Guest column by Khawar Mehdi
The potential collapse of Pakistan is among the top concerns for the international community as the gravest threat to global peace. Willingly or being incapable, the country apparently has failed to address the security threats posed by two active insurgencies in its Southern and Western parts bordering Iran and Afghanistan. Pakistan is also in the midst of a severe economic crisis, acute energy shortage, and a broken law and order system. The worst nightmare comes from the rise of a jihadi narrative rooted in hatred and religious bigotry against the secular ideology and progressive elements.
The absence of a strong counter narrative of peace and tolerance adds to the strength of fundamentalist extremists. Acknowledging the complex nature of these problems, the international community, led by the United States, has invested heavily in and committed unprecedented financial and human resources to Pakistan. A majority of these resources are directed to social development, education, restoration of economic order and infrastructure. All of these programs are crucial in reaching out to communities in Pakistan. However, the element of people -to- people dialogue has not been established among the two countries.
Many U.S.-initiated programs and projects tend to remain bureaucratic-centric, and there is no significant program available that offers an engagement between the political leaders and elected representatives of the two countries. During the past 11 years, other than a few trips by elected representatives from both countries, trust-building efforts have remained an exclusive domain of the Government officials. Among the best of the best, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took commendable initiative in engaging with grassroots communities within Pakistan. The political leadership of both countries failed in pursuing the path set by Mrs. Clinton. Terms of engagement between the two countries are also instrumental in keeping political elements from cultivating public opinion.
Decision-making mostly takes place behind closed doors among diplomats or other civil and military officials of the two countries; fueling the paranoia that is already present among the Pakistani masses that their interests are being bartered away. The tragedy is for the past 35 years the State of Pakistan has pursued a policy favoring religious fundamentalism designed to undermine popular progressive ideologies. Consequently, Pakistani society is caught in the middle of state-sponsored fundamentalist propaganda and a relatively tolerant traditional way of life.
For more than three decades, progressive political parties have endured severe state-sponsored oppression where leaders and political workers were jailed and even publicly hanged. The well balanced and generally liberal Constitution of Pakistan adopted in 1973 was dented by Islamic amendments, many of which strengthened and legitimized two unconstitutional military regimes since 1977. These coercive tactics ended up marginalizing the country’s progressive elements, leaving the political field wide open for the fundamentalist forces. Well-entrenched madrasa- mosque networks across the country were used to spread the hate message – the networks are now used to perpetuate xenophobic and violent ideology targeting the U.S. and its allies.
The current military leadership has shown some willingness to break from the past, but Zia’s hardline vision remains the leading torch for Pakistani establishment to date. Results from opinion polls and surveys conducted to gauge the popular trends in Pakistan only reflect a public mindset hijacked by jihadi propaganda. In contrast, data collected from successive elections held during the past 30 years provides an understanding of the voters’ choices when choosing between religious fundamentalists and moderate political parties in the country. Religious parties, collectively, could never secure more than 12 percent of total votes cast. There is no dearth of resolve among progressive political forces to construct a democratic society based on tolerance, pluralism, civil liberties, free of gender discrimination, and protective of religious minorities and other marginalized sections of society. However, the majority of Pakistani people in spite of being being tolerant are fatigued by oppressive regimes that benefit only a chosen few. Public outrage at the murder attempt on Malala Yousufzai, a 15 -yearr- old female education advocate, was more or less a referendum against extremism.
Hundreds of progressive Pakistani leaders and workers have lost their lives for opposing the hatred- based oppressive agenda of terrorists since 2001. The December 2012 assassination of Bashir Bilor, a provincial minister in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, showed the country’s progressive political leaders are sitting ducks. Salman Taseer, one of the most liberal governors in the history of Punjab, was brutally murdered by his own police guard in 2011. The extreme right-wing presented Taseer’s killer as if he was a hero who got rid of a “heretic.” In fact, the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto is the biggest loss that that progressive movement has suffered for challenging religious radicalism.
In spite of big challenges, progressive political parties were able to win public support in the 2008 national election. A majority of these politicians believe in fostering a progressive political system rather than one manipulated by religion, and they would be eager to participate in consultations focused on promoting moderate sociopolitical discourse within Pakistan. In this political backdrop, it is a significant achievement that the United States has evolved a constructive and people-friendly approach to address the problem of extremism in Pakistan in the form of the 2009 “Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill. The law focused on the cooperation between democratic governments and civil societies of both countries.
There’s a consensus among political and social experts in Pakistan and the U.S. that the secret to bring normalcy in society lies in political discourse aiming to promote a counter narrative based on peace and co-existence. To achieve this goal, organized political workers can play crucial roles. As such, there is a strong need to work with political cadres who can be the best resource in building sociopolitical infrastructure to create a healthy and tolerant political environment. It is in the best interest of the international community to assist political parties in empowering their grassroots workers. If history is any guide, the model of Indo-Pak Paramilitary conferences could be employed as a means of improving relations between U.S. and Pakistani political classes.
The Indo-Pak conference, a civil society initiative in partnership with political elements that evolved in early 1999, was focused on exploring “outside the box” solutions for the long festering conflict between the two countries over Kashmir. Under the said one point agenda, elected representatives across the political spectrum were invited to hold a dialogue without any official involvement by the governments of either county. A direct contact between elected representatives not only influenced policy making, but also helped in erasing several misconceptions created by hawkish elements in Islamabad and New Delhi. This people-to-people political networking format has significantly contributed in sustaining a peace narrative amidst the hate propaganda. The conference has also facilitated mid-level political leadership and party workers in opening communication across borders.
A majority of civil society leaders in Pakistan shares western concerns about the future of the country, but does not get to enjoy political partnering at the grass roots level. The international community, led by the U.S., would do well to sketch out a comprehensive strategy to strengthen progressive elements within Pakistan.
What can be done? It is recommended that a dedicated forum to be established to provide a neutral venue for elected representatives and party leaders of the U.S. and Pakistan, from different parties, to engage in sustained, non-official interactions so as to: help in creating an atmosphere of trust; promote bilateral and direct relations between the political leadership of the two countries; create opportunities for mutual understanding on issues of common concerns; identify the key areas of misconceptions, disputes and mistrust; and strengthening contacts and cementing partnerships between the relevant civil society and political leaderships.
Towards these ends, the proposed activities may include arranging conferences and dialogues between the elected representatives from all progressive political parties from the two countries; organizing events in Pakistan and United States to provide opportunities for political leadership from the two sides to frankly exchange views; and organizing exchange programs for political party workers from both Pakistan and the United Sates. To carry out these suggested activities, progressive elements in the Pakistani-American community are a readily available resource.
About the author: Progressive newsman Khawar Mehdi, who was a Hubert Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland, was forcibly disappeared by the Military Intelligence in Pakistan and faced brutal torture at the Qulli Camp in Balochistan.