Pakistani exiles speak out about country's religious extremism

While much of the world is currently focused on the threat posed by ISIS, a Pakistani couple living in exile in the United States continues to speak out about the heavy cost of Islamic fundamentalism in their homeland.

Husain Haqqani and Farahnaz Ispahani left the country after death threats

Religious extremism has influenced the political discourse in Pakistan in recent years, say a couple of high-profile Pakistani exiles. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

While much of the world is currently focused on the threat posed by ISIS, a Pakistani couple living in exile in the United States continues to speak out about the heavy cost of Islamic fundamentalism in their homeland.

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Tribute to Bob Carty: We cele​brate the passion and brilliance of our colleague Bob Carty, who died on Sept. 21. Many of Bob’s radio documentaries won international awards for investigative journalism and human rights, but we have chosen to broadcast one that ​demonstrates​ his sense of humour and his love of music. It’s called “Banjo Bob.”

Husain Haqqani and Farahnaz Ispahani have spent their careers fighting to improve the lives of their fellow Pakistanis. Ms. Ispahani is a journalist and was a member of the Pakistani parliament, while Haqqani, her husband, was Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2011.

They are both passionate advocates of liberal, secular values, democracy and the rule of law – and it has cost them.

Both have received numerous death threats. Ispahani says that when her father was ill and dying, she could not go home because of threats from the Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

Haqqani was forced to resign as ambassador in 2011 over allegations that he had sought U.S. help to head off a possible military coup, while Ispahani was stripped of her seat in parliament, ostensibly because she holds dual U.S.-Pakistani citizenship.

They now live in Washington, D.C., where Haqqani is director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute and Ispahani was, up until recently, a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center. A few years ago the couple was included in Foreign Policy magazine's list of "Top 100 Global Thinkers,” for "pushing tough love for their troubled country."

They both say religious violence in Pakistan is on the rise. Suicide bombings, so-called “honour killings” and assassinations of members of the media, the judiciary and politicians accused of blasphemy have become so common as to be almost routine.

“Time is running out,” says Ispahani in an interview with Michael Enright on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition. “It is escalating to a point where the state can’t stop it if they wanted to.”

‘Every world leader’s worst nightmare’

In addition to being unable to prevent sectarian violence, successive Pakistani governments have failed to provide their citizens with basic necessities. About two-thirds of Pakistan's nearly 200 million people live on less than two dollars a day. And of course, Pakistan has the bomb.

Farahnaz Ispahani, a Pakistani journalist and academic now living in Washington, D.C., says that when her father was ill and dying, she could not go back home because of personal threats from the Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. (Wikipedia)

All this makes for a combustible mix. As former CBC foreign correspondent Brian Stewart once put it, “The mere thought of Pakistan boiling over into unpredictable chaos is every world leader’s worst nightmare.” Many commentators regard it as “the most dangerous nation in the world.”

In recent months, Pakistan has been embroiled in a political crisis. Former cricket star Imran Khan and Canadian cleric Tahir ul-Qadri have been leading crowds of protesters through the streets of Islamabad, the capital, demanding the resignation of Pakistan’s current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Although Haqqani and Ispahani are not political allies of Mr. Sharif, they deplore the attempt to topple a democratically elected government.

“They are tapping into the people’s overall unhappiness at the government’s inability to supply basic services," says Ispahani, who has written a forthcoming book about religious violence in Pakistan.

“But it is an orchestrated protest, designed to clip the wings of an elected civilian government. My husband and I come from a different political background to Mr. Sharif, so we don’t have any personal interest in supporting him. But we do support him.”

Ispahani and Haqqani point to Pakistan’s military, with its emphasis on an almost permanent state of war with India, as the cause of many of the country’s problems, including religious extremism.

“The Pakistan military created jihadi groups to fight in India and in Kashmir. But during what I call their 'off-season,' when they’re not fighting elsewhere, these jihadi groups turn their focus back home," says Ispahani. "Some like killing Shiassome like killing Ahmadis, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs. The Pakistani military has created a monster. Because they need them sometimes, they can’t turn them on and off at will.”

‘Baying for blood’

Ispahani also blames "mob rule."

“No one has been put to death for the blasphemy laws by the state. But the number of people who have been targeted, murdered, burnt alive by mobs baying for blood, is huge. That’s why I believe what Mr. Khan and Mr. Qadri are doing is so dangerous. They are conflating Islam and the anger of the youth about corruption and no jobs – and unleashing it.”

Husain Haqqani was forced to resign as Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. over allegations that he had sought U.S. help to head off a possible military coup. (Wikipedia)

The couple agree that the West can have influence in Pakistan, by tying aid and business relationships to human rights.

“The rest of the world should not be doing business with a country where leaders like former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and countless others have been killed. There has been no human rights qualification. That is what we wish,” says Ispahani.

“The relationship with the west has been one of dependence, deception and defiance," says Haqqani, whose most recent book is called Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States and an Epic History of Misunderstanding.

"I support engagement and economic assistance for the poor in Pakistan. But most of the aid has gone for primarily military purposes. The international community needs to stop allowing Pakistan’s officials and its government to sell them a bill of goods, and get away with saying aid money is going to help the poor.”

“Pakistan is at that last moment where either reform comes, or we go further down the slippery slope," says Haqqani.

“I would love to go back to Pakistan if I didn’t feel physically threatened, I would like to make these arguments to my countrymen at home."

The Sunday Edition airs on CBC Radio One at 9 a.m. ET.