In the frontline

By Kazim Alam

Over 17,000 hits and counting, the 14-minute clip of the TV show, “Frontline,” was uploaded on YouTube a couple of months ago. “Frontline” is a popular political show that airs five times a week on Express News, a private TV channel of Pakistan.

The show host, Kamran Shahid, has invited six guests to talk about the state of human rights in Pakistan. Shahid sits in the center of the auditorium’s stage with three members of the discussion panel on each side.

In front of a live audience of about 150-200 people, the debate turns loud and nasty the moment one of the guests, Fareed Paracha — who is a member of the far-right political party, Jamaat-e-Islami – brings up the issue of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui.

Siddiqui is a Pakistani woman currently serving an 86-year prison term in the United States for attempted murder of U.S. nationals.

Her case has become a rallying point for conservatives in Pakistan, who believe she is innocent and being victimized for her religious identity.

The clip begins with Paracha, who is sporting an unkempt beard in keeping with the Islamic tradition, foaming at his mouth. He has been accused of singling out Siddiqui’s case, while ignoring countless others, because it affords him an opportunity to talk against the United States.

“That’s wrong. We always talk about widows, poor women, helpless women, those who are forced to work in factories. We talk about everyone,” Paracha protests loudly, trying to drown out the voice of the fiercest critic of the rightwing in Pakistan, the indomitable Asma Jahangir.

Jahangir is a former chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Currently serving as president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, the frail, bespectacled woman is a most prominent voice of liberalism in Pakistan.

With her head uncovered and her “dupatta” — a long piece of cloth women wear around the neck and head in South Asia — on her shoulders, she is confronting Paracha as forcefully and loudly as she can.

Referring to the shady role of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Siddiqui’s initial “disappearance”, Jahangir says, “No political party took up Siddiqui’s case when the ISI had first kidnapped her. I filed her petition in the Supreme Court. Religious parties made an issue only after she was transferred to the United States.”

The premier intelligence agency of Pakistan, the ISI, is often accused of playing a double game in the region by maintaining close links with fundamentalist groups on the one hand and fighting the war on terror along with Americans on the other. By referring to Siddiqui’s “arrest” by the ISI, and her handing over to the American authorities, Jahangir has now put Paracha on the spot.

The points implied in Jahangir’s argument — that the ISI had allegedly abducted Siddiqui in 2003, that her case received little attention by the fundamentalists for five years between 2003 and 2008, that the rightwing took up her case only when the United States said she was in its custody and that the religious parties are still reluctant to say anything against the ISI, while castigating the Unites States in the strongest words — are enough to quiet down Paracha.

Paracha has nothing to say in his defense. He has no answer as to why he and his party kept mum about the issue for five years and spoke up only when she was convicted by a U.S. federal court of assault with intent to murder her U.S. interrogators in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Jahangir continues to trash religious parties, dispelling the myth that they are genuinely anti-America.

“They sat shoulder to shoulder with America during the ’80s — in Zia’s time, for 10 years,” she says, referring to the Islamist military dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq, who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988.

Gen. Haq was the key ally of the United States during the Soviet-Afghan War in the ’80s. He trained fundamentalist militant groups and supervised Afghan Jihad with complete support of the Americans to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Rejecting the accusation that Pakistani liberals were apologists of American imperialism, Jahangir says: “That was the time they (the religious parties) supported the U.S.-sponsored jihad in the region, and sat in the Zia government. We, on the other hand, were always out in the streets, holding rallies for women’s rights, which were curbed by Zia.

“There was no Aafia Siddiqui back then,” Jahangir says.

Now the question-and-answer session begins.

An old and visibly weak woman wearing a “sari,” a long piece of cloth that’s wrapped around the body and worn as the main piece of clothing by women in South Asia, holds the mike with both hands and starts speaking in a passionate manner. Instead of asking a question, she resorts to reprimanding Paracha.

“(He is) in a state of denial: that intolerance doesn’t exist in Pakistan. One thing that defines the level of intolerance in a society is the way it treats its vulnerable sections. Are the marginalized communities living peacefully in the country? What’s the status of ordinary women in Pakistan? Are minorities safe here?

“There was a time when most properties on Mall Road in Lahore were owned by members of minority communities. Who owns those properties today? Where have those minority members gone?” she asks, angrily.

“What drove them away?” the host chimes in.

“Intolerance. Intolerance drove those minorities away. We’re an intolerant community. Mafias are at work… they label anyone as an infidel, harass him, drive him away and take his property in their possession,” she replies.

Referring to a poor, illiterate Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who has recently been condemned to death by a lower court on charges of blasphemy, she says: “Aasia is an illiterate woman. How can she bring Islam in danger?”

Religious parties have warned against a possible reversal of her death sentence. Massive rallies have been held by religious parties across Pakistan that called for her death.

According to human rights activists, the evidence that she said something disrespectful about Prophet Mohammad is weak.

Many people suspect that the lower court judge handed down his verdict under the pressure of a mob of fanatics present in the courtroom.

A Lahore High Court judge was murdered in the ’90s by religious fundamentalists for pardoning an alleged blasphemer.

“What has that illiterate, poor woman done? Our religion is not that petty. For God’s sake, don’t reduce Islam to this pettiness. This is the worst kind of blasphemy… when you reduce God to human beings,” she says.

The audience, for the first time, claps.

“Why did no religious party accuse that provincial minister of Balochistan of blasphemy who defended ‘honor killings’ in the name of traditions?” she says, referring to assemblyman Israrullah Zehri who had justified the premature, or live, burial of women accused of adultery.

“Why were the religious parties silent at that time? Was that not blasphemy? Were you afraid of the power of the feudal lord?”

In response, Paracha says that the old lady is herself an “extremist.” “You’ve referred to a Ph.D. as an ‘illiterate woman’ three times just because she is a proud Muslim.”

The host interrupts, and tells Paracha that she had referred to Aasia Bibi, not Aafia Siddiqui. Paracha apologizes, embarrassingly, for mistaking Aasia for Aafia.

The audience claps for the second time.

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