Pakistan: A Journalist’s View


Pakistani Journalist, Beena Sarwar interviewed by David Barsamian.

Cambridge, MA  18 January 2012

Beena Sarwar is an independent Pakistani journalist and documentary filmmaker. She is the Pakistan editor of Aman ki Asha (, a joint initiative of “The News” in Pakistan and “The Times of India.” She was a producer for GEO TV, the largest 24/7 news channel in Pakistan.  

Beena Sarwar

Eqbal Ahmad, the noted Pakistani intellectual, activist, scholar, in a book of interviews that he and I did, Confronting Empire, expressed concern—and this is in the late 1990s—of what he called the Talibanization of Pakistan. Since his passing in 1999, what has evolved in Pakistan in terms of his fear?

The process that Eqbal identified, the Talibanization of Pakistan, was also identified by other people later. But Eqbal was the first, I think, to notice that. And it has in a way gotten worse, because that process never really stopped. But there are also a lot of forces countering that Talibanization. But the problem is that the forces that led to the Talibanization are also still very active and working according to their old paradigms, not realizing that the world has changed. That paradigm includes an anti-India policy for Pakistan, a pro-jihadi policy for Pakistan, and a policy whereby the security forces are responsible not just to protect the physical boundaries of Pakistan but also the “ideological frontiers.” That is something that gets worse every time there’s a military dictatorship on board. And then when a democratic government comes in—and the democratic government that was elected in February 2008 is the longest running government at this point—it’s not enough to change those policies overnight. It doesn’t happen that way. We need that political process to continue for a long time for Talibanization to really be reversed.

Since the founding of the country in 1947, the military has played an outsized role, seizing power on a number of occasions: Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ul-Haq, Pervez Musharraf. How is it that the Pakistan military plays such a dominant role in the country’s life?

For that again you have to go back right to the time when the country was founded, was born. The dominant wing, what was then West Pakistan, lay between India to the east and Afghanistan to the west and Iran also to the west and to the south, the Arabian Sea, and at the very northern tip, China. There was a great sense of insecurity because of that geopolitical location, because of the “enemy” to the east. India lay between West Pakistan and its eastern wing, East Pakistan, and perceived hostility from India as seen in India’s refusal to pay the money that Pakistan was owed at the time of partition and independence. Various factors, for which Gandhiji gave his life, arguing that India must be a good neighbor to Pakistan.  So that insecurity.

And then also, remember that this was the Cold War times. So the trajectory that was started then, we’re still kind of continuing along that. The interference that began right from the beginning, where you had the U.S. seeing this alliance with Pakistan as a chance to get a foothold in the area, that’s still continuing. And, of course, Pakistan’s self-serving political elite jumping into that and asking for—I believe it was Ayub Khan who, when the president of the U.S. at that time asked him “What can we do to help Pakistan?” said, “Give me more tanks and ammunition,” while India under Nehru, asked for institutes of technology, IITs. That was in the late 1950s. So 40 or 50 years later, you see where we both are.

Tariq Ali, who himself is Pakistani, based in London for many years, in an interview in the Jan-Feb 2012 International Socialist Review says, “Natural catastrophes are one thing, earthquakes, floods. Every country can suffer from them.” But then he says, “We have man-made catastrophes in Pakistan.”

He’s right, we do. And there are plenty of people who are jumping in to keep making those man-made catastrophes. I think the biggest of those is probably the continued interruption of the political process. We’ve never had a politically elected government that’s been able to complete its tenure. So when people turn around and say, “Oh, the politicians in Pakistan are weak and corrupt, and you should just forget about politics and forget about politicians, they’ve had so many chances,” and they write them off, but they haven’t been allowed to actually follow through on anything. That process hasn’t been able to continue.


Certainly one of the seminal events in the country’s history was the military dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq. He overthrows the elected civilian government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977, executes him two years later. Zia- himself dies in an air crash in 1988.

Along with the American ambassador, Arnold Raphael, who was not supposed to be on that plane.

What happens during this period that, again, Eqbal Ahmad has identified as having been crucial in Pakistan’s history, when laws are changed, the jihad is launched, and the Islamization of Pakistan begins?

Yes, all of that. And we’re still paying the price for that. Bhutto’s government did something unforgivable. They declared the Ahmedis to be non-Muslim. It was a community of Muslims that the elected parliament declared as non-Muslim. Zia ul-Haq took that a step further by declaring them not only non-Muslims but also their actions, pretending to be Muslims, were criminalized. So if they say “Salaam aleikum,” which is the Muslim greeting of “Peace be with you,” a Christian can say it, a Hindu can say it, a Parsi can say it, no problem; if an Ahmedi says it, he can actually be charged, tried, punished and imprisoned.

The laws that Zia-ul-Haq brought in, the laws that he imposed, he realized that he couldn’t do what he wanted to do without using the constitution, so he actually brought in a kind of a sham parliament and had a sham democracy which was able to mutilate Pakistan’s constitution, add amendments to the Pakistan penal code that have been used to target the most vulnerable sections of Pakistani society, particularly women and religious minorities, and those who have been deemed religious minorities, like the Ahmedis.

And he passed a series of blasphemy laws.

Right. The so-called blasphemy law was something that the British had introduced when they ruled over what was then unified India. The idea was to provide some redress if somebody’s religious sentiments were hurt. That applied to all religions. That was to prevent issues like—I believe there was a case of the man who killed the writer of Rangeela Rasool. He was killed and the murderer was executed. I’m actually not sure of the history, whether that law actually existed at that time or was brought in to provide some redress for those kinds of religious sentiments being injured.

But what Zia ul-Haq did was that he added sections A, B, and C to section 295 of the penal code. Taken together, this constitutes what is called the blasphemy law. Section 295-C is the most dangerous, because that originally provided for death or life imprisonment for anyone who said anything or did anything against the honor of The Holy Prophet, peace be upon him. Then an advocate in Lahore filed a petition saying that there is no provision in Islam for life imprisonment for this kind of what he termed apostasy. For any Muslim to malign The Prophet was guilty of apostasy and therefore punishable by death, which, of course, many religious scholars dispute.

It was then left up to the Pakistan parliament to decide the matter, which the Pakistan parliament did not. That was the period of Pakistan’s musical-chairs democracy in the 1990s. And in 1992 that issue lapsed. When it lapsed, death became the only punishment for anyone convicted under 295-C.

When death became the only punishment, the mandatory punishment for anyone guilty under 295-C, just a few months after that we had the first what we call blasphemy murder, where a poet and progressive activist in Faisalabad, formerly Lyallpur, called Nemat Ahmar, a Christian teacher, a young man knifed him to death outside the education office. He had been accused—and not charged, mind you; he was not charged under this law—there were posters that cropped up all over town about him, accusing him of blasphemy and saying that he had said something against The Prophet. But actually it was a language issue, “grazing goats” or “stealing goats.” (Urdu) were the words that were confused. And it was said that he was saying that The Prophet was stealing goats instead of grazing them and that, Muslims, do not let your children be misled by this man. Shortly afterwards a young man knifed him to death.

So we’ve had several blasphemy murders since then, of people taking the law into their own hands saying that since the punishment is death and somebody has done this, let me have the honor of putting this person to death. But so far Pakistan’s courts have never upheld any blasphemy convictions and no one has been executed by the state for that.

In late 1979 the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan. The great jihad is launched, largely financed by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Pakistan plays a crucial role in the ensuing almost 10 years of war in Afghanistan, Pakistan itself is transformed in very significant ways.

And it has continued to be. But I think that we should really take back the word “jihad,” because, as Eqbal Ahmad pointed out, the greater jihad is the struggle within yourself. This was the lesser jihad, the physical jihad. As a concept internationally it did not exist before the CIA and Pakistan intelligence agencies and Riyadh introduced this concept. The Afghans’ war of national liberation was deliberately given a religious color in order to draw these so-called Mujahideen to fight against the Soviets. That, again, is a tragedy.

I see today’s Taliban as the offspring of those Mujahideen. They were at that time fighting the Soviets, and the world supported them and trained them and armed them, as you said. And when that war ended, they were left to their own devices. Afghanistan was torn apart by civil war, different people backed by different countries. Into that chaos then stepped these men who had been indoctrinated at those same seminaries where the Mujahideen were indoctrinated, trained and armed by the same people, stepping in and taking over.

These are the Saudi-financed madrassas all over Pakistan.

And they’ve grown. Traditionally the mullah in Pakistan was a community person who maintained his mosque, his masjid, and he lived on the welfare of the community. So he had a stake in the community and in keeping the community happy. Once the money started coming in from outside, those little corner mosques started to grow and they started to have marble and chandeliers and expensive carpets. The mullah was no longer local; he could be someone from outside. And he was driving a four-wheel drive car and he had armed people with him. It changed the whole landscape of Pakistan.

I know there is a phenomenon in Pakistan, in India as well, of something called “ghost schools,” where school buildings are constructed, salaries are paid to teachers, and nobody shows up, there are no students. It speaks to the very fundamental weakness of public education.

That is one of the reasons why the madrassas became popular, because there is a real desire among people to have their children educated. And if there is no public education, if there are no schools nearby where children can go, and if the only nearby place where the child can learn to read and write is a madrassa, where he’s also going to be fed and clothed and looked after and given a wallop or two if he misbehaves, well, then that’s where they will send their children.

But I should point out here that I think the indoctrination of Pakistanis hasn’t just been through madrassas. I think the so-called secular education system has really failed us as well. The textbooks that we are teaching in regular schools really need serious overhaul. There have been attempts to overhaul them, but every time there is such an outcry from the so-called religious lobby that the attempts just stop. I think one of the good exposés on this was “The Subtle Subversion,” brought out by the SDPI. If somebody searches it at there should be a pdf available. It was a study done in 2003, about what they’re teaching in the schools, not just in religious studies, but in history and geography and other subjects.

And SDPI is an acronym for?

Sustainable Development Policy Institute. It’s based in Islamabad, and they’ve done a lot of good work.

Turning to some media coverage, many so-called experts and analysts see Pakistan not so much as a nation, a country of people, but as a problem. The plethora of adjectives is almost all pejorative: “violent,” “unstable,” “fractured,” “unreliable,” “untrustworthy,” “double-crossing,” “double-dealing,” and “the most dangerous country in the world.” For example, a December 2011 Atlantic cover story is entitled “The Ally from Hell.” This is the lead. “Pakistan lies. It hosted Osama bin Laden, knowingly or not. Its government is barely functional. It hates the democracy next door. It is home to both radical jihadists and to a large and growing nuclear arsenal, which it fears the U.S. will seize. Its intelligence service sponsors terrorists who attack American troops. With a friend like this, who needs enemies?”

But as we just discussed, for this friend to become the way it has become has taken a lot of doing and a lot of things have happened to make it the way it is. Also, that’s a pretty incomplete description of Pakistan. Yes, all that is true and, yes, there are problems, and Pakistan is a problem. And it’s most of all a problem for those who live in it. We in Pakistan are the ones who suffer from the laws that General Zia imposed. Some of the laws the bite has been taken out somewhat, but not completely.

This description and this article completely ignore the fact that democracy in Pakistan has not been allowed to take root, that when military dictators have taken over, countries like the U.S. have supported them. When we have become a mess, it is also, of course, our own fault. But please don’t just blame us alone.

And we do not hate the democracy next door. We are jealous of the democracy next door, we envy the democracy next door, we want to be like the democracy next door. That is why we want peace with India; that is why an overwhelming number of Pakistanis want peace with India. This is the biggest fallacy, to say that Pakistanis hate Indians, because that is not true. We’ve seen this umpteen times. When there were the cricket test matches taking place and thousands of Indians were given visas to come to Pakistan, this was not like a convention and a closed-door thing, this was people on the streets, thousands of people on the streets visiting the shops, taking public transport, meeting strangers. They loved it. And people loved them. Shopkeepers were giving them discounts or not charging money, taxi drivers weren’t taking fares from them. And, incidentally, Pakistanis have the same experience when they go to India. When they went for the cricket march in Mohali in 2011, many of them couldn’t find hotel rooms to stay in, and strangers offered their houses, “Come and stay with us.”

The people of Pakistan and India do not hate each other. It’s the governments that have formed policies that have kept the people apart, that make it impossible almost to visit each other. There are ridiculous visa restrictions on both sides. We are the same people, we have the same culture, we speak the same language. There’s a funny story about the Indian journalist who came to Karachi recently from the Press Club of Bombay. As he’s coming into Pakistan, he’s asking the person at customs or immigration, “Will I have a problem with the language here? Because I don’t speak Urdu.” The man said, “But you’re speaking it.” He thought he was speaking Hindi, but Hindi and Urdu are so similar. We understand each other. It’s not like France and Germany, which are two separate ethnic identities, separate languages and food, and the people were enemies of each other during those wars. The people of Pakistan and India are not enemies, and we don’t want to be enemies.

Yet you have two of the largest armies in the world facing off.

We didn’t ask them to do that. They do that for their own reasons. And I think that they’re completely out of date, they’re completely out of touch with what the people want. Right now what’s happening is that the business communities of both countries are joining hands and really moving forward to work together in the IT sector and the health sector. I’ve been working with this initiative called Aman ki Asha. If you check it out on the Web, it’s Aman ki Asha is an initiative started by the Times of India and the Jang group of Pakistan, the two biggest media companies. It’s a concept that has really become—people now say things like “That’s very Aman ki Asha of you.” “Aman ki Asha” means hope for peace. It’s triggered off dozens of initiatives around both countries with school children and other people.

The Rotary Clubs in Pakistan and India are working together with Aman ki Asha. They’re sending children from Pakistan who have heart diseases to India for life-saving surgeries because Pakistan does not have that technology or that training. And they are also training Pakistani surgeons to start to be able to do that. And Pakistani Rotarians are paying for Indian children to be able to receive that treatment in India as well. That initiative is called Heart to Heart. The Pakistani Rotarians, how do they send their money to India? Via Chicago. Through Rotary International in Chicago. Because Pakistan and India, next door to each other, don’t have the bank exchanges that make that possible.

So there is so much happening on the ground, but if you read the newspapers or you listen to the TV or whatever, you would think that all we ever do is fight. And that’s not true.

One of the unresolved issues between India and Pakistan from the 1947 partition is Kashmir. One-third of it today is in Pakistani hands, two-thirds is in Indian hands. Initially, perhaps, Kashmiris in 1947 were interested in unifying with the new state of Pakistan. But since then a rebellion has been launched. I’ve been there several times, and it seems to me most Kashmiris, at least on the Indian side, would want independence now rather than unification with Pakistan. And even there’s talk of unifying the two Kashmirs. What are your views on Kashmir?

When it comes to unifying the two Kashmirs, I think for once India and Pakistan would find themselves on the same page, because neither of them want that. Pakistan would want to keep its side of Kashmir, India wants to keep its side of Kashmir. I think that you’re absolutely right. I have never been to the Indian side of Kashmir because they don’t give visas. But the Kashmiris that I have interacted with and met don’t want to be part of Pakistan. I don’t blame them. Why should they? But they don’t want to be part of India either. Although that is still a sort of open question, because if India plays its cards right and allows the democratic process to enter Kashmir, as it has started to do—if it removes its armed forces from Kashmir, which is the heaviest concentration of soldiers per population anywhere in the world, and if it removes AFSPA, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which prevents any kind of redress to any wrong committed by a soldier—if they start taking those steps, they might find that Kashmiris don’t feel the need for independence. But I can’t speak to that right now, because we don’t know that. They haven’t done that. The repression continues in Kashmir. And on the Pakistan side also there are a lot of restrictions.

The issue of Kashmir  is something that the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, a people-to-people group that started in 1994, articulated in a way that I think has found resonance in the public discourse of both countries over these years. And that is that Kashmir should not be treated as a territorial dispute or a piece of real estate between India and Pakistan but as a matter of the lives and aspirations of the Kashmiri people, who should be allowed to have a say in their future. That is what is starting to happen. I see the germs of that starting to happen.

But what’s really heart-breaking is to see the divided families. There was a young boy, maybe 16 years old, and he had gone on holiday on the Pakistani side of Kashmir. He happened to be just trekking about with his family, and he saw these three men sitting on a rock looking across the river at the Indian side of Kashmir. They sat there for hours. Then somebody told the boy that their family is on the other side. They crossed over and they haven’t been able to go back. So he talked to those men. And then he wrote a small piece and he sent it to me, and we printed it in Aman ki Asha. And he took pictures also. It was a heart-breaking story. They just sit there and they stare at each other, the families, across the river. They can’t speak to each other because the roar of the water, of that mountainous river rushing down, is too loud. And sometimes, if they are allowed to, then people throw each other gifts and things across the river, letters wrapped in stones. That’s how sometimes they conduct ceremonies, like engagements.

But I do see progress. There are now two bus services that connect the two sides of Kashmir. But it’s very, very difficult for people to get the permits to be on those buses, and you cannot do it all the time and it can carry only a limited number of passengers. There should be soft borders. What we want is something like the South Asian Union, like the EU. If France and Germany, which were such bitter enemies, can be friends, and if there can be a soft-border situation in Europe, why can’t we have that in South Asia?

Another media report is by Declan Walsh in the January 2012 Guardian. He spent seven years in Pakistan as a correspondent. He writes, “The country is riven by ethnic, tribal and political fault lines, which in turn are being exacerbated by galloping population growth and deepening poverty. Turmoil in a country with at least 120 nuclear warheads and a projected population of 300 million by the year 2030 could make Afghanistan look like a walk in the park.” And then he adds, “Yet there is little sign of revolution.”

Declan Walsh is right. And he’s been there. He’s now left The Guardian after the seven-year itch, maybe. He’s joined The New York Times. He has deep insight into Pakistan, and he is right about all of that. I’m sure he addresses in the article, which I haven’t read yet, that there is no sign of revolution because Pakistan has the trappings of democracy, which Afghanistan and many of the Arab countries don’t. We have an elected parliament, we have a super-independent judiciary, we have a very independent and feisty media, we have an increasingly aware population. And, yes, the population growth levels are something to be concerned about, and there are people working on that.

At every step, everything that we do, we’re pulled back by the so-called religious groups and their ability and the ease with which they are able to make things take a violent turn. Pakistan could have been polio-free by now, like India has just been made polio-free. But some of the religious leaders in some of the localities refuse to let children take polio drugs because they say that it’s got reproductive-control elements in it or whatever.

I think one of the most sensible things that the Bengalis did was to split from West Pakistan, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971. They’ve been able to improve their education rate, the indicators relating to gender, even push religion out of politics. That is what Pakistan has to do, is to separate religion from politics and let it be a personal thing, and not sanctify things that are wrong just because they are done in the name of religion. For example, like encroachments—and I know it happens in India, too—where temples and other religious structures, things are done in the name of religion. India is a democracy, and even then things happens.

But that is partly because we are the same kind of people. The people of South Asia in general, especially in the northern Indo-Gangetic plain, are very religious. And it’s easy to play on their emotions and to incite mobs all in the name of religion. In Pakistan that’s become even more dangerous, because so many people are armed and religious indoctrination has been done in a much more systematic way than in India, where religion was used to knock down the Babri Mosque and religion was used as the basis for the massacre in Gujarat in 2002, when several thousand Muslims were killed. So if that can happen in a democracy, imagine how much worse it is in a country which has not had democracy and where religion has, furthermore, been systematically misused for political power. Essentially that’s what it comes down to. The use of religion in politics has got to stop.

What’s your sense of the actual power of these religious parties? Because on my trips to Pakistan, clearly, they can make a lot of nois and they can mobilize people. But is it something substantive beyond that, or is it just people who are able to manipulate and control a mob and make a lot of noise?

I think now what’s happened in Pakistan over the last 20-30 years, particularly since the first Afghan war, is the criminalization of politics also, where you have the so-called religious groups, the organizations that have been engaged in criminal activities, murdering each other, like the sectarian violence. You have a breakdown of law and order in a country where you haven’t had a lot of democracy, and you have the police force that is being bypassed now over the last 10-12 years. The police force is being overlooked in favor of the so-called War on Terror. So all resources and attention are going to this big War on Terror.

At the local level, you have things like somebody burning down a video or DVD shop because they say it is against Islam or somebody beating up a barber for shaving somebody’s beard because they say it’s against Islam. Or you have the people who stopped a mixed men and women marathon training from going on in Gujranwala. No action wasn’t taken against them. So when action isn’t taken against criminals at the local level, crimes which are done in the name of religion, each time that happens it empowers and emboldens people who are using religion at another level somewhere else and it gives them sort of a foothold in that community. They have their local allies. The point being that what we really need is for the police to be empowered, trained, and for criminals to be charged, tried, prosecuted, and punished for their transgressions. Instead, the people who disrupted that marathon in Gujranwala were taken into police custody, and then there were probably some phone calls from somewhere or other and they were let off after a cup of tea.

Gujranwala is a city in Punjab. I was there a couple of years ago, and I was struck by the huge number of signs everywhere denouncing the cartoons about The Prophet Muhammad. The graffiti said, “We will defend the honor of The Prophet,” “We will defend the honor of Islam.” Quite fervent. But this is in one of the most unspeakably poor areas in the world. It seems that maybe some of the energy directed toward the honor of The Prophet and denouncing Danish cartoonists could be directed toward addressing some of the deep societal ills.

Absolutely. It’s a whitewash. It’s used to divert attention from the real issues and to use those issues to gain political power. And it’s not just a question of the Danish cartoons. I don’t think that the honor of The Prophet is so weak that it needs defense by everybody who calls themselves a Muslim. I think that the honor of The Prophet is far stronger. Just because somebody makes a cartoon or something, I don’t think it damages that. He is above that and Islam is or should be above that.

The grafffiti, the wall chalkings and all, are not something spontaneous. This is very well planned, meant to instigate emotions, meant to rile people up, meant to sort of evoke that kind of frenzy. The same kind of frenzy they then use when they denounce somebody for blasphemy, which is what they did to Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who was murdered in January 2011.

You mentioned the sectarian violence in Pakistan. This is a country whose raison d’être is Islam. It was formed as a haven and a homeland for South Asian Muslims. Nevertheless—and this is long before the Taliban, long before the Afghan war—the country has been plagued by attacks on Shi’as, who are a religious Muslim minority in Pakistan. What is the root of that?

As to your comment that Pakistan was formed as a homeland for South Asian Muslims is not strictly, 100% true. Because if you read historian Ayesha Jalal’s book The Sole Spokesman, and if you hear her recent interview on Radio Open Source, in which she talks about the founder of the country, Jinnah, who himself, incidentally, was a Shi’a, it was not that all Indian Muslims should come to live in Pakistan. It would be unsustainable. It’s impossible. There are more Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan, which people forget. Not for long, though, the way the population in Pakistan is rising. But the point is, Jinnah had argued for a federation in which Muslims would get disproportionate representation in states where they were not in a majority. And Nehru and the Congress refused to accept that because they wanted a strong center. The cost of that strong center was partition, which Jinnah did not want, and he said he did not want “this moth-eaten and truncated” Pakistan where Punjab and Bengal were divided.

However, that is how things played out. The first thing he said was that this is not going to be a religious state. It is going to be country where you are free to go to your mosque, you are free to go to your temple. Muslims will cease to be Muslims and Hindus will cease to be Hindus, not in the religious sense but in the sense that all are citizens of the same state. So to say that it was meant to be an Islamic country is not strictly true. It seems like it, but if you look at it a little bit more in depth, you do see that the idea was not to have a country where it would be a homogeneous Muslim population. And Pakistan had at that time about a 10% non-Muslim population. That’s still a sizable number of Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Sikhs in Pakistan, in the millions. And the people whom these so-called religious extremists consider to be non-Muslims, the Shi’ites are about 15% of Pakistan’s population. This religious frenzy continued during and after the Zia years. You had wall chalkings denouncing Shi’as as non-Muslims. So there’s no end to it, if you just stick to religion.

One of Mr. Jinnah’s first acts was to form a commission for the protection of non-Muslims, for religious minorities, and he himself was the head of that commission. Unfortunately, he died just barely a year after the country was formed. And then after that we didn’t have a constitution until 1956, and that constitution was abrogated. The next constitution we had was in 1973, which has been thoroughly mutilated. If you look at the pattern in Pakistan, the 10 years from 1947 to 1958 was complete chaos, after Jinnah’s death particularly. And then you had Ayub Khan, the military dictator, for 10 years or more. Then you had the civil war with East Pakistan and Bangladesh’s independence. Then you had General Zia ul-Haq come in. He was followed by 10 years of what I call musical-chairs democracy, where no government stayed for more than a year and a half or two years because they were toppled every time. Then you had Musharraf come in for another 10 years.

What is 60 years in the long scheme of things? It’s nothing. It’s a drop in the ocean. So if this political process continues—and one of the things this government has done, what President Zardari has done, is that he has signed away the powers of the president to dissolve assembly, which Zia ul-Haq had introduced, which is one of the reasons why democracy has not been able to take root in Pakistan. A lot of things have been happening. A lot of steps by parliament have been taken over the last couple of years. For example, it passed amendments that give autonomy to the provinces, has passed laws for education, against sexual harassment, for gender rights. But all of these things will take a long time to take effect. No changes will be visible overnight. It takes years. It’s a process.

Talk about the power and influence of the military, sometimes called “the state within a nonstate.” Ayesha Siddiqa in her book Military Inc., documents the enormous economic power that the Pakistani military exerts, much like its counterparts in Iran and Egypt, I might say. Another question. Much is made of the ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence. Who does it answer to? Is it part and parcel of the military?

Until this government came in in February 2008 after elections, pretty much the military establishment and the political establishment were one, because the military was dominating the scene and formulating foreign as well as domestic policy, as well as economic policy, actually. So now you have with this government an attempt to assert civilian power. That is something the military is not happy over. It is not used to taking orders from the civilian government. If the civilian government says, “We want a no-first-use nuclear policy,” the military establishment is not happy with that. You will recall that in 2008 President Zardari actually said that Pakistan would pursue a no-first-use nuclear policy. But the way he did it, he said it in a conclave with the Hindustan Times by a video. Four days after that you had the attacks on Mumbai. So I don’t know if that is a coincidence or that is somebody trying to teach him a lesson. I don’t know. But the point is to say that the ISI and the military are “a state within a nonstate,” it’s kind of unkind.

But that’s not what we want. We want them to be under the civilian government, to take their orders from the civilian government. Constitutionally they come under the government. The ISI constitutionally is answerable to the elected civilian government. But because we haven’t had elected civilian governments all these years, they’re answerable to no one but themselves, and they’ve sort of become this amorphous monster that nobody knows where the head or the tail of it is and who it answers to, what’s the chain of command. There are petitions in the Supreme Court asking exactly those kinds of questions, but the Supreme Court isn’t taking them up in a hurry. It is the government that is responsible for appointing the chief of army staff and extensions and all of that. But it will take some time for that equation to sort itself out, if it is allowed to. And for that to happen, I’ll just repeat myself to say that the democratic electoral, political process, has to continue on uninterrupted.

General Pervez Musharraf ruled Pakistan from 1999 until 2008. In 2007 he dismissed the Supreme Cout Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, and a fairly spontaneous lawyers’ movement arose. I witnessed it in Karachi and Islamabad and Lahore. It was impressive to see these guys in suits demonstrating for judicial and political freedom. Musharraf then steps down, Chaudhry is reinstated as chief justice, and that lawyers’ movement has disappeared. Why didn’t it sustain itself?

Lawyers are lawyers, and they need to do their legal work, just as judges are judges and they need to do their legal work. We have a huge backlog of cases in the courts in Pakistan, and I think everybody needs to do what they should be doing. It’s not the job of lawyers to take on political demonstrations. They did that for a while under a certain need, the Black Coat Movement, as it was called. But once that objective was achieved, there was no point in them being out in the streets. For what? Pervez Musharraf was not within his constitutional rights to sack the chief justice, and he paid for it. That was actually the first time that we had a military dictator in Pakistan leave office, with no violence or bloodshed.

I think we made progress. Look at the situation over the last few years, particularly the last few months in Pakistan. Ten years ago if this had happened, the government would have gone. And some people say maybe it should have gone and let there be fresh elections. But then again, you’re going into the same cycle of early elections and not letting them complete their term and all of that. Does that answer your question?

I would just respond to that that this is a privileged group that has a lot of leverage and could be influential politically if they sustained the movement.

But that’s not what their job is. Their job is to defend people in the courts and to bring cases to closure. Their job is not to garland murderers, which some of them have been doing. When you become political and you become politicized, then which politics do you take? You could go right or left. We’ve seen groups of lawyers glorify and garland the murderer of Governor Salmaan Taseer, only because that murder was committed in the name of religion. It was a cowardly act of murder, and the murderer is in prison. But it was groups of lawyers that were garlanding him. And it’s, I believe, a former Supreme Court judge who is taking up his case pro bono. Take up pro bono cases of people who are poor and who are innocent. Why are you taking up the pro bono case of a man who is a self-confessed murderer? That’s not what lawyers need to be doing.

A couple of months after the assassination of the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, the only Christian in the civilian cabinet was murdered, Shabaz Bhatti.

Just to put it in context, the so-called religious groups—and I keep saying “so-called” because I don’t think that they are really religious, because what they are all about is political power, and they’re using religion to shore up emotions and to get support for their political power and to disrupt  democratic politics. Because they know they’ll never come to power through the ballot, and they never have so far. But when religion is used for politics, and when this so-called blasphemy issue, which is so emotive and so charged, is used and nobody is ever charged or tried for misusing this law or for false accusations, then it really becomes what we’ve seen. It’s very easy to accuse somebody of blasphemy, and then somebody or other will get charged up and go do it for you.

In the 1990s I was working with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan as a volunteer. I was helping them out with report writing and fact-finding. The HRCP is at When we investigated cases, there was a spate of blasphemy accusations in the early 1990s. Soon after that with 295-C, it became mandatory to make death the punishment in a court case. And every single blasphemy case that we investigated, there was one political party that had instigated it, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. And it is their affiliates which are still involved in this.

Aasia Bibi was the case of a Christian woman who was convicted and sentenced to death for blasphemy in November 2010. That case, again, was registered three or four days after the supposed incident had taken place, in which she had said whatever she is alleged to have said. Those days are very crucial. Suppose I really offended you in an argument. Why will you wait three or four days to go register a case unless you have some mala fide intentions? Somebody comes and instigates you. “David, you should go and instigate a case, because this is what is going to get her and this is how you will ensure your place in heaven.” It takes time to work on that. So three or four days later the case is registered. So she is in prison.

The whole atmosphere becomes so charged. It’s incredible that in that atmosphere a man who was dismissed from the Special Branch for his extremist views, where he was working in a security position, is assigned to the guard detail of a VIP, Salmaan Taseer, who is being openly accused of blasphemy, and you know there are people targeting him. Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Salmaan Taseer, was dismissed for his extremist views, I think two or three years before, and he asked for this guard duty. You don’t give guard duty to somebody who asks for it, especially in a VIP situation. And then when he fired those shots, why did the other guards not open fire, as per standard operating procedure? Because he had told them, “Don’t shoot. I’m going to surrender.” But that’s not how you do it, that’s not how it works in VIP situations.

You mentioned the case of Aasia Bibi. In 2002 there was the infamous case of Mukhtar Mai. She was gang-raped. That did receive some international attention. She has survived and started a girls’ school. What do you know about that case and what happened to the perpetrators?

She wasn’t accused of blasphemy. Had she been, she might not be able to continue living where she’s living and doing the work that she does, for one thing. That case, again, is similar to Aasia’s in a certain way, because of the class element. Mukhtar Mai belongs to the poorest, “lowest” level of village strata in the village society. And there’s a situation where the perpetrators belong to a more powerful, “higher” class. It’s not that they are richer, particularly. They also live in a mud house. I’ve seen that house. I’ve been there. I did a documentary film on her, actually, and I went and visited her there. It’s online on my YouTube channel.

Had it been maybe 10-15 years ago, perhaps, that her brother was abused by those people, he might have just taken that abuse. Now, he says that, “No, I’m going to go to the police.” So then they fabricate this case against him, that he’s having an affair with one of their sisters. So in revenge they’re going to rape Mukhtar Mai. So a village council then is held and they say, “This is what we want to do.” And the villagers say, “No, we do not agree with this. This is not right.” And then they suggest the time-honored tradition of, “Why don’t you just marry her?” If your sister is having an affair with her brother, let them just get married.  You marry her.

They summon her. She comes to the village council. Most of the village council has left by then, because they’re fed up with the argument, but some of the people are still around. She comes and she expects that she’s going to have to put her veil at the feet of the man who is accusing her brother and ask for forgiveness, and he will put it back on her head and she will be allowed to go, which is how it usually happens. Women are used like that, for peace-making treaties, within tribal and feudal communities. Instead of which, they drag her into a room and they sexually assault her. Maybe not as many people assaulted her as was reported in the police report. Maybe she wasn’t stripped completely naked, as was reported. They did tear her clothes off, but not all of them. But in village culture, if your legs are exposed, they say that you’re naked. So that was that case.

The perpetrators spent a lot of time in and out of prison. Eventually they were acquitted, after many years, during which they had spent a lot of time in prison already. She was, of course, very upset by that. But a lot of that acquittal has to do with the way the evidence was presented, with the wrongly written police report, which often happens. In any case, they had been in prison for so many years and all of that. That’s that case.

What happened when her case got international attention, in that situation many women would just have committed suicide because of the loss of honor. And that’s what she told me that she had planned to do also. She was going to drink poison. She and her family were all sitting there waiting for her to drink poison. And then a journalist and the village priest came up to them and said, “Don’t do that. Let’s go register a case.” I don’t know what the political motives were, but they felt that they could make a case out of this.

So when her case became public and people started giving her money and the government gave her money, she didn’t use that money for herself. She used it to buy some land on which she built a girls’ school. That’s the girls’ school that she herself then attended. And she studied up to four grades, I think. She might have studied more by now. That’s her story.

Imran Khan, cricket star turned politician, has a political formation called Tehreeq-e-Insaaf, the Justice Movement, Justice Party. He’s been drawing large crowds all over Pakistan. What are his political prospects?

We don’t know. We’ll have to see, when the elections come. The good thing is he’s energized a lot of young people and brought them into the political arena, where before they were apathetic and had given up on politics. How many of those actually register to vote and how many of those vote and actually vote for him, we’ll see when the elections come. If he comes into power, then he will find that the world is not as black and white as he likes to paint it, and that politics involves compromises and negotiations, and that sticking to high principle is not always the best way to go forward to make long-term changes. I think that’s what he will find out as he comes in.

Clearly, he’s supported by other forces than the young people who are so selflessly following him, young and old people who are following him. By those forces I mean there’s a lot of talk that the intelligence agencies are behind this sudden projection of Imran Khan. He’s drawing large crowds, but he also has been getting a lot of media attention. A lot of it might be just that’s what journalists do: they see the next rising star and highlight that. But we don’t know. It seems to me that he has other backing, which he denies.

Are the constant reports of widespread and growing anti-American sentiment in Pakistan accurate?

Yes, because Pakistanis see America as having played a double game. For all these years, America has given Pakistan a lot of money, but America has also supported Pakistani military dictators. America has also given money to Pakistan’s military. This anti-Americanism is something that I see as actually being part of this whole blasphemy movement issue, because it’s something that’s being whipped up by the extremist parties because they see it as an easy way to whip up frenzy. Because when people feel that they are being victimized and they feel desperate, it’s a lot easier to blame an outside power than to look inwards and see what’s wrong within. It’s much easier to blame everything on America.

It’s clear that the U.S. drone attacks are intensely unpopular. They’ve resulted in the deaths of numerous civilians. And this criticism of U.S. policy reaches a fever pitch in November 2011, when some two dozen Pakistani solders are killed in a U.S. drone attack.

That is true. And that is inexcusable and unpardonable. But we are at war, we are fighting a war, and we are supposed to be on the same side, if this is friendly fire, which I believe America has apologized for. And there have been other incidents of friendly fire. I don’t see this as the biggest thing. And I also have spoken to people in areas affected by the drones where they don’t see them as their worst enemy. Their worst enemies are the Taliban and the Pakistan army. They’re caught between the Pakistan army and the Taliban. And they actually see the drones as the ababeel, the swallow, the helpful bird that comes and knocks off some people.

I forget who it was who pointed this out, but drone attacks have killed maybe—we don’t know, because the area is restricted, conservatively 3,000 people. Compare that to 30,000 or 40,000 people killed by the Taliban and their allies in Pakistan’s marketplaces, schools, offices, security installations. Why is there not more outrage against them? Why about the drones, which are actually part of our fight, trying to help us? And, yes, there’s collateral damage, but, yes, it’s war.

Poetry plays a big part in Pakistani culture. 2011 marked the centenary of the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

That’s right. And it was celebrated around the world, including in India. Faiz’s words still inspire Pakistanis and others. And I heard his poems were used in Occupy movements in the U.S. and in Egypt.

Particularly his poem “Bol,” which is “Speak.”

“Speak, for your lips are free,” yes. Bol is also the title of a film that has become very popular in Pakistan, that focuses on transvestite, gender, and population issues.

And there is an alternative cafe in Lahore called Bol as well.

I believe that’s doing quite well.

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