“The United States has a special responsibility vis-à-vis Pakistan”: An Interview with Farahnaz Ispahani

23 January 2016
Wilson Center
Wilson Center

Farahnaz Ispahani, a public policy scholar at the Woodraw Wilson Center in Washington, is a former member of Pakistan’s parliament and served as the media advisor of the erstwhile president Asif Ali Zardari. Before she became an active participant in the country’s politics through the Pakistan’s People’s Party, Ispahani spent two decades in print and broadcast journalism, working with organisations such as the networks ABC and CNN in the United States of America. In 2012, the magazine Foreign Policy named her in its list of the top 100 global thinkers. Last year, Ispahani published her book, Purifying The Land of the Pure, which focuses on the state of religious minorities in Pakistan. The book analyses the policies of Pakistan towards its minorities while attempting to explore the genesis of the country. It also scrutinises the change in the ideology of Pakistan from the pluralist country that it had been envisioned as, to the purely Sunni-Islamic nation it is now.

On 18 January 2016, Nikita Saxena, the web editor of The Caravan, met Ispahani in Delhi. During the conversation, Ispahani spoke about the decreasing minority population in Pakistan, the role of the US in creating militias within the country, and the way forward for a state that she believes is committing “slow genocide.”

Nikita Saxena: The percentage of non-muslims in Pakistan has reduced significantly since its formation in 1947. What do you think has led to this decrease?

Farahnaz Ispahani:  In my book, I have demonstrated the four stages of intolerance in Pakistan. Stage one is Muslimisation. This was the massive decline in the Hindu and Sikh population from 1947 to 1951 during and after partition, because of which Pakistan’s demographic became primarily Muslim. Stage two is what I call Islamic identity, in which state-sponsored textbooks rejected pluralism. This was the start of changing and shaping the mindsets of the young into this ideology of Pakistan. It was an attempt to forge a Pakistani identity purely on the basis of Islam. Stage three is Islamisation. This was achieved through legislation, by attempting to make the country’s laws more Islamic. It resulted in a legal framework against minorities from 1974 to 1988. This included the law that was passed during the regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto [the prime minister of Pakistan from 1973 to 1977] in 1974 that designated Ahmedis as non-Muslims and minorities [The Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim but their beliefs are deemed by orthodox Muslims as falling outside the tenets of Islam]. After that was Muhammed Zia-ul-Haq [The Pakistani general who served as the country’s sixth president starting 1978, after declaring martial law in 1977] with all his major Islamisation laws including the blasphemy law. Stage four is what I call militant hostility. This is what we are seeing today: terrorism and organised violence starting from Zia to present-day.

NS: Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was himself a Shia—now declared "non-muslim" in Pakistan. Jinnah propagated the idea of a Pakistan as a state that embraced its plurality. How did the country’s Islamisation begin, despite its relatively secular roots?

Nikita Saxena is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: Pakistan foreign policy religious minorities Farahnaz Ispahani