Gohar: Create effective Pakistan policy by engaging people, not military

Bushra Gohar, a member of Pakastani parliament and central vice president of the Awami National Party, lectures at the Hall of Philosophy about religious minorities in Pakistan. Photo by Eric Shea.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

The international media projects an image of Pakistan as a key player in the war on terror. Western media may characterize the country as merely an actor in, and stage for, the international conflict, but Pakistan is much more complex, and now more than ever it is on a precipice that could lead to democratic change, increased strife — or both.

Tuesday, Bushra Gohar continued the Week Five theme of “The People of Pakistan,” with a 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy titled “The Status of Religious Minorities in Pakistan.” In the preamble to her lecture, Gohar said that since her arrival at the Chautauqua Institution, the focus and nature of her lecture had morphed to fit the direction the week had taken in both the morning and afternoon lectures.

Gohar is the central vice president of the Awami National Party, and in 2008, she was elected to one of the seats reserved for women in the Pakistani parliament. During her lecture, Gohar focused on her own personal experience as a Pakistani woman and parliamentarian, Pakistan’s path toward democracy, the tribal regions of Pakistan, the plight of religious minorities, and Pakistan’s relationship with the United States and the international community.

The tribal areas

Gohar began her lecture by telling the story of her political party, the Awami National Party, and its efforts to reclaim the identity of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region in northwest Pakistan. During the British occupation, the region was renamed the Northwest Territory. Sixty-five years ago when Pakistan was first establishing its autonomy, the Awami National Party, under the leadership of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Bacha Khan, began to struggle non-violently against the British. Bacha Khan’s commitment to nonviolence resulted in being defined as a traitor in the early years of the Pakistan’s independence, Gohar said. He was a member of the constituent assembly but was always viewed suspiciously. It was not until this most recently elected government, about 65 years after the founding of Pakistan, that Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa could claim its name.

“Bacha Khan spent one day for every three days of his life in jail,” Gohar said.

Pakistan is very diverse; it contains many nationalities and religions. Though diversity is significant, it has been perverted in Pakistan by a series of military dictators who have used diversity as a mechanism for repression, Gohar said.

The rules of military dictators who were out of touch with the needs and desires of the Pakistani population have resulted in many of the problems facing Pakistan today. For example, when the U.S. first went to war with Afghanistan, Pakistan helped. At the time, Bacha Khan warned, “this war will not remain in Afghanistan — it will come to Pakistan, it will engulf Pakistan and the rest, and threaten peace for the rest of the world,” Gohar said. That is exactly what has happened, she said.

“I feel that it is the responsibility for the international community for creating that mess in our backyard,” Gohar said. “Of course we are responsible, because we allowed it, but were the people asked about it? I don’t think.”

It was the military dictator’s decision to provide support for the U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and that decision resulted in Pakistan’s current imbroglio, Gohar said. That same military government was pushing for a Wahhabi purist religion that marginalizes other minorities and groups, Gohar said.

“And the U.S. was pretty comfortable with it,” Gohar said.

At that time, schools in Pakistan were teaching lessons and propaganda developed in the U.S. at the University of Nebraska, Gohar said.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Pakistan is that it is just a country wrapped up in the war on terror.

“We are more than the war on terror, and it is our people that are suffering the most,” Gohar said. “Actually, they are being held hostage by these militants, and this is what we need to understand, that it is their land that is being taken over.”

While the U.S. realized the risk of Taliban and terrorist sects after Sept. 11, in Pakistan, the risk and harm caused by those groups had already existed much longer. The problems in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have been erupting since the early proxy wars fought in Pakistan during the Cold War, Gohar said.

“A lot of our children were being bombed in schools, a lot of the people were in tribal areas,” she said. “It is being used as a place where the strategic assets can find safe havens and training camps. And they can go inside Afghanistan or come back.”

For the past 65 years, the government of Pakistan has not fulfilled its responsibilities toward the people living in the FATA. It has allowed the tribal area to be used as a strategic place because of government interests in Afghanistan and the country’s fears of its bordering enemies. Pakistan’s fears of its neighbors, such as India and Afghanistan, are debilitating, Gohar said.

“We need to build peace with our neighbors,” Gohar said. “It might sound very simplistic, but if we continue to say that there is an enemy, we will believe there is an enemy, and we will justify all of the money that we put in guns and ammunition.”

To reach any sort of peace or solution in Pakistan, the country must “get our house in order,” Gohar said. For half of Pakistan’s lifetime, military dictators have ruled it, partly because the international world has been more accepting of the authority of military leaders in Pakistan. To the outside world, transitional democratic governments have appeared too messy and weak, so foreign powers have hesitated to do work with them. For example, when American leaders visit Pakistan, they often prefer to meet with military leaders, Gohar said.

Steps toward democracy

“My feeling is that I’d like you, … however weak the democratic process is, to have some confidence,” Gohar said.

Even in Pakistan, the public often complains that the politicians in power are not delivering results. But the nature of the burgeoning democracy is such that it will take a complete cycle for political efficiency to truly be seen. There have been some very important and significant political victories made on some controversial and contested issues.

The government finally came to a decision regarding provincial autonomy. It said that provinces should be in charge of their own resources, so each province can utilize its own resources for its betterment, Gohar said.

We are more than the war on terror, and it is our people that are suffering the most.

-Bushra Gohar

In Pakistan, the presidency was once an all-powerful position. In 2010, Asif Ali Zardari gave up power to the Parliament. Never in history has a politician relinquished power to a government, Gohar said.

“This is a major shift for the future of this country,” she said.

The government has also passed an amendment that implements a commissioner and an independent process for certifying free elections, Gohar said.

“All of this in a country that is in turmoil are major steps forward toward democracy, and we need to recognize these steps,” Gohar said.

Gohar said one of her colleagues often says Pakistan is witnessing a birth of democracy, and that people must be patient, because a birth is always painful.

“I always ask him and tell him, you know, well, this is really positive if we are going through the birth pains,” Gohar said. “We can take it, we’ve taken so much pain, we can take this one also — but what if we have a stillbirth?”

Stance on terrorism

Due to Pakistan’s fragile, yet growing democracy, Gohar said she believes the international community should come to the country to help strengthen its democracy, rather than participate in any other “adventures” or military operations on Pakistan’s soil.

The relationship between the international community, specifically the U.S., and the Taliban worries Gohar.

“The other issues they are seeing is the idea of ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban.’ This is too simplistic,” Gohar said. “When you talk to good Taliban, what do you mean by that? And when you say bad Taliban, what do you mean by that? What is good for you might be bad for someone else.”

When the U.S. and other foreign powers enter Waziristan and the FATA, they interact with a small number of weapon-wielding Taliban. That caters to the misconception that all Pashtun people and all Pakistanis are Taliban and terrorists.

“You think we’re all terrorists. I’ll tell you, I am not a terrorist,” Gohar said.

The Taliban does not represent the Pashtun. Additionally, there are many foreign militants and extremists who use the tribal territories but do not represent the people who live there.

To create effective policy in the FATA region, politicians and foreign powers must create policy with the actual people of the region, Gohar said.

“Kindly find the Pashtun leaders, talk to them,” she said.

Another common misconception about Pakistan is that its government supports safe havens that let militant and terrorist groups cross over and fight in Afghanistan and then return to safety in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Gohar said.

The Pakistani government does not support that.

Its parliament said three times “that we will not allow our soil to be used by any terrorist group. And we said that this is something wherever they might be, we have to go after them and clear those spaces,” Gohar said.

Photo by Eric Shea.

“This is the will of the people, that our soil must not be used to attack anyone, not inside Pakistan and neither outside,” she said.

In fact, before the current government came into power, there was an agreement between the military dictator and the militants and they said that the militants could not attack within Pakistan, but could attack outside of the country. When the current government came to power, it was asked to endorse that agreement, and it refused.

Gohar said drones are not the answer for clearing areas where those safe havens exist. To solve the problem, the Pakistani government must extend the rule of democratic law to the FATA regions where it still does not exist, Gohar said. The people of the FATA and tribal areas must be recognized as equal citizens in Pakistan.

“How do we do that? We clear the area, and we integrate FATA and the tribal areas into the rest of the country,” Gohar said.

Some Pakistanis say the tribal people are “different” and do not want the same things as the rest of the country. But when tribal leaders come to Islamabad, they ensure their children go to the best schools, Gohar said.

“Like anyone, they want good health, they want opportunities for their children, they want employment for their children,” Gohar said. “We need to invest. And if the international community is interested, invest in FATA, because they have suffered from the two wars far more than any one of us.”

Making policy amid
religious extremism

The key is going in and talking to the people and developing policy with the people, not with the militants or military talking heads, Gohar said.

“While the war on terror might be the biggest worry or priority for most Americans, for me, it is religious extremism that is destroying us from within, and that is something we need to be dealing with,” Gohar said.

One of the biggest burdens for Pakistan as it fights religious repression and prejudice are the religious clauses in the country’s constitution. In its formative years, the Pakistani government made a mistake by declaring Islam to be the state religion, she said. The military dictatorships added religion to the constitution in even larger doses, Gohar said.

In the second amendment, the Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim.

“Is it the state’s responsibility to declare anyone as Muslim or non-Muslim? I don’t think that’s the state’s responsibility, Gohar said.

Pakistan is a very diverse country, and dividing the population based on religious differences is dangerous and divisive, Gohar said.

For example, in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, the Shiite people are currently targeted. Recently, Shiite passengers were pulled off a bus, lined up and shot, Gohar said.

“The Christians, Parsis, the Hindus … I think they live in fear in Pakistan because of the way we have internalized religion and religion of the majority through the constitution,” Gohar said.

In the constitution, there are clauses that protect religious minorities but also keep them from positions of power, such as the presidency. That promotes the idea that all people are unequal. To strike the religious clauses from the Pakistani constitution will require a national democratic consensus, Gohar said.

Another issue of religious minority repression is the intervention of foreign powers with religious agendas. There is money pouring into Pakistan from Saudi Arabia, and, conversely, from Iran, to support different religious groups, Gohar said. The money supports religion-based violence.

The international community must help Pakistan curtail fund delivery from powers with religious agendas, Gohar said.

“For Pakistan to move forward into civilized society, we need to make a decision, and that is: Do we want to continue as a security state, and then we will need the religion to keep that thing going, or do we want to be an emerging developing democracy?” Gohar said. “For that, the people will have to decide.”

In the last few minutes of her lecture, Gohar read a poem by a famous Pashtun poet, Ghani Khan. The poem loosely translates to, “I cry when I look at my nation, and I ask why are you in such a bad state. But my nation says, I’m not in a bad state, but I don’t have sympathizers, I don’t have friends who can understand me.”

“That is what we’re hoping that we will get an understanding from others, because we’re not that badly off — we will take care of a lot of these things. We will get our house in order.”