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Pakistan: When women, minorities and people of different sects and ethnicities will enjoy equal protection of the laws...

Monday 11 December 2017, by siawi3

Source:, 10.12.17

When women, minorities and people of different sects and ethnicities will enjoy equal protection of the laws

Interview with Diep Saeeda*

By Andy Heintz**


Andy Heintz: How big a role did General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq play in stoking religious fundamentalism in Pakistan?

Diep Saeeda: The long term impact of Zia -ul-Haq’s actions on fueling the rise of religious extremism in the country cannot be overstated. With the introduction of Shariah Courts, the Hudood Ordinance, and Blasphemy Laws, Zia effectively institutionalized bigotry. An irreversible process of discriminatory laws and exclusionary policies was effectively instated.
However, the seeds of what was to become a draconian system of persecution of religious and sectarian minorities were sown by Zia’s predecessor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto caved in to pressure from religious parties, and declared Ahmadis non-Muslim. He was also the one to institute a ban on alcohol consumption.
Perhaps the single most detrimental step in Pakistan’s Constitutional history was the introduction of the Objectives Resolution. With the brush of a stroke, non-Muslims became second class citizens. Pakistan’s Constitution is rife with dangerous contradictions, where on the one hand all citizens are equal, yet only a Muslim can be elected President of the country. The Objectives Resolution set the stage for the blurring of boundaries between religion and state, and nipped in the bud any hopes of establishing a secular society - the like of which the Founding Father had envisioned.

How strong are the progressive groups in Pakistan today?

Progressive groups are pretty close to non-existent in today’s Pakistan. The systematic persecution of progressives and liberals during Zia’s regime forced many to leave the country for fear of their lives. An endemic anti-progressive narrative propagated by the State took root in the country where progressives were considered anti-state elements and effectively villainized.
The handful of progressives in the country today don’t present a united front, and are divided amongst various different factions, making the whole weaker. Compounding the many divisions is the additional problem of what is perceived as the cooption of the liberal class by the non-profit industrial complex. NGO workers in Pakistan are largely viewed with suspicion, even disdain, by the general populace for receiving funding from international organizations for self-aggrandizement.

How have you been able to maintain a commitment to non-violence despite all the violence that has wracked Pakistan over the last three decades?

My commitment to non-violence stems from the legacy of historical giants such as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. They are my source of inspiration, and I continue to seek guidance from their tradition of nonviolent resistance. It gives me no pride to admit that in my younger days, I was perhaps beholden to a different world view. I was enraged by social injustice and inequality, and believed in my youthful folly that a bloody revolution was the only way to overthrow a capitalist system. But as I grew older, I became painfully aware that violence only begets more violence. Martin Luther King’s saying, “Nonviolence is the way of life for courageous people”, and Gandhi’s teachings: “Be the change you wish to see in the world” became the edicts I live by.
Since I work with young people, it is all the more important that I be steadfast in my adherence to nonviolence. My youthful days are behind me, but I remember being a hot-headed, impassioned youth, and I strive to imbibe young people with the passion and courage to choose the nonviolent path.

How did the funding of the mujahideen by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to fight the Soviet Union lead to the further Islamization of your country?

Fascism and violence increased, and Islamization reached its peak during Zia’s authoritarian regime. The funding and arming of mujahids sent to fight in Afghanistan actively propagated the Us vs. Them narrative that de-humanized non-Muslims and laid the foundations for a militancy problem that the country is still to this day struggling to get under control.
When the Soviet invasion was over, and the mujahideen found that they were no longer serving a purpose, they turned on the State that helped create them. Hillary Clinton on a visit to Pakistan made the following observation: it would be foolish to think that our neighbor’s snakes won’t harm us. This has been the story of the mujahids in the region - when the Pakistani state equips young warriors to fight in Afghanistan or India, they forget that this monster will soon enough turn its wrath against the State that created it.

What is your position on U.S. drone strikes?

This is a sensitive issue of critical importance. As a nonviolence activist and proponent, I am against the killing of any person. Known terrorists have been targeted in precision drone strikes, a fact that the US government uses as a defense against the criticism of drone attacks. The argument is that there was no other way to capture these dangerous criminals. Terrorist groups across the world use women and children as human shields, and innocent women and children die in these attacks, which is of course condemnable. I still believe that if negotiations can work, peace talks should be the preferred path forward.

What are the biggest obstacles to a nuclear weapons- free Middle East?

Besides Iran [editor’s note: It is unclear if Iran wants to acquire a nuclear weapon], Pakistan and India are the two major nuclear powers in South Asia. Until and unless the Kashmir issue is resolved between these two nations, and Pakistani non-state actors stop terrorism in India, we cannot dream of a nuclear free region.

What is the current state of your efforts to promote peace between Indians and Pakistanis?

We have been working to promote peace and further friendly ties between Pakistan and India for many years now. As far back as 1995, is when we started facilitating people to people contact between Indians and Pakistanis, with the belief that misperceived notions and misperceptions about each other can only be dispelled through direct interaction. Where actual physical meetings were made impossible because of the visa restrictions in place, we organized teleconferences, and Skype conference calls between school and college students across the border. When the political climate allowed it, we organized youth exchange programs. Dialogue between youth - over the internet and in person - changes their perception about the other country in a positive way.
In 2005, there was a Peace march from Delhi to Multan on foot, and one from Bombay to Karachi. A Visa Free and Nuclear Free South Asia convention was hosted in India; and one in Pakistan by the Indian and Pakistani Soldiers Initiative for Peace, and was attended by former Army Generals.
We continue our efforts for promoting peace between Pakistan and India, but the Kashmir issue, and the absolutely absurd visa policies of both countries remain huge barriers in our path. Not only is it extremely difficult to obtain a visa to visit the other country, but there are very real deterrents and barriers in the form of mandatory police reporting, and city-specific travel. No other nation restricts travel to a limited number of cities - a visa generally allows you access to all the different cities, towns and villages within any given country. The fact that we make it so ridiculously cumbersome for the people of India and Pakistan to meet and see each other makes you question why our governments are so afraid of peace.

How are the Taliban perceived in Pakistan? What percentage of the country considers them anti-imperialists, and what percentage opposes their violence and medieval treatment of women and minorities?

A tiny percentage of Pakistanis considers the Taliban an anti-imperialist force - those to the extreme right, and extreme left of the political/ideological spectrum - but the vast majority considers them savages, and blames them for the indiscriminate killing of women and children in market places, schools, shrines and other places of worship.

In Karima Bennoune’s book Your Fatwa Doesn’t Apply Here, she writes about how terrorist attacks committed by the Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalist groups are often wrongly blamed on Jews and Hindus by a portion of the Pakistani population? Is this pattern continuing or are more people starting to come to terms with problem of Islamic fundamentalism?

That is accurate - in Pakistan, we have a huge problem with conspiracy theories. The Taliban are not considered Pakistani or even Muslim by many. This thinking is predicated on the belief that Muslims do not kill other Muslims. Many believe that this is the work of Blackwater, RAW, or Mossad - a US/Israeli/Indian conspiracy. The media has a big role to play in this characterization of extremists, by further encouraging and perpetuating these fallacies.
There is no space to speak freely about religious extremism in Pakistan. Moderates who try to explain that Islam is a religion of peace, and that the extremists are outliers, do not receive prominence on mainstream media, and in some cases are threatened and forced to leave the country, creating an environment that stifles discussion and discourse and further exacerbates the problem of intolerance.

Do you think true democracy will only come to Pakistan when its government commits itself to secular principles that protect women, minorities, non-believers and Muslims that prefer to keep religion a private matter from those who want to impose their interpretation of Islam on people?

What we see in Pakistan is not a true democracy - the head of state defers to the military for all important issues concerning foreign policy, the military budget and other policy and strategic decisions. Military control of government decisions in my mind is intrinsically linked with the problem of lack of protections for minorities, and the reason why we are inching further away from realizing the dream of a secular democracy. The military derives its justification for a large standing army with a huge military budget by keeping the conflict with India alive. The public is sold the narrative that India is an enemy because of religious differences between Hindus and Muslims. The same rationale for discrimination applies to Hindus and other religious minorities living in Pakistan.
When the Pakistani Military establishment decides that the elected parliament voted into power by the people of Pakistan is paramount and supreme - that is when we can finally have a truly democratic nation. The educated youth of the country are plugged into the global village via the internet and social media. Soon enough they will learn from the democratic and progressive nations of the world, and recognize that we need separation between religion and state. That is when women, minorities and people of different sects and ethnicities can enjoy equal protection of the laws.

* Diep Saeeda is the founding director of The Institute for Peace Secular Studies and a tireless peace activist in Pakistan. Saeeda promotes and advocates for nonviolence; equality under the law for all people regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or gender; secular democracy; a nuclear weapons-free Middle East; and peaceful relations between India and Pakistan.

**This interview is excerpted from "Dissidents of the International Left", by Andy Heintz, to be published in 2018.

Andy Heintz has been conducting interviews for more than two years with progressives from around 15 countries.

published by Siawi with author’s permission