Enabling Pakistan


The past few months have seen a particularly high-profile series of murders in Pakistan. An American cardiologist volunteering at a hospital in Pakistan was shot dead because he belonged to the minority Ahmadi community. A lawyer and human rights activist was killed after he took up the case of a lecturer accused of blasphemy. A pregnant woman was beaten to death by her family outside a courthouse in Lahore for marrying the man of her choice.

The murders are only the most visible part of a much deeper assault on civil society in Pakistan. Attacks against religious minorities – Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and Shias – are on the rise, so much so that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged the U.S. government in its annual report to designate Pakistan “a country of particular concern.” Ahmadis have faced discrimination for decades – the steady erosion of their rights carries uncomfortable echoes of the marginalisation of Jews in pre-war Europe. Religious persecution has been extended to Shias – the USCIRF report released in April said close to 700 had been killed over the past year. Meanwhile, accusations of blasphemy have become an increasingly popular way of settling political and personal scores. USCIRF estimated that at least 17 people are on death row and 19 more serving life sentences after being convicted of blasphemy; others are killed before their cases even go to court. Most recently, the country’s biggest media group – which is embroiled in a row with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency – found itself facing charges of blasphemy over one of its entertainment shows. Violence against women remains chronic. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimated that nearly 900 women were murdered by their relatives in 2013.

Should the United States be speaking out more assertively against such crimes, or threatening to cut aid if nothing is done? Realists will argue it is hard enough to influence Pakistan without aggravating relations by lecturing it about human rights abuses. Washington needs Pakistan’s cooperation to stabilize Afghanistan, and U.S. aid is also meant to keep the country stable and limit the risk of the collapse of a nuclear-armed state. The hope is that as Pakistan’s economy recovers and its fragile democracy takes root, civil society will be able to assert itself. Moreover, non-military aid is already intended to improve the lives of ordinary Pakistani citizens. U.S. non-military aid has been channelled towards areas like education and women’s empowerment, along with training and infrastructure support to improve civilian law enforcement. Britain, which provides substantial aid to Pakistan, spends about a third of its aid money on education.

As these high-profile murders highlight, however, Pakistan is showing no signs of stabilizing. Civil society is becoming weaker and people are increasingly afraid of speaking out in a climate of fear and intimidation. That is partly because Pakistan is a weak state where the religious right has gained street power disproportionate to its electoral popularity, encouraging bigotry and vigilantism. But that is not the only problem.

In the case of all three high-profile murders, Pakistani law created the political space for violence. Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim by the state in 1974, and a subsequent change to the Pakistan Penal Code denied them the right to “pose as Muslims.” Amendments to the colonial-era blasphemy law made blasphemy punishable with death, while also removing the notion of “intent” to insult religious feelings, making it easy to abuse. Violence against women is more cultural than religious, but is also protected by laws which allow the family to forgive the murderer. In other words, while Pakistan is a weak state, it is also an oppressive state. It is hard for foreign aid to support the former without reinforcing the latter. The best training in the world cannot improve a police force which is empowered by law to enforce discrimination. Police, for example, have been ordered to remove Koranic verses from Ahmadi graves and mosques. A legal system biased against those accused of blasphemy – the accuser cannot repeat the blasphemous material in court – cannot protect the victims of false accusations. In fact, many in the legal profession support the current blasphemy law, so much so that when Punjab governor Salman Taseer was shot dead in 2011 for trying to help a Christian woman sentenced to hang for blasphemy, lawyers showered his killer with flowers.

The inherent problems arising from Pakistani laws are exacerbated by the way the state functions, as different political players invoke the religious right for their own purposes. The Pakistan army is widely suspected of encouraging, or at least tolerating, protests by Sunni sectarian groups either to send a message abroad – to India or the United States – or as a signal domestically in its power struggle with civilian politicians. These are groups which can be trusted to protest, for example, against any improvement in relations with India and thus – by accident or design – bring to the surface the Pakistani army’s own suspicions of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s moves towards peace with India.  The same groups have also been leading the charge against the media group which runs Geo TV, after it accused the ISI of involvement in the shooting and wounding of its television anchor Hamid Mir. The Jang Group has since faced allegations of treason over its unprecedented criticism of the ISI, and of blasphemy over its entertainment program.

Civilian politicians are also not blameless in cultivating the religious right, although they do not have the close links to Islamist groups that were built over years by the ISI. It was Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for example, who presided over the declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslims in an ultimately futile attempt to shore up his support with the religious right. He was overthrown by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in a 1977 coup and hanged two years later. Prime Minster Sharif’s PML-N party has made electoral alliances in the past with Sunni sectarian groups and offers quiet support where needed to keep the peace in Pakistan’s heartland Punjab province. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan promotes a narrative, popular with the Islamist right, which blames all of Pakistan’s problems on corrupt politicians. Each time the sentiments of religious hardliners are invoked or encouraged for political gain, it strengthens the hand of Sunni sectarian groups, squeezing further the space for civil society.

What then can the United States do to counter this trend?  Civilian aid alone cannot carry the load. Bear in mind that numerous studies have shown there is no clear link between militancy and poverty in Pakistan; on the contrary, the shift to the right has been largely an urban, middle-class phenomenon. Nor has the more than $4 billion disbursed in U.S. civilian aid since 2009 made any noticeable improvement in basic civil rights. At the very least, it does not seem to be benchmarked against progress on issues that the West believes are needed in a healthy functioning democracy: a free media, freedom of speech and of religion, women’s rights, a fair and impartial judiciary, the equality of all citizens before the law. Nor has the aid money made the United States any less unpopular – if anything aid has become another excuse to complain about U.S. interference and Pakistani corruption.

Seen from Pakistan’s perspective, the United States has always put expediency over principle when it comes to Pakistan, and people are disinclined to trust it now. This focus on expediency was especially visible in U.S. support for the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. You can argue about who was most at fault for the subsequent blowback from Islamist militants – Zia’s manipulation of Washington for his own purposes, or U.S. readiness to ramp up to an industrial scale Pakistan’s pre-existing predilection for using non-state actors. What you can’t argue with is that Pakistani public opinion, rightly or wrongly, does blame the United States – for encouraging the anti-Soviet jihad, for abandoning the region after the Russians left and for crashing back in again following the Septemper 11 attacks. When the U.S. did return to the region, it earned the resentment of Pakistani democrats for supporting military ruler Pervez Musharraf and the anger of the Pakistan army for forcing it to turn against the Taliban.

As a brief aside, it is useful to think about what would have happened had Pakistan been a fully functioning democracy in 2001. The United States would have been dealing with a civilian government which was far less wedded to Islamist militants. The process of convincing Pakistan to change course would have been slow and messy, but more carefully thought through – on both sides. Private U.S. threats allegedly made to Musharraf would have become public, giving the people of Pakistan an opportunity to understand what was going on. The ship of state would still have been forced to change course, but it might have done so with more people on board. Instead, the United States was able to rely on the ability of a military ruler to enforce an overnight turnaround in Pakistani policy. The speed of that decision created so much resentment and confusion inside Pakistan that it helped pave the way for the longest war in American history. This lesson – that working through a democracy would have been more efficient in the long run – will be worth bearing in mind when Washington decides what to do about Pakistan in the future.

Its options are relatively limited. So far, complimenting military aid with civilian aid in the hope of strengthening civil society and deepening democracy is not working. Given how little appetite there is in the West for spending overseas, the temptation is likely to be to cut civilian aid altogether. Yet doing so while continuing to provide military aid, including a possible share of the new $5 billion global counter-terrorism partnership fund announced last week by President Barack Obama, will only exacerbate Pakistan’s military-civilian imbalance. Ending civilian aid could also drive Pakistan to seek more help from Saudi Arabia and China, neither of whom care much for democracy, though it is unclear how deep their pockets run. (Saudi Arabia loaned Pakistan $1.5 billion earlier this year to shore up its foreign exchange reserves, but both it and China have let Islamabad down in the past, preferring to let it deal with the IMF.)

Limited options, however, does not mean there are no options. The United States and its allies can, for example, continue with limited civilian aid while setting out conditions far more clearly and assertively in terms of basic principles around democracy, individual human rights, freedom of speech and a free media, and an end to religious persecution. Make aid contingent on reforms to laws that are blatantly discriminatory or, like the blasphemy provisions, easily abused. Take note when people are killed for their religion and their gender, and not only because they are American citizens or were murdered in broad daylight in a major city. It will become clear quickly enough where doors can be pushed ajar and where others are slammed shut by street protests. It may not work – the chances are it won’t. But at this point, the United States does not have too much to lose from attaching conditions to at least some of its aid – the capacity of civil society to contribute to a stable democracy is in any case shrinking. At worst it might make more vulnerable some of the short-term benefits of counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing, but even this would be limited by the fact that Pakistan knows it can no longer afford to have a major act of terrorism launched from its territory without inviting retribution. Any short-term downturn, moreover, would be outweighed by the longer-term gains if the United States and its allies successfully put pressure on Pakistan to improve its democratic structures and civil liberties. At the very least, it will start the process of shifting policy away from expediency into principle. It will create a framework for assessing changes in the nature of civil society and establish benchmarks. Otherwise, the surprise about these high-profile murders is that we are surprised at all.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has worked in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. She was Chief Correspondent in France and Bureau Chief in India. After publishing Heights of Madness, a book on the Siachen war between India and Pakistan, she has focused in recent years on writing about Pakistan.


Photo credit: My Past