Interview with Asma Jahangir

"Who dares?", Pakistan's Independence day wallpaper, Tribute to Pakistan's Armed Forces.  (Ĵǡƕǻǹžəβ/Flickr)

Asma Jahangir is a leading human rights advocate in Pakistan. A prominent lawyer, she has worked both in Pakistan and abroad to prevent the exploitation of religious minorities, women, and children. She is currently UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief of the Commission on Human Rights. She assumed this position after being UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, arbitrary and summary executions.

This interview with Asia Society was conducted while Ms Jahangir was in New York for the Citigroup Series on Asian Women Leaders presented at the Asia Society.

You have recently been appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief. What does this position entail, and how does it compare with your work as UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions?

My work as UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief entails monitoring the situation worldwide. I have to monitor the growing trends, or patterns, of violations, and point out the countries or regions where intolerance is increasing. Basically my work is regulated by the 1981 Declaration on Religious Intolerance. My previous mandate as UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions was a very hard mandate in the sense that it was concerning people's lives but this one is intellectually more challenging and more complex. The previous one was more or less black or white. So I think they are both very different and very difficult in their own way. But this certainly is more complex.

You have said in another interview you gave in 2002 that more than ever before, the UN "is an organization that is important at this juncture, because there is a lot of polarization in the world. And the United Nations is an organizational body where people, through their governments, come together." Do you believe that the UN, given its relative impotence - not to mention its hierarchical and exclusive decision-making processes - can bring countries and peoples together in a substantive way?

Well, I think the United Nations has to fulfill that role, yes. It was made for this purpose, and it is a world forum, an unparalleled world forum. It is true that it lacks, particularly, I would say, capacity, organization, and the zeal that it had some years ago. But that has to be brought back, and that is why we keep hearing of UN reforms. I hope these reforms bring a positive impetus to the United Nations, rather than the United Nations becoming more subservient to many countries that have power and muscle.

You have been involved in track two diplomacy initiatives between India and Pakistan which involve meetings between members of civil society in both countries. You have also spoken elsewhere of the absence of an "institutional way of sharing culture" between the countries of South Asia. What do you think the prospects are for more exchange, dialogue and cooperation across South Asia?

I think there are many prospects. To begin with, I think, we need to have cultural centers across South Asia as many of us have often recommended. We need to have cultural centers of each other's countries, and we don't have that. We don't even know each other's languages. We are more keen to learn other foreign languages rather than trying to learn South Asian languages. We have seen how people themselves, despite governments, have been able to exchange and cooperate at cultural level: songs and theater, techniques of theater, have been exchanged, but it goes beyond that. There is, for example, very unique embroidery in many parts of South Asia which people could share; and it is not only beautiful, but it can also be good for making money for women and other groups. It is also another way that the people of South Asia can be brought together. And there are numerous such examples.

You have pointed out in a recent article in that General Pervez Musharraf has been described by leaders in Washington as a "true democrat". How would you respond to this characterization?

Well, I think that it is a dichotomy in terms, because calling a military dictator a democrat shows either that people are themselves not aware of making the distinction, or they are basically not speaking the truth. And if I were a dictator and I were called a democrat, I would be extremely embarrassed. Of course I think it is also an insult to the people he's suppressing. I feel strongly, along with civil society in Pakistan, which includes lawyers, trade unionists, and other people, that US leadership has basically belittled us, and we feel more sure now that the future US policy is to prop up tin-pot dictators.

You also said in the same article that, "In the post-9/11 era, Pakistan's civil society feels abandoned by the international community. The contradiction in American policy between its foreign policies and its attitude to civil liberties is more pronounced." Could you elaborate on this?

Certainly. When we come here to the States, or sometimes when we are even in our own country, our interaction is basically with the media, and somehow they are always trying to press me into saying something positive about military governments. And I know that every government has done something positive. I am certain that even Hitler made some good roads! But that doesn't really at all, by any means, justify a military or a repressive regime. I find that kind of pressurization really quite, if you could excuse my saying so, obscene in a way. There are other examples that I can give you. In the past, for example, there was much more of a fuss made if people were arrested in an arbitrary manner, if extrajudicial killings were taking place. Now we have seen that the government is completely unaccountable in the number of lives that they may have taken. They are equally unaccountable for the completely disproportionate use of force that they may have used in the war against terror, under the pretext of counter-terrorist missions.

General Musharraf continues to be patronized by the US government for his alleged support of their "war against terrorism". Is it not the case that Musharraf has appeased and strengthened the most conservative Islamists in Pakistan - on issues ranging from religion on passports to the blasphemy law, to say nothing of the election of the MMA in the NWFP - and yet continues to be seen here, as well as by elites in Pakistan, as the only person able to prevent an Islamic revolution in the country? How do you explain this? What exactly are the connections between the military and religious factions in Pakistan?

I think the military have played their cards very well because that is precisely what they want to show to the world: if Musharraf is not there, then the Islamists will walk in. But I firmly believe that the longer he stays, the more the possibility increases of an Islamist government of some kind taking over. We have experienced in the past that whenever there has been a transition to democracy, no matter how rocky, how fragile it has been, the Islamists have been marginalized. But there is a nexus between the military and the Islamists regardless of the rhetoric that we hear, and so the Islamists become stronger and stronger the longer the military stays in power. And it may be a very bad marriage between the Islamists and the military, but I can assure you that divorce has not taken place yet. I can give you many examples that will show you that the tension is there, but they still work in partnership. They both need each other.

On a similar theme, an April 2005 International Crisis Group report argued that, "Sectarian conflict in Pakistan is the direct consequence of state policies of Islamisation and marginalization of secular democratic forces. Co-option and patronage of religious parties by successive military governments have brought Pakistan to a point where religious extremism threatens to erode the foundations of the state and society. As President Pervez Musharraf is praised by the international community for his role in the war against terrorism, the frequency and viciousness of sectarian terrorism continues to increase." Could you comment on this, in particular on how military governments have strengthened sectarian forces in Pakistan?

I read this International Crisis Group report and I agreed with every part of it, with the whole sense of it. We have identified particular patterns in Pakistan. When the government wants to divert attention, for example, there are immediately sectarian killings. This is something that columnists have commented upon and people have noticed. Other than that, there is patronage that comes from outside the country for many of the Islamist groups with the knowledge of the government and its intelligence agencies. We should not make the mistake of thinking that this patronage and funding takes place without the intelligence agencies of Pakistan being aware of it. These intelligence agencies are among the most competent intelligence agencies in many ways - in a very negative way. So they know what is happening. This is also why it is not the Islamic political parties, but it is these lashkars and other groups which are not even registered, which crop up once in a while and are involved in these attacks. There are more too. Each leader has only a few followers, but they have a lot of arms and they have a lot of money, and the government has done nothing to disarm these people so far.

But why is it that the report says that successive military governments have done this in ways that democratic governments have not?

The point of course is that the Islamists don't depend on democratic governments. They know that if there is genuine democracy, they are only going to lose their power and their importance in power politics. It is ultimately the military that is their friend.

But do they continue to work with the military even during democratic governments? Is this what they have done?

Well all indications are that they do continue to work with the military even when democratic governments have been in power. You can see how the military has used the Islamists against democratic forces and against leadership that has come in through democracy. Bhutto is a prime example of that.

It is also generally believed that President Musharraf is helping women and minorities in Pakistan. Could you comment on how his government responded to the widely publicized gang rape of Mukhtar Mai and the events that followed?

Well, in the beginning, the government was very positive about the case of Mukhtar Mai. But you must recognize that one cannot take out the rights of women and minorities from the whole system of governance in Pakistan. It would be a folly to think that a few people will get their rights while others remain suppressed because there have to be mechanisms that address these questions. There have to be democratic institutions that take care of the rule of law. When these are completely absent and work at the whims of one individual, then things become very difficult, and also have a different meaning. Take the case of Mukhtar Mai: as long as the government thought that she was their protégée, she was helped to "get justice", but once they felt that she was not towing their line, they were not willing to give her justice. Well, in this case, justice only means a form of charity coming from the highest person in authority. This obviously has nothing to do with justice. So there is no system in Pakistan. Minorities, in the beginning, thought that this government may protect their rights, but have now come to realize that nothing has changed for them. On the contrary, the government is too busy making and projecting what they call a "soft image" abroad to bother about institutional changes within the country, or to pay heed to what people are suffering at home.

How could Mukhtar Mai have ever been good for the government? Why did they support her initially?

Well, because they did benefit in the beginning. There were photographs that were taken with the Governor, with the Prime Minister, which were shown everywhere to prove that this government is very pro-women, etc. It is President Musharraf who has given instructions that justice must be done immediately. The government gave her money, the government gave her a lawyer, the government instructed courts quite openly, and this really upsets me because rule of law must be for everyone. And in this case, again, it was because of the whims of the highest person in authority.

What do you think the effects and likely consequences are and will be in Pakistan of the "war against terrorism" led by the US?

It is very difficult to say what the effects will be. One thing, however, is quite certain: as this war goes on, there will be a backlash. People already all over the world have very anti-US feelings, and more particularly, in those countries with unpopular leaders that the US is protecting and supporting and praising, the situation is much worse. There is going to be a big build up of anti-US resentment and there is going to be a backlash.

Would you say that Musharraf's government is unpopular in Pakistan?

I don't have to say it; it is quite obvious. If he were popular, then he would hold free and fair elections and it would be very simple for him to get elected and then he could turn around and tell everybody that they were wrong. But he isn't doing that. And I think there's a good reason for that. The other thing is that if the war against terror is going to be fought in the way that it is, the chances are that the actual militants and terrorists will only have more space, more freedom. They will soon realize that this is being done in such a clumsy fashion that they can get away, whereas innocent people will continue to suffer. The militants themselves will get even more support, social support for themselves. If so many people can be accused falsely, with no procedure, no evidence, how will anyone ever know who actually has anything to do with terrorism?

Why do you say it is clumsy?

In Waziristan, for example, many people have been killed. There is absolutely no accountability. There have been families with children and women that have been killed. Small fingers were found after bombardment. And no names have been given out. I mean there is no transparency at all. And many innocent people have been arrested, have been killed. How can such an operation have any legitimacy?

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society