Pakistan’s complexities, political, social, religious and economic, are only too well known. Sherry Rehman, eminent PPP politician, is well aware that despite democracy, Pakistan’s a disturbing socio-political landscape. The country’s social fabric appears to be crumbling, brutalised and dehumanised, essentially unable to progress. Yet there can be a promising future, especially with a growing cohort of youth, the largest the country has ever had.

Answering the question, what does the future hold for Pakistan, Rehman responds thoughtfully, “Pakistan has been transformed by 20 years of terrorism, religious extremism, sectarianism and loss of 35,000 lives. It’s been a debilitating, often deathly encounter for this brave and resilient nation.” She thinks a new pattern of international forces in Afghanistan is likely to emerge by 2014, but till then, tensions in Pakistan will continue, including those along its western borders.

Complicating the political scenario is a hard core of fighters in tribal areas, foreigners on a global jihad, with connections to criminal drug and gun cartels, without stakes in democracy, order or redistributive justice. The new FATA laws will help bring the restive tribal front into the political mainstream, and drain away support for militants.

Regionally, Pakistan must also be protected from more refugees and militants. “President Zardari is fairly proactive about better relations with Kabul; however, we need to push for a broad-based inclusive government in Afghanistan, otherwise, continued instability will rock our western neighbour, which is neither in our stated or substantive interest. On our eastern border, we should seek to build bridges for exploiting the region’s economic opportunities. In a post-G20 world, there is no room for cold war polarities, only cooperation. Trade tolerates no extremism; that will have to be the way forward for South and Central Asia.”

The numerous challenges include a proactive communication plan for comprehensive understanding of religion; greater clarity for the civilian mindset, so as to alienate terrorists and eliminate the use of terror in any religious sanction.

Equally, a vibrant media could yield rich dividends as a partner in progress. Pakistan’s youth, 64 per cent of the population, is the country’s future. Massive investments in quality education, with new provincial curricula, de-legitimisation of militancy and promotion of regional peace are necessities. A public employment programme, technical skill development centres, and varied cultural spaces for youth are equally necessary.

To truly progress as a pluralistic nation, “We need women and minorities to be empowered, not ghettoised or tokenised. We need an accessible, incorruptible uniform justice system, supported by concerted political will.”

Human rights records indicate a worsening trend; Rehman agrees, “Human nature reverts to its darker side when faced with deprivation. Pakistan is in the double bind of a severe economic crisis, fuelled by food insecurity, energy deficits and an extremist surge. We hear stories of bestiality in semi-rural environments where privatised, collective justice, against the law that supports verdicts once allowed only in medieval butcheries.

“But there are silver linings; most people are unaware that the earlier police lock-ups crammed with innocent Hudood law victims are now empty, because of the Women’s Protection Bill that many of us rallied for years to move. The Sexual Harassment Bill is being widely publicised. I credit fellow women and the PPP government for this law.”

New and effective laws remain incomplete without the key step of compliance. Prolonged exposure to extremist legal and police culture has often compromised and corrupted the legal infrastructure. Old, functioning democracies move gradually forward towards public goals, but this is more difficult in transitional democracies like Pakistan’s.

“We cannot,” says Rehman, “sit on the fence maintaining moral neutrality.” We have suffered inordinate levels of brain drain; the rich should consider bringing back their children. “Unless the educated elites invest in better governance, we won’t get that, or human rights entitlements.”

Religiosity, as against true faith, has added to the growing complexity of Pakistan’s political atmosphere. Among the citizens severely affected are the country’s marginalised and victimised minorities.

Rehman comments: “Devotion differs from extremism. Pakistanis have always been devout, but before Zia-ul-Haq’s large-scale harnessing of religion to legitimise dictatorship, public inclusion and tolerance was very open, and relatively plural. Before the 1980s, minorities were not viewed as minorities, but as citizens. People were not judged by their faith, and Jinnah’s Pakistan still had its conceptual imprimatur on a much more tolerant nation.”

The earlier Objectives Resolution debate had started affixing religion with state, but in the late 1970s and ’80s the tide turned towards theological exclusion and extremism, loudly professed as the only way one proclaimed citizenship. “There was less room for the quiet flame of devotion, therefore, less room for other faiths, and consequently less room for the Islam of La iqraha fid deen.” Religion became an identity, a substitute for inclusive notions of citizenship and statehood. The unyielding straitjacket of extremism and sectarianism drowned out the songs of spiritualism, and Sufism.

On a broader note, she comments, “Our silent majorities really do have to stop being silent; to bring change, they must start reclaiming the spirit of Jinnah’s Pakistan as embodied in his first speech on August 11, 1947, to the Constituent Assembly of the new state. The way a nation treats its minorities is a litmus test of its commitment to civil and human rights, to the fundamentals of justice and civilisation. We are going through a dark time, with a precarious security situation, extremism and religious intolerance, mixing Islam’s name with condemnable rites of suicide and terror. Our religious scholars have to re-claim Islam from the coercive clutches of such bloodlust.”

Reflecting on her earlier journalistic and then political experiences, she also discussed her present interest: the Jinnah Institute. “Building a knowledge-based policy institute has always been a dream, as Pakistan has a deficit of such centres. They can help us push for a vibrant discourse on national security, pluralism, democracy and fundamental rights. Our team of young, dynamic people are committed to reclaiming public space for a progressive Pakistan. My time as a journalist, particularly the 10 years at Herald were the most enriching professional years of my life. It was a life I always imagined for myself, unlike politics.

“But being in mainstream politics changed my life in far more radical ways than journalism. I took it seriously and became very involved in the rich skein of grassroots local, provincial and federal party politics, with Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto mentoring me on a daily basis for many years.”

She feels the two careers have much in common: if you have a commitment to reform, they are the best places to push for common goals. “Change doesn’t come overnight, or by some single act, law or story. It happens slowly, often painfully slowly, with reversals and deep disappointments; but one has to stay the course, keep one’s face to the light and rub one’s nose to the grindstone.”

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