daughter's price, giving her not to the best man, but to the one that can pay the higher price. Laila Majnu depicts the true story which later evolved into Arabic literature and then consecutively into Persian literature. It is indeed dubbed the Romeo and Juliet of the Muslim World, because it is the story of two lovers from enemy tribes, both of whom end up dead, Majnun at the hands of an enemy and Laila taking her own life. In the scene of the "Juliet's" marriage to a King in which the vows are exchanged, the mullah asks the groom if he agrees to pay the one lakh or one hundred thousand for her, and it is agreed upon.
What is the connection between a rape victim and a woman portrayed in Bollywood films? The movies are dramatized reflections of the realities of life in South Asian societies, where the poor are second class citizens and women are what men decide them to be. More importantly, the movies can shape societies' viewpoints, reinforcing the discrimination; over time people can and have accepted that women are inferior.
Bollywood plays an important role in shaping ideologies in India and South Asia as a whole. Lollywood, Pakistan's movie industry, has had its ups and downs in recent years due to increasing levels of violence and militancy in the country. It is, however, slowly recovering, and Pakistani soap operas are widely watched in the region.
For their part, Bollywood films have changed somewhat in recent years to depict the woman as more of an equal to her male counterpart and less of an object; their roles are more career-driven and less subservient. Women are standing up to society and their families where injustices such as forced marriages exist.
These trends are not enough. Bollywood can become more progressive on women's issues by portraying lives of ordinary women living in South Asia, and the challenges they have to face on a daily basis. Behind the opulence that is often portrayed in Bollywood films, the troubling reality of Indian and Pakistani societies is that the injustices against the women of the top 1% most often do not reflect the same gender discriminations of the vast majority of women within society. After all, the wealthiest individuals are not the ones who ride the bus every day.
Humira Noorestani is a Human Rights Activist and the Founder/Director of Ariana Outreach, an NGO dedicated to building bridges between the United States and Afghanistan, primarily through connecting women of both countries.
The long agony for Afghanistan's women ended with the fall of the Taliban in 2001. This past January, Ms. Saira Shikeb Sadat, whose husband disappeared under the Taliban rule, assumed office as Afghanistan's first female district administrator in Jawzjan province. She recently told media that one of her top priorities was to empower women and girls. She said this can be achieved through the development of her district, Khawaja Do Koh, which is home to a population of 5,000 whose access to education, healthcare, and employment assistance, such as income-generation schemes, has been very limited. But she is determined to address these problems during her tenure in office, and the Afghan government supports her in these efforts.
Like Ms. Sadat, thousands of women are politically and socially active in Afghanistan in various capacities. The first female provincial governor and district mayor in Afghan history are currently in office. The key ministries of public health: women's affairs, and labor, social affairs, martyrs and disabled are led by women, as is Afghanistan's Independent Commission on Human Rights. At the same time, the Afghan Parliament continues to convene with a higher percentage of female representatives, 27.3 percent, than the legislative bodies of many of the most established democracies, including the U.S. Congress (15.2 percent) and British Parliament (19.7 percent).
Yet despite these important advances, the condition of women in Afghanistan is in need of urgent attention. One woman dies every 29 minutes in childbirth, the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the world (1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births). Mountainous terrain and weather conditions prevent timely medical attention to patients and pregnant women. Severe food shortages have resulted in chronic malnourishment among children, and 48 percent of Afghan women are iron-deficient.
Millions of girls cannot attend school because of security concerns or restrictive social norms. Just 12 percent of women 15 years and older can read and write, compared to 39 percent of men. The overall literacy rate for women between the ages of 15 and 24 stands at 24 percent, compared to 53 percent for men in Afghanistan.
This troubling situation is a legacy of decades of war and state collapse in the country. During the past 30 years of conflict, the needs of women stood neglected because Afghanistan did not have effective state institutions that could provide services to the people. Under the Taliban, women were relegated to the confines of their homes and deprived of education and basic human rights.
Afghanistan today is making efforts to recover from the effects of decades of utter desolation and destitution. Improving the condition of women is a priority in our national development strategy. In 2008, we launched a national action plan for the women of Afghanistan to provide a comprehensive, cross-ministerial approach to improving the condition of women. Indeed, we have a long way to go before we can catch up with the rest of the world, but we are working hard.
In the past eleven years, schools and universities have opened their doors to a record number of women. Of nearly 5 million children in grades one through six, 36.6 percent are girls. The number of girls in high school almost doubled from 2007 to 2008, from 67,900 to 136,621 students. Some 8,944 university students graduated in Afghanistan in 2008. Of them, 1,734 were female students. These numbers have continued to rise in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, despite a spike in the number and frequency of terrorist attacks across Afghanistan, often targeting schools, teachers, and students, with most victims being girls.
Public health also has seen tremendous improvement over the past eleven years. Up to 80 percent of the Afghan population has access to basic health care, a massive increase from just 8 percent in 2001. More than 1,650 professional midwives are employed by the ministry of public health, providing health care and childbirth services across Afghanistan. This has helped reduce infant mortality rates by 23 percent, saving 80,000 newborn lives each year.
In addition to taking these concrete steps, we are working to change societal mind-sets. In some parts of Afghanistan's most traditional areas, attitudes hamper the progress of women. Unlike most governments in the world, the Afghan government not only makes and implements policies, but also functions as an agent of social change, working to ameliorate the traditional views that hold women back from fully developing their abilities and contributing to society. We are partnering with local elders and religious figures to ensure that attitudes change through a community-centered approach. Through the National Solidarity Program, more than 22,000 Afghan women are actively participating along with men in more than 10,000 community development councils to assess local needs, receive and implement grants from the ministry of rural rehabilitation and development and lead project design and implementation.
Slowly, we are seeing progress. As the success story of Ms. Sadat and others reminds us, women are the pillars of Afghanistan. With enhanced attention to women's issues, more than half of the Afghan population can be socially, economically and politically empowered to make a significant contribution to Afghanistan's long-term development. The international community must help the Afghan government approach the task of empowering Afghan women as a continual process rather than as a single benchmark, for international experience shows us that even legal equality does not translate into equal treatment.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the deputy chief of mission of the Afghan Embassy in India. He formerly served as Afghanistan's deputy assistant national security adviser, as well as deputy chief of mission of the Afghan Embassy in the United States.
Just after Christmas, the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP) offered a peace deal of sorts to the Pakistani government. In exchange for a cessation of TTP violence, they demanded Pakistan's constitution be brought into conformity with their version of Islamic law and the government break ties with the United States. In response, a senior Pakistani government official reportedly called the offer "preposterous."
Yet it may not be, especially regarding the implementation of religious law. Similar demands were met in 2009 after the TTP took the Swat valley, with the Pakistani government giving away these very rights. The local government led by the Awami National party agreed to establish sharia law in Swat and the broader Malakand Division, which was approved by the national parliament and signed by President Zardari. It was only when the Pakistani Taliban pushed for more territorial gains that the government responded with force of arms. If past is prologue, the government may bend to get a deal now.
However, the status quo arguably meets TTP demands regarding religious law, as much of what they seek already exists - Islamic law plays a major role in governance, and militants are free to violently force their religious interpretations on the population.
This slide towards religious governance goes back to the country's founding. From the outset, the Objectives Resolution of 1949, which preceded the first of several constitutions, tilted Pakistan towards an Islamic state where citizens and their rights were defined by religion. This occurred despite Jinnah's famous speech two years earlier to the Constituent Assembly, in which he said, "You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed -- that has nothing to do with the business of the State." The Objectives Resolution went in a different direction, and while it recognized the presence of religious minorities, it only promised "adequate provision" of basic rights, while defining the entire state in Islamic terms. Constitutions that followed built off and expanded this foundation.
The biggest leaps came from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's secular Prime Minister from 1973-1977, and General Zia ul Haq's reign from 1978-1988. Under Bhutto, the Ahmadis were effectively outlawed through constitutional changes that created a definition of a Muslim that excluded Ahmadis. The constitution was also amended to establish the Council of Islamic Ideology to advise on whether proposed laws are compatible with Islam. Not considered particularly devout, he took these and other steps to shore-up his flagging political fortunes, currying the support of religious leaders.
Zia went even further, setting into place much of what the TTP wants today, changing both statutory law and constitutional provisions. He amended the blasphemy law, a colonial era holdover, and increased the penalty to include death, but without requiring the provision of evidence. This alone has had far-reaching effects. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) where I work knows of at least 17 people on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy and 20 others serving life sentences. Many more are in jail awaiting trial or appeal. The surprising outcome of the Rimsha Masih case is an exception to the sad norm.
In addition, Zia altered the penal code to criminalize the basic acts of the Ahmadi faith. He amended the constitution to create the Federal Shariat Court to review legislation that may conflict with sharia law, creating an unclear legal structure that appears to run parallel to or oversee the secular system. In addition, Zia Islamicized the education system, the banking system, and the penal system through the Hudood ordinances.
And today, for what the law does not forbid (which is much), militants have free reign to impose their religious views at the point of a gun.
This was shockingly evident last week, with the January 10 attack that killed 81 Shi'a Muslims in twin bombings in a Shiite area of Quetta. The attack was tragically predictable, as the targeting of Shia Muslims steadily increased throughout 2012, with rights groups estimating (before this attack) more than 400 murdered. The TTP, and fellow travelers like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, regularly claim responsibility. Human rights organizations continue to criticize government inaction, but the body count keeps rising.
Another case in point is the TTP murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister of Minority Affairs and the only Christian in Zardari's cabinet. Working bravely against the blasphemy law, the TTP answered Shahbaz's efforts in 2010 by assassinating him steps from his mother's Islamabad home in broad daylight. The TTP were so brazen as to leave fliers at the scene claiming responsibility, but no one has been held accountable and the investigation fizzled.
Ahmadis continue to suffer discrimination, abuse, and violence. 80 Ahmadis were killed in May 2010 when two of their mosques were attacked by the TTP. Violence continues today throughout the country - in July of this year the president of a local Ahmadi community outside Karachi was murdered and in December over 100 Ahmadi graves desecrated in Lahore. Hindus too are among the victims of Pakistan's climate of intolerance. The forced conversion and marriage of Hindu girls has increased in Sindh Province, and in 2012 upwards of 250 Pakistani Hindus from Sindh and Baluchistan Provinces have migrated to India to avoid increasing violence. Christians remember the violence of Gojra in 2009, where an entire village was burned to the ground and no one held to account, and last year the National Commission for Justice and Peace found nine places of worship were damaged, destroyed or vandalized, including 5 churches and 3 Hindu temples.
Clearly, the Pakistani Taliban's demand for enforcement of their version of Islamic law is not far from reality. In the current environment, Pakistani law is used to enforce religious views, and militants act with impunity against those they consider un-Islamic. Both the majority Muslim population and minority religious communities are at risk. Pakistan's active civil society must continually retreat and retrench to protect the small openings for peaceful debate and human rights work. Consequently, the very fabric of Pakistan is being torn, and if this "preposterous" ask is implemented, it could unravel more.
Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed here are his own and may or may not reflect the views of the Commission. He can be followed on Twitter @thames22.
Much like the rest of the world, Pakistan initially responded to Malala Yousufzai's shooting by the Taliban on October 9 with widespread uproar and outrage. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, officials and the population displayed a rare show of unity against the Taliban, in stark contrast to the country's response to the assassinations of the Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti by extremists last year. As I wrote in an op-ed for the Express Tribune last week, this reaction against the Taliban in the wake of Malala's shooting offered a glimmer of hope for Pakistan. But what should have been a powerful opportunity for the country to silence its inner demons and focus on development has turned to a dangerous pastime: finding someone else to blame.
The shift in the national conversation began with questions about the extensive media coverage Malala received: "why such focus on just one girl," some said, "what about U.S. drone strikes that kill innocent people." Fingers started being pointed everywhere but inward. Afghanistan was blamed for harboring the Pakistan Taliban after the Pakistani army operation against the militant group in March 2009. Elaborate conspiracy theories were hatched, the most insane of which held the United States responsible for first mentoring Malala and then having her shot narrowly enough to ensure her survival, in order to garner support for a potential Pakistani army offensive against the Taliban in North Waziristan.
This is not the first time a productive national conversation in Pakistan has been hijacked by convoluted, paranoid thinking. Why does this happen time and again? Perhaps because looking inward is painful and difficult for Pakistanis. According to the 2012 Pew Global Attitudes survey in Pakistan, a meager 12 percent of respondents are satisfied with the way things are going in the country. Pakistan is in a state of malaise, at war with itself, and in a perilous economic decline, and its view of this shooting and the correct response to it have become blurred. Let's be clear about the facts and what Pakistan needs to do.
First, the war against the Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan is Pakistan's own war. The Taliban, and no one else, is responsible for shooting a girl who had the audacity to go to school. Pakistanis must get it straight: this incident has nothing to do with drone strikes. If drone strikes were to stop tomorrow, the Taliban would still exist in Pakistan, and they would still be burning down girls' schools, targeting innocent women and children, brutally silencing anyone who dares to raise her voice. This is not speculation or conjecture: the group wreaked havoc over Swat in 2008 and early 2009, before the current level of drone strikes began.
Second, Pakistan needs to invest in development, and in particular, in education. In fact, the long-term solution to rooting out radicalization and militancy in Pakistan lies in girls' education, precisely the thing which threatens the Taliban. The development dividends of female education are clear: a great deal of empirical evidence from across the world demonstrates that investments in female education give rich benefits in terms of economic, educational, and health advancements for the entire population, not just women. Importantly, my recent research establishes that the education of girls also makes them less supportive of terrorism and militancy. Specifically, I use data from a recent, large-scale public opinion survey in Pakistan to show that while uneducated women exhibit higher support for militant groups relative to uneducated men, educated women show much lower support for militant groups relative to educated men. These are militant groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda. No wonder the Taliban are so frightened of girls' schooling.
It is a fact that the Pakistani government has not prioritized the country's development. Last year development spending in Pakistan was a paltry 2.8 percent of GDP. It is then no surprise that education, let alone girls' education, has not been a priority. A new UNESCO report shows that two-thirds of children not attending school in Pakistan are girls, and the poorest girls in Pakistan are twice as likely to be out of school as the poorest girls in India, almost three times as likely as the poorest girls in Nepal and around six times as likely as the poorest girls in Bangladesh. Pakistani women desperately want their daughters to be educated, regardless of whether they are poor or illiterate themselves. I heard this from every woman I interviewed in Punjabi and Sindhi villages for a World Bank study I helped conduct a few years ago. The supply of schools is a problem for girls in Pakistan because the government builds one girls' school for every two boys' schools. Compounding the problem of access to schooling are cultural challenges to girls' mobility, because girls cannot travel alone, especially after they reach puberty.
However, building more schools is by no means the entire answer. For the lucky ones who get to go to school, often the education they receive is poor and their learning is very limited. According to a large survey in Punjab, children at the end of third grade are functionally illiterate and innumerate. They are not able to perform basic mathematical operations, unable to write simple sentences in Urdu, and unable to recognize simple words in English. In addition, it is no secret that Pakistan's national curriculum is biased and does not promote critical thinking. The education system as it currently stands perpetuates the cycle of poverty because the youth in Pakistan do not get the skills they need to get good jobs and lead productive lives.
Instead of getting mired in a murky conversation about the world machinating against Pakistan, it is time for Pakistanis to think about what we need to do to advance its development and to invest in girls' education in particular. The government is blundering in its response to half of its population's most basic and fundamental rights: to education, to speech, to work, to a dignified and purposeful life. This is a time for introspection: it is time for Pakistanis to take a long, hard look inward, and to get to work.
Madiha Afzal, a Pakistani citizen, is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In recent personal interviews with three would-be suicide bombers aged 15-19, who were caught in April 2010 by security forces in Pakistan, I was told a strikingly different story than one might expect of a Pakistani youth's journey towards militancy. These young men from North Waziristan were not religious, nor motivated by supposedly Islamic ideas, and had no substantial animosity toward the United States or the Pakistan Army - in fact they knew very little about the world outside their small tribe. How, then, were they recruited to carry out something as violent and psychologically traumatic as suicide bombing?
When one of my students at Quaid-e-Azam University, where I am a professor, mentioned that his cousin had been in a militant rehabilitation facility in the Swat valley, I contacted the Pakistan Army's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) to find out if I could interview some of the young men from this rehab center. I was put in touch with three boys who had been released from custody, but were still under surveillance by the loose network of informants the Army's intelligence division maintains in the rugged tribal regions. I interviewed each one of the teenagers separately on June 23, 2012, and had a follow-up group meeting with them on September 10, 2012. No security official was present during our meetings, and the boys seemed comfortable enough to speak freely. They did all request complete anonymity, though, because of the small communities they come from, before describing to me the way they grew up in the tiny villages of Machikhel and Dande Darpa Khel, which some may recognize as the sites of frequent U.S. drone attacks.
The common thread between the lives of these youths was their complete isolation from rest of the Pakistan and from the world at large. The lack of access to TV, Internet, and formal education meant they were almost completely oblivious to such massive events as 9/11, and as such they were unaware of where and what exactly the United States was. One of the boys mentioned that there was only one TV in their entire neighborhood, and even that one didn't work half of the time. Their only access to information was the radio, which has for years been dominated by the jihadists who were using the name of Islam to mobilize the people. They would also listen to the views of their parents, who were concerned about a possible war in Pakistan due to the influx of militants into the local tribes bordering Afghanistan.
The absence of formal, state-run schools in the tribal areas forced the three boys to enroll at local madrassah just as the United States was in the early phases of waging war in Afghanistan. They learned about the war from their teacher, who said that America wanted to destroy Islam and Pakhtun culture. What was more dangerous than hearing such rhetoric was that children were all trained in the madrassah to submit and not question the elders - something that would have serious repercussions later when they were being recruited to be suicide bombers. Despite the propaganda against the United States, one boy recalled, "The anti-American rhetoric didn't bother us too much, since we still hadn't felt the war".
But that all changed when the United States stepped up its drone strikes across the borders inside Pakistan's tribal areas. "My parents' fears became a reality as our areas became unsafe, and we started getting frustrated with the jihadis in the nearby areas. The militants had brought the war to Pakistan, and the tribal people of Pakistan were forced to be a part of it. Those who opposed the militants were murdered, and everyone else was forced to support them by providing either their children to be militants, or by paying for the cause of jihad." After several years of being under the brutal militant rule nobody in the tribal areas, no one wanted their children to be militants fighting an unknown enemy, one of the boys said, so the militants had to find a new strategy of recruiting - by instilling fear in the youth. As one of the boys recalled, "We were taken for a short trip to a wrecked house by a kind man who had been living in our village peacefully for a few months. We were told that the wreckage was caused by a drone strike from the United States that killed women and children. We were taken to several such wreckages every time the drone strike would happen. The sight frightened all of us."
The kids I interviewed mentioned how they were told by the recruiters not to discuss these fears with their family members because they would get scared. "We were told to abandon our houses, leave our parents and siblings in silence, in order to protect them."
However, this was only the first step. What came next in the militant's strategy to transform the youths into suicide bombers is much more disturbing. "For an entire month we were made to watch videos of men raping women, and other such videos that depicted pain, and agony of women at the hands of white men," one of the boys told me. "And we were repeatedly told that this is what the Americans are doing to women on the other side of the border, and precisely what they will do to your women if you don't take up weapons against them. The videos would leave me sleepless at nights - they changed the person I was."
Another young man said, "I would wake up in the middle of the night, desperate to see or call my mother and sister to see if they were safe because of the fear I felt picturing my mother and sister to be in the same situation as those women in the videos. However, we were not allowed to make contact with the family because it would weaken us."
Their families told me that they repeatedly pleaded with the militants in the area to return their children, but to no avail. "We were threatened and told that the kids are working for a noble cause," one of the parents said. "We were offered money to be silent on the topic so that the people in the neighboring tribes wouldn't become cautious of the new recruitment methods."
The stories of these three young men suggest that the upper echelon of militants in Waziristan and other tribal regions of Pakistan might be fighting a religious and ideological battle - at least this is what they present in their narrative - but their recruitment strategy has taken a shift away from the big ideas of pan-Islamism and protecting their religion from the outside world, toward much more psychologically sophisticated techniques to keep the wheel of insurgency in Afghanistan and terrorism in Pakistan turning. Could this shift be a sign of militants losing strength due to the surge in drone strikes? Or of locals' frustration with the militants for bringing the drones to the region, and the increasing difficulty of running operations in those areas?
It appears that youths in the tribal areas who are turning to militancy are not recruited and trained in Islamist fundamentalism and ideas of Islamic jihad in the way militant organizations once did. The idea of the global Islamic cause against the Judea/Christian world doesn't sell in this age of capitalism and self-interest, in which people are more concerned with making ends meet, or rising from their socio-economic class. The works of Syed Qutb, one of the intellectual fathers of modern militant jihadist groups, show precisely this difficulty in mobilizing masses for the cause of Islam. Qutb called on jihadists to mobilize Muslims through the use of powerful sentiments of fear, rather than ideas of Islamism and religion.
What makes it easy for militants to hypnotize these young kids is the lack of exposure the kids have of the world outside their tribe, and the close knit communal structure of the society. With little access to media and to rest of the Pakistan, and no state education, the youth and people in tribal areas live isolated lives. Their naiveté is what makes them vulnerable to militant propaganda - something the allied forces have failed to take into account in their war against terrorism. It was not out of any ideological or religious inclination, but largely due to the isolation of the tribes from rest of the world, that allowed the militants to easily penetrate into these areas, which later became their safe havens. The people on the ground showed very little understanding or knowledge of the events of 9/11 and the "war on terror" when I inquired. They are not allies of the militants, but are caught in the midst of an asymmetric battle between the United States and the militants, a battle in which innocent tribe-members are suffering the most.
The militants have also been able to successfully invoke fear amongst young children by repeatedly showing them rape videos, and telling them how their mothers and sisters will be treated by the "white men." And it was out of this fear of losing their mothers and sisters that the boys I interviewed agreed to become suicide bombers. In their minds, they were out to sacrifice themselves to protect their loved ones, but little did they know of the reality that rest of the world was viewing on TV.
People in the tribal regions have gotten weary of the militants' behavior. As long as the militants were not bothering the locals, villagers allowed them to spread through the region. But now that the same militants are disturbing ordinary lives, the tribal regions are witnessing a wave of anti-militant sentiment. The United States and Pakistan must seize this unique opportunity to flush out militants from their safe havens. By establishing direct links with the locals and filling in the information vacuum, officials can offer the people a different narrative about the "War on Terror" and the United States.
There are hundreds of kids aged 9-21 that are being recruited in a similar way by the militants. As long as the United States and Pakistan do not come up with a counter-radicalization policy that will allow the kids to become more integrated with rest of the Pakistan, and the world at large, it will be hard to stop the wave of insurgency and suicide bombing against both, the Pakistan and the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.
Hussain Nadim is a faculty member at the Department of Government and Public Policy at National University of Science and Technology (NUST), in Islamabad. He was previously a Visiting Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. He can be reached at email@example.com
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
When people began pouring out onto the streets in Pakistan to protest on Friday, there was little chance that the government would take any action against them. After all, it was a declared public holiday to mark love for Prophet Mohammad, and religious and political groups had taken the government's move as a sign that the protests were sanctioned by the state.
Pakistan has been engulfed with protests against the controversial film the Innocence of Muslims. Over the course of a week, members of a religious grouphave broken through police cordons to amass outside the U.S. Consulate in Karachi and protestors attacked the enclave reserved for diplomatic missions in the capital city of Islamabad. In Hyderabad, the second largest city in the Sindh province, a businessman was accused of blasphemy for not participating in the protests.
Friday was a free-for-all in Pakistan. Television channels broadcast footage of riots from nearly every major city. Protestors burned down cinemas in Karachi and Peshawar, as well as a church in Mardan, and attacked banks, police vehicles, buildings and even a public hospital.
In Karachi, hundreds of members of groups as diverse as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a mainstream political party, to the banned Jaish-e-Mohammad and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan dominated the streets. Dozens of effigies of U.S. President Barack Obama were burned along with American flags, and protestors chanted against the U.S., Israel and the filmmaker behind Innocence of Muslims. Police were deployed at several key locations, but did not act to stop the protestors. In any case, they were largely outnumbered: about a half-dozen police officers are no match for hundreds of angry rioters.
The issue in Pakistan is not just of one day, or one week, of protests. The problem is institutional. The outrage at issues like an allegedly blasphemous film or cartoons has a legal basis, which stems from controversial laws that make blasphemy punishable by death, and excommunicate an entire sect. Government officials not only support the law, but the Interior Minister Rehman Malik once declared that he would kill a blasphemer himself. In a speech on Friday, Pakistan's Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf questioned why those denying the Holocaust were punished while there was no consideration for the feelings of Muslims.
The government has supported the outrage ensuing from the film, not just by declaring a holiday, but also by summoning the current U.S. Charge d'Affaires in Pakistan to protest the film, blocking YouTube and reportedly approaching Interpol. These measures do little to control violence. More importantly, the government has failed to act against banned organizations that operate openly and protest without anyone batting an eyelid.
Acting against the protestors -- as the Karachi police did when members of a Shiite group protested outside the U.S. Consulate -- is construed in Pakistan as the state attacking civilians for the sake of protecting ‘foreign governments.'
The outrage is also politicized, though not entirely. Many of the groups protesting are used by political parties for support during election campaigns. The Difa-e-Pakistan Council, a coalition of over 40 religious organizations that also protested on Friday, seeks to become a pressure group to raise issues of religious ‘honor' and issues related to foreign policy, and will likely support many of the candidates from coalition parties in the upcoming elections.
However, many protestors in Karachi said that they were not linked with political parties or religious groups, but had taken to the streets because they genuinely felt angry over the film. In a country where religious honor is tied in with nationalism, it is not surprising that many felt the need to protest. The protestors were from a wide spectrum, ranging from office workers to students to clerics. And for many of them, it was an opportunity to vent: President Asif Ali Zardari was condemned as vociferously as President Obama was.
The protests will likely die down in a few days, if not earlier. The pattern of these protests has been fairly consistent over the years, and the issue will be abandoned in favor of something else.
But the question of what the government can do to stop the protests may now be too late. The rot in Pakistan has been many decades in the making. Sectarian conflict has been stoked by successive rulers, including military dictators, religious outrage has received state approval by governments and political parties, and those responsible for massacres of various religious sects continue to fundraise to kill more. The military backs anti-U.S. sentiment, as evidenced during the debate in Pakistan over the Kerry-Lugar bill, or the outrage over the May 2 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. What is undoubtedly worse, though, is that there is no attempt to reverse any of the damage that has been done over the decades. Instead, the current government - and successive ones - will likely play a game of appeasement with religious groups in the hope that they will one day back them. That bet, as history has proven, will not pay off.
Saba Imtiaz works as a reporter for The Express Tribune in Karachi, Pakistan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A month ago today, Rimsha Masih was unknown to the world. A month later - probably the worst of her life - the 14-year-old Christian girl from a slum near the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, has stirred up a storm not only at home but the world over, putting Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws in the spotlight like never before.
Born and raised in a family of ‘sweepers' - a term synonymous to Christians in mainstream discourse in Pakistan - Rimsha Masih was arrested in mid-August for allegedly burning pages from a religious instruction book containing verses from the Holy Quran, along with pages of the holy book itself - a serious act of blasphemy punishable by death under the Pakistan Penal Code. The prime witness: her Muslim landlord's 23-year-old nephew, Amad Malik, who, according to Pakistani media reports, ‘by chance' caught her carrying a polythene bag with the desecrated pages.
In close to no time, a furious mob of hundreds, led by the Imam of the local mosque, Hafiz Mohammad Khalid Chishti (commonly referred to as Hafiz Jadoon), surrounded the Masihs' one-room dwelling, demanding that the girl be handed over. The mob wanted to burn the Christian girl alive for committing the ‘heinous' crime of disrespecting the Quran. However, in a surprising turn of events, the same mob handed her over to the police for further prosecution.
In the aftermath of Rimsha's arrest, almost all terrified Christian families of the area, including hers, fled to other already over-crowded Christian slums in and around the Pakistani capital, and the enraged mob temporarily dispersed.
But if Rimsha was to be granted bail and returned to Mehrabadi - a place she could no longer call home - "that could change," Jadoon was found saying on international TV. "Maybe they will leave her alone. Maybe they will kill her," he added. Rao Abdur Raheem, the prosecution lawyer in Rimsha's case reaffirmed by saying, "The girl is guilty. If the state overrides the court, then God will get a person to do the job." In any case, justice was to be done. Predictions appeared similar to the harrowing incident of mob justice a few months ago in July in Southern Punjab, where another infuriated mob mercilessly beat a deranged man accused of sacrilege and burnt him alive.
Introduced by British colonial rulers of the subcontinent in the late 1920s to maintain communal harmony in a multi-ethnic population, the law was retained by Pakistan as it gained independence in 1947 under its moderate founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
However, the lowest point in the devolution of the blasphemy law in Pakistan came under the military dictatorship of Zia ul Haq between late 1970s and early 1990s - a period that can easily be termed Pakistan's dark ages. Zia, a dictator remembered most for intensifying Islamic policies to radicalize the country and for manipulating Islam for the survival of his own regime, made several additions to the country's laws. This included the bill adopted by the Senate in 1992, where death penalty was made mandatory upon conviction on charges of blasphemy.
A harsh punishment considering an offence for which, to this day, no preliminary investigation is required before the filing of the First Information Report (FIR) by a local police officer. Even more disturbing is how the law is still framed to cover not only intentional but also unintentional blasphemy, completely undermining the principle that "a criminal act requires a criminal intention".
Consequently, under the Pakistan Penal Code today, all one needs is a testimony - genuine or otherwise - and the FIR is filed and the person arrested. Rimsha's testimony, however, vanished into thin air after her arrest. Amad Malik fled to "avoid unnecessary interrogation and questioning by the police and media," Jadoon was found saying on a Pakistani talk show.
Infamous for his fiery anti-Christian sermons at Friday Prayers week after week, 30-year-old Jadoon was appointed a lead cleric in the local mosque of the area 10 months prior to the incident. Very vocal about his dislike for Christians and their practices, Jadoon was often found contemplating ways to rid the area of them. Casting himself a holy man ‘incensed' at the desecration, Jadoon was heard saying that the Christians had committed blasphemy to "provoke Muslims, like they have with their noisy banging and singing from their churches," adding that he'd be pleased if the Christians didn't come back to Mehrabadi. And he pretty much made sure that doesn't happen, even if that meant desecrating the Quran himself.
Two weeks into the case, in a rare show of courage - one that could have cost him his life - the prayer-caller at the same mosque, Hafiz Zubair, came forward as a witness to testify against Jadoon. According to Zubair, the prime witness Malik brought the plastic bag into the mosque and handed it over to Jadoon. After examining the contents of the bag, Jadoon tore up a few pages of the Quran and added them to the bag, to make sure the evidence against the Christian girl was not just blasphemous, but "blasphemous enough".
Even though Rimsha has been released on bail and has, under heavy security, been moved to an unknown location via government helicopter to be reunited with her family, while Jadoon remains in custody awaiting prosecution, one can't help but feel mind-boggled at the turn of events.
In the 58 years between 1927 and 1985, only 10 blasphemy cases were reportedly heard in court. But since Zia's Islamic reforms in Pakistan, more than 4,000 have been handled. In the year 2000 alone, the National Commission for Justice and Peace recorded 16 blasphemy cases against Christians and Hindus and at least 36 against Muslims. Although no death sentences have been carried out in Pakistan to date - most of those handed down have been overturned during the appeal process - the spree of mob justice persists as religious leaders practice their own violent, eye-for-an-eyeversion of Islam.
The World Minority Rights Report 2011 ranked Pakistan the sixth worst country with respect to the safety and rights of minorities - non-Muslims, those the state has dubbed non-Muslim, and women.
For the Christians of Mehrabadi, memories of the Christian massacre in 2009 in neighboring city of Gojra are still fresh. Thousands of Muslim radicals burned down around 40 Christian houses, brutally killing eight, after a mere rumor that a page from the Holy Quran had been desecrated during a wedding. For the Hindus of Sindh, there appears to be no other way to prevent forced conversions to Islam and forced marriages - nearly 600 FIRs lodged last year across 40 districts of Pakistan, with the majority in Sindh - than to migrate to India.
For Ahmadis all over the country, facing persecution since the very creation of Pakistan, the nail on the coffin was being declared a non-Muslim minority in 1974 by then prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Considered a revolutionary of his time -- though probably not when it came to minorities -- Bhutto's decision kick-started the widespread societal discrimination and persecution of Ahmadis, including the violation of their places of worship, banning of burial in Muslim graveyards and denial of freedom of faith, speech, and assembly - all backed by the then sitting government of Zia ul Haq.
Today, the Ahmadi community is still recovering from an incident in 2010, in which extremist Islamist militants attacked two Ahmadi places of worship in the central Pakistani city of Lahore with guns, grenades, and suicide bombs, killing 94 people and injuring well over a 100. And if that wasn't terror enough, the injured from the incident were attacked yet again at the ICU of Lahore's Jinnah Hospital - a take-two which consumed at least a further 12 lives.
Whether it is the outraged mob of Mehrabadi, the security guard who shot the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in January last year, the killers of Pakistan's only Christian federal minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, later in March, or the mullahs and maulvis like Hafiz Jadoon who "direct them towards the light," it is but one big rage-brigade. Why are we so angry, so violent, and so unforgiving?
Has violence become an integral part of the Islamic social discipline, or has it always been?
And if so, the question is, why? Is it, as many suggest, that Muslim countries are by and large economically imbalanced, undemocratic states with large swathes of unemployed, frustrated men who find release in religious expression? Or is it because of our fear of persecution at the hands of the West, demonstrated in both intellectual and popular discourse as well as policy - most clearly represented by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Palestinian occupation? Or is it simply because we are taught since childhood of an era gone by, when Islam was a uniquely powerful, progressive and just empire and which has now fallen on bad times.
While there are positives to be taken out of this repulsive episode - the bravery of the apprentice, the role of Pakistan's social, broadcast and print media, and the efforts of the authorities to keep Rimsha safe - the truth remains that the blasphemy laws in Pakistan continue to be as politically and socially toxic and as untouchable as they were before Rimsha began to matter.
With no government in Pakistan - past or present - willing to rid the country of these frail laws or raise a voice against those who exploit them in ways that are neither constitutional nor Islamic, there seems to be only one place left to turn to for hope: the upcoming general elections in November.
This year has witnessed a flood of educated young people coming forward in great numbers, willing to vote for political parties bearing promises to transform Pakistan from a religiously and socially intolerant nation to a progressive, more conforming democracy. For these political parties, a model exists in the form of a bill introduced last year by former minister for information and Pakistan Peoples' Party legislator, Sherry Rehman, to amend the controversial laws in Pakistan.
Rehman's private bill proposed the substitution of the death penalty with a 10-year sentence, and the substitution of life imprisonment with a five-year sentence. But the strongest directive of her bill was the castigation of anyone making false or frivolous accusations under any section of the law. Such a person was not only to be punished "in accordance with punishments prescribed in the section under which the false or frivolous accusation was made," but was also to be arrested "without a warrant" and tried in court.
Using the bill as a guide and Rimsha Masih's case as a stepping stone, there is no better time to amend the precarious weaknesses of the blasphemy laws that leave room for people like Hafiz Jadoon to use it as they please. Ideally, a party with this on their manifesto would come into power. However, with the majority of Pakistan's population - rural and uneducated - who shower men like Mumtaz Qadri with rose petals for killing a moderate politician who showed concern for a Christian blasphemy convict, hope fades.
But Rimsha Masih's case feels like a hint of light at the end of the tunnel. If Hafiz Jadoon is convicted and taken to task, one can be certain others will think twice if not more before pointing fingers. Maybe that's the first step. Maybe there will be more.
-- Rabail Baig is a Pakistani journalist based in Boston.
A plastic grocery bag is probably one of the most generously hoarded items in any Pakistani home. Ours all the way in Boston is no different. Two people and 200 plastic bags; look anywhere - under the mattress, over the closet, folded and tucked between prayer mats. A couple fall off every time I open my jewelry drawer to find my favorite pearl earrings my mother passed on to me with my dowry last year.
Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed's home in Warrington, Cheshire in the United Kingdom must be no different, only they used their grocery bags to stuff their 17-year-old daughter Shafilea's mouth, blocking her airways and pinning her down till her "legs stopped kicking". But that wasn't punishment enough. Ahmed punched his teenager's lifeless body in the chest after the killing, enraged by her "desire to lead a westernized lifestyle" - wearing jeans, socializing with white girls and refusing to marry a much older man.
Shafilea is gone. So is my stockpile of plastic bags - to the very last one. But to recently convicted Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed and thousands, if not millions, likeminded others, something else has been saved, guarded, maintained.
That something also led Javed Iqbal Shaikh, a respected lawyer, to pull out a gun and shoot point-blank his 22 year-old sister, Raheela Sehto, in front of dozens of witnesses in a "packed courtroom" in Hyderabad, Pakistan earlier this month. As the bullet penetrated the "left side of her head" she fell to the ground looking her husband, Zulfiqar Sehto, in the eye. Raheela's marriage to Sehto was the reason for which her brother felt compelled to brutally murder her, and Sehto the man Shaikh regrets he couldn't kill along with his sister.
Two women and innumerable others, time and time again, are erased from history in the hands of those who think themselves guardians of this centuries-old tradition. Regrettably, to the majority of ‘honorable' men, honor in all its entirety resides in the bodies of women and women alone, in the context of which their rights to live, let alone control, their own lives and to liberty and freedom of movement, expression, association, and physical integrity mean very, very little.
Whether out of fear or by choice, the complicity and support by other women in the family and the community - mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, cousins - also strengthens the concept of women as property. Their participation in these deadly attacks also reaffirms the perception that violence against family members is a family and not a judicial issue.
This ‘community mentality' paired with misleading interpretations of religion and suit-yourself articulations of ‘family law' encourage patriarchy within families and negative attitudes towards female autonomy. Thus an environment is created in which violence against women is accepted and justified - a huge motivation for the family and community to cover up these heinous brutalities - a crime in itself. It is not surprising, then, that various women's groups in South-west Asia and the Middle East suspect the number of both reported and unreported victims to be at least four times the United Nations' decade-old figure of around 5,000 honor killings a year worldwide.
So for those daring to trespass the boundary of ‘appropriate' chalked-out by their male counterparts and guardians, ‘honor' is but a death sentence and has been so for hundreds and thousands of years. The concept of honor and its protection is widely displayed within many different male-dominated societies in human history, dating back to ancient Rome, the Arab tribes of Babylonian King Hammurabi as early as in 1200 BC, prerevolutionary China and many other societies and historical eras long before any major religion came into existence.
Today, however, the practice is becoming increasingly common across cultures and across religions, especially in South Asia and in Pakistan. The concept of honor in the region is largely dichotomous, and absurdly so. While honor in its masculine form is active and positive - dynamism, generosity, vigor, confidence, dominance and strength, a woman's honor, by contrast, revolves around negative, more passive concepts - chastity, obedience, servitude, domesticity and the endurance of pain and hardship without any display of feelings or complaint.
Unlike her male counterpart, a woman's honor can neither be increased nor regained - once lost, it is lost forever. What is worse is that when a woman loses her honor, the honor of her brothers, father and uncles is also lost and can only be regained through a violent display of dominance. Conveniently nonsensical but practiced explicitly in South Asia among Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims alike, with the same deadly effects.
In its latest annual report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan presented disappointing statistics for honor crimes in the country. More than 1,000 women and girls fall victim to honor killings every year in Pakistan, the report maintains, mostly at the hands of their brothers and husbands, with less than two per cent provided medical assistance before their death.
The Aurat Foundation, a reputable women's rights group in Pakistan, however, has uncovered numbers two times that figure. According to their report released in January this year, as many as 2,341 honor killings were reported in the country in 2011 - "a 27 per cent jump from the year before". But the figures are just "the tip of the iceberg", the report warns, since its researchers relied on cases reported in the media only.
But despite being ranked the third-most dangerous country for women in the world after Afghanistan and Congo - due to a barrage of threats including honor killings - over the past decade, Pakistan has also made adequate real world efforts to fortify women's rights in the country. In 2006, the country passed a bill to strengthen the law against honor killings under the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, making the crime punishable by a prison term of seven years or even by the death penalty. Last year in 2011, the Senate passed two landmark pieces of legislations into bills - the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill and the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill - an uncommon piece of news coming from the region since both bills were introduced and carried through by female members of its National Assembly.
But tackling something as engrained and as ancient as honor killing requires every thread of the country's social fabric to work together to bring about a wholesale change in common attitudes. This development may sound almost fairytale-ish in a Pakistani context, but if social change over centuries has led to a major decline of honor-based violence in certain parts of Europe, America and even the Middle East, then the global eradication of honor crimes remains a possibility. The question is, can Pakistan be a part of this change?
The current political climate in Pakistan is marked by a tug-of-war between civilian and military rulers on the one hand, and between liberal and religious elements on the other. The main casualties in this hostile environment are the women killed in the name of honor. The sitting Pakistan People's Party government has absolutely no support from the opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz , nor -- it seems -- from the judiciary, which is more interested in sacking the next available prime minister and policing the country's television channels for vulgarity than in taking legal action against the Hyderabad honor-killing incident.
In the lead-up to the upcoming general elections later this year, Imran Khan and his political party Tehreek-e-Insaf have in a matter of months risen to unrivaled popularity among Pakistan's youth. The so-called ‘pied piper' of Pakistani politics, attracting over 400,000 to his rally in Karachi earlier this year, however, has few words on the subject of honor killings. Offering his countrymen a ‘New Pakistan' free from American slavery as he comes into power, the man eats, breathes and sleeps drones. Honor killing, not so much, even though the women killed in the name of honor each year outnumber annual drone-related casualties in Pakistan.
Honor killing is a broader, more universal problem. It is not just a women's issue, or a religious or cultural one. It is a full-scale human rights concern where daily violence happens throughout the world in the name of honor.
Wherever there is a structural acceptance for violence against women, there is an acknowledgment that men have all the rights to legislate their own morality. Inaction of the state and silence on the part of national or community leaders and intellectuals the likes of Khan only fuel the ancient trend.
In Pakistan, there is a culture of impunity where men commit vicious acts to safeguard their so-called honor and roam freely. Tremendous amounts of pressure - political, judicial and social - need to be asserted to make sure these acts are punished. The problem needs to be openly and extensively discussed so that it can be uprooted. And what better place to do it than a gathering of 400,000 in the heart of the country? Who wouldn't like a ‘New Pakistan' where perpetrators are stripped of the very honor in the name of which they take innocent human lives and are duly punished?
The question remains: can Pakistan make the change?
Rabail Baig is a Pakistani journalist based in Boston.
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistan's Deputy Attorney General Khurshid Khan has made news and not everyone is happy about it.
DAG Khurshid Khan became embroiled in controversy when, deeply shaken by the beheading of a Sikh man by the Taliban in Pakistan in 2010, he decided to seek atonement for the sins of the Taliban by cleaning the shoes of Sikh worshippers outside shrines in India and Pakistan. While Sikh leaders and organizations have praised DAG Khan for his actions, Pakistan's Supreme Court Bar Association did not take such a kindly view of the situation, and issued DAG Khan a show-cause notice asking him to explain his actions. The Bar Association has argued that DAG Khan's actions "defamed" the country, while DAG Khan insists that his actions were only meant to present his religion and country in a positive light, by showing that the Taliban do not represent the views of the whole country.
This is not the first time that Pakistani officials, worried about the country's image in the world, have taken measures to protect that image. One stark example of this was then-President Pervez Musharraf's treatment of Mukhtar Mai, a woman gang-raped in her village Meerwala and subsequently prevented from leaving the country for fear that she would publicize stories of her rape and damage Pakistan's image abroad. Echoing government claims, some journalists at the time also termed Mai's heart-wrenching accounts of her rape as "propaganda against Pakistan." General Musharraf eventually allowed Mai to travel abroad, but only after intense domestic and international pressure.
While Mukhtar Mai's case is an extreme example of an incredibly misguided attempt to protect Pakistan's image abroad, it aptly illustrates how censuring its citizens may not be Pakistan's best shot at protecting its image. DAG Khurshid Khan's case may raise valid questions about the code of conduct appropriate for government officials, but it remains questionable whether the SCBA is doing the country's image any good by taking action against someone who did, at the end of the day, want to show that Pakistanis stand against terrorism, and empathize with the sufferings of Pakistan's religious minorities. Through his service to the Sikh community, DAG Khan only sought to encourage a form of communication between Pakistan's majority Muslim population and other religious communities, an effort that the Bar Association has attempted to halt.
Most strikingly, such efforts to protect Pakistan's image seem bizarre in light of the glaring fact that much of the negative opinion about Pakistan around the world stems from some very real challenges that Pakistan faces: international and domestic terrorism, corruption, poor governance, and human rights violations. Government officials not only unwittingly reinforced these negative perceptions about Pakistan in both the cases of Mukhtar Mai and of DAG Khan, but also completely failed to acknowledge the larger, more significant reasons for the country's negative perception in the world.
If the first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem, Pakistan has yet to really take that step. Pakistani officials and media frequently blame outside forces for Pakistan's misfortunes. Yet, it is crucial for Pakistan to acknowledge the faults and mistakes that have led it to its current quagmire if it is to improve its image. The slow response of the international community to the 2010 floods in Pakistan, partly attributed to Pakistan's negative image in the world, was a tragic reminder that a country's image matters immensely. Recognizing the importance of the way the world sees a nation, Pakistan spends a $100,000 dollars per month, a total of about $1.2 million dollars a year, on American lobbying firms to help improve its image in the United States. Yet, according to a recent BBC poll, it remains one of the most negatively viewed countries in the world, second only to Iran.
Pakistan's failure to improve its image does not only lie in its inability to accept responsibility for and address its problems. Pakistan has also failed to effectively use channels of communication with the outside world, such as movies, literature, art and music, to show a perspective on Pakistan that more closely reflects the way in which Pakistani citizens experience their country. Experiences of painful uncertainty and horror in the face of terrorism, violence, corruption, and state incompetence comingle with very "normal" day-to-day experiences to form a nuanced image of Pakistan in the minds of its citizens. These complicated experiences can best and most eloquently be portrayed through movies, art, literature and music, providing a window into Pakistan to outsiders who may see the country only through a security lens.
Yet the arts are not the only means through which Pakistan can challenge the narrow, security-focused narrative about the country. Allowing Pakistani citizens the freedom to broadcast their experiences to the world, even negative ones, is important in not only encouraging the process of self-reflection but also in allowing outsiders to understand the range of different life-experiences that shape the human landscape of Pakistan. At the very least, a greater understanding of the region will allow the international community to move past black and white generalizations about the "Pakistan problem" and to appreciate the nuances that underpin issues confronting the region. In the long run, this will translate into a more empathetic view of Pakistan, and might help the country's image in the world.
In fact, Pakistan's neighbor, India, has done an excellent job of exploiting such channels of communication to give the world a glimpse into the various facets of life in India. The Indian film industry produces the largest number of movies in the world, with export revenues increasing drastically over the years. The Economist points out the wide influence of Indian movies which are popular not only in countries like the United States, but also in other parts of the world, such as Japan. Anyone who has seen Bollywood films knows how impressive a job it does of portraying different "Indias" - the romanticized India of dancing and singing locals, but also the more somber and serious India of movies like "Rang de Basanti" that explore India's past. India's effective use of these modes of communication is undoubtedly one of the reasons it has maintained a positive image in the world.
Clearly, there are also other reasons for India's pleasant appearance. India has more going for it than Pakistan does, given that India is the world's largest democracy and a rising economic power. On top of that, India is one of the most diverse countries in the world, with hundreds of different languages spoken across the country. Moreover, unlike Pakistan, India's domestic problems have not also posed a threat to countries around the world. All these factors allow India to maintain a positive image, despite the fact that India also shares many of the problems of other developing countries, such as corruption, poor governance, massive poverty and domestic terrorism in the form of a Naxalite-Maoist insurgency. India not only has achievements, it has also managed to capitalize on these achievements through the use of various modes of communication with the rest of the world.
While a country's real problems and achievements essentially define its image in the world, to some extent, image is also a product of what the world even knows about a country. The censorship of both DAG Khan and Mukhtar Mai, although misguided and counter-productive, illustrates Pakistan's attempts to control what the world knows about it. Instead of censuring DAG Khan, Pakistani officials could have used DAG Khan's case as a way to show their stance against terrorism and their empathy for the sufferings of Pakistan's minorities. There is hardly a Pakistani, however removed from Pakistan's troubled tribal areas, who has not felt the consequences in some shape or form of Pakistan's battle against terrorism, and there are many who have suffered the direct destruction and pain that terrorism has brought on the country. It is this pain and sense of loss that DAG Khan sought to express through his service to a religious community that has also suffered at the hands of terrorism. Pakistani officials should celebrate such actions, and see them as a means through which to open channels of communication with other communities and countries. Ultimately, it is the DAG Khans of Pakistan that will help its image.
Fatima Mustafa is a PhD candidate at Boston University researching issues of state-building in the developing world.
NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images
In a country where ethnic differences and institutional alliances have dictated loyalties and national policies for decades, Pakistan is rapidly cultivating an ideological paradigm that has the ability to put the nation on a starkly different trajectory than it is now.
Since its establishment, Pakistan has fostered a sociocentric culture - one that emphasizes the role of community and groupthink, and encourages its members to act in a way that is best for the community or institution they belong to. It is no surprise then that Pakistanis have deep ethnic allegiances that spill over into politics. Ethnic groups, political parties, and even political institutions, as we have seen with the military and more recently with the Supreme Court, require a deeply imbedded sociocentric approach from all of its members.
On the polar end of a sociocentric perspective of society is the individualistic viewpoint - people examine issues and make moral decisions based on what is best for the individual and individual rights and liberties, and not necessarily that of the group. Individualism is much more common amongst people who can be classified as W.E.I.R.D - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic - a recently coined term to classify a distinct group of people.
While Pakistan is firmly a sociocentric nation, there are a growing number of Pakistanis who fall into the WEIRD classification, and more importantly, they are being provided the platform to better propagate their views. This is undoubtedly a minor shift, but it has the ability to impact Pakistani politics and policy in significant ways.
At the center of this shift are an increasing number of western educated liberals who find themselves contributing to the national dialogue for a host of issues, thanks to an emerging, robust media. Browsing through the Opinion pages of Pakistan's leading national publications, the Express Tribune, Dawn, and The News International, amongst others, one will find no shortage of liberal viewpoints from a very educated, nearly WEIRD pool of authors - perspectives that are not representative of the population at large, and come from writers who have backgrounds that are not indicative of that of the average Pakistani.
A more ubiquitous media presence, coupled with greater access to information mediums such as televisions and Internet, has contributed to a stronger dissemination of these progressive views. As Pakistan's Internet users approaches 20% of the population, a 66% increase in just four years, and television viewing continues to rise, educated, progressive intellectuals have been able to draw attention to small, yet meaningful issues that display the changing attitudes in the country. This past January, the outrage over Maya Khan and her "Vigil-Aunties," a group of women who swarmed a public park to confront unmarried couples on live TV, exemplified the potential Pakistan's media has in mobilizing and creating outcry over practices that damage individual autonomy. It is not hard to imagine a time recently where such practices may have gone overlooked in Pakistan by the masses.
The rise of a liberal media in Pakistan is a significant trend in the country's ideological development. Individuals like Mir Ibrahim Rahman, the former Goldman Sachs Investment Banker and Harvard educated founder of GeoTV, have created a landscape that, while still nascent, has recently become formidable. Despite its other travails, the democracy that has remained in the country over the past five years has allowed the media to become a more impressive institution capable of catalyzing a paradigm shift in the country.
The proliferation of highly Western media publications is a case in point. Hello! Magazine, a weekly celebrity news publication, a concept that has thus far been foreign in Pakistan, began circulation earlier this year. While condemned by some segments of the population, such publications, along with the views they espouse are becoming more palatable and accessible. Liberal publications and a progressive, ubiquitous, and more accessible media can slowly chip away at sociocentric perspectives that have been steadfast in the country.
But not all WEIRD Pakistanis find themselves channeling the media as their primary vehicle for progress. Members of civil society, like Ali Dayan Hassan of Human Rights Watch who was educated at Oxford, businessmen such as Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi, who has served as the President of the Pakistan Chamber of Commerce-USA, and the hoard of Western-educated employees of companies like the Acumen Fund, have a much more subtle way of spreading a philosophy that is starkly different from the sociocentric approach that Pakistanis are accustomed to.
The infiltration of such individuals into the world of Pakistan's civil society and political institutions will be critical for any robust change. Pakistani politics is too dominated by ethnic loyalties, dynastic politics, and institutional obsessions. This has damaged and regressed the country in the past, and continues to be one of its main deterrents from progress and stability.
Any national paradigm shift will be gradual, and reliable polls investigating changes in social attitudes in Pakistan have yet to be undertaken, but signs of such a shift are already present in Pakistan's media and politics. While Imran Khan is far from being classified as a liberal, he does champion many of the perspectives that one would find in a WEIRD individual. He has called for an end to political parties being dominated by families, and instead establishing a norm of party leadership being selected on merit, not kin; he has advocated for an end to cultural segregation in the country's politics as well, and instead sees himself as a representative of all Pakistanis - a much disparate stance than the current major political parties who are all known to be supported by specific ethnic groups.
In espousing such viewpoints, Imran Khan has digressed from the sociocentric model of politics that parties in Pakistan have followed for decades. Having spent many of his formative years in England, which included an Oxford education and a marriage to a Briton, it is not surprising that Imran Khan views politics in acutely different terms than is the sociocentric norm.
While this a slow developing trajectory for Pakistan, successful integration of a progressive, individualistic, equality-based framework can help the country become a more politically inclusive nation. Political inclusiveness and true equality will in turn create a more stable Pakistan. The shift being catalyzed by the WEIRD members of Pakistan's society seeks to change the fundamental foundation of how the country's political and economic policies function. Such changes may be slow and subtle today, but are promising for the future.
Aziz Nayani is a student and writer whose research interests focus on South Asian culture and political institutions. You can follow him on Twitter @AzizNayani.
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This month's NATO summit in Chicago has provided many writers and analysts a moment to debate possible outcomes of the U.S. endeavor in Afghanistan. Commentary ranges from David Ignatius "thinking the unthinkable" about the Taliban returning to Kabul, to former First Lady Laura Bush urging the international community to remember the women of Afghanistan. The meeting provides a timely inflection point about the price paid in blood and treasure, and the future return on this costly investment.
Yet there is a glaring gap in this conversation, one that ignores the on-the-ground reality of Afghanistan. It is the role of religion and its influence on the trajectory of the Afghan government. By paying it little or no heed, the United States is omitting a key piece of the complex jigsaw puzzle that is Afghanistan's future.
My meeting with Afghan Minister of Justice Habibullah Ghalib in Kabul drove home the importance of religion and its influence on matters of state. Our conversation in December 2010 quickly turned to the application of Islamic religious law to the affairs of men and women, especially the issue of apostasy, a topic which places core freedoms of religion and conscience at the center of government policy. At the time, a convert to Christianity was being detained, but similar cases had arisen where Muslims were charged with "criminal" activity considered blasphemous. He justified government actions on Islamic law, brushing aside my counterarguments for freedom of religion and belief based on international standards, the Afghan constitution, and even Qur'anic references.
It wasn't surprising that the Minister was unmoved in his view that apostasy and blasphemy were crimes to be punished by the state, as it reflected past Afghan government actions against Muslims and non-Muslims to stifle freedom of thought and restrict expression. However, it underscored the cost of not addressing the role of religious tenets in law and governance.
Afghanistan's legal system is a big part of the problem, despite Article 7 of the Afghan constitution stating that the Afghan government "shall abide by" the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. In practice, Afghanistan has established a restrictive interpretation of Islamic law through the vague repugnancy clause in Article 3 that states that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." Consequently, there are no protections for individuals to dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy, debate the role of religion in law and society, advocate for the human rights of women and religious minorities, or question interpretations of Islamic precepts.
David Ignatius' "unthinkable" thought of a Taliban return to Kabul could happen, but perhaps even faster than he imagines. The Afghan constitution's provisions referencing undefined notions of Islamic law give Taliban sympathizers legal cover to apply their regressive religious interpretations through laws against human rights, religious freedom, and women's rights.
Religion matters in Afghanistan, and promoting religious freedom and tolerance can help achieve human rights and security goals. Repression of religious freedom strengthens the hand of violent religious extremists. As I've written elsewhere, conditions of full religious freedom allows for the peaceful sharing of differing views and interpretations. This openness can displace extremist influences from social and religious networks, thereby limiting their ability to influence populations of concern and turn them towards violence. Recent studies and research are building an empirical case that limitations on religious freedom lead to more, not less, societal instability.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom -- where I work -- has documented Afghanistan's poor religious freedom record and placed Afghanistan on our Watch List. USCIRF has described the situation as "exceedingly poor for dissenting members of the majority faith and for minority religious communities." Regarding religious minorities, USCIRF reported how "the small and vulnerable Christian community experienced a spike in arrests, with Christians being detained and some jailed (and later released) for the ‘crime' of apostasy." The Hindu and Sikh communities continue to face discrimination and violence, while the small Baha'i community operates basically underground, especially since a 2007 ruling by the General Directorate of Fatwa and Accounts decreed their faith to be a "form of blasphemy." Even the much larger minority Hazara Shi'a community, which has experienced greater freedoms, was targeted by suicide bombers in late 2011.
A string of events in recent months bears further witness to religion's unmistakable role in Afghanistan:
Taliban response to Strategic Partnership Agreement - There were two Taliban responses to this agreement, one violent, but the other focused on religion. The violent response received much greater attention, since this was the attack on Bagram Airbase after President Obama left the country. However, the Taliban also issued a statement in April, immediately after the announcement of a deal, outlining five ways the Karzai government was caving. Four of the five focused on issues relating to Islam - preventing a true Islamic government; bringing in secularism and liberalism; creating an army hostile to Islam; and being a continuous threat to Muslim countries in the region. The Taliban believes this issue to be relevant to the Afghan populace.
Qur'an burnings - The accidental destruction of Qur'ans and other Islamic materials triggered a nationwide backlash, attacks on U.S. and ISAF personnel, and an apology from President Obama. Dozens were killed and scores more wounded. Sensing a public relations bonanza, the Taliban pressed to exploit the situation to their advantage, issuing statements urging violence and offering this as further evidence of America's supposed war against Islam.
Ulema Council statement and Karzai response - The Ulema Council, an influential body of clerics sponsored by the Afghan government, issued a "code of conduct" for women that permits husbands to beat their wives and promotes gender segregation. If that wasn't alarming enough for human rights and women's rights advocates, President Karzai endorsed the statement. He had other options, such as refuting the findings or at least ignoring them, but Karzai felt the need to endorse them, saying they were in line with Islamic principles. Why? Because the role of religion in politics and governance has a great influence in Afghanistan.
Despite these developments, a response is not to be found in the Strategic Partnership or the recent NATO summit declaration. No mention was made of promoting religious freedom and religious tolerance, key elements of any attempt to see human rights and women's rights protected and respected.
While these high-level documents are silent, there is increasing recognition of this challenge in U.S. government policy. The State Department has initiated a program to counter extremist voices, which looks to bring other Islamic perspectives into Afghanistan to help expose Afghanis to the broader Islamic world. After 30 years of civil war and the impact of a narrow Taliban-imposed view, there is little understanding of how their religion can work successfully with democracy and human rights. USAID is also doing interesting work with Afghanistan's informal justice system, introducing human rights into the centuries-old traditional system, and doing so through the lens of Islamic law. However, these efforts, while positive, are not enough to have a lasting impact.
In other words, the current level of programming won't move a needle that is pointing dangerously in the wrong direction.
It's getting late in the game, but it's not too late to move the needle. There is still time for concerted action. The U.S. government can ramp up its efforts to increase public diplomacy relating to religious freedom and religious tolerance, and bring more delegations of Afghan religious and NGO leaders to the United States and take American religious and NGO leaders to Afghanistan. The United States can jump-start training about the balance between religion and state and the compatibility of Islam with human rights and religious freedom. Continuing to press for greater freedoms in public and private is critical, as well as starting new initiatives, such as creating a special working group on religious freedom/tolerance in U.S.-Afghan strategic dialogues. U.S. and International Security Assistance Forces should be trained to understand international standards when engaging with Afghan religious leaders, local government officials, or Afghan local police forces. U.S. government personnel also need to increase their "religious IQ" on the role of Islam in Afghan society, as well as understand how religious freedom can promote stability and security.
As Afghanistan goes about building institutions as the international community departs, getting the religion question right will be a part of every answer. The Taliban and the Afghan government talk about religion, apply religious law, and use it to their advantage. Considering religion is the lens through which everything passes, significantly increasing engagement on religious freedom and tolerance will advance U.S. human rights and national security interests.
Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed here are his own and may or may not reflect the views of the Commission. He can be followed on Twitter @thames22.
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As Sunday's spectacular attack in Kabul showed, the war in Afghanistan may be winding down in Washington, but it is heating up on the ground with spring's arrival.
And in Foggy Bottom and, to a lesser degree, on Capitol Hill, a battle is on for American hearts and minds even as calls for immediate withdrawal grow louder. The objective: to keep Afghan women from falling off the political agenda while Washington and its NATO allies hunt desperately for a diplomatic solution to America's longest-ever war. As the NATO summit in Chicago approaches - and women to date still have no formal role - that fight gets more urgent.
"Any peace that is attempted to be made by excluding more than half the population is no peace at all," said Sec. of State Hillary Clinton at a luncheon for the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, an organization started under President George W. Bush to support programs benefiting Afghan women. "We will continue to stand with and work closely with Afghan women. And we will be working closely with the international community as well, because we all need to be vigilant and disciplined in our support and in our refusal to accept the erosion of women's rights and freedoms."
Former First Lady Laura Bush echoed the Secretary's comments.
"The failure to protect women's rights and to ensure their security could undermine the significant gains Afghan women have achieved," said Mrs. Bush. "No one wants to see Afghanistan's progress reversed or its people returned to the perilous circumstances that marked the Taliban's rule."
Clinton, Bush and their allies face an uphill fight. Today a record-high 69 percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting. And the recent alleged killing of unarmed Afghan civilians by an American soldier has cemented public desire to call an end to the war that began just after the attacks of September 11.
It wasn't always this way. In 2001, Washington leaders regularly invoked the plight of women, who had just endured years of Taliban rule that barred them from school and work. Afghan women became something of a cause célèbre worldwide, and the return of women to public life was seen as among the most positive byproducts of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Then-First Lady Laura Bush spoke out in support of Afghan women during a weekly presidential radio broadcast in 2001, and made high-profile visits to women's projects while visiting the country.
A decade later, members of Mrs. Bush's team acknowledge the challenge they face convincing the American public that supporting Afghan women on the way out of the country matters.
"It is hard for people to see the endgame and that is what I think contributes to the frustration," says Mrs. Bush's former chief of staff, Anita McBride. "This is not high on the radar screen because it is challenging and the solution seems so far away."
Those working closely with Sec. Clinton acknowledge the battle to keep women front and center is not easy. But they say they see an increased acknowledgment throughout the State Department and in the president's recent executive order on U.N. Resolution 1325 that women matter when it comes to peace.
"While clearly there is a strong, strong desire for the end of this (war), the big concern is the state of the women -- what happens to Afghan women and that they not somehow be forgotten," says Ambassador-at-large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer. "There is a recognition that for the genuine end of conflict and for the ability to reconcile with whomever it is possible to reconcile with, that the women have to be a part of that."
Those who have spoken out about the need to end the war swiftly say they agree.
"I came away strongly feeling that as we do draw down there that we have to retain a focus on these gains and whatever is necessary diplomatically or through our aid, that we can't neglect women," says Rep. Niki Tsongas of a recent trip to Afghanistan. "You have to publicly continue to raise the issue. That is the very least what we can continue to do, to publicly raise the issue and the importance of just trying to protect and secure those gains."
did just that at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing with Gen. John
"The question is, as we draw down from Afghanistan over the next several years, what can we do to make sure that we don't lose the hard-fought gains for the rights of Afghan women, 50 percent of the population? And what, if any, leverage will we have as we go through this process and after our withdrawal is complete?" she asked.
But is more than rhetorical support from those who support Afghan women's progress even possible?
"It is difficult, because I think that even for those who care very deeply about the status of Afghan women there is a little bit of schizophrenia, because I think some of us recognize that whatever the future is for Afghan women, the kind of military footprint that we have in Afghanistan can't go on another decade," says Rep. Donna Edwards, who co-chairs the Afghan Women's Task Force in Congress. "I believe that it is possible for us to construct a strategy where we make those kinds of civilian investments that will enable investments where it is possible to support women entrepreneurs, to support women in education, to support women as parliamentarians, I think it is possible to do that and I don't think we have too many more options left."
So what do the women at the center of all the discussion think of all the discussion of their future? Most say they simply want to be part of the conversation about their own country, particularly as they work to elbow their way into the discussions in Chicago next month. And they want to know what, exactly, leaders of the international community means when they say to women that "we will not abandon you," as Sec. Clinton has repeatedly.
women are no more the priority for the world, that is true," says Samira Hamidi
of the Afghan Women's Network. "The
international community is in a rush for withdrawal, but at the same time they
keep repeating and pushing the theme that we will remain with you."
Hamidi says women want clarity on what, exactly, those assurances mean. Says Hamidi, "in ten years whatever has happened for women is because of the struggle and participation of women. We are still fighting for our rights, for our inclusion, to be part of decisions and to be decision makers."
What Hamidi and other women leaders say they seek are assurances that any Taliban negotiations will keep in tact the Afghan constitution of the past decade, with its guarantee of equal opportunities, including the right to work and go to school, as well as a set-aside of a quarter of parliamentary seats for women. More than two million Afghan girls are now in school, with thousands in university, and civil society leaders want them to stay there. Women also want to be at the table, not outside the room, in any diplomatic discussions that will decide their country's future shape. That starts with Chicago next month.
Women say they are not asking for favors, but to be part of their own societies. They can speak up for themselves, and they are, but they could use the backing of big-dollar international donors who will be funding their government's security forces for years to come.
"The worrying part for me in 2014 is not that the international community is leaving -- troops are leaving, they have to leave this is a reality. We can't expect them to stay in Afghanistan for years and years, but for me what is important is how powerful our own security forces will be in 2014, how responsive they will be to women's needs. Those are things that the international community can really make their funding conditional on."
Those who support Afghan women say that if the world wants to see any progress achieved in Afghanistan continue, it will support civil society leaders like Hamidi - between now and 2014, and beyond.
"Increasingly, across the board, people get the fact that this is pragmatic, that you can't get from here to there on the items all of us want to see [in Afghanistan] without women," Verveer says. "Is it a guarantee? Well, we can't write the future. None of us knows exactly what is going to happen. We are dealing with a hypothetical and the best we can all do is to make sure that everything is in place as best as it can be as this continues to go forward."
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
In 2014, Afghanistan is scheduled to hold its third presidential election since 2004, just 18 months after the next U.S. presidential inauguration, and at the height of the withdrawal of the international military presence. Then, just a year later, they are supposed to hold a legislative election in 2015. There is little prospect that either election will be adequately funded or competently administered. But even if, by some miracle, they come off without a hitch, they will only serve to entrench the corrupt, over-centralized administration in Kabul, and do little to improve governance in the localities. Holding elections in Afghanistan in the midst of its long-running political crisis is a lose-lose situation.
The United States and United Nations should work with the Afghans instead to push for a grand political bargain that could actually make a difference in the counterinsurgency against the Taliban: a new Loya Jirga to amend the constitution, devolve power, adjust the electoral calendar, change the voting system, and invite the Taliban to form a political party. Neither Kabul nor the international community stands to gain from holding another round of elections, but a new political bargain can break the paralysis in Kabul and break the logjam in talks with the Taliban.
I. Devolve Power
Afghanistan's slow-burning political crisis began in 2003, when a Loya Jirga convened in Kabul in December to ratify a new constitution. The new document was modeled closely on the 1964 constitution, itself following closely in the footsteps of constitutions in 1923 and the 1890s. That a new democratic constitution was modeled on the older constitutional monarchy is telling: the new system simply replaced the hereditary Afghan monarch with an elected President and retained on paper many of the centralized powers that the Afghan kings had claimed (though not always exercised) since the late 19th Century. The new constitution was unanimously ratified by acclamation in January 2004.
The United States and the U.N. are often blamed for creating or forcing a centralized system onto the Afghans at the Bonn Conference in 2001. The accusation is wrong - the centralized system came from the Afghans themselves, stemming from the century-old practice of Afghan rulers, and readily accepted by the Loya Jirga. But the point remains true that Afghanistan has one of the most highly centralized systems of government in the world. Provincial governments are not independent governments, like U.S. states, but implementing agencies of Kabul. Provincial councils are advisory, not legislative, bodies. Provincial governors and district chiefs are appointed by the president, not elected by the people. Provincial and district police chiefs are also appointed by the president, not by governors. That makes the President personally responsible for hiring and firing every governor and police chief in 34 provinces and nearly 400 districts nation-wide.
The centralization is almost completely unsuitable to Afghanistan's culture, economy, and society. According to Thomas Barfield's magisterial book, Afghanistan: A Political and Cultural History (arguably the most intelligent thing written on Afghanistan in a decade), the Afghan government has always claimed centralized powers, but has been most successful when it exercises those powers sparingly, or in cooperation with local elites like tribal elders and landowners. Efforts to use centralized government to compel social change tended to provoke resistance, as it did under the reign of the modernizing king Amanullah Khan (1919-1929), who was overthrown by a coalition of rural tribes and conservative mullahs; the communizing efforts of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (1978-1989); and the Islamizing efforts to the Taliban (1994-2001), the two most recent of which sparked civil war.
Despite the potential lessons of that history, the ten-year reign of Hamid Karzai looks more like Amanullah in his efforts to centralize power and push social reform, than that of Zahir Shah (1933-73), who took a more relaxed approach to the provinces and whose rule was marked by relative stability. Devolving power, for example by making governors elected and giving them the power of appointments in their province, giving provincial councils legislative power, and enabling provinces to levy their own taxes would bring the formal government into closer alignment with the informal practices that worked in the past.
II. Adjust the electoral calendar
Afghanistan's political dysfunction gained a new complication in 2004 when the nascent Afghan government and the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) first decided to separate presidential and legislative elections. They were supposed to be held simultaneously under the original Bonn Agreement, but the latter were delayed a year because of logistical difficulties. That immediately saddled Afghanistan with the burden of hosting not one, but two expensive national elections every five years. The 2004 election and voter registration drive cost in the neighborhood of $200 million; the decision to separate the elections simply doubled the cost of Afghan democracy and delayed the day Afghanistan could pay for its own government.
The first round of split elections in 2004 and 2005 were relatively successful: Afghans turned out to vote in large numbers and the results were widely accepted. The success masked a deeper problem, however: the elections were not held by the Afghan government. The international community, primarily the United States, paid the entire cost of the elections. And the U.N. administered the elections through the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), a hybrid U.N.-Afghan organization in which the international community could ensure the elections did not fail.
The weaknesses were exposed by the second round of elections in 2009 and 2010, which the U.N. turned over to the Afghan government to administer. The elections were notoriously marred by logistical problems, fraud, and low turnout. Although the Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) took the accusations of fraud seriously, launched a credible investigation, and eventually disqualified over 1 million votes (facts almost always overlooked by critics of the Afghan government) it is nonetheless true that that the elections were a disaster for the legitimacy of the Afghan government and the Karzai administration. The international community's and the Afghan people's disenchantment with Karzai accelerated dramatically after 2009.
III. Change the voting system
Afghanistan's political crisis is not simply a matter of over-centralization, expensive elections, and fraud. It also stems from the absence of the one institution that is essential for the basic functioning of any democracy: political parties. As any political scientist will argue, political parties are essential for aggregating and articulating voters' grievances and demands, translating them into a political agenda, mediating political participation, moderating extremism, and linking citizens to their government. Without political parties, democracy cannot thrive.
Political parties exist in Afghanistan, technically. But they play no role in the political system, thanks to the (frankly) bizarre voting system that President Karzai settled on in the Electoral Law in May 2004. The system, called the single non-transferable vote (SNTV), is used almost nowhere else in the world. Just three other states (Jordan, Indonesia, and Thailand) use versions of it for part or all of their legislative elections. The reason is that it is blatantly undemocratic and hostile to political parties.
In a normal parliamentary system, seats are allocated to parties in proportion to their share of the vote: if a party wins 35 percent of the vote, it is awarded 35 percent of seats. In the SNTV system, by contrast, the individual who wins the most votes in a given constituency is awarded the first seat; the candidate with the second-highest vote tally is awarded the next seat, and so on down the line until all seats are awarded. Regardless of how many votes the candidate wins, he is awarded one seat. In theory, the top candidate could win 90 percent of the vote and win one seat, while the fifth-place candidate might win two percent of the vote, and also win one seat.
The result is obviously undemocratic, but it also results in a highly fractured legislature composed of a few extremely popular, well-known (or feared) candidates with an independent political power base - the first-place finishers in each province - and scores of unknown, often extremist candidates who have no connections or loyalties to established political groupings. Political parties have no entry point into this system, and so play almost no role in Afghan political life. Without parties, there is nothing to structure debate or formulate competing agendas, and the result is a fragmented, disorganized branch. Americans have grown jaded about the U.S. Congress, but it is a well-oiled machine compared to the Afghan legislature.
IV. Invite the Taliban to form a political party
Counterinsurgency is competitive state-building. The counterinsurgent must build a government that is more attractive to the people than what the insurgents offer. Kabul will not win a counterinsurgency against the Taliban with a government that is distant, over-centralized, disconnected from the population, and in which the only opportunities for participation are periodic elections that are too expensive to succeed and marred by fraud.
But most importantly, Kabul will not end the war and stabilize Afghanistan until the insurgents and the constituency they represent believe they have an opportunity to participate in Afghanistan's political life. Afghanistan needs a Taliban political party.
The Taliban were the only faction not represented at the original Bonn Conference. That is their fault: they were still actively fighting a shooting war against the Northern Alliance up until the day after the conference closed, and they almost certainly would not have accepted an invitation to participate if one had been extended. Regardless, the Taliban do have a constituency, and represent a view of Afghan political life that a small minority of Deobandi Pashtuns still find compelling. Their exclusion from Afghan life feeds resentment, and gives the insurgents a potent narrative with which to sell their rebellion. Karzai knows that, which is why he has consistently and aggressively sought to reach out to the Taliban ever since his 2004 inauguration.
The Taliban as a whole are not going to surrender, lay down their arms, and peacefully convert into a political party. The leaders, if no one else, are true believers in their brutal theocratic system, in which elections and compromise have no place. But the average Taliban foot soldier is probably more flexible in his commitments, so long as he believes he is secure and respected. Holding talks with the Taliban and creating a way for them to participate in Afghan political life will not end the insurgency, but it can weaken the movement, sow disarray in their ranks, incentivize defections, and bolster Kabul's legitimacy. Reconciliation with some Taliban could be a potent weapon in the counterinsurgency campaign.
V. Convene a Loya Jirga
Each of these problems - centralization, the disjointed electoral calendar, the wonky voting system and weak political parties, the exclusion of the Taliban - exacerbates the others. The weakness of parties make it hard for an authentic local voice to be heard in Kabul, while the over-centralization gives Kabul little incentive to seek such a voice out. The electoral calendar has driven the cost of elections up, while fraud and corruption is making the international community ever more skeptical about providing the money necessary to keep the democratic charade going. The exclusion of the Taliban fuels the insurgency, but Kabul's incompetence and political paralysis cripple its own counterinsurgency efforts, and weakens the will of its international backers. Under these circumstances, new elections in 2014 and 2015 offer nothing good for Afghanistan or the international community.
Afghanistan has a mechanism for dealing with the "supreme interests of the country": the Loya Jirga. The Loya Jirga, a grand council of elders, is the supreme authority in Afghanistan, higher than any branch of government and the constitution itself. It is perfectly legal and constitutional: Chapter Six of the Afghan Constitution describes the Jirga and its powers. It is also a relatively democratic gathering, consisting of the National Assembly and chairmen of provincial and district councils, almost all of whom are elected (only one-third of the upper house of the Assembly are appointed by the President). The Afghans held an Emergency Loya Jirga in 2002 to ratify the Bonn Agreement, and a Constitutional Loya Jirga in 2003-4 to ratify the new constitution. Karzai has called "mini" loya jirgas in the years since to ratify specific decisions or agreements, including the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership in 2005.
Many of the political changes needed would not even require constitutional amendments. Chapter Eight of the Afghan Constitution actually mandates that the government "delegate certain authorities to local administration units for the purpose of expediting and promoting economic, social, and cultural affairs, and increasing the participation of people in the development of the nation." The President's power to appoint governors and police chiefs is nowhere mentioned in the constitution. The voting system was created by statute, not by the Constitution. Changing the Afghan political system to be more decentralized, more democratic, and more responsive to the people could probably be accomplished even without the two-thirds vote of a Jirga required for constitutional amendments.
But the biggest potential benefit of the Jirga would be the inclusion of Taliban representatives. The Jirga could itself be an important medium in the ongoing efforts to hold talks with the insurgency. Kabul would have to be flexible about the Jirga's composition - the Constitution does not exactly have a clause about representatives from an active rebellion sitting in on a Jirga. But there are ways to skirt this, for example by allowing Taliban "observers" to attend without voting rights or, even better, through an understanding that district council representatives from southern provinces would be speaking for the Taliban. Regardless of the modality, the presence of Taliban spokesmen or their proxies would be an important symbolic step in the effort to incorporate willing Taliban into Afghan political life, catalyze talks with the insurgents, prompt defections, split the insurgency, and edge closer to peace.
A Loya Jirga in 2014 would be a more cost-effective use of international money. More elections at this point will accomplish little to stabilize Afghanistan or bolster Kabul's legitimacy. A Jirga, by contrast, has a greater chance of being seen as legitimate and accomplishing something worthwhile. An election will only pick the next person to head the corrupt and incompetent administration in Kabul. A Jirga, by contrast, would be empowered to tackle the full range of problems that plague Afghanistan's political system. Elections, held just as the international military presence is winding down, would be a dangerous nation-wide event for which security would be a major challenge. A Jirga, by contrast, would be a smaller, easier affair to secure.
Of course, a Jirga would be unwieldy and unpredictable. The international community would not be able to control it. Even with the substantial aid international donors continue to give Afghanistan, the international community has much less leverage over the course of events in Afghanistan than it did in 2001-2. But that is probably a good thing. The heavy international hand guiding events in Afghanistan ten years ago was perhaps necessary, but it was also abnormal. A new Jirga, this time under unquestioned Afghan leadership, could be the step needed to restart normal Afghan political life.
Dr. Paul D. Miller is an Assistant Professor of International Security Studies at the National Defense University's College of International Security Affairs. The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect those of the U.S. government.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
The roots of Pakistan's inhospitality towards its minorities can be traced back over three and a half decades to the military dictatorship of Ziaul Haq - the man singlehandedly accountable for the rise of fundamentalism and retrogression in the country. Today, however, a different narrative runs through the progressive steps being taken within Pakistan's legal system - a trend exemplified by the ongoing Supreme Court case against the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) concerning missing persons, and even more so in the issue of transgendered Pakistanis.
In most parts of cosmopolitan Pakistan, something adds color to the busy traffic- and pedestrian-swarmed streets besides glossy cars and oversized billboards. Batting their mascara-drenched fake eyelashes, prancing about in gaudy Indian-soap inspired attire around every posh traffic light in Karachi, hijras - as Pakistan's transgender population is known - turn many a frown upside down after a hard day's work.
Going car window to car window ‘demanding' money, clapping their hands, flirtatiously twirling their hair while humming a popular Bollywood tune, these powerfully persuasive hijras entertain with a kind of street comedy unique only to them. But not all are entertained or amused; some are even offended by their presence.
It has never been easy being a minority in Pakistan and matters are bound to get worse if the minority is a sexual one. In a Muslim society, where patriarchal orientation reigns supreme and we are constantly battling gender discrimination, the transgendered obviously have little or no space in the social setup of things.
For the past six decades, hijras in Pakistan have been isolated and denied any form of identity, along with basic human rights such as education, employment, and healthcare. Disowned by their families and mocked and ridiculed by the rest, hijras find shelter among their kind under gurus - leaders of small scattered transgender communities - who give them food and wage in return for their service and contribution to the group. With not many open doors in sight, they beg, dance and engage in prostitution as their only means of livelihood, becoming soft targets for harassment, violence, abuse and rape, mostly in the hands of the local police.
Their story is, or one could easily say ‘was,' painful until the summer of 2009. Today, despite all of Pakistan's supposed intolerance, its long-oppressed transgender minority not only has an identity under which they are recognized as lawful and respectful citizens of the state, but they also have civil rights, the most groundbreaking being the right to vote - unthinkable just a few years ago, especially in a country like Pakistan. The landmark move has not only paved the way for hijras to vote in the upcoming general elections, but also to nominate their own candidates for parliament. In its wake, popular hijra leader and a prominent member of the Pakistan She-male Association, Shahana Abbas Shani, has announced that in the upcoming general elections, she will run as an independent candidate for the Muzaffargarh constituency of the provincial assembly in southwestern Punjab. Topmost on her agenda is the demand for reserved seats for hijras in the Pakistan National Assembly. And why not? For now, more than ever, it is very much possible.
Very few could have fathomed that Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khaki - an attorney specializing in Islamic law and probably the most unlikely defender of hijra rights in Pakistan - would turn out to be the man behind it all. Stirred into action in 2009 after an atrocious incident in Taxila, near Islamabad, where local police reportedly attacked and raped a group of transgender wedding dancers, Khaki filed a private case in the Pakistan Supreme Court. He persuaded the court to officially recognize hijras as a third gender under the Pakistani Constitution, a major step towards giving them their due stature and respect in society.
In 2009, Khaki estimated the transgender population in Pakistan to be around 80,000. However, a Reuters report in December the same year put the figure at around 300,000. The conflicting numbers further reinforced the Supreme Court's orders to the government, given in June that year, to set up a commission to conduct a census of hijras, so that a more precise figure could be obtained.
The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry - a "hero" of the transgender minority - took this unlikely revolution forward. Following his orders, the Supreme Court for the first time in the history of Pakistan, granted the transgender community their own gender category under Pakistan's National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). This means that hijras can now, per their own will, have male transgender, female transgender or intersex written on their national identification cards - a landmark headline coming out of retrogressive, conservative Muslim Pakistan.
The Chief Justice's decision spurred a series of successful follow-up rulings by the Supreme Court. Various judicial, law-making and enforcing committees were formed, and orders were released to both national and provincial authorities to safeguard the hijras' newfound rights in matters of inheritance, employment and election registration. The police, all the way down to the district level, were especially warned to cease harassment and intimidation or be subject to serious prosecution.
Bearing in mind that having its own gender label will not solve all of the hijra community's problems, the Supreme Court made further recommendations, the most revolutionary being in the professional field. Per official orders, if qualified, hijras were now to be given preference for civil service jobs for affirmative-action reasons. According to the ruling, a transgender applicant with a 10th-grade education was now deemed to have the same qualifications for government work as a non-transgender person with a bachelor's degree.
But that wasn't all. In 2010, hijras were also appointed as tax collectors to utilize their "special" persuasion skills. They now knock on the doors of people who haven't paid their taxes and ask them to pay up. To deal with those who aren't willing, they make what they are infamous for making - a scene, which works like a charm every time. The experiment has been judged something of a success by the local authorities, too, with several teams collecting hefty amounts of unpaid dues.
Monitoring the progress of Khaki's case through periodic hearings -- about 20 of which have been held so far -- both the Pakistan Supreme Court and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry still have a cumbersome task at hand -- acceptance, implementation and rehabilitation. The challenges of eliminating stereotypes from the minds of common Pakistanis, providing equal opportunities to everyone in all professions and in all spheres of life, is much easier said than done. This series of landmark rulings undoubtedly constitutes the first step in the right direction, but there still remains a long list of problems that cannot be resolved by legislation; problems like stigma. The recent surge of positive activity means there's definitely hope beyond the traffic light for the beleaguered hijra community in Pakistan.
But the fight has only just begun. Khaki and those working alongside him have received death threats from various Pakistani fundamentalist Islamist groups including Shabab-e-Milli - a branch of the youth wing of Pakistan's main religious political party, Jamaat-e-Islami - for promoting homosexuality in the Islamic state. The Supreme Court decision has undeniably come both as a shock and a blow to all such elements promoting intolerance and violence in the country. But nothing seems to be holding this group back.
"The chief justice says we are God's creation," says Almas Bobby, President of the Pakistan She-male Association and one of the key frontrunners of Khaki's case. God sure helps those who help themselves.
Rabail Baig is a Pakistani journalist based in Boston.
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
On the intersection of Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed Road and Club Road -- one of the busiest traffic lights in Karachi housing two high-end five-star hotels and the head office of the biggest English newspaper in the country -- I often ran into a beggar woman who almost no one looked directly in the eyes.
My mother without looking straight at her disintegrated acid-burnt face would nod her head and recite "Astaghfirullah," Arabic for "I ask Allah forgiveness," roll down the window and place whatever change she could find in her purse on the woman's palm. Our driver, Rustam, a 20-something from Swat, would nod his head for an entirely different reason. "They bring this upon themselves for money, madam. I assure you she makes more than you do at your newspaper," he would say without a hint of empathy. But even he flinched while catching a glimpse of her deformed face.
Throwing acid on women's faces is a form of terrorism that has, with time, become accepted as part of the background noise in Pakistan -- already ranked as the third-most dangerous country for women in the world due to a barrage of threats ranging from rape and violence to dismal healthcare and honor-killings. In Pakistan, the majority of acid-attack victims are women, perpetrated against by male counterparts including husbands, fathers, sons and other male relatives for reasons as trivial as domestic disagreements to more complicated issues such as bringing "dishonor" upon the family.
Though no concrete numbers or statistics exist, independent women's rights and welfare organizations in the country have estimated that over 200 Pakistani women fall prey to acid-attacks every year because hydrochloric and sulfuric acid is widely and easily available and is very cheap. However, organizations that have used a more active method of data collection have yielded much higher rates. The Islamabad-based Progressive Women's Association has documented over 8000 deliberate acid-attacks on women just in and around the Pakistani capital of Islamabad over the past decade. Even though these attacks left their helpless female victims mutilated and scarred for life in a matter of seconds, only two per cent of the cases were successfully prosecuted in a court of law.
This not only highlights that this atrocious act of terrorism is at an all-time high in Pakistan but also how the misogyny that creates the climate for such acts can and does bleed over into the country's judicial system, which continues to fail to provide justice for the victims of acid-crimes, as the reported assailants are usually let go with minimal punishment.
But there's hope, hopefully. Pakistani Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, internationally acclaimed for her 2009 film Pakistan: Children of the Taliban and the 2007 Channel 4 series Afghanistan Unveiled, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy just brought home her -- and Pakistan's -- first Academy Award. Her documentary short-film Saving Face revolves around the stories of two women - both acid-attack survivors making arduous attempts to bring their attackers to justice with the help of the groundbreaking charitable work of London-based, Pakistani-born plastic surgeon Dr. Mohammad Jawad. Through the course of the short-film, Dr. Jawad strives to help these women put their horrific pasts behind them and move on with the rest of their lives.
Going on to make Oscar history by becoming the first Pakistani to win the coveted award, Chinoy and co-director Daniel Junge's Saving Face saved the day for Pakistanis both at home and abroad. The country's prime minister has announced the highest civilian award for the filmmaker for helping Pakistan make headlines for the right reasons, for a change, and for serving as a catalyst for social progress through her work.
But amidst the fanfare, one cannot help but think how unfortunate it is that it took such a shameful subject to bring Pakistan its first Oscar, and whether this historical win and the resulting global limelight on the subject of acid-throwing in Pakistan will help bring this heinous act to an end. One cannot be certain but one can hope, for that is something this international acclaim brings for acid-victims in Pakistan fighting injustice for very many decades.
Encouragingly, efforts to fortify women's rights in Pakistan have been afoot even prior to this award. A few months back, the parliament of Pakistan adopted harsher penalties for perpetrators involved in acid crimes as the Senate passed the historical Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill along with the long-awaited Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill. Both bills were introduced and carried through by female members of the National Assembly of Pakistan, which itself is quite a mean feat for the women of Pakistan.
The acid control bill sentences perpetrators of the crime a minimum of 14 years to a lifetime of imprisonment and levies fines of up to Rs 1 million [~$11,000]. The bill also enlists major steps to control the import, production, transportation, hoarding, sale and use of acid to prevent misuse and promises acid-victims legal security.
Post-win, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and her team are using their website to formally launch a movement to raise awareness about acid attacks to further strengthen this newly developed legislation against acid-crimes. Posting on their website, co-director Junge says the film must be "more than an expose of horrendous crimes, it must be a recipe for addressing the problem and a hope for the future."
Saving Face is set to air on American television in the first week of March, while Chinoy and Junge also plan to screen it in Pakistan, after figuring out "the best possible way to show the film while ensuring that the women in the film are safe," said Chinoy talking to a Pakistani newspaper.
The fight to eliminate acid-crime in Pakistan has only just begun. But with the Pakistani Senate passing two crucial bills before stepping into the new year and the recent Oscar win through Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's Saving Face, there is tremendous hope for the women of Pakistan and the country itself. By showing that there is a Pakistan with great potential, different from how it is generally perceived, through a short documentary, Chinoy has pulled this nation out of a blackhole of dejection -- even if for just this little while.
Rabail Baig is a Pakistani journalist based in Boston.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
As Yogi Berrafamously put it, "It's déjà vu all over again." Amid a looming budget standoff,a presidential election cycle in full swing, and the popular dissatisfaction ofboth the left and the right, the United States has arrived -- yet again -- at acritical juncture in its war in Afghanistan, with key decisions being debatedconcerning the post-surge scenario and the prospects of political reconciliationwith various militant groups. The tragedy is that, much like its previousiterations, the current round of the Afghanistan debate in Washington isriddled with a staggering number of mischaracterizations. While the Cold Warproduced a cohort of able Soviet specialists, the decade-long war inAfghanistan has so far failed to produce sufficientregional expertise in the United States (this reasonably comprehensive list, for example,identifies just 107 Afghanistan-watchers in the United States).
Consequently, anumber of questionable assumptions about the Afghan people -- concerning theirattitudes to foreigners, their history, their society, and their values -- gounchallenged. Historicalanalogiesand socioeconomicdata are regularly manipulated by various parties to validate their ownbiases and preconceptions, and readingsof Afghan historyare, when not completely erroneous, unapologeticallyWestern-centric. For example, onecommon view that has gainedcirculation among think-tankers, policymakers, and congressional staffersis that a majority of Afghans are inherently hostile to the United States. Yet this viewpoint is not borne out by polling data, however imperfect. Thelast pollconducted by ABC News, the BBC and, ARD German TV, for example, says that nearlyseven in 10 Afghans support the presence of U.S. forces in their country.
Another and perhapsmore damaging misperception is of Afghanistan as the "graveyardof empires": a historically insignificant strategic backwater where greatcivilizations -- inevitably European ones -- ended up mired in ruinous war. Buteven a cursory examination of the region's history makes a mockery of this nowentrenched concept. During his conquests, Alexander of Macedon spent about twoyears solidifyinghis control of what is today Afghanistan and Central Asia, referred to inhis day as Bactria and Sogdiana. In fact, his army chose to reverse its coursein today's Punjab, over 200 miles to modern Afghanistan's east, afterthe Battleof the Hydaspes. The 19th-century British Empire, despitean initial setback, wonsubsequent engagements against the Afghans in its bid to create a bufferzone to British India's northwest. And the defeat of the Soviet military in the1980s was only made possible with American,Pakistani, and Saudi support.
The "graveyard of empires" canard also largely ignores non-Western history. Ancient and medievalAfghanistan was in fact at the heart of a number of major civilizations,including the GreekBactrian states; the KushanEmpire, which was a contemporary of imperial Rome; and, from the 10th to 12th centuries, the Ghaznavidsultanate, whoserulers made regular military forays into the subcontinent. The great MughalEmpire, at its zenith perhaps the most prosperous realm on Earth, had itsfoundations in what is today's Afghanistan, when its progenitor Baburestablished a presence in the region between Kabul and Peshawar. Count, on topof all this, several centuries of sustained Persian rule over the region.
In addition topopular misconceptions of Afghan xenophobia and historical backwardness, argumentsare regularly setforth about theincompatibility of Afghan societywith democracy.Although Afghanistan does have a history of underdeveloped democraticinstitutions, there are many reasons to question this blanket assessment.Definitional problems certainly persist: For many rural Afghans, democracyconnotes unlimited freedoms, rather than responsible and self-determinedgovernance. During the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet forces and their Afghan clientsoften called themselves democrats, further adding to confusion about the termin the minds of many Afghans. At the same time, there are mechanisms -- shuras,jirgas -- that, though hardly Jeffersonian, are analogous to the town hallsthat formed the bedrock of early American democracy. In this year's edition ofthe reasonably reliable Asia Foundation surveyof Afghanistan -- which polled 6,348 Afghans from all 34 provinces -- anoverwhelming 69 percent of Afghans polled say they are satisfied with the waydemocracy works in Afghanistan.
Ethnic politics isanother common source of confusion, with regular calls now heard inWashington for a soft partition of the state, creating a Taliban-dominated "Pashtunistan" separated from a confederation of provinces dominated by ethnicTajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Soft partitions, which were also advocatedin the case of Iraq not that long ago by U.S. Vice President JoeBiden, may appear to be easy and seductive solutions to pacifying complexpost-colonial societies overrun by civil war. But among otherproblems, they present a moral quandary, implicitly (thoughunintentionally) opening the door to ethnic cleansing. A cursory look athistory tells us that the partition of mixed political entities has almostalways been accompanied or preceded by ethnic cleansing or immense sectarianviolence: Consider India, Palestine, Bosnia, or Cyprus. Afghanistan'spopulation is heterogeneous, and given the commitment to establishing apluralistic and democratic state, calls for the country's de facto or de jurepartition appear both irresponsible and impractical.
Just as there areseveral peculiar narratives about Afghan society and history in steadycirculation, thereis also growing skepticism aboutthe United States' abilityto prosecute theAfghanistan war, with enormousdivergences between official U.S. and Afghanperspectives. One reason often cited for limiting the United States'involvement is the financial burden that the Afghanistan war represents in an era ofausterity. But according to the Congressional ResearchService, the war in Afghanistan will cost the United States an estimated$114 billion this year, a mere 3 percent of the federal budget, and a muchsmaller fraction of the American economy. This appears to be a small investmentrelative to the importance to American foreign policy and national security ofgetting Afghanistan right.
Somecommentators make theargument that the Afghanistan war is a sideshow to other forms of securitycompetition, particularly in East Asia -- that, in essence, the continued U.S.involvement in Afghanistan distracts from looming threats to U.S. securityposed by other great powers such as China. This is questionable for at leasttwo reasons. Firstly, other major powers -- including China, India, Russia, andIran, all of whom see Afghanistan as part of their extended neighborhoods -- areclosely watching developments affecting the U.S. position there. Americansuccess or failure will resonate in Moscow and Beijing, as well as New Delhiand Tehran. Secondly, the United States is not confronted with a binary choicebetween prosecuting the Afghanistan war and retaining a military presence againstmajor state threats. The United States has faced multiple security challengesbefore; the resources required to tackle them are quite different from oneanother; and U.S. military resources dedicated to securing Europe and theAsia-Pacific region have been steadilydeclining regardlessof investments in Afghanistan.
Finally, it is widely believed today inWashington that the Taliban enjoy popularpublic support, particularly among the ethnic Pashtun population ofAfghanistan. If true, it is certainly not reinforced by extant survey data. Noris the Afghan public weary of the United States' intensified involvement. Accordingto the Asia Foundation survey, aplurality of Afghans (46 percent) believes that the country is headed in the rightdirection, compared with 35 percent who believe otherwise. What is even moreencouraging, only 11 percent of Afghans have a lot of sympathy for armed opposition groups,half the proportion who expressed similar sentiments two years ago. In that sameperiod, those who have "no sympathy at all" for the Taliban have almost doubledto 64 percent of the population. Despite frustrations with the ability of the currentgovernment to deliver, Afghans express optimism about democracy as a principle,associating it most closely with peace and freedom. The United States, suchpolls clearly reveal, should not fool itself with undue pessimism. Its effortsare gradually beginning to bear fruit.
Currently,Afghanistan's fledgling state, though challenged frequently by security, governance,and development problems, has an elected government and an internationalpresence to contribute to the work of nation-building. Despite the ongoinginsurgency, widespread corruption, and the daily risk of arbitrary orextrajudicial killing, the Afghan people continue to strive for normalcy intheir day-to-day lives and hope for peace and prosperity in the future. Withthat in mind, the pontification of a few pundits and the exigencies ofnear-term politics should not lead to poor or rash decision-making. A balancedview of Afghan public opinion, history, culture, and politics -- and, just asimportantly, of the United States' ability to shape these factors in advancingits national security interests -- is crucial as Washington debates a decisionthat will have important regional and international implications for decades tocome.
JavidAhmad, a native of Kabul, is program coordinator and Dhruva Jaishankar is program officer with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the UnitedStates in Washington, D.C. The views reflected here are their own.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
My article criticizing certain rituals in the Shi'a Muslimtradition in Pakistan's Express Tribune on December 8 spurred a firestorm ofcontroversy, as a number of commentators deemed it inappropriate or worse. Myargument was that religious adherents need to repudiate rituals that infringeon collective rights, and which can escalate sectarian conflict; these includethe rituals during the commemoration of Muharram, that can involve men and evenchildren flagellating themselves withknives on chains, and processions of bleeding men as a display of adoration forthe martyred Imam Husain (this is byno means reflective of all Shi'a practice, but is widely practiced amongSouth Asian Shi'a).
The controversy grew more intense on Twitter, and evennotable commentators such as NasimZehra asked for an immediate apology from the Tribune on grounds that thearticle was "outrageously offensive."To her credit, Ms. Zehra later noted thatafter the apology the matter should be closed. However, hate mail from all over followed,including several messages to the president of the University of Vermont (whereI teach) asking for my dismissal, a surprising torrent against free speech evenfrom highly educated writers. The university noted that the article was wellwithin the confines of free speech and was in fact condemning violence. Insteadof admonishing me, the university offered me police protection.
Under pressure from sponsors and amid fears that other mediahouses would use this episode to spur a consumer boycott, Tribune decided tofirst edit and then completely remove the article, and noted that I was"banned" from writing in their pages again. My intention was never to rebukeShi'ism itself, but rather such rituals whose practice further leads toacrimony between Shi'a and Sunnis. Furthermore, a ritual with so much bloodbeing spilled in a procession can be a public health issue, and has been repeatedlyquestioned and curtailed in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.
Ireposted the article on my site with a clear apology for specificstatements which were, in retrospect, inflammatory for Pakistan's religioussensibilities. The newspaper's "ban" on my writing was later edited out of the apology statement posted onthe Internet, but this episode left me deeply troubled about the state ofjournalistic independence in Pakistan. The country has a vibrant civil societyand promising career track for journalists and independent writers, but therehas been a rapidrise in abductions and murders of journalists whose views were consideredantithetical to certain religious perspectives.
This episode highlighted for me a larger issue of mediafreedom in a country which often prides itself in having private TV channelswith fiery talk shows blasting politicians. Yet religious debate, often socontentious and even violent in Pakistan, remains off limits. Pakistan as asociety needs to understand that the right to offend in journalism is afundamental right. I don't mind getting hate mail despite the norms of freespeech, but what surprised me was that educated people questioned my right tocriticize a cultural practice by referring to it as "hate speech." I wasrepeatedly asked what my point was if criticism could further cause conflict. Stillanother asked, "could you criticize Jewish rituals the same way in America?" Thiskind of reaction could have taken place in many Muslim societies -- and Sunnisare equally culpable on such matters as Shi'a.
Pakistan's infamous blasphemylaws are a result of exactly this kind of oversensitivity and pattern ofraising ire following any hint of criticism about religious rituals or edicts.The valorization of extreme religious edicts by the State has unfortunatelybeen successful in co-opting the sensibilities of even many educated citizens. Thisin turn has strengthened the religious establishment's efforts toinstitutionalize a radical inertia within the political system. Perhaps unwittingly, liberal commentators whowould rather avoid tougher issues of dissent scorned my article, and by doingso strengthened the same kinds of arguments that fanatics use to marginalizeminorities or their opponents.
Ironically, in my article, I clearly stated that lawsagainst hate speech must be enforced. Speech that directly urges violence towardsany particular person or group of people must be avoided at all costs. Yet tounderstand sectarian conflict, which is often compared to "cancer," we have tolook at both proximate and systemic causes. Just as one treats cancer withchemotherapy, groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi(LeJ) need to be hunted down for terrorist crimes. But we also need to searchfor systemic causes of sectarian strife, which in Pakistan can be traced totheology in both Shi'a and Sunni doctrines as well as political interventionand alleged statesupport for sectarian groups like LeJ or Sipah-e-Sihaba Pakistan (SSP).
In a pluralistic society, the limits of what is allowed insuch cases can be debated and questioned, and laws can be passed and changedthrough democratic processes. For example, there are laws in some Europeancountries against questioning the historical validity of the Holocaust, but inthe United States, such historical questioning is protected by the firstamendment to the U.S. constitution (despite the repeated accusations by many Pakistanisthat American law and politics reflect undue Jewish influence). While Idisagree with the limitations on free speech in Europe, there is at least aworkable legislative pathway for repeal of these laws. In Pakistan, the prospectof any legislative change to errant laws is stifled by precisely the kindof bullying about religious sensitivity exhibited in this episode.
The duty of any socially conscious writer is to push theenvelope and challenge people to question their assumptions. This will makepeople uncomfortable, but incremental social change always happens through sucha dialectical process. If people were always trying to stray from controversy socialchange would never take place. Cultural sensitivity is far too often used as anexcuse for maintaining the status quo in places like Pakistan, and this needsto change if the country is ever to overcome the polarization that continues toimpede communitarian peace.
Saleem H. Ali is professor ofenvironmental studies at the University of Vermont's Rubenstein School ofEnvironment and Natural Resources and the director of the Institute forEnvironmental Diplomacy and Security at the James Jeffords Center for PolicyResearch. He can be followed @saleem_ali
MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images
We often see thearts as only fit for museums, galleries, and film festivals, cloistered inhalls only for the intellectual elite. But the arts can help build anation, or in the case of Afghanistan, are rebuilding a nation, employing itspeople, and recalling a history forgotten in recent decades of continuousconflict. And a small group of social scientists, architects, and entrepreneursare using culture as a vehicle to restore Afghanistan, challenging theconvention that the arts are only for aesthetics.
"Culturalconservation is directly linked to development and livelihoods here. Thehistoric sites that we're rebuilding are functioning places, generating revue,providing jobs, and are self-sustaining," says Ajmal Maiwandi, anAfghan-American architect who returned to the country nearly a decade ago totake up a post with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) to help rebuildAfghanistan's most historic sites. In that time, Maiwandi explains thatAKTC has preserved nearly a 100 sites, even during tense periods of conflict.
For WashingtonD.C.-based Dr. Cheryl Benard, the desire to revive the arts in Afghanistan cameout of seeing the destruction of Europe following WWII, where monuments werepillaged, destroying not only beautiful edifices but also erasing history withthem. As a young child, growing up in post-war Germany and Austria, shethen saw the resurrection of what had been knocked down and pillaged-- anexperience she explains has made her more sympathetic to those living inconflict-ridden societies. Benard, who founded the Bamiyan Project, anon-profit dedicated to cultural preservation in Central Asia, wants to seethat same movement in Afghanistan.
"[The arts] arenot taken so seriously. It's something that people think about much later, whenthe tourists arrive. But they're fundamental to the process ofreconciliation and reconstructing the nation," she says with urgency.
Maiwandiagrees. As CEO of the AKTC in Afghanistan, he's led numerous successfulprojects, such as the restoration of the gardens of the Mughal emperor Babur, the Mausoleum of Timur Shah, and urban regeneration initiatives in the Asheqan wa Arefan neighborhood of Kabul. In the old city of Herat, the Trusthas revived five notable historic houses, seventeen public buildings, and thegravesite of the Sufi poet, Abdullah Ansari, in Gozarga.
This flurry ofactivity has created a local demand for labor. In Herat alone, therestoration has provided for 60,000 work days of employment. And theapproach to restoration is "holistic," Maiwandi notes, meaning that not onlyare old, crumbling building attended to, but drainage systems are put intoplace, pavements are laid down, and waste is removed. In short,these efforts are not just about beautifying but also redevelopingneighborhoods, investments that have long-term impact, he explains.
AKTC couples thishistorical preservation with more hands-on training, offering courses in tradessuch as carpentry, teaching students how to craft doors, windows, woodcarvings, items that go beyond the classroom and have local demand.
Turquoise Mountain, a social enterprise created by Britishauthor and parliamentarian Rory Stewart, takes the training a step furtherthrough a global market place for handmade Afghan crafts, having sold nearly $1million worth within the country and abroad. While Turquoise also tends tourban regeneration in old Kabul, its Institute of Arts and Architectures givesstudents year-long lessons in calligraphy, woodworking, ceramics, jewelry, andgem cutting -- trades that give them employment in addition to carrying onage-old traditions.
Such pragmaticart is coupled with large-scale preservation, akin to AKTC's work on Bagh-e-Babur,which fuels tourism. Benard's non-profit, for instance, is restoring thelegendary poet Rumi's birthplace in northern Afghanistan. The restorationprocess, Benard explains, has generated not just local employment during andpost construction, but also created an oasis for locals and tourists that willbe sustainable in years to come. And in remembrance of Rumi's poems, whichoften featured lyrical descriptions of nature, the site houses a number ofgardens, something that will keep the locals coming after they've seen thetouristy bits. Benard notes that the Rumi Gardens are located in one ofAfghanistan's "safe pockets," and have never been attacked by militants; evenif security deteriorates in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops in 2014,her NGO does not feel particularly concerned about security threats.
Benard originallystarted the non-profit in 2010 to help preserve an expansive site in Bamiyanprovince, one that once housed housing two colossal-sized Buddhas from the 6thcentury, remnants of the country's more pluralist past that were destroyed bythe Taliban in March 2001. Yet in the meantime, another threat arose,diverting her attention again.
In 2007, TheChinese Metallurgical Group Corp, backed by the Chinese government, leasedone of the world's largest untapped copper mines, estimated at $3.5billion, with intentions to begin mining in 2009. A profitable deal forthe Chinese who aspire to tap into Afghanistan's rich minerals, it marks thelargest foreign investment in the country, one that could reap nearly $1.2billion from the mine and the jobs it creates. But the mine sits onanother piece of Afghanistan's Buddhist history: Mes Aynak, home to a 5thcentury Buddhist monastery, whose crumbling statues dot the hilly landscape. To allow for excavation, which would removethe delicate ruins from the site to be placed in a nearby museum, the Chinesehave delayed mining until the process is completed.
Though a reminderof the country's Buddhist past, Bernard says that she was impressed by howlocal Afghans have made an effort to preserve it. Being an Islamic nationhasn't stopped them from expressing their support for the preservation of theBuddhas, she says, illustrating that the arts can be a catalyst in redefining acountry's story.
Benard continues,explaining that "one piece of the story that doesn't get covered is the risksthat people go to save their cultural heritage. For example, earlier,when the locals realized that that Taliban were coming to destroy the [NationalFilm Archives of Afghanistan], they erected walls to break up the collectionand reduce the damage. In museums, the staff concealed so many items, taking abig risk on their own safety. This simply shows that the arts are important tolocals -- even in war when more basic needs are at stake."
Benard is nowcollaborating with other preservationists to develop a plan for some of theBuddha statues to remain in their original form at Mes Aynek, and not bewhisked away to museums, so that the site can be visited and admired in itsnative state. The Chinese will still be able to access the site formining, though they may need to use a more "gentle technology" to extract thecopper without damaging the Buddhas, Benard says.
Hamid Naweed, anAfghan art historian, has been working closely with Benard and recentlytraveled with her throughout the country, talking with locals on the BamiyanProject, Mes Aynek, and the cultural heritage of Afghanistan more broadly.
"What amazed mewas the response of the Afghan people," said Benard. "They were moved bythe discussions, crying even, to hear their history presented in a coherent,positive way. The Afghans have a history rich with achievements as well. So,it's a real game changer for them to hear it first-hand."
With morepreservation projects under way for Benard, Turquoise, and AKTC, the Afghanswill not only be hearing it, but will see it unfold in front of them, as thearts becomes a means of employment and a way to reconstruct their nation.
Esha Chhabra is a writer who focuses onsocial innovation and social enterprises. She was recently the RotaryAmbassadorial Scholar at the London School of Economics, where she specializedin Global Politics and Social Enterprise. This piece was completed in partnershipwith Dowser.org.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
fundamentalist and extremist. This is the general impression of Pakistani
society in the world outside Pakistan, though a deeper look would lead the
observer to discover another layer - altogether different than the one visible
from Europe and America. Following the Urdu-language Pakistani media, one is
easily brought to the conclusion that there exists widespread radicalism and
fundamentalism among Pakistanis. The television anchors and their repetition of
‘national interests' aside, the key question is: Is the Pakistani society
really extremist? A cursory look at the events of the past few years can tell
Following the highly-rigged general elections in 2002 in favor of the now defunct religious alliance, Muttahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), Pakistan's religious parties looked poised to assert their newfound power in the country. But just six years later, in the February 2008 general election, Pakistanis overwhelmingly supported secular political parties such as the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP), while the religious parties managed to retain only seven seats in the country's National Assembly. The religious parties and their affiliates also failed on several occasions to start a political movement by using issues such as the jailing of Pakistani doctor Aafia Siddiqui, the US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal northwest, the Raymond Davis episode, or the U.S. Special Forces raid in Abbottabad and killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
Pakistan's security establishment also contributes to the West's fundamentalist and extremist image of Pakistani society. Over the years, the Pakistani state has supported the armies of Kashmir-focused jihadists in order to gain leverage over its more powerful and several-times-larger rival India, as well maintain a Pakistan-friendly government in neighboring Afghanistan. To achieve these goals, the establishment willfully encouraged a number of elements within its own borders, ranging from pro-jihadist religious parties to extremist literature in schools, colleges and universities, in order to generate support for the jihadist cause.
Within Pakistan, the armed forces are often presented as heroes and the true custodians of Pakistan's ideological and geographical frontiers, while the liberal political forces are labeled (albeit with some truth) as vested interests, too corrupt and inefficient to run the country and ensure its defense. Pakistani youth are flooded with hardliner propaganda and find attraction in extremist views because of the stance of the esteemed military, the jihadist literature in classrooms, government-controlled electronic media, and a state policy of encouraging certain jihadist organizations.
This policy approach, although it dates back to the creation of Pakistan,
was institutionalized during the 10 years of military rule under the dictator
General Zia ul-Haq, who championed jihad and the Islamization of society. The majority
of the secular leaders at that time were either won over one way or another, forced to keep
silent, or pushed into exile, thus leaving room for the fundamentalists to come
forward and "purify" the society by holding mass gatherings in cities, speaking
on the official electronic media, becoming involved in educational institutions
and spreading jihadist literature. Zia and his rightist support base thus
maneuvered hard, and the ultimate result was the emergence of a hardliner
approach among the upper layer of the Pakistani society to Muslim causes - be
it Kashmir, Afghanistan,
Kosovo or any other place in the world. The support for extremists and
jihadists did not end with the death of Gen. Zia. Elements in The state security apparatus continued the same
policies, eventually resulting in the emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan
who converted areas of the country into a safe haven for extremists and
jihadists all over the world.
However, this is only one side of the picture. A few thousand miscreants fighting in the tribal areas, or some baton-wielding madressa students marching a street in Punjab, in no way represent the majority of the 180 million-strong Pakistani populace, who disapprove of the Taliban's terrorism and vandalism. Today, the tribal areas are being presented to the world as a tinderbox where everyone is a radical fighter or suicide bomber, only to convince the western world to shower more money on the Pakistani elites in order to avert this purported threat to global peace. In fact, this is a well-orchestrated plan in which the tribal people are the real victims. Victims in the sense that they are presented to the world as the trouble-maker while in fact, they are hostages at the hands of the Pakistani security agencies (and the militant groups), who over the years have supported or ignored the presence of jihadist and terrorist groups on Pakistani soil.
To understand the state's approach to the tribal areas, one must look at a few simple but thought-provoking questions: Why have the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) been discriminated against over the past 60 years? Why are they being run under the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) laws, and why were political parties banned from the area until very recently? How many schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, roads, canals, dams, power projects, and agriculture projects have been launched in FATA over the years? There are many other such unanswered questions, and the motive is clear: Keep FATA residents in the dark and mold their image as and when needed.
all of this, a vast majority of FATA residents are still in favor of education,
development, political reforms and (no doubt) peace. We are hearing more and
more accounts of tribal Pakistanis spending their hard-earned money to send
their sons and daughters to colleges and universities to become doctors,
engineers, teachers and scholars. Would a person sending his son or daughter to
university support the Taliban's jihadist agenda?
Pakistan's cities meanwhile,
despite the fact that the secular political leadership is often rendered
useless by criminal elements and their supporters, the vast majority of people
disapprove of militancy and extremism. The once popular religious political
parties are usually not able to gather more than a few hundred people at
rallies, even for flashpoint issues such as price hikes, power outages, fuel
shortages or foreigners' alleged disrespect of Islam. Anti-Americanism exists
in many countries and Pakistan
is no exception. But being anti-American does not necessarily mean being a
jihadist or a Talib. Protests in the United
States and around the world against the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan
are non-violent examples of this sentiment.
Now is the time for the western world to understand the situation by looking deep into Pakistani society instead of judging things on the basis of protest demonstrations by a few hundred bearded young men, or some gun-wielding men in videos from FATA. The key point to understand is that the real Pakistani society lies under the superficial layer of radicalism being presented as a serious threat to Pakistan and the peace of the world at large.
We need to know that despite security threats, hundreds of thousands of students are attending schools, colleges and universities; new private sector educational institutions are being opened; new think-tanks are being launched; the NGO network is spreading; and music, art and culture are flourishing. These developments are even occurring in areas presented as the most conservative to the outside world. It is high time for the world to look beyond the surface and see the vast majority of Pakistanis, who have been taken hostage by the few armed thugs who are propped up by the state to achieve the foreign policy goals.
Extremism is without a doubt a serious issue confronting the state of Pakistan and the region. But the approach should be to take it head on with the support of the bulk of Pakistanis who disapprove of terrorism and believe in political dialogue as a resolution to issues both inside and outside the country.
Daud Khattak is a journalist currently working for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Pashto-language station Radio Mashaal.
S.S. MIRZA/AFP/Getty Images
This installment of AfPak Behind the Lines looks at Pakistani television and the Pakistan-U.S. relationship with Luv Puri.
1) USAID recently announced that it is funding a remake of Sesame Street for Pakistan. How unique is this effort to bring American television to Pakistan, historically?
Sesame Street was first aired in Pakistan in English in the late 1980s and early 1990s, though it was far from the only exposure Pakistanis got to American television and culture. Interestingly, Pakistan Television (PTV) became one of the key instruments through which the U.S.-Pakistan civil alliance during the Afghan jihad gained a popular acceptance at the civil society level in Pakistan. In the 1980's, television viewers in Pakistan were also exposed to the saga of African Americans' arrival to the United States of America through the broadcast of televised version of the famous novel of Alex Haley, "Roots: The Saga of an American Family", which gave Pakistani viewers an interesting and vivid exposure to the brutal history of the slave trade and struggles of the African American community in the United States, from the 18th-century until the present.
On a lighter note, Pakistani viewers were also treated to episodes of Star Trek, as well as Full House, which for many gave a sense into the complex aspects of parenting in the West. This heavy dose of American entertainment was going on simultaneously with and at the end of then-dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq's government-sponsored Islamization drive in Pakistan, which ended with Zia's mysterious death in 1988. Every evening, PTV news displayed the shots of the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. In fact, Zia's Islamization drive and American entertainment often had their own followers even within the same family, as it was mostly urban, English-speaking families who had access to and could understand shows like Full House (which went on the air at the tail end of the Islamization drive). There was no contradiction between the two parallel trends at the time, because of the political alignment between America and Pakistan and even with the Muslim world at large. There was instead a kind of acceptance of both, a feeling that the American value system and Islamic worlds view could live side by side.
The two strands began to diverge as political alignments and coalitions began to fracture in the 1990s, after the anti-Soviet jihad was finished and the U.S. moved on to other issues, such as nuclear non-proliferation and a post-Soviet Europe. This change in focus put the United States at odds with Pakistan, whose interests and concerns remained firmly rooted in South Asian politics, namely India and the emerging chaos in Afghanistan.
2) How does Pakistan's English-language entertainment media compare with the Urdu options, both in the past and today?
In the 1990's, after the United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear program, there was a sudden transformation even with respect to the content of the media, as American programming became minimal. However, the short-lived democratic government of Benazir Bhutto (who was Pakistan's prime minister from 1988 until 1990 and again from 1993 until 1996) brought about a golden age of Pakistani Urdu theater broadcast on PTV.
This theater engaged with the societal problems of the day. Urdu dramas such as 1989's Neelay Haath (literally "Blue Hands," meant to represent the appearance of hands after torture or abuse) raised the issue of injustices perpetrated against Pakistani women by both the state and society during Zia's regime. There were also programs which accommodated the ethnic diversity of Pakistan, such as televised theater productions that educated the audience about various aspects of Baluch and Pashtun history and culture, with a heavy emphasis on the historic Pashtun resistance to British occupation (though unsurprisingly no concurrent focus on Baluch nationalism or separatism). The progressive spirit of theater was lost as democracy became more and more tenuous in the country with every passing day, and Pakistani society became more and more disappointed in the failure of Benazir Bhutto's government to bring about the change and improvements that many thought were sure to come from her leadership.
By the time Gen. Pervez Musharraf took over, Pakistan had
been infected by the crass commercialism of TV programming, something that had already taken place in neighboring India. This goldgen age of Urdu drama was over. PTV had to compete with
other private satellite channels, and the market dictated the agenda, leaving
little space or even resources available to socially relevant or educational
3) Then-Pakistani president Musharraf oversaw a dramatic expansion of electronic media in Pakistan beginning in the early 2000s. What has the impact of the spread of an independent media been for Pakistan?
Musharraf made the decision to open up electronic media in 2002; a total of 83 licenses for satellite TV channels were issued during the Musharraf era, including about 38 for news and current affairs channels. Around 47 percent of the Pakistani population watches television, and over 60 percent of the total population lives in rural areas. But in the absence of strong civil society institutions, the Pakistani airwaves have become a platform for forming public opinion on geo-strategic issues. Unfortunately, there is little socially relevant content on some of the critical domestic challenges facing the country.
Pakistan in many ways fits the typical pattern seen in the democratization process of many developing countries, as discussed in in the seminal work of American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies. The political and civil society institutions in Pakistan are too few and too weak to provide space to politicized sections of the society to vigorously participate in debate on everyday issues. TV in Pakistan is a rare medium where politicians and civil society actors can reach out to the masses and engage with the issues; however, the structure of popular TV debates, with the exception of a few cases, is such that they have to simplify complex political and social problems, leading to increased populism that results in some of the relevant details being missed or distorted. In such an environment, developments are seen through a simpler, but more starkly divisive, lens.
Luv Puri is a political analyst, who has written two books on South Asian political and security issues. He recently published Across the Line of Control based on field work in Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
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The bad news from Pakistan since the beginning of the year has seemed relentless: the assassinations of two senior officials by Islamist extremists. The nosedive in U.S.-Pakistan relations over the Raymond Davis affair. Escalating political violence in Karachi. Mounting economic hardships.
That's why the Pakistani excitement and sense of national unity generated by this week's historic Indian-Pakistani cricket match was so striking, even though Pakistan lost the match.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demonstrated leadership and vision when he seized on the moment and spontaneously invited Pakistan's leaders to the face-off. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's attendance, combined with Islamabad's forward movement on the Mumbai attack probe earlier this week, provides hope that both sides see merit in forging ahead with dialogue.
INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images
News agencies reported yesterday that earlier this month a senior figure in the al Qaeda-linked Indonesian militant group Jemaah Islamiyyah (JI), Umar Patek, was arrested in Pakistan, though his location, conditions of his detention, and reasons for being in Pakistan remain unknown (WSJ, BBC, AP, AJE, AFP, Reuters). Indonesia has sent officials to identify and possibly take home Patek, who allegedly spent time in training camps in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s, and is believed to have played an important role in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that left 202 dead, including seven Americans (NYT, AP).