A conversation with Human Rights Watch researcher Ali Dayan Hasan
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A conversation with Human Rights Watch researcher Ali Dayan Hasan

Over the last few weeks I’ve exchanged a bunch of emails with Ali Dayan Hasan. Ali is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, focusing on South Asia. The topics we covered were what human rights as a field is all about, whether the field is “political” or not, how human rights NGOs go about trying to stop rights abuses, where human rights NGOs get their money from and what they spend it on, what young people interested in such a career should be doing during their university years and just after, and about liberalism in Pakistan and the political future of the country. The response to my last question alone is worth the price of admission (2500 words about Aitchison, the military, class, Marxist Humanism and Savage Garden). Without further ado…


AHSAN: Hi Ali,
/> First of all, thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to do this. I really appreciate it.
/> Let’s get right into it. Can you tell us briefly what your role is with Human Rights Watch, and how you came upon to do this type of work?

ALI: Thanks Ahsan.
/> I have been Human Rights Watch’s South Asia researcher since 2003 and am responsible for researching, authenticating and writing reports, briefing papers and news releases produced by Human Rights Watch on Pakistan. I advocate South Asian human rights concerns globally with regional bodies, national governments and international financial institutions and contribute to the media on Pakistan as appropriate. Before joining Human Rights Watch, I was an editor at the Dawn Group’s news-monthly magazine, Herald.
/> The above was skillfully culled from my profile on the HRW website.
/> I grew up with human rights concerns permeating my childhood environment. My father was politically active –  as a leftist student leader – he was President of the National Students Federation (NSF)in the 60s, as Fatima Jinnah’s campaign manager in the 64 presidential election and as an early member of the PPP, he was elected from Karachi in the 1970 election. Like much of the left-wing of the PPP, he fell out with Mr. Bhutto once the PPP came to power and was unseated and jailed and spent three years in jail, a third of it in solitary confinement. My earliest memories are of tear gas, lathi charge, Karachi Central Jail, and endless hearings at the Sindh High Court. During this very difficult period in our family life, my father was declared a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty. And I know that it may have made no practical difference, but that validation, the recognition of wrong-doing, mattered a great deal to us as a family.
/> And all that notwithstanding, I also remember vividly, my father’s horror and heartbreak at the hanging of ZAB. So I was brought up believing that history is a long business, that two wrongs do not make a right, that privilege is always accompanied by corresponding duties and that political engagement is non-optional but can also be non-partisan. So engagement with politics and society is ingrained in my DNA. All the above sounds a bit grand so let me clarify that in the process, I also saw, close up, a lot of human frailty and weakness and dealt with it by seeking to understand rather than judge.
/> Just before I became a teenager I went to Lahore to be a boarder at Aitchison. In Lahore, I came under the influence of very many remarkable people – among them my friend Ali Cheema (now a professor at LUMS) and, of course, Asma Jahangir and her colleagues. Asma, in particular, has had a profound influence on my life and is someone I admire tremendously. From her I learnt the very basic lesson that the propagation of human rights may not be THE solution but it is certainly part of the solution not the problem. And that it is a necessary form of political engagement, one particularly suited to those who wish to maintain a semblance of moral bearing and hence do not wish to traverse the murky world of power politics.
/> So five years into working for the Herald, I came across the HRW job on a website. I saw it and knew that if there was one job I was qualified and suited to do, it was this. Those hiring seemed to agree. And so, another seven years later, here I am being interviewed by you!

AHSAN: You alluded to work in the human rights world as “political engagement”. Do you view your work as avowedly political? The NGO world, in my understanding anyway, has always sought to show itself as either above or orthogonal to the fray — quite rightly, I may add. But human rights, as you mention, may be less apolitical than women’s health or clean drinking water (not that those are apolitical issues, but you know what I mean).
/> I guess what I’m curious about is whether you feel human rights advancement is political work or technical work, primarily.

ALI: Who says clean drinking water is not a rights issue. In India, where access to water is inextricably entwined with caste discrimination, it is primarily a political issue. Women’s health similarly, is connected to broader gender discrimination where one half of the population routinely abuses the other and, as in many parts of Pakistan, often, simply reduces women to a commodity the sale and acquisition of which is a symbol of status and power. That said there are technical aspects to the development and propagation of human rights. Expanding the body of human rights and humanitarian law is one aspect. Issues such as access to water and sanitation, and the broader area of economic rights in general, often allow for purely technical solutions to rights issues. But how do you get traction to even effect that technical solution: therein lies the politics.

The idea that human rights work is non-political or apolitical is nonsense. The broader struggle for human rights, the battle to get abusive actors to adhere to human rights standards, the formulation of these standards and the process of seeking their adoption by states and the international system – is all inherently political. The modern human rights movement is above all a successful political movement in that it seeks specific shifts in how power-relations are transacted and the rules governing those transactions. It has sought social and legal change within states and societies and in the international standards that govern and monitor their behavior. The success is evident in how modern human rights language, law and politics have been adopted across the board – even by abusive actors who cannot find the tools to challenge the inherent legitimacy of the human rights discourse. In the last 50 years, I cannot think of any other political movement that has gained so much, so universally and tangibly benefitted so many.

That said, non-political and non-partisan are very different ideas. Rights issues are always political but all political issues are not always rights issues. The practice of the human rights movement is not and should not be based in knee-jerk reactions or political sympathy alone but is rooted in the evolving and expanding body of international human rights and humanitarian law. I see a central part of my work as both the propagation and monitoring of the standards laid down in these legal frameworks. So a rights-based view of any given situation is neither arbitrary nor party-political. There are of course issues where you have political parties in sympathy and others who are opposed. But that should not be confused with the standard being advocated which is the same any which way and regardless of how the political cookie is crumbling at any given point in time.

For example, during Musharraf’s rule, I advocated constitutional rule brought about by genuine periodic elections, media freedom, rule of law and vociferously protested curbs on civil and political rights. I would still do exactly that. Of course, there was a fundamental problem with military rule: it is illegal Ab Initio (to borrow legalese from the defunct lawyer’s movement). And a genuinely elected government therefore is simply not comparable to a junta in that sense. Similarly, when I approach the conflict between the Taliban and the Pak Army, I see them not as Good and Evil but as two parties to a conflict, upon both of whom there is an expectation to adhere to human rights and humanitarian law in the transaction of their conflict. One party’s failure (let’s say the Taliban) is no excuse for the other party(Pak army) to feel it is not bound by the constraints of law. In fact, given that Pakistan is state-signatory to many of these laws and the army represents the will of a state, there is greater onus on it to show that it is not violating human rights standards or committing war crimes. Often when I argue this in the current Pakistani context, I get adverse reactions – both from the vast array of Pak army apologists that masquerade as “analysts” in and around Pakistan and also, more disappointingly, from otherwise rights-respecting people who use “but we are faced with war and the Taliban are really bad people” as an argument. In case, you think that this is just a “get Pakistan” argument let me clarify that the precise same principle allows us to critique US conduct in Afghanistan or Iraq. We can’t cherry-pick and do about-turns because we hate the politics of the US or support the politics of the Pak Army this week.

The point is that the litmus test of a state’s belief in rights-respecting rule of law is when it protects the weakest in society and safeguards the rights of those society likes the least. In that, Pakistan has been and remains an abject human rights hell.

AHSAN: Let me clarify what I mean by political vs. apolitical, or technical.
/>When I say something is “political”, what I really mean is that we are operating at Pareto optimal conditions. In other words, the issue at hand, whatever it may be, connotes that we cannot make someone better off without necessarily making someone else worse off. So elections are political because if my party wins more seats, it necessarily means your party has won fewer. War is political because if one side is winning it must mean the other side is losing.
/>Now, let’s come to the issue of different types of human rights. Let’s put things like torture and illegal detention on one side of the ledger, and things like clean drinking water on the other side. Both are human rights issues, as most people understand the term. But I would submit that the former are political issues while the latter tend to be more apolitical. Why?
/>Well, let’s see. Who are the people doing the torturing and detaining? Police forces, intelligence agencies, paramilitaries and so on. In their collective mind, they are doing these things for a reason. Maybe they believe they are protecting the state or the nation (whichever state or nation it may be, I am not just talking about Pakistan here). Or maybe they believe that those they are torturing deserve to be tortured because of who they are, what color their skin is, what God they believe in, what ideology they subscribe to, or whatever.
/>Now, we don’t have to agree with them in that belief. But we must recognize that that is their belief. So if we are to stop torture or illegal detention, we have to make them change their behavior to something other than what they are doing now. Most states do that with the threat of punishment under the rule of law, i.e. “you will go to jail if you torture” or some such. But the point is, in order for torture to stop, you must change the calculus of the person doing the torturing, so that torture does not seem worth it for him, either with greater benefits of non-torturing or greater costs of torturing.
/>So the cessation of torture is political because you are making someone better off (the people who were being tortured) at the “cost” of making someone else worse off (the torturers).
/>But drinking water is completely different. No one really wants people to go without drinking water, not even Hamid Gul. People in power or in control may not care, but that is a separate issue. The point would be that you wouldn’t have to convince various political actors that supplying clean drinking water is a good idea. If you could somehow institute a technical and cheap solution to the problem of a lack of clean drinking water, no one would stand in your way.
/>So the primary impediment to a lack of clean drinking water is technical and developmental. Things don’t work, if you make them work, brilliant. On the other hand, the primary impediment to a torture-free country is other political actors, who have preferences of their own, preferences which must be taken into account if we are to end torture. That’s what I mean with the distinction between political and apolitical human rights.
/>Anyway, let’s move on. You referenced the war against the Taliban — I wanted to get into this later, but since you’ve brought it up right now, let’s talk about it.
/>What are some of the tools that human rights organizations such as yours use to stop abuses in times of war? The most obvious would be a naming-and-shaming type of thing, where you publish reports and so on, but that presumes the people in charge are capable of feeling shame. How do you go about stopping, or at least minimizing abuses in times of war, especially when physical access to some of these areas is so limited?

ALI: The first thing to emphasize is that the international laws of war: the Geneva Conventions and the additional protocols that cover internal armed conflict, are neither unrealistic nor for the faint-hearted. They factor in attacks on legitimate military targets and allow for proportionate civilian casualties where unavoidable.

 Preventing abuses in times of war is a major challenge. Naming and shaming, when possible, does reduce abuses. In war, the single most important issue is access to the conflict zone. If that is possible, it does create the opportunity to minimize abuse by informing public opinion in real time. Where that access is not possible, as in FATA, you have a major problem of impunity. Though we have had persistent reports of major abuses by both the military and the Taliban in FATA as well as claims of large numbers of civilian casualties in US drone attacks, independent on-site verification has simply not been possible.

But on-site investigations or direct interviews with non combatants can and does help in mobilizing public opinion, and consequently, tempering the behavior of the warring parties. We have seen this again and again – even in the current conflict with the TTP in Pakistan. The release of the Swat Taliban flogging video in 2009 effected a major shift in Pakistani public opinion. Similarly, sustained criticism of the Pakistan army’s abusive counter-terrorism strategies, did lead to the active phase of Operation Rah-e-Rast being conducted in a relatively rights-respecting manner. Militaries, in particular, and this includes the Pakistan Army, see themselves as saviors rather than abusers. When they are put under the international spotlight as abusers, they do seek to moderate their behavior. During Operation Rah-e-Rast, it was pressure from human rights groups that led to a 10-day curfew being finally lifted to allow humanitarian relief in and civilians out of Swat. Aas the active phase of the conflict ended, we managed to gain access to Swat and document summary executions by the military. Reporting on this has led to a marked decrease in the practice. This was only possible when the Army and its patrons in this war (the US, UK and others) were embarrassed into dealing with this situation.

Of course, because states are subject to international and domestic law, such pressure works much better on them. Success with non-state actors has been far more limited. The Taliban are guilty of multiple war crimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular. Getting them to adhere to international norms or even norms of conflict recognized by the Muslim mainstream as Islamic, has proved to be very difficult indeed. They target civilians with impunity and establish control through terror and summary justice. That said, over the last few years, even Taliban groups have learnt that their actions have to be informed by some rules. Just recently the Afghan Taliban issued a “Code of Conduct for the Mujahidin of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. Now, this code may not adhere to my standards but it does imply recognition by the Taliban that the abusive free-for-all that has been the hallmark of their behavior is immoral and illegal. The Taliban have only bothered to even do this because of sustained fierce criticism from rights groups. 

Effective human rights intervention has to be based on evidence of abuse. And during a conflict, you can gather that evidence through other means. This includes ensuring that weapons used are permissible under international law. Famously, we have documented the use of phosphorus and cluster bombs and other chemical weapons in the Middle East much to the anger of Israel, Iraq under Saddam and so on. You can also examine the injuries of survivors to document the use of chemical weapons. In other areas, Documenting summary executions in Swat has been possible because corpses, pardon the pun, are a dead giveaway.

Finally, over the last few years, it has become clear to war criminals that they will eventually be held accountable. The trial of Charles Taylor, the trials of Milosevic and others from the former Yoguslavia have gone a long way in sending a message that the world will not just forget and move on once a conflict is over and those that have committed crimes that have universal jurisdiction, will be held accountable later if not sooner. This too, one hopes, will seek to deter the most egregious abuses.

AHSAN: That last point is interesting (well, the whole answer was interesting, but you know what I mean). I’ve always wondered about the little fish vs. big fish dichotomy here. On the one hand, wouldn’t it be lovely and just to actually prosecute heads of state, intelligence agencies and paramilitaries for torture, illegal detention, and war crimes? On the other hand, the higher you go, the more protected you are. So for instance, we all know Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld are war criminals, by any normal understanding of the term. But there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that they will ever pay for it.
/>With that in mind, is it almost “unsatisfying” to go after the people actually doing the torturing etc? Out in the field, I mean? Obviously they are not blameless and obviously they should pay for their crimes, but it seems to me, again as an outsider, that a lot of lower ranked types end up paying for crimes that started at the very top. Is that your sense as well? If so, do you necessarily view it as a “problem”? After all, they DID do thee torturing and illegal detaining, so it’s not like they don’t deserve it.

ALI: Executive responsibility is not always easy to prove legally. But the whole point of accountability for serious crimes such as war crimes and crimes against humanity is that “just following orders” is no excuse. Hence, the immediate perpetrator must and should be held accountable. Holding people at the “implementation level” accountable, in many ways, provides an effective deterrent against the culture of impunity that allows for widespread abuse. If you know that you will be legally liable regardless of the fact that you were carrying out orders, you will think twice before carrying out those orders. From Nuremberg onwards we see this process at work and i would argue that its no less important than holding a head of government or army chief or rebel leader accountable. To be specific: i would like very much to see General Musharraf held accountable for torture, disappearances, killings and sundry abuses committed under his rule. Musharraf, of course, is a good case in point, because he had direct control of the principal perpetrating agency (the army) and also exercised unfettered executive authority as self-appointed head of state. That said, Musharraf’s ISI chief, General Kayani headed the specific agency that was and remains the principal abuser within Pakistan. But it is not easy to hold these individuals legally accountable (though not impossible, and people outside Pakistan, are working on trying to make this happen as we speak). But in transitional situations, we have to be careful with the concept of notional executive authority and de facto control. Asif Zardari occupies the office of head of state, but we all know that he exercises no control over the military whatsoever. Would we hold him accountable for EJEs in Swat or continuing disappearances in Balochistan? Would the ends of justice and accountability be served by such an exercise? The legal conundrum is that we have to find a paper trail or verifiable verbal orders or public statements – specific evidence – that links the individual to the abuse. Short of that, it can easily descend into a witch-hunt. Biut, no, it is not unsatisfying to go after the person who actually did the killing, the torturing or the disappearing. It is very satisfying. It would, of course, be even more satisfying to go after the big fish, and you are absolutely right that the big fish often get away.

AHSAN: Let’s move on to a different aspect of your work, that is, how you do what you (and organizations like yours) do.
/>My understanding is that NGOs such as yourself rely a lot on donations and fundraisers and so on. Forgive me if this sounds naive, but I’m just having a hard time imagining who the donors are to the ACLUs and the HRWs of the world. I mean, if I was rich, and someone came to me and said, “Look, give me $10,000 of your money because it will help fight malaria in sub-Saharan Africa” versus someone who came to me and said “Look, give me $10,000 of your money because it will help pay for the salaries of people documenting rights abuses in the world” it would actually be a pretty easy choice for me (no offense).
/>I’m genuinely curious about the functional aspects of NGOs such as yourselves. Where does the money primarily come from? Who does the money primarily go to? What is the profile of the “average” donor? Is it big, rich, philanthropist types (Bill Gates)? Hollywood types (Angelina Jolie)? Do other organizations — say newspapers or think tanks — pay for the work you produce, such as reports and documents and so on?
/>Again at a very functional level, how does it all work? Organizations such as yourselves provide a highly important public good called “information” but so do newspapers, and they’re not doing very well, are they? What is the economic model of organizations like HRW?

ALI: I cannot provide you with an economic model as such because that, thankfully, is not my area of expertise. But, let me clarify that we NEVER accept financial donations from any government ever. You can also access complete details of Human Rights Watch’s financial affairs including the list of donors at http://www.hrw.org/en/about/financials.

We mostly raise money from private individuals (yes, Angelina Jolie has been a great supporter of our work), from charitable foundations run by private citizens and business concerns across the world. These individuals and entities give us money because they see the impact of our work – our capacity to go places and document unpleasant realities that the world would rather ignore or deny, the integrity with which that work is undertaken and our ability to push for change both through the media and by influencing the wheels of government. Above all, we do what we do on a shoe-string budget. There is zero “leakage” in funds given to Human Rights Watch. 100 cents in a dollar are spent on precisely what it has been earmarked for. Hence your HRW Dollar goes a very long way. The organization has continued to grow because donors have seen this again and again and the quality and impact of the work are the greatest fundraiser. Donors do not exercise any control on our research priorities (though they may give money that is earmarked to be geographically or thematically specific i.e work on Pakistan or Children in Armed Conflict.)

Newspapers and other media outlets come to us for information because they believe in the authenticity and quality of our information and analysis. Often, we have been working on issues for years before they garner mainstream media attention because the politics of the moment makes that media attention possible.

Humanitarian relief and healthcare are of primary importance and there is no question of compromising on private and governmental aid and funding for these pressing issues. But the idea that there is a choice between providing money for an anti- malaria program and funding human rights investigations is simply not correct. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. And if you think what I am saying is just rhetoric, please consider just some of the developments last year in which Human Rights Watch played a significant role:

After months of putting pressure on the South African government to stop deporting Zimbabweans fleeing turmoil at home, the government announced it would issue an estimated 1.5 million special permits allowing them to remain and work in South Africa. After years of our fieldwork and documentation of abuses in Darfur, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. After we met with President Joseph Kabila and reported on the violence committed against civilians in eastern Congo, the military announced a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual violence and other abuses. Our documentation of abuses against Asian and African migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, as well as our yearlong national media campaign and work by partner organizations, convinced the Lebanese government to introduce a mandatory standard contract that regulates daily working hours, paid sick leave, and days off per week. Just one month after we exposed the involvement of local officials in death squad killings in Davao City, President Arroyo ordered an investigation into the vigilante killings, which have claimed more than 900 lives. Finally, In some parts of the United States, rape kits sit on police shelves unopened and untested for years. Human Rights Watch decided to open an investigation into this that focused on Los Angeles County, which has the largest known backlog of untested rape kits in the country. According to a US government report, there were more than 240,000 reported rapes and sexual assaults in the United States in 2007. Arrest rates remain unacceptably low. When Human Rights Watch investigated the low rates of arrest, we found that these kits were often not even processed because US law does not require it. Public and political pressure brought by Human Rights Watch led to a landmark commitment in Los Angeles to analyze all evidence collected from rape victims. We will ensure that this victory increases pressure for similar commitments across the country.

Now, I would certainly argue that even the partial list above does constitute significant bang for your buck.

AHSAN: Indeed.
/>Ok, last HRW related question, before we move on to other stuff. This is actually for the benefit of some of our younger readers who may be interested in the type of career you have chosen for yourself. I know we have a bunch of readers either in college or who have just graduated, say in that 18-24 age bracket.
/>With those people in mind, what would you recommend for people looking to get into this type of work? What should they be reading? Who should they be talking to? What type of courses should they be taking at college? Sorry to make you do the work of a career counselor, but having been to college and seeing many friends go through college, I can safely tell you that the only grooved path for students are those for banking and consulting. Those are the only options where universities will have campus visits, where everything is regularized and predictable, where dates of networking opportunities are known six months in advance, and so on. There just isn’t very much information out there for people looking to make a difference — you’re left on your own, and good luck to you if you can find work, or even an interview.
/>So yes, how do you think young people can best prepare themselves for a career in human rights work, or NGOs more broadly, and what should they definitely NOT be doing?

ALI: Finding jobs in the not-for-profit sector is not easy. I think the first thing to understand is the price you pay for doing this sort of work:

First, it is not highly paid and never will be. So choosing a career path that takes you down this road means factoring that in. I know some very brilliant lawyers who work for Human Rights Watch who would be making five times the money they do now if they were in mainstream legal careers . This is true even when you have had decades of experience and occupy senior positions. For example, James Ross has been Legal and Policy Director at Human Rights Watch since 2001. He previously worked in the Humanitarian Affairs office of Medecins sans Frontieres in Holland and for the OSCE in Bosnia. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Law School. Jim is one of the brightest, quickest minds I have encountered in the course of my professional life. Instead of doubling his asset-base every year, he finds it more worthwhile to provide value-added legal review to the organization’s work. That’s the kind of choice I am talking about.

Second, without overstating the case, this can be dangerous work. Mostly, individuals working under the umbrella of an organization such as Human Rights Watch take on governments, institutions and players far more powerful than them. There is an inherent stress and physical danger that goes with the territory. So, you have to have the temperament to be able to withstand that and, more importantly, the cynicism of those very many who think your work is pointless, irrelevant and generally useless.

Third, if you want to work for the non-profit sector, please understand the rules of the game. This is not banking or consulting with entry level jobs opening up on an annual basis offering the lure of money and prospects. You begin at the beginning: you intern (usually unpaid) with international, national or local NGOs, you do entry level admin jobs if that is all that is on offer.

Most importantly, you acquire relevant field experience. No point in seeking a job working on human rights in Pakistan simply because you think human rights are a good idea or you like Pakistan but have no relevant experience. Young people seeking or thinking of such careers should seek unpaid internships and familiarize themselves with the literature and issues surrounding areas of interest while they are students or as recent graduates. That is the way in.

I am often amused by some of the CVs that come our way. For example, if you are a successful management consultant, that is excellent but it does not equip you to be a Human Rights Watch researcher – a job that requires specialized research skills, geographical or thematic expertise, a basic understanding of international law and ease with the knowledge that you will forever be travelling economy class on budget airlines and probably living in modestly priced guest houses rather than hotels when you get to your destination. That said, it is a career like any other, and your CV and your person must reflect aptitude, knowledge, ability and a commitment to the job in question.

AHSAN: Let’s change directions now.
/>I think it is fair to say both you and I self-identify as “Pakistani liberals”. That’s not to suggest we don’t have disagreements or different understandings of various political issues — for instance, I bet if we had this conversation in 2007 or 2008, we would have had strong differences of opinion on Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. But it is to suggest that if we were to align 180 million Pakistan on one spectrum, the two of us would be a lot closer to each other than most.
/>With that in mind, let’s talk about liberalism in Pakistan. We can set aside unrealistic and quixotic scenarios of some liberal, constitutional, secular paradise. Such a picture is deeply ahistorical in my view, and is too stupid to even contemplate. But that dismissal then raises the question: what is a realistic best-case scenario for liberalism in Pakistan over the next generation? I don’t mean small-p political stuff, like “getting the tourism ministry” or whatever. I mean big-P political stuff, like “how will the relationships amongst citizens, and between citizens and the state, be organized?”
/>The way I see it, there are two possibilities (both unlikely, but again, we are living in a probabilistic world for the purposes of this discussion). The first is that a party of actual liberals — no, the PPP doesn’t count — comes up, wins a seat here or there, delivers sound governance, and becomes more popular slowly but surely by delivering results and couching ideology underneath the surface. For example, delivering top class education to young girls is a pragmatic-type idea, but it also smuggles in important ideas about the equality of women. If a liberal party can deliver something like this in a village or mohalla, then it is doing both, and I submit would increase the appeal of liberalism in a decidedly illiberal society.
/>The second is that liberals assume greater importance within the media and public opinion circles of Pakistan, which changes voter preferences, which changes party incentives, moving them toward a more liberal orientation. Even if it’s just on the margins, it’s still a change.
/>You will note that both these scenarios presuppose a halfway democratic order, which is no guarantee but no impossibility either.
/>What I think is interesting is that the vast majority of Pakistan’s political stakeholders functions without a coherent ideology. Our parties are identity based more than ideology based, which is actually a fairly common occurrence in the developing world (there is a lot of research on this stuff in the ethnic conflict literature in Political Science).
/>I guess there’s a bunch of questions there, so I’ll let you tackle the ones you want. The basic point I want to pick your brain on is what place, if any, liberalism — political liberalism if not social liberalism — has in Pakistan’s future.

ALI: I totally agree that we can set aside unrealistic and quixotic scenarios of some liberal, constitutional, secular paradise as short or medium term goals but in the long term, a “liberal, constitutional, secular paradise” – and beyond – is not a bad dream to hold on to – even for Pakistan. That said, while I am broadly in sympathy with many liberal ideals, I would be hesitant to label myself a “liberal. Though in the Pakistani context, I am not sure what else I could call myself. Chiefly my problem lies with the principal orthodoxy of our age which is to view unfettered free markets as the panacea for all ills. I hold that this is absolute rubbish and there is a wealth of data and visual evidence to the contrary. Any system of social and economic organization that is built on the most abusive and exploitative aspects of collective human instinct and experience can hardly deliver an egalitarian or just, or, ultimately, even viable social order. One can only hope that a system that establishes greed as a virtue and lauds the capacity to engage in upward mobility at the cost of the weakest and most disadvantaged is yet another bad phase on the way to the creation of a just and egalitarian world. One of the great hoaxes of contemporary times is the idea that liberal democracy and unfettered free markets can cohabit successfully. I submit that this has simply not happened – in Western Europe or even in the US. Periodically, we have seen substantial intervention to prop things up when the model collapses under the weight of its moral and political bankruptcy. The very latest vivid example of the same has been in evidence in the global financial crisis.  

Personally, I am drawn to the writings and thought of thinkers and theorist loosely defined as Marxist Humanists, These include Freire, Bloch, Sartre and Fanon to name but a few.

But in the interest of being more accessible, I would say that my view is expressed succinctly by Savage Garden in the song Affirmation:

I believe the struggle for financial freedom is unfair

I believe the only ones who disagree are millionaires.

Though I should clarify that I am not sure at all that I believe in Karma (or “Karam” as it is actually is pronounced).

I would also refer you to “Common People” by Pulp – as profound a piece of class analysis as any!

But to return to your question(s). You argue that “delivering top class education to young girls is a pragmatic-type idea, but it also smuggles in important ideas about the equality of women.” I would argue that it can be so but for the most part is not. I refer you to the great Paulo Freire. He argues that “No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.”

Cut through that statement and you get this: Education serves either to brainwash you into conforming or alternatively can be an exercise in liberating the mind and being active agents in transforming lived reality. In order to be the latter, it requires active agency from both “oppressors and oppressed”. In the Pakistani context specifically, it is NEVER the latter. In fact, education in Pakistan, along with everything else is designed along the peculiar needs of the national security establishment.

Consider the current Pakistani education system which I will call the “Divide and School” model of pedagogy. As a tool of empowerment, it hardly ever delivers and when it does, it only really delivers to upper class men, creditable tokens notwithstanding. So, how does it work?

First, you have the elite schooling system that produces your local civil bureaucracy, or personnel for its international equivalents, contributes workforce to IFIs and the international financial markets. Hence in Pakistan, the premier secondary school in terms of clout and influence is Aitchison College where the children of the above mentioned “professionals” mingle with the political elites in order to forge a class compact that eases the “burden” of governance in the years to come.  The premier institution of higher learning is no citadel of learning and free thought but a technical school called LUMS which teaches you specifically to not think out of the box, to conform and to view, upon graduation, your sale to the highest bidder as success.

Second, you have the government schooling system for the lower middle classes (the truly poor do not really have the luxury of even this). This aims to teach you barely functional literacy so that it can create lower level support staff – peons, assistants, drivers and such like.

And finally, you have the madrassas – they produce cannon fodder. These are those who wage jihad, ostensibly, on our behalf, or provide the social space for jihad, nihilistic Islamism and suchlike to gain traction by propagating that it is a viable means of empowerment. This is an absolute hoax as we know and these unfortunates are just so much cannon fodder – easily dispensable and dispensed with, current problems with the TTP notwithstanding. So, your schooling system reflects very clearly the priorities of “oppressors” and because the oppressed have been unable to be active agents of change, they have internalized an exercise in subjugation as a tool of empowerment. 

Now when it comes to women, it is most fascinating of all. If education, even elite education, as imparted, was an empowering agent, gender relations within the Pakistani elite would be substantively different. Instead, elite and upper class women, growing up in a cocoon, are often the most pathetically disempowered creatures. You do your A levels, go to University abroad where your brothers sleep with every woman they can lay their hands on while you gingerly protect your reputation, look pretty, bat your eyelashes at a class, sect and ethnicity appropriate “suitable boy” with good prospects and commodify yourself to perfection. This process culminates in a society wedding where your parents transfer ownership to the husband, along with whatever financial sweetners they can offer. Thereafter, for the most part, your priority is to be a desirable sex object for your husband (a losing battle if you ask me given that nobody in their right minds actually wants to have sex with the same person forever if they have a choice), make babies and be a good domestic bursar for the household enterprise. In the meantime, your husband is sleeping with sex workers in Bangkok, and slapping you into silence if you act up too much. Occasionally, you get to run a career on the side, if hubby allows. Wow. What a great life post that fine education. Moral of the story: a “bad” education is worse than no education.

But this brings us to the point where I must contradict myself. We are all creatures of the moment in history where we find ourselves. And in Pakistan, and in the world as Pakistanis, we find ourselves at a point where our contradictions are collapsing in on themselves. The party is over for whoever was having it. We find ourselves at a moment where we live in a post-ideological reality in an ostensibly ideological state. It is rapidly urbanizing but retains, in many ways, a pre-industrial collective consciousness. Feudalism is on the wane but feudal values have been internalized by the military, the industrial elites, the trading/merchant classes and even by urban upper middle classes and elites. Adding to the mix is a crisis of religious identity which has assumed global relevance and which is exacerbated not just by the military’s lack of clarity about the world but also by the intellectual bankruptcy and dishonesty of Pakistan’s intelligentsia (who are distinctly illiberal and prone to knee-jerk authoritarianism and Islamic supremacist fantasies dressed up as pop anti-colonial rhetoric and by whom I do not mean those dismissed in Pakistan as “liberals” but those who dismiss them). They propagate a faux nationalism, a faux Islamism and seek to encourage a delusional idea of Pakistan’s place in the world. The people I speak about are not the General Hammed Guls of the world. Hameed Gul is an Islamist supremacist maniac but deserves 100/100 for consistency. I find others who find refuge in silliness, who pose as liberals and democrats but are utterly in the grip of the very identity crises, the class fault lines, they ostensibly seek to battle. Such pundits abound – particularly on Pakistani television, on radio, in newspapers, on blogs, all over the internet. I am so very tired of hearing about “moderate Muslims.” A friend recently wrote to me and I wish to share what he, a believer incidentally, had to say:

“We are told again and again by ‘experts’ and ‘talking heads’ that Islam is the religion of peace and that the vast majority of Muslims just want to live in peace. Although this unqualified assertion may be true, it is entirely irrelevant. It is meaningless fluff, meant to make us feel better, and meant to somehow diminish the spectre of fanatics rampaging across the globe in the name of Islam. The fact is that the fanatics rule Islam at this moment in history. It is the fanatics who march. It is the fanatics who wage any one of 50 shooting wars worldwide. It is the fanatics who systematically slaughter Christian or tribal groups throughout Africa and are gradually taking over the entire continent in an Islamic wave. It is the fanatics who bomb, behead, murder, or honour-kill. It is the fanatics who take over mosque after mosque. It is the fanatics who zealously spread the stoning and hanging of rape victims and homosexuals. It is the fanatics who teach their young to kill and to become suicide bombers. The hard, quantifiable fact is that the peaceful majority, the ‘silent majority,’ is cowed and extraneous. History lessons are often incredibly simple and blunt, yet for all our powers of reason, we often miss the most basic and uncomplicated of points: Peace-loving Muslims have been made irrelevant by their silence. Peace-loving Muslims will become our enemy if they don’t speak up, because they will awaken one day and find that the fanatics own them, and the end of their world will have begun.”

I would say that, in Pakistan, the “end of our world” has begun and “peace loving” Muslims have become our enemy because, lulled into the idea that they are “peace loving” by right-wing or otherwise confused pundits, they seek affirmation in being passively peace loving. What happened to peaceful resistance? What happened to standing up and unequivocally rejecting bigotry and prejudice?     

In this context, you are quite right to view me as a liberal. A functional market economy will do for starters. Democratic governance with genuine periodic elections is the only way of seeking clarity and a new, viable social compact. Ideas of gender equality, however inconvenient, have to find space. The relationship between the state and citizens and between citizens has to be reworked and it can only be done so by removing the greatest impediment to it. And that is the rhetoric, rubric, social attitudes and legal frameworks put in place, largely through the legitimating device of religion to organize state and society as they currently are. Don’t get me wrong, I am neither undervaluing the religious experience of mankind (including Pakistanis), nor am I arguing that we propagate that Pakistanis cease to be Muslims. But we must ensure that Muslimness or the lack thereof is a personal matter and that requires an end to harping on about religion as our glue and seeking political solutions through our religious experience rather than outside it. This has been tried in Pakistan (most famously by the Bhutto experiment). But the failure of the Bhuttoist experiment – a populist egalitarianism that does not question Muslimness – does not mean you throw the Baby out with the bathwater. What has been tried far more times and has failed abjectly is Islam as glue or as social binder: it failed in East Pakistan. It fails daily in Balochistan. It continues to fail in KP (spectacularly), in Sindh, in parts of the Punjab. You name it. Internationally, the Ummah is one big joke led by the House of Saud – one of the most brutal and corrupt dictatorships in existence anywhere on the planet and challenged only by the nihilistic, delusional Islamist rhetoric of al Qaeda etc. So we have to begin by dispensing what clearly does not work: faux Islamism – domestic or international.

How does this come about: well, by allowing the electoral process to take root for starters.  Let’s just do that. Let’s first tolerate Asif Zardari for his five year term of office. That is the first step. Right now, even that seems to be beyond the capacity of our opinion-makers and power brokers. History is a long business. Liberals cannot gain traction easily and will not gain it at all in the absence of the space created by elected government. Ultimately, those who have a stranglehold on power in Pakistan (the military) need to decide whether, over the next generation, they want to create space that allows for a viable renewed social contract or will they allow everything and everyone to collapse into chaos and mayhem because they are (by virtue of their training and education) unable to think out of the box. Similarly opinion makers need to decide whether they will keep up the mantra of “Misunderstood Islam and moderate Muslims” and the attendant persecution mania it engenders or move beyond that. If the leaders and opinion makers of the Pakistani state decide to move on, we can in time, see the emergence of political parties and interest groups that reflect a better bet for a liberal Pakistan. Short of that, there is only the inexorable slide into mayhem we are experiencing while we blather on about being good, moderate, misunderstood Muslims. The signs are not encouraging. There is a little rhyme that sums up the current world view of the Pakistani military and civilian establishment (the latter I emphasize are not politicians but the bureaucracy and the pundits who act as the mouthpiece of the military). It goes like this:

I’ll sing you songs, I’ll write you rhymes

My dark haired, bright eyed elf

But soon you’ll find that every rhyme’s

A sonnet to myself

AHSAN: Hahaha. I had one other question, but after that 2500 word treatise masquerading as an email, I think I’ll lay off. Your last response is a very fitting way to end this. Thanks for taking out the time to have this discussion.


For those interested, I’ve had such email conversations before.

Click here for my conversation with environmental activist and columnist Rafay Alam.

Click here for my conversation with two South Asia scholars in the American academy, Vipin Narang of Harvard/MIT and Paul Staniland of MIT/University of Chicago.
/>Click here for my conversation with Cricinfo Pakistan editor Osman Samiuddin.
/>Click here for my conversation with Dawn editorial writer and op-ed columnist Cyril Almeida.
/>Click here for the one with political economist and The News columnist Mosharraf Zaidi.
/>Click here for one with a Wall Streeter in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
/>Click here for one with an Indian foreign affairs blogger after the Mumbai attacks of 2008.