Hillary comes to Pakistan with baggage


Islamabad, October 29, 2009: U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary R. Clinton and her delegation observe a moment of silence at the shrine of Sufi Saint Shah Abdul Latif Kazmi, Bari Imam, near Islamabad. Flickr image by america.govHillary Clinton came to Pakistan late last month. As US Secretary of State she brought lots of baggage with her.

She worked hard on a three day charm offensive encouraging Pakistanis to engage in a new trusting relationship with the US. She appeared on national television with a panel of four women journalists, answering questions from the all-women audience. She attended town hall meetings and subjected herself to questioning by a university audience described by the local media as 'sceptical (if not borderline hostile)'.

One problem for Obama and Clinton is that Pakistanis cannot trust themselves at the moment, let alone the world superpower which has funded Taliban militants, and then their opponents, depending on the geopolitical reality in Afghanistan.

During the Clinton visit, a car bomb in a bazaar frequented mainly by women shoppers in Peshawar claimed more than 130 lives. The word on the streets was that the terrorists wanted to send a message, not just to the United States but also to the locals, that a woman's place is in the home.

During the last year many girls-schools have been bombed by Taliban members opposed to the education of women. Since Clinton's departure, suicide bombers have been at work in Rawalpindi and Lahore. They have not been targeting foreigners; they have been indiscriminately attacking their own.

All schools in Pakistan are now required to have an armed guard, a metal detector and a security camera. The government has recommended that pre-school for children under five be dropped for security reasons. All over Lahore, school fences are being raised to a minimum of 9 feet in solid brick.

Last Sunday I attended a church service presided over by the Archbishop of Lahore, Lawrence Saldanha. There were armed guards at the entrance to the church, plus nine plain-clothes police placed in the congregation.

Pakistanis do not know who to trust at this time. Christians, who are less than two per cent of the population, have cause to be on edge, for their fears are compounded by ongoing discrimination and a blasphemy law which has had catastrophic consequences.

With coups and increasing Muslim fundamentalism, Pakistan has strayed long past the declaration of its founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah who proclaimed in 1947, 'You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state.' The notorious blasphemy law in this Islamic state makes any derogatory remark about the Prophet, even indirectly or by innuendo, punishable by death.

This law has given licence to Pakistanis seeking revenge against each other in the name of religion. On 16 September one young man arrested for blasphemy was killed in police custody. His family had to flee their home and the police claimed that he committed suicide in the cells.

Prior to Clinton's arrival the Pakistan Christian Action Forum representing all major Christian Churches in Pakistan issued a statement calling for immediate repeal of the blasphemy law:

'Several incidents in the current year have perturbed the nation where the minority communities were victimised under the false accusation of having desecrated the Holy Quran. Such acts of violence have grown sharply under the pretext of the Blasphemy Law which is blatantly abused to cause harassment and marginalisation of religious minorities, especially the Christians.'

Christians are still terrified by the events of August 2009 when some Muslims were protesting against the alleged sacrilege of the Quran by an illiterate Christian man in the village Korian in the Punjab. About 3000 Muslims went on a rampage through the township of Gojra 7 km away. They destroyed the homes of 140 Christian families. Seven people were burnt alive and another two died later.

Archbishop Saldanha told me, 'The blasphemy law is the root cause of our problems. It is a law that can be misused at any time. If you are a good Muslim, you cannot be seen to oppose this law.'

Anecdotally one hears stories of the blasphemy law being invoked in all manner of petty feuds and disagreements. Recently a Christian who had upset a Muslim in a gambling game found himself subject to a blasphemy complaint. A group called Minorities Concern of Pakistan have a newsletter which reported in September an interview with some of the Gojra Christians. One man told them, 'They killed us because we are Christians and we are poor. They were calling us dogs and American agents.'

Most Pakistanis are very wary about the United States, and not just because the US Administration has chopped and changed its allegiances to militant groups in Pakistan. Muslim Pakistanis especially are very mistrustful of those who sponsored the Iraq War and who committed the atrocities at Abu Ghraib.

If things start to improve in Pakistan, greater cooperation between the United States, the civilian government and the Pakistani military may ensure that the Taliban militants and al Qaeda are more contained. But military hardware alone is not going to be the answer.

While some of the best schools in the country have been told they are on hit lists, and while ordinary schools have to close periodically and then expend precious resources on armed guards and security devices, there was a report during the week of Hillary Clinton's visit that enrolments in madressahs had increased by 40 per cent in the last academic year. Graduates of madressahs do not tend to have much sympathy for those campaigning against blasphemy laws. They know nothing of Jinnah's original vision for Pakistan.

This past weekend the Jesuit school in Lahore celebrated its silver jubilee. Inside the school walls and under the watchful eye of the armed guard and security personnel, Christian and Muslim children learn and play together, daily espousing the school motto, 'Unity and Integrity'.

Ordinary Pakistanis are crying out for both. But who do you trust once you walk outside the school gate?

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ AO is a professor of law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University, and Chair of the National Human Rights Consultation.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, hilary clinton, pakistan, lahore, blasphemy law, Minorities, Gojra Christians, car-bombs



submit a comment

Existing comments

"Enrolments in madressahs.... increased by 40% in the last academic year". Frank draws a very clear picture of the tightening embrace of fundmentalist Islam by a significant number of Pakistanis in recent times.I wonder if the release of the full weight of fundamentalist terror can be attributed in the first instance to the criminal US invasion of Iraq post 9/11, when the just response should have been to seek out and punish the perpetrators.
Claude Rigney | 12 November 2009

A fine article, Frank, and particularly helpful at the moment ā€” when Obama is having to weigh 'no-win' options in Afghanistanā€” to have the structural problems in Pakistan so clearly outlined. I look forward to the next artlice, with more suggestions about what can in fact be done and how we all can help. Good on you.

Morag Fraser | 13 November 2009

Ms Fraser, maybe Fr Brennan should get the teachers in the madressahs to cut the verses below from the Koran. Then there may be less persecution of the Christian minority. But as they're Allah's very own words, don't hold your breath.

8:39 "So fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief [non-Muslims]) and all submit to the religion of Allah alone (in the whole world)."

8:65 "O Prophet, urge the faithful to fight. If there are twenty among you with determination they will vanquish two hundred; if there are a hundred then they will slaughter a thousand unbelievers, for the infidels are a people devoid of understanding."

47:4 "When you clash with the unbelieving Infidels in battle (fighting Jihad in Allah's Cause), smite their necks until you overpower them, killing and wounding many of them. At length, when you have thoroughly subdued them, bind them firmly, making (them) captives. Thereafter either generosity or ransom (them based upon what benefits Islam) until the war lays down its burdens. Thus are you commanded by Allah to continue carrying out Jihad against the unbelieving infidels until they submit to Islam
John Ryan | 13 November 2009

'Fundamentalism' is derived from a particular form of Protestant Christianity that should not be used in relation to Islam.

To try to make sense of Pakistan and to understand particular Islamic groups, it is important to do careful contextual analysis. While the vast majority of Muslims clearly reject violent extremism, some religiously inspired and politically motivated individuals and groups attempt to justify their behaviour in the context of a holy war or struggle in defense of Islam.

As you say, 'most Pakistanis are very wary about the United States" and with good reason too - given its recent history and its slavish relationship with terrorist states like Israel. In fact, I would suggest that 'fundamentalism' would be more accurately applied to George W Bush. The difference being that unlike Pakistan, the religious fundamentalists were in power in the USA. So now Hillary really does have her work cut out for her.
Nathan Socci | 14 November 2009


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up