Pakistan in Peril
Fatima Bhutto published her first book, Whispers of the Desert, a collection of poetry, when she was 15. She is a graduate of Columbia and the London School of Oriental and African Studies. Her articles appear in the LA Times, CounterPunch, and other media outlets. Her latest book, 8.50 A.M.8 October 2005 is about the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan. I initially talked with Fatima Bhutto at her home in Karachi in early December 2007. Her aunt, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in Rawalpindi on December 27. We did a subsequent email interview in early February 2008.
BARSAMIAN: Americans don’t have a lot of information about Pakistan. It’s called a front-line state in Washington’s so-called war on terror. The country celebrated 60 years of independence in 2007. For more than half of that period of time it’s been ruled by the military, most recently Pervez Musharraf, but before that Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, and the notorious Zia ul-Haq. Why is the military so prominent in the political life of Pakistan?
BHUTTO: They’re severely entrenched. Part of what supports them is that they’ve managed to ignore our democratic Constitution, which includes safeguards against martial law. After the 1977 coup the army rewrote the Constitution to include things like the doctrine of necessity, which can be pulled in times of political instability to say it’s necessary for the army to step in. This is what always betrays us in the end.
How does this happen? Where is civil society? It’s astonishing to learn that the Pakistan military was involved in the economic infrastructure of the country—including cement factories, malls, housing developments, banks.
It’s not just that. It’s also a breakfast cereal. They also have Askari (military) water, Askari tissue paper.
Another point. They have not been able to wipe out feudalism in this country because they are also feudals. They own much of the land, both agrarian and residential.
As far as civil society, you have some writers and media people who have been very active recently. You’ve got students in larger cities, like Lahore and Karachi and Islamabad, protesting against the emergency, and, of course, you’ve got the lawyers. But this is a very small percentage. If you look at the rest of Pakistan, the real majority here, their concerns are not with press freedoms, their concerns are not with the legal framework. They’re concerned with the price of sugar because the price of sugar is exorbitant. The price of wheat is so expensive that people can’t afford to eat. So the emergency hasn’t affected civil society at all because their problems are far more basic.
Your grandfather, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was a former prime minister of the country.
He was Pakistan’s first democratically-elected prime minister, ending a long spell of martial law. It was under his government that you have Pakistan’s first constitution in 1973. You had people empowered to vote for the first time at the village level and to participate at the district government and union council level. Though he came from a feudal background and owned land, he initiated the 1974 land reforms and gave up a great deal of his own holdings so that he would fall under the legal ceiling. This is something that was reversed by his daughter, Benazir Bhutto, and by Zia ul-Haq and Nawaz Sharif, who removed the ceiling. He also opened up social frontiers for women and initiated free education programs, especially in the North West Frontier Province.
He was toppled in a coup in 1977 by General Zia ul-Haq who reversed not only the democratic empowerment of the people, but also a series of socialist economic policies. In Pakistan there are now 20 families that control everything.
He also put your uncle on trial and had him executed.
He was killed in 1979. They say he was hanged, but as the family never saw the body, we don’t know exactly how they killed him.
If you look at Zia’s regime in the late 1970s and the 1980s in Pakistan, it’s the one time in this country where you had civil society and people from all walks of life come together to resist martial law. A great example is when Zia initiated the Hudud Ordinance, which is possibly the most violent piece of legislation against women and minorities in Pakistan. Under the Hudud Ordinance, adultery or intercourse outside of marriage are crimes punishable by death. For women, not for men. The Hudud also said the punishment for theft and for other petty crimes would be amputation. But they could not find a single doctor who was willing to carry out an amputation. That’s amazing because we know that in Afghanistan people were willing to do that.
What was the impact of the Afghanistan war?
We were affected in several ways. When the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979, Pakistan became the focus of attention from Washington. Billions of dollars and weapons flowed into the country to build up the mujahideen, the group that Reagan referred to as “freedom fighters.” There are arms caches that have yet to be uncovered. There was an amazing stockpiling of weapons. We had the start of the Kalashnikov culture in urban centers, where the price of a Kalashnikov is equivalent to the price of bananas. It became a staple, almost.
You also had a lot of money coming in from Sunni Wahhabi groups that were allying themselves with America—like Saudi Arabia and Iraq at the time—to ward off the spread of Shiism from Iran or from the Afghan Shiites. What you have now is extreme sectarian violence in Pakistan and you’ve got a lot of very radical, militant Sunni groups who have money and influence given to them in the 1980s. This is still a great problem for us today.
In 2007 Musharraf’s government received $10 billion in aid to fight the war on terror on our borders with Afghanistan for the Americans. We estimated that less than $100 million of that money went to education, but I think that’s a gross exaggeration. I don’t think it’s even close to a fraction of that. So we have history repeating itself. You’ve got the fundamentalists reenergized by money, arms, and by what people perceive as an unjust war.
One of the central components of rule in Pakistan is the ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The current chief of army staff, Ashfaq Kayani, is a former head of the ISI, which has been implicated in all kinds of nefarious things. They say nothing happens in Pakistan without the ISI having a hand in it. No government comes to power without their approval, no government gets removed without their hand in it. They—this is what we call them, “they” since we don’t really say their name very loudly in Pakistan because they’re everywhere. They control the media and the opposition forces in Pakistan. If you want to get into power, you’ve got to work with the establishment and the ISI is part of the establishment.
The ISI is alleged to have given birth to the Taliban. Is there any evidence of that?
I think it’s fair to say that the ISI and the army were the ones that aided what was later to become the Taliban, that funneled money to them that was given by the Reagan government. The Taliban was Zia ul-Haq’s cause. He was really a Wahhabi Muslim, if you look at his edicts. He initiated many draconian, repressive religious edicts while he was in power that sound very Taliban-esque. For example, women on TV had to cover their hair. You had a class on Islamic studies made mandatory for all schools. You were not allowed to eat in public during the month of Ramadan. This sounds very similar to what you found in Taliban Afghanistan at the time.
Was Zia currying favor with his Saudi benefactors in promulgating all of these ordinances and laws?
There is immense Saudi influence in Pakistan. If you look at our culture, we have a lot of Hindu influence, we have a lot of—I suppose you could call it pagan influence, from the Indus civilization. We have Buddhist influence in Taxila. We have the Kalasha living in the north who are descendants of Alexander’s troops and they follow a pagan religion. So the cultures and traditions are different. Pakistan never was meant to be an orthodox Muslim state in any sense. It wasn’t until Zia came to power that you saw the Islamic part of the republic.
One of the ironies of your grandfather’s situation was that he promoted Zia and made Zia chief of the military. Ultimately, Zia staged a coup d’etat.
They say he chose Zia because he thought he would be compliant. That’s always, I suppose, the most dangerous mistake people in power make. When they start to look for people who won’t oppose them, they pick the wrong kind of people.
In 1988 Zia was killed in a plane crash, the cause of which still has not been explained. The U.S. ambassador was also on board, as well as high-ranking Pakistani army officers. Then Benazir Bhutto became the first woman prime minister in the Islamic world. This was heralded as some major gender breakthrough.
Benazir was in some ways a very different politician and in some ways not so much. Benazir was negotiating with the military in the late 1980s. She came to power with approval from the army. They invited her to take the position of prime minister under the condition that they could pick her cabinet for her and set her economic policy so that she continue to abide by IMF and World Bank stipulations, which she did. This really is a case of déjà vu because Benazir, in 2007, was again negotiating with the military—in the hopes of becoming prime minister again.
She ultimately worked to uphold the status quo. She and Nawaz Sharif, who both had two terms as prime minister, worked tirelessly to reinforce the power of the army by working willingly with them. Benazir never made any efforts to remove the Hudud Ordinance or to repeal the Hudud laws. She made no efforts to restore the 1973 Constitution to its entirety. Both she and Nawaz enhanced the powers of the prime minister’s office, but didn’t strengthen democratic institutions, civil society, and the press in any real way.
We’re in Karachi right now and it looks almost like a construction site because no public funds were put into sanitation, schools, or health care. They were diverted into offshore bank accounts. It comes from this feudal entitlement where power, property, and wealth is considered a birthright.
Benazir is estimated to have stolen $1.5 to $3 billion from the Pakistani treasury. She was also been charged in international courts. There is a money laundering case in Spain, there is a property commissions case in England. She was convicted by Swiss courts for taking $11 million in kickbacks. And the most amazing thing is that she was also implicated in the Oil for Food scandal whereby she paid Saddam Hussein $2 million for oil contracts, which he gave quite willingly.
Your relationship with your aunt, Benazir, was estranged. What’s that like for you?
As a family we were all terribly let down by the compromises she made at the beginning of her political career. She compromised tremendously, not just with the army, but also with foreign powers, with the IMF. She worked directly against what the manifesto of the Pakistan People’s Party stands for. Now they call it the Pervez People’s Party, PPP. It’s no longer the Pakistan People’s Party. Under Benazir’s leadership it moved from a party of the poor, a party of landless peasants, of the disenfranchised, to a party of zamindars, feudal landlords, industrialists,and businesspeople. So our estrangement has always been political.
Talk more about your own family history. Your uncle Shahnawaz died in France in mysterious circumstances, and then your own father was murdered, not far from where we’re sitting here in your home in the Clifton area of Karachi.
My father, Murtaza Bhutto, was a member of parliament, and a vocal critic of Benazir Bhutto’s government. He spoke out about the extraordinary state of violence that she presided over. The police under Benazir’s government in the 1990s acted with complete impunity and openly targeted thousands of political activists, political opponents. They targeted the ethnic Mohajir community in Karachi in a murderous campaign called Operation Cleanup. It was really something out of the Third Reich, where they would stop people, ask for ID cards, and if you were a Mohajir, you were shot on the spot.
Explain who the Mohajir are.
The Mohajirs migrated from India after the 1947 partition. They’re Urdu speaking as opposed to Sindhi, Pashto, or Punjabi speaking. They’re situated mainly in Karachi, but also across Sindh and the rest of the country. Their political party is the Mohajir Qaumi Movement led by Altaf Hussain.
My father was killed on the 20th of September 1996 as he was returning home from a public meeting outside Karachi. The roads had been cordoned off, the street lights had been turned off. There were 70 to 100 police at the scene, some in sniper positions in the trees. They killed six men along with my father. My father and one of his associates, Ashiq Jatoi, were shot at point-blank range, execution style, and were left to bleed for approximately 45 minutes. When they were moved, they were not moved to medical facilities, hospitals that were known to deal with gunshot wounds or to have emergency centers.
Benazir, who was prime minister at the time, bears responsibility not only for my father’s death, but also for the thousands of political activists who were killed during her last government. In my father’s case, specifically, her government actively worked to hinder our pursuit for justice. They forbade our family the right to file an FIR, which is a First Information Report. Benazir’s government cleared all the police officers of any wrongdoing and honorably reinstated them to their positions. One of the men, Masood Sharif, who was then director of the intelligence bureau, a sort of counter-ISI that reported to the prime minister’s office, who was present at the scene of the murder and who was named as a suspect, was then given a place in Benazir’s central committee of her party. And what Benazir’s government did is they arrested all the witnesses and the survivors of the murder, two of whom died in police custody.
What kind of impact does the print media have, considering that there is an enormous amount of illiteracy?
I think the influence of print media has waned. Jang is Pakistan’s most widely read newspaper. Its circulation is somewhere around three million. This country has a population of at least 165 million. If you look at the four or five large English papers, their circulation is in the thousands or the hundreds of thousands, nowhere close to a million. You can get away with a lot more in the English press because fewer people are reading it, whereas the Urdu press is still heavily censored. Although it’s sad but true that they self-censor in many ways. Press censorship under Zia was severe. We had a censorship board set up by the military dictatorship and every news piece, obituary, and cartoon had to be run by this board. They would reject most of the submissions so newspapers like Jang would print entire pages with empty boxes.
We’ve had 13 declarations of emergency law in our 60-year history, so people are used to the drill. We haven’t seen that kind of censorship under Pervez Musharraf. Instead he hit people where it hurts—the TV channels. He hit what people were most proud of: the globalized information age.
Talk about education in Pakistan and why there has been a tremendous increase in the number of madrasas—Islamic schools.
Education receives something like 3 percent of the budget annually. Most of the budget goes toward defense and very little for social services. It’s designed that way because, when you deny people education, you can continue a system of feudalism because people have no way to catch you out on it. Our illiteracy rate is something like 35 percent. Actually, the number is far higher because if you’re able to sign your name, you’re counted as literate.
Madrasas have become popular because they offer what the state is not willing to offer, which was an education for young children. If you look at villages in the north, we have a prevalence of ghost schools where the government—this happened a lot under Benazir Bhutto—takes money to build schools, but they don’t hire teachers or enroll students or buy materials. The money is pocketed. So when an Islamic outfit comes and opens a madrasa, they offer free education and religious instruction, food, and hostels or dormitories for the children if they come from far away.
In the case of the 2005 earthquake, the Jamaat-e-Islami Party was very quick to get out to the affected areas and set up medical camps. The government didn’t have the money or the know-how, but the Islamic groups did.
How many madrasa students are we talking about?
Hundreds of thousands of students at the very least. Zia was a great benefactor of Islamic fringe groups and he really pushed for these madrasas. So in 3 years you went from having maybe 5 madrasas in the northern areas to having 2,000. Besides having sermons and a mosque for prayer, they also had a free girls’ school. Students are not documented or registered as they are in public schools, so we don’t know the true number.
The media describes the madrasas as incubators of jihadis; that this is where suicide bombers come from.
That’s how they’re popularly seen, but that’s obviously not the case. There was a madrasa in Bejaur in northern Pakistan that was attacked during an air strike last year because the Pakistani Army claimed that they were a hotbed of fundamentalism and were training jihadis. Scores died in this attack—mostly students between the ages of 11 to 20. There were no arms found in the area, no religious pamphlets pertaining to jihad. They had no connection at all to al-Qaeda or to the jihad.
In your essay, “The Dismantling of Pakistan’s Democracy,” you write, “The Islamists are waiting at the gates.” What did you mean by that?
Before 9/11, the Islamists in Pakistan would take at the national level maybe 2 or 3 seats in Parliament out of 400. Out of 1,000 seats total, between provincial and national assemblies, they would take 6, maybe 5. After America invaded Afghanistan, occupied Iraq illegally, and since Pakistan has become a subservient partner, the Islamists now take 20-40 seats. For the first time in our history, a province’s government was controlled by the Islamists, the North West Frontier Province. Their chief minister, their governor, their mayors, they’re all from Islamic parties.
Islam has become a symbol of resistance. When you have a military government that’s taken $10 billion worth of aid from the Bush White House and you have two opposition leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who were enablers of the military regime and of foreign powers, then the only people acceptable to the majority of Pakistanis are the Islamists—because they are critical of Pakistan’s engagement in the war and of what’s happening in Iraq and of Pakistan turning into a satellite state.
What factor does Palestine play in Pakistani politics?
It certainly plays a factor. It’s known to be an emotional issue, but it’s not so great in terms of influence because we don’t see ourselves as having much to do with the Middle East except for sharing a common religion. What really galvanizes people, I think, is Afghanistan and the possibility of Iran being attacked. We share a border with Afghanistan, we have trade going back and forth, not just the drug trade, but lots of Afghans live in our country. Pakistanis don’t see themselves like Afghans. We’re a little racist in that sense. We think we’re far more sophisticated. However, we do identify with Iranians. Our language, Urdu, comes from Farsi. We have a lot of architecture and arts in common and a great deal of influence comes from Iran. We’re also trading partners.
There are four major provinces and then there are the so-called tribal areas. One province in particular, Punjab, is the dominant force. What role does it play?
The majority of the army and the bureaucracy is drawn from Punjab. And Punjab is a tremendous power base, not only for the establishment, but also in terms of votes. If you can win Punjab, you can win the country. Most of the army generals—Musharraf is an exception, he’s an Urdu-speaking Mohajir—come from the Punjab. And then you’ve got Baluchistan, which has the largest landmass in Pakistan, but the smallest population. It’s very rich in oil, gas, and many other natural resources. Then you have Sindh, which is a commercial center because of Karachi, which is the major port. Water comes from Sindh, our agricultural capital. Then you have the North West Frontier Province, which has taken over the media spotlight because of what’s happening in the Swat Valley and increased fundamentalist activity.
In 1947, when India and Pakistan were formed, they fought over Kashmir. Two-thirds is in India, one-third, Azad Kashmir, is in Pakistan. It has been the site of wars and skirmishes and ongoing conflict.
Azad Kashmir means free Kashmir. That’s what we call Pakistani Kashmir. I was there for a visit in 2002. It’s a complicated place because there is a great deal of Kashmiri identity at the center of this whole issue. They do identify themselves, at least in Azad Kashmir, as Pakistanis; they see themselves as part of the country. In terms of violence, Kashmir has receded from the forefront. Now the real danger spot is Swat in northern Pakistan. The jihadis are not going anymore to fight in Kashmir, they’re going to fight in Swat, which is just 90 miles north of Islamabad, the capital.
And they’re fighting the Pakistan Army, and they fight them on their turf, really. That’s within Pakistan proper.
Also, I think it’s important to note that a pipeline will go through Iran, Pakistan, and India. Once the pipeline is built, it will create a link between India and Pakistan that’s beneficial for both countries, and it will make it harder for India or Pakistan to create trouble in places like Kashmir.
It seems, at least from an outsider’s perspective, that the state is very fragile in Pakistan. What are the possibilities of things unraveling?
What’s happened over the years is that there is nothing left in the people’s hands, not at a district level, city level, or union council level. And that creates a lot of tension. It’s centralized in every single way. For example, to have a rape test administered, you need police approval.
What’s Washington’s role in Pakistani politics?
It’s had a tremendous role. We have right now a great deal of disappearances and most of them seem to come from Baluchistan. Washington has the right to go into countries, pick people up, and send them to other countries where torture is acceptable and condoned or to send them to Guantánamo. They’ve been given free rein to do that.
This has been latched on to by the military government. In Baluchistan they’re now disappearing members of the Baluch tribes because they want to end their influence and because the tribes own most of the land where gas has been found. The army has also used disappearances to stop people from speaking against the regime. You have anywhere from 3,000 people, which is the official figure, to 8,000, which is the unofficial figure, who have been disappeared from Baluchistan since the war on terror began. The majority of them have nothing to do with al-Qaeda or war on terror. They’re writers, professors, and union leaders who have been critical of the state.
You’ve been to Quetta, the largest city in Baluchistan, and capital of the province. What did you find there?
Baluchistan is a police state. I’ve never seen such police control over any other city or country—not in Syria, Lebanon, or Iran—none of these places that in the West people assume are run by police states. They’re not. There is a great deal of freedom. However, Baluchistan has military police checkpoints every couple of feet where you can be asked to take out your ID and to answer any number of questions. If your reasons are not good enough, your mobility can be blocked. There are parts of the Quetta airport that are no longer in use because the Americans have taken over and use them for who knows what? At this stage we don’t know. But they’re off limits to Pakistani citizens. Directly after 2001, after the Afghan invasion, you couldn’t fly over parts of Quetta because it interfered with U.S. radar and it was American airspace. So uetta is really a base for U.S. forces, the Pakistani military, and NATO.
Tell me about your experience studying at Columbia in New York City.
I came to New York in 2000 and I was there when 9/11 happened. What was amazing to me was the way people came together after 9/11. When news started to spread of what happened that morning, I got calls from family and friends in Pakistan. The one thing they all said to me was, “For God’s sake, don’t tell anyone you’re Pakistani.” And, of course, I did say I was Pakistani whenever anyone asked. And I wasn’t met by any hostility. I wasn’t met by anything except kindness.
When the war in Afghanistan started a month later and people found out I was from Pakistan, they would immediately ask, “How is your family? Are they safe?” There was a lot of common ground because people in New York had lost loved ones and a month later we were losing loved ones in our part of the world. That was something we shared. It was a wonderful experience, actually, being in New York at that time and seeing firsthand that we have more in common than we think.
Has radical Islam replaced the Soviet Union as the organizing principle to justify U.S. hegemony?
Yes, it’s the goblin of the world now. Fundamentalism itself is a problem and I don’t think Muslims have the monopoly on it. There is Hindu fundamentalism that’s been very violent and very detrimental in India. There is Christian fundamentalism all across the United States. There is Jewish fundamentalism in America and in Israel. What we should be looking at is fundamentalism as opposed to creating a scary abstract idea of Islamo-fascism and Islamo-terrorism and Islamic danger. The danger goes way beyond Islam at this stage.
Talk about the sectarian situation inside of Pakistan where about 20 percent of the population is Shia. What’s fueling the clashes between the Shias and the majority Sunnis?
This started in the 1980s when Pakistan was engaged in fighting the Soviets for the Americans. You had billions and billions of dollars coming in from Iraq and Saudi Arabia to counter Iran at the time that had also just had an Islamic revolution. The danger was that we were all going to become Shias because of what was happening in Afghanistan and Iran, our neighbors. A great deal of money was pumped and a great deal of money was put towards extremists in the madrasas, a great deal of money was put into arming the Sunni militants.
Just to clarify, you said Iraq under Saddam Hussein was funding some of these extremist groups?
It’s strange, but yes, because Saddam in Iraq was fighting the Shia majority as well and the Sunnis in Iraq under Saddam Hussein were engaged in removing power from Shia forces and centralizing it among themselves so money did come from Iraq. Not at the same level that came from Saudi Arabia, but certainly Iraq did fund Sunni groups in Pakistan.
What societal sectors do you see possibly leading Pakistan toward a more democratic polity?
Since the general took over in 1999, there has been an earnest secular, grassroots push for democratic reform. It comes from the village level and district level. It doesn’t come from people like Nawaz Sharif or from the large parties like the Pervez People’s Party. It comes from journalists who have been pushing the boundaries of what is permissible to print in their local papers or on radio and television. It comes from family members of the disappeared. It comes from women like Mukhtar Mai, who was gang-raped by very powerful people in her community. Mukhtar Mai spoke out even though it’s not done in a country like Pakistan, even though she’s a powerless woman. She spoke out and she opened the field for more women to come out and speak out against what seems to be state-approved violence towards women.
The largest danger has always been this fundamentalist movement in Pakistan that believes when you talk about things like democracy, tolerance, sexual rights for women, that you’re speaking a Western language, that you’re pushing a Western agenda. What happened when Benazir came back to Pakistan on October 18, she sort of hijacked the democratic cause as her own, and did so with Bush’s backing, with a lot of neocon support. Benazir has said to these fundamentalists, “Yes, you’re right.” And General Pervez Musharraf, of course, has gone a long ways towards doing this, too, by being so closely allied with the Bush White House. This has put a lot of homegrown activists in a lot of danger. Ultimately, they’re the hope for this country and they are the people who have to be empowered.
And your generation? You’re 25.
I don’t know that there is a lot of hope for my generation. We’re disconnected from our country. We live in a bubble, really. And I say “we” not because I identify myself in this group, but because in many ways I am part of it by birth, by privilege. I’ve had the chance to study abroad, I’ve had the benefit of the best education in my own country. I don’t live like the majority of my fellow citizens do. I don’t worry about the price of sugar. I think if you look at the youth in Pakistan, the biggest problem is brain drain. This is a problem everywhere, in India, in Iran. They’re fed up, they’re tired of the system. And they just pick up and leave. That’s a great problem. I hope it’s something we can change. I moved back after finishing my masters, and I live here because ultimately it’s my country. I hope more will come back.
Addendum (after Bhutto’s assassination)
Benazir Bhutto was a major political figure in Pakistan. How has her murder changed the political scene?
Whether one agreed with Benazir Bhutto’s politics or not, her murder is a dangerous signal for Pakistan’s future. Ultimately, power in Pakistan never really changes hands—it’s the victims who change. After a long and violent year, Benazir’s murder has terrified the people of this country. Indeed the assassination can be seen as an attack on the country as a whole. It has scared people away from attending political rallies and left them fearful about the prospects of elections being carried out safely.
The Pakistan People’s Party continues as a family-run organization. Benazir in her will bequeathed the Party to her 19-year-old son Bilawal, while her husband, Asif Zardari, actually runs things. Would you favor opening up the PPP to non-Bhutto leadership?
Absolutely. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto never believed in the politics of birthright. When he was sent to the gallows, he did not pass the party leadership down through the family. Instead, he left the members of the PPP central committee in charge—Miraj Mohammad Khan in particular. Dynasty is akin to monarchy. It doesn’t strengthen democratic institutions, it doesn’t empower the people, and it doesn’t serve government particularly well.
Clearly Musharraf is on borrowed time. What are the prospects for democratic forces ruling the country or will there just be a change in generals?
That’s unfortunately what people seem to be thinking—power in Pakistan never changes hands. Just the faces change, not the ideologies and not the platforms.
Nawaz Sharif is now head of the PML-N, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. He is reported to have ties with Islamic groups in Pakistan, as well as with the royals in Saudi Arabia. What is your evaluation of him?
The Sharif brothers work to uphold the status quo just as Musharraf does and just as Benazir did. Nawaz is devoid of any meaningful political ideology—he leans towards Islamists when it suits him and towards the readers of the Washington Post at another moment. His political party consists of wealthy (primarily Punjabi) industrialists—they benefit from a capitalistic feudalism in the form of oligarchy as well as from the feudal mindset that has infected the psyche at large.
Imran Khan, the celebrity cricket star, was just in the United States making the political and media rounds. He is in opposition to Musharraf. Does his Tehreek-e Insaf Party have much support in Pakistan?
Khan’s philantrophic work—his cancer hospital and school initiatives—are well respected. He has no history of corruption, rare in Pakistani politicians, and seems to be sincere in his efforts to bring about a change, but unfortunately his party does not have tremendous grass-roots support. There is little known about the party cadres. However, it’s a young party and there is time for it to grow. Fresh ideas and fresh faces are what is needed in the political arena right now.
We will have regime change in the U.S. later this year. What direction in U.S. policy toward Pakistan would you like to see?
The U.S. need to have a dictator in power in Pakistan who only appears democratic (by changing his or her clothes and holding superficial elections) has severely set back the push for democratic reform. Personally, I wish the United States would deal with the needs and demands of its own citizenry. It’s been years of U.S. expansionism, adventurism, and economic imperialism.
In the wake of the assassination, there must be a lot pressure on you to do this, go there, say that. How are you managing?
Steadfastly. I don’t believe in inherited politics and I refuse to perpetuate the notion of dynasty as being useful or productive.
David Barsamian is founder and director of Alternative Radio. His interviews and articles appear regularly in the Progressive and Z Magazine. His latest books are Targeting Iran,What We Say Goes with Noam Chomsky, Ervand Abrahamian, Nahid Mozaffari; Imperial Ambitions with Noam Chomsky; Speaking of Empire & Resistance with Tariq Ali; and Original Zinn with Howard Zinn.