Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion 2014-12-18T17:35:06Z WordPress Juan Cole <![CDATA[Cuba: Top 5 other Dictatorships with which US has Diplomatic Relations]]> 2014-12-18T10:10:40Z 2014-12-18T10:04:35Z By Juan Cole | —

The US sanctions on Cuba were justified by their supporters with reference to the Communist government’s human rights record. That record, bad as it is, however, cannot explain the sanctions. They are rather pique that Cuba defied American hegemony and corporate domination. The sanctions have not overthrown the government of Fidel Castro. They have imposed some hardships on ordinary Cubans.

Let’s consider dictatorial countries with which the US has diplomatic relations; some of them are actually very warm friendships, despite all the arbitrary arrests, censorship, etc. Some of them are even Communist! With Cuba, it had to be personal.

1. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy which doesn’t even allow political parties or any kind of public dissent.

Human Rights Watch reports:

“Saudi Arabia stepped up arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents, and forcibly dispersed peaceful demonstrations by citizens in 2013. Authorities continued to violate the rights of 9 million Saudi women and girls and 9 million foreign workers. As in past years, authorities subjected thousands of people to unfair trials and arbitrary detention. In 2013, courts convicted seven human rights defenders and others for peaceful expression or assembly demanding political and human rights reforms.”

None of the opponents of diplomatic relations with Cuba has even once suggested that the US break off relations with Saudi Arabia over its medieval human rights practices. I therefore conclude that human rights does not drive this issue.

2. Zimbabwe. The US has diplomatic relations with the notoriously dictatorial government of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and actually has given the country $400 million in humanitarian aid.

Human Rights Watch reports:

“Both the power-sharing government prior to August 2013 and the new administration have failed to amend repressive laws, such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act, which severely curtail basic rights through vague defamation clauses and draconian penalties. Failure to amend or repeal these laws and to address the partisan conduct of the police severely limits the rights to freedom of association and assembly.

Sections of AIPPA and POSA that provide criminal penalties for defamation, or for undermining the authority of, or insulting the president, have routinely been used against journalists and human rights defenders. Police often misuse provisions of POSA to ban lawful public meetings and gatherings. Activists and journalists continue to be wrongly prosecuted and charged under these laws. For instance, on May 7, police arrested Dumisani Muleya, editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, and Owen Gagare, its chief reporter, following the publication of an article on the security forces. The two were detained for eight hours, then charged with “publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the State.” ”

3. Belarus, a small eastern European country with a population of 9.5 million, which never made the transition to democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union. We have an embassy in Minsk, though the post of ambassador is right now unfilled (there is a charge d’affaires).

Human Rights Watch says:

“The human rights situation in Belarus saw little improvement in 2013. The state suppresses virtually all forms of dissent and uses restrictive legislation and abusive practices to impede freedoms of association and assembly. Journalists are routinely harassed and subjected to arbitrary arrests and detention. Eight political prisoners remain jailed. Those who have been released continue to face restrictions, ranging from travel limitations to inclusion in law enforcement agencies’ ‘watch lists’. Civil society groups cannot function freely. Belarusian courts sentenced two more people to death during 2013.

Media Freedom, Attacks on Journalists

Most media are state-controlled, and authorities harass the few independent journalists and outlets that remain. In 2013, police arrested 25 journalists as they covered public protests. Courts sentenced at least four to short-term detention following convictions on misdemeanor charges. The authorities frequently prohibit reporting on public marches and open court hearings.”

4. Sultanate of Brunei: The US has warm diplomatic relations and a US embassy there, despite its disregard for basic human rights

5. We actually have an embassy in Vietnam of all places: Human Rights Watch writes:

“The Vietnam government systematically suppresses freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and persecutes those who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule. Police harass and intimidate activists and their family members. Authorities arbitrarily arrest activists, hold them incommunicado for long periods without access to legal counsel or family visits, subject them to torture, and prosecute them in politically pliant courts that mete out long prison sentences for violating vaguely worded national security laws.

In 2012, police used excessive force in response to public protests over evictions, confiscation of land, and police brutality.

Land confiscation continues to be a flashpoint issue, with local farmers and villagers facing unjust confiscation of their lands by government officials and private sector projects. Those who resist face abuses from local authorities.”

If the US recognizes Vietnam and has an embassy there after all that happened between the two countries, it seems like a minor thing to have diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Related video:

Euronews: “A brief history of US-Cuba relations”

contributors <![CDATA[Pope Francis Backs Obama’s Cuba Opening]]> 2014-12-18T17:35:06Z 2014-12-18T08:52:23Z By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Dec 18 2014 (IPS) – In perhaps his boldest foreign-policy move during his presidency, Barack Obama Wednesday announced that he intends to establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

While the president noted that he lacked the authority to lift the 54-year-old trade embargo against Havana, he issued directives that will permit more U.S. citizens to travel there and third-country subsidiaries of U.S. companies to engage in commerce, among other measures, including launching a review of whether Havana should remain on the U.S. list of “state sponsors of terrorism”.

He also said he looked forward to engaging Congress in “an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”

“In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalise relations between our two countries,” he said in a nationally televised announcement.

“Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.”

The announcement, which was preceded by a secret, 45-minute telephone conversation Tuesday morning between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, drew both praise from those who have long argued that Washington’s pursuit of Cuba’s isolation has been a total failure and bitter denunciations from right-wing Republicans.

Some of the latter had vowed, among other things, to oppose any effort to lift the embargo, open U.S. embassy in Havana, or confirm a U.S. ambassador to serve there. (Washington has had an Interest Section in the Cuban capital since 1977.)

“Today’s announcement initiating a dramatic change in U.S. policy is just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all costs,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of a number of fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American lawmakers and a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

“I intend to use my role as incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee to make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuba people’s expense,” he said in a statement.

The outgoing Democratic chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, also decried Obama’s announcement.

“The United States has just thrown the Cuban regime an economic lifeline. With the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, Cuba is losing its main benefactor, but will now receive the support of the United States, the greatest democracy in the world,” said Menendez, who is also Cuban American.

But other lawmakers hailed the announcement.

“Today President Obama and President Raul Castro made history,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a senior Democrat and one of three lawmakers, including a Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who escorted a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor, Alan Gross, from Havana Wednesday morning as part of a larger prisoner and spy swap that precipitated the announcement.

Part of that deal included the release of 53 prisoners in Cuba, including Gross, who the U.S. considers to be political prisoners.

“Those who cling to a failed policy [and] …may oppose the President’s actions have nothing to offer but more of the same. That would serve neither the interests of the United States and its people, nor of the Cuban people,” Leahy said. “It is time for a change.”

Other analysts also lauded Obama’s Wednesday’s developments, comparing them to historic breakthroughs with major foreign-policy consequences.

“Obama has chosen to change the entire framework of the relationship, as [former President Richard] Nixon did when he travelled to China,” said William LeoGrande, a veteran Cuba scholar at American University, in an email from Havana.

“Many issues remain to be resolved, but the new direction of U.S. policy is clear.”

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based hemispheric think tank that has long urged Washington to normalise ties with Havana, told IPS the regional implications would likely be very positive.

“Obama’s decision will be cheered and applauded throughout Latin America. The Cuba issue has sharply divided Washington from the rest of the hemsiphere for decades, and this move, long overdue, goes a long way towards removing a major source of irritation in US-Latin American relations,” Shifter said.

“Since his sensible and lofty rhetoric at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, Latin Americans wondered where Obama has been in recent years.”

Indeed, Obama also announced Wednesday that he will attend the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama in April. Because Castro was officially invited, over the objections of both the U.S. and Canada, at the last Summit in Cartagena in 2012, there had been some speculation that Obama might boycott the proceedings.

Harvard international relations expert Stephen Walt said he hoped that Wednesday’s announcement portends additional bold moves by Obama on the world stage in his last two years as president despite the control of both houses of Congress by Republicans, like Rubio, who have opposed Obama’s efforts to reach out to perceived adversaries.

“One may hope that this decision will be followed by renewed efforts to restore full diplomatic relations with even more important countries, most notably Iran,” he told IPS in an email.

“Recognition does not imply endorsing a foreign government’s policies; it simply acknowledges that U.S. interests are almost always well-served by regular contact with allies and adversaries alike.”

Administration officials told reporters that Wednesday’s developments were made possible by 18 months of secret talks between senior official from both sides – not unlike those carried out in Oman between the U.S. and Iran prior to their November 2013 agreement with five other world powers on Tehran’s nuclear programme — hosted primarily by Canada and the Vatican, although the Interests Sections of both countries were also involved.

Officials credited Pope Francis, an Argentine, with a key role in prodding both parties toward an accord.

“The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history,” the Vatican said in a statement Wednesday.

The Vatican’s strong endorsement could mute some of the Republican and Cuban-American criticism of normalisation and make it more difficult for Rubio and his colleagues to prevent the establishment of an embassy and appointment of an ambassador, according to some Capitol Hill staff.

Similarly, major U.S. corporations, some of whom, particularly in the agribusiness and consumer-goods sectors, have seen major market potential in Cuba, are likely to lobby their allies on the Republican side.

“We deeply believe that an open dialogue and commercial exchange between the U.S. and Cuban private sectors will bring shared benefits, and the steps announced today will go a long way in allowing opportunities for free enterprise to flourish,” said Thomas Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a statement.

Donohue headed what he called an unprecedented “exploratory” trip to Cuba earlier this year.

“Congress now has a decision to make,” said Jake Colvin, the vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council, an association of many of the world’s biggest multi-national corporations. “It can either show that politics stops at the water’s edge, or insist that the walls of the Cold War still exist.”

Wednesday’s announcement came in the wake of an extraordinary series of editorials by the New York Times through this autumn in favour of normalisation and the lifting of the trade embargo.

In another sign of a fundamental shift here, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose husband Bill took some steps to ease the embargo during his tenure as president, disclosed in her book published last summer that she had urged Obama to “take another look at our embargo. It wasn’t achieving its goals, and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.”

That stance, of course, could alienate some Cuban-American opinion, especially in the critical “swing state” of Florida if Clinton runs in the 2016 election.

But recent polls of Cuban Americans have suggested an important generational change in attitudes toward Cuba and normalisation within the Cuban-American community, with the younger generation favouring broader ties with their homeland.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at He can be contacted at

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Licensed from Inter Press Service


Related video added by Juan Cole:

The White House: “President Obama Delivers a Statement on Cuba”

contributors <![CDATA[If Jeb Bush Is In, Who Will Win Wall Street’s Money?]]> 2014-12-18T08:36:59Z 2014-12-18T08:36:59Z Bloomberg Business | —

“Bloomberg’s Stephanie Ruhle and John Heilemann talk cash and 2016 prospects.

Bloomberg Politics leads Bloomberg’s political coverage across all platforms: Web, mobile, television, digital video, radio, live events and more. “With All Due Respect” is hosted by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann airs at 5p ET/PT on Bloomberg Television and

Bloomberg Business: “If Jeb Bush Is In, Who Will Win Wall Street’s Money?”

contributors <![CDATA[Europe Must follow Through on votes in Favor of Palestine Recognition]]> 2014-12-18T08:21:37Z 2014-12-18T08:20:25Z By John V Whitbeck

European parliamentary resolutions urging their governments to recognise the State of Palestine must be followed by actual recognitions of the State of Palestine

The European Parliament, after a late compromise in pursuit of consensus, has now passed, by a vote of 498 to 88 with 111 abstentions, a resolution stating that it “supports in principle recognition of Palestinian statehood and the two-state solution and believes these should go hand in hand with the development of peace talks, which should be advanced.”

This language bypasses the fundamental question of when the State of Palestine should be recognized, using vague words whose imprecision neither those who genuinely wish to achieve a decent “two-state solution” (and thus support recognizing Palestine now so as to finally make meaningful negotiations possible) nor those who support perpetual occupation (and thus argue that recognition should await prior Israeli consent) can strongly object to.

In doing so, the European Parliament has missed a rare opportunity to be relevant by joining the United Nations in recognizing Palestine’s “state status” or following the recent trend of European national parliaments urging their governments to join the 135 UN member states, representing the vast majority of mankind, which have already extended diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine.

The overwhelming 274-12 vote in the British House of Commons on October 13 has been followed by favorable votes in France (339-151 in the National Assembly and 154-146 in the Senate), Ireland (unanimous in both houses), Portugal (203-9) and Spain (319-2).

On October 30, Sweden took the essential further step of actually extending diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine, becoming the first European Union state to do so after becoming a member of the EU. However, it was not, as some media reported, the first European state to do so. It was the 20th.

The State of Palestine had already been recognized by eight other EU member states (Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovakia) and by 11 other states which are commonly considered to be “European” (Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Georgia, Iceland, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine).

Since the British, French, Irish, Portuguese and Spanish parliamentary resolutions are not binding on the executive branches of their respective governments, they have commonly been dismissed as “symbolic”, even while those favoring perpetual occupation have expended major efforts to prevent the votes from taking place. It is also commonly asked whether they matter at all.

Whether they matter, at least in a constructive sense, depends entirely on what happens afterwards. European parliamentary resolutions urging their governments to recognize the State of Palestine would not only be purely symbolic but actually counterproductive and dangerous if they are not followed relatively rapidly by actual recognitions of the State of Palestine.

These resolutions offer hope, but if, even after the latest Israeli onslaught against the people of Gaza, the European governments which have not yet recognized the State of Palestine prefer to ignore the clear will of their own peoples, as expressed by their elected representatives, and to continue prioritizing the wishes of the American and Israeli governments, then the last hope of the Palestinian people for ending the occupation and obtaining their freedom by non-violent means would have been extinguished.

These resolutions are thus a double-edged sword, offering both immediate hope and the potential for definitive despair.

The hope for peace with some measure of justice which actual European recognitions would generate is based on the assumption that the occupation by a neighboring state of the entire territory of any state which one recognizes as such is not something which any state with the influence and capacity to take meaningful action to end that occupation could tolerate indefinitely – and that, by virtue of diplomatic recognition, meaningful action to end that occupation (including economic sanctions and travel restrictions) would become a moral, ethical, intellectual, diplomatic and political imperative for European states, which, alone, possess the requisite influence and capacity.

The occupation of Kuwait by Iraq was permitted to last seven months. The occupation of Palestine by Israel is in its 48th year, the entire lifetimes of the great majority of Palestinians in occupied Palestine.

European governments are conscious of Europe’s unparalleled leverage as Israel’s primary trading partner and cultural homeland, and their realization that diplomatic recognition of Palestine would make meaningful action to end the occupation imperative surely constitutes a primary reason (in addition to the fear of upsetting the American and Israeli governments) why even those European governments which do not support perpetual occupation and genuinely wish to see the achievement of a decent “two-state solution” are reticent, hesitant and nervous about extending diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine now.

Yet if not now, when? It is now or never – if, indeed, it is not already too late.

European governments must seize their unprecedented opportunity to have a positive and potentially determinative impact on Israel’s March 17 election and the composition of the next Israeli government by writing indelibly on the wall a new reality which could convince a critical mass of Israelis, for the first time, that a fair peace agreement is preferable for them personally to perpetuation of the currently comfortable status quo.

Only then can a new and true “peace process”, under new management, based on international law and relevant UN resolutions and with both Israel and Palestine negotiating with a genuine desire and intention to reach an agreement, begin.

The Israeli electorate has been estimated to be divided roughly equally into three groups – those firmly on the right and extreme-right, those firmly on the center-left and those “swing voters” in between.Those in between will determine the composition of the next government. European governments have the influence and capacity to move them in a positive direction – in the best interests of Israelis, Palestinians, the region and the world.

It remains to be seen whether European governments have the wisdom, courage and political will to do so.

– John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who has advised the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Mirrored with author’s permission from Middle East Eye


Related video added by Juan Cole:

RT: “European Parliament votes to recognize Palestine state”

contributors <![CDATA[No more Turning the Cheek: Assyrian Christians form Militia in Syria to fight al-Qaeda]]> 2014-12-17T04:21:44Z 2014-12-18T05:29:52Z Middle East Eye | —

“The Syriac Military Council (MFS) was established in January 2013 to protect the marginalised Assyrian Christian communities in Syria.

They have fought to defend themselves from the Islamic State, Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham and frequently work in tandem with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

As sectarian violence swamps Syria, MFS aim to defend their land, religion and identity in a region where Christians are increasingly finding themselves unwelcome.

Video by Abed al-Qaisi”

Middle East Eye: “Assyrian Christians fight to defend their communities in Syria”

Juan Cole <![CDATA[3 Problems Pakistani Politics has to Resolve after Grisly School Attack]]> 2014-12-17T18:58:53Z 2014-12-17T09:42:14Z By Juan Cole | —

Pakistan politics has been mired in stagnation for some time now. In September of 2013, Pakistan undertook the first successful civilian hand-off of power in its entire history. Then-president Asaf Ali Zardari was succeeded by the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Despite this milestone, Pakistan’s politics have been full of tumult ever since.

Small but significant political forces refused to accept the legitimacy of the victory of the Muslim League in the fall, 2013 parliamentary elections. What is odd is that on the whole it is not the previous ruling party, the Pakistan People’s Party, that charged electoral fraud but rather the Pakistan Tehrik-i Insaf (PTI or Pakistan Movement for Change) of former cricket star Imran Khan. Also disgruntled are elements on the Punjabi religious right, the neo-Sufi movement of Tahir Qadri. These two political tendencies have staged big rallies all over the country and in the capital of Islamabad demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Sharif, which is a little unlikely to happen. Meanwhile, some politicians and economists have complained that Imran Khan and Qadri are taking points off economic growth because of the turmoil they are fomenting.

Ironically, Nawaz Sharif himself set the precedent here, inasmuch as he led an effort to unseat President Zardari, with a long march from Lahore to Islamabad, and he gave speeches threatening revolution and pledging that Zardari would not serve out his five year term (he did).

So the first problem Pakistani politics has to resolve is losing elections gracefully. Al Gore probably actually won in 2000, but decided not to put the country through a highly divisive process by contesting Bush’s victory. Both Zardari and Sharif actually did win their elections in 2008 and 2013, but rivals refused to acknowledge it, undermining the legitimacy of the state. In a good sign, Imran is keeping politics out of his mourning for the dead children of Peshawar.

The military in Pakistan has been too interventionist in the country’s affairs. It was the branch of government that backed the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Group terrorists. The officers believed that such paramilitary terrorist groups would protect Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

For years now, there has been large-scale blow-back from Pakistani military’s unhealthy obsession with extra–judicial means of power, including backing the Taliban and the Haqqani group even when they hit US interests in the country. Since July, the military has been fighting its former allies among the Pakistani Taliban, producing profound resentments among the neo-Taliban.

So the second problem in Pakistani politics is achieving a political culture in which the military is subordinate to elected officials, and in which the military ceases cooperating with paramilitary groups.

The third problem is that the Federally Administered Tribal areas or FATA need to be made a province and integrated into the Pakistani state. The standard of living of people in Waziristan is extremely low. Maybe some of the investment of China in Pakistan could be slotted for FATA. This is an area where some 800,000 people have been displaced by the Pakistani military campaign against militants in North Waziristan. There are torture facilities and bomb-making workshops. These need to be rolled up and FATA needs to be developed.

Related video:

AFP from last summer: “Pakistani army confident after North Waziristan offensive ”

contributors <![CDATA[Even Other Terrorists Denounce Taliban School Attacks In Pakistan]]> 2014-12-17T04:15:55Z 2014-12-17T05:39:21Z Cenk Uygur (The Young Turks) | —

“”In one of the worst terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s history, militants belonging to the Pakistani Taliban on Tuesday launched a brazen attack on a military-run school in the city of Peshawar. Officials said the eight-hour siege left at least 141 people dead, most of them students.

Tehrik-e-Taliban claimed responsibility for the deadly assault, saying the attack was a response to the military’s recent offensive against the militants. “We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females,” Muhammad Umar Khorasani told reporters. “We want them to feel the pain.”

Tuesday’s attack started around 10 a.m. local time, when gunmen entered the Army Public School and Degree College in Peshawar and opened fire on students and teachers. Security forces quickly rushed to the scene.”* The Young Turks hosts Cenk Uygur breaks it down.”

The Young Turks: “Even Other Terrorists Denounce Taliban School Attacks In Pakistan”

contributors <![CDATA[‘The Struggle for Pakistan’ (Ayesha Jalal)]]> 2014-12-17T04:45:51Z 2014-12-17T05:31:50Z By Joseph Richard Preville and Julie Poucher Harbin (ISLAMiCommentary)

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville| —

struggleforpakistan-197x300Pakistan is a nation with a strong will to survive. It has endured political upheavals, ethnic discord, military dictatorships, and the challenges of religious extremism. In her new book, The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), Ayesha Jalal examines Pakistan’s history from its creation in 1947 to the present. “Pakistan’s tumultuous history,” she writes, “exhibits a daunting combination of contradictory factors that must affect any decisions made about its future. More than six and a half decades since its establishment, Pakistan has yet to reconcile its self-proclaimed Islamic identity with the imperatives of a modern nation-state.”

Ayesha Jalal is Mary Richardson Professor of History and Director of the Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies at Tufts University. Born in Pakistan, Jalal was educated at Wellesley College and the University of Cambridge. She was a MacArthur Fellow from 1998-2003. Jalal is the author of many books, including The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan (1985) and Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia (2008).

Ayesha Jalal discusses The Struggle for Pakistan in this interview.

Ayesha Jalal

Ayesha Jalal

How did Pakistan become a major focus of your scholarly work?

As I explain in the Preface to The Struggle for Pakistan, I was a teenager in New York in 1971 and had difficulties reconciling the official narratives of the Pakistani state with daily news reports of atrocities perpetrated by the Pakistan army in East Pakistan. This led me to ask questions about Pakistan’s history and self-representations, which in time came to define my research interests.

What are the enduring myths about the founding of Pakistan?

There are many. But perhaps the most enduring has been the notion that Pakistan was created solely in the name of religion. This ignores the critical role of regional political dynamics, most notably in Punjab and Bengal, and has led to blanket justifications of giving religion a central role in the affairs of the state. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, had explicitly stated in his first speech to the constituent assembly on August 11, 1947 that religion had nothing to do with the affairs of the state and Pakistanis regardless of their religion or sect were equal citizens of the state.

What is the “two-nation” theory and how was it used to justify the establishment of Pakistan?

According to the “two-nation” theory the Muslims of India were always an identifiable community that had resisted assimilation into the Indian environment. So Pakistan was the logical culmination of this Muslim distinctiveness. This theory ignores the fact that several Muslims were converts from Hinduism and cannot explain why so many of the Faithful were left in predominantly Hindu India after the establishment of the Muslim homeland of Pakistan.

How is founder of Pakistan Mohammad Ali Jinnah represented in the official narratives of Pakistan? Is his vision for Pakistan relevant today?

Representations of Jinnah at the level of the state have depended on the agendas of incumbent governments. In the initial decades after independence, Jinnah’s political legacy provided the pretext for rejecting a theocracy run by the religious divines (priests). Under General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime in the 1980s Jinnah himself was transformed from being a Westernized secular lawyer-politician into a religious divine. This changed under General Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation” when Jinnah’s secular credentials were emphasized. The appropriation of Jinnah by all shades of political opinion in Pakistan is evidence of his ongoing relevance to debates about the present and future of the country. It is another matter whether these gestures are symbolic or based on substantive engagement with Jinnah’s thought and political practices.

Is the military too entrenched in Pakistani politics? How has the army misruled Pakistan?

The military is firmly entrenched in the political economy of Pakistan and remains the ultimate arbiter of its destiny when it comes to defense and foreign affairs. Military rule in Pakistan has exacerbated tensions between the central government dominated by Punjabis and the non-Punjabi provinces. The breakaway of Bangladesh in 1971 was simply the most dramatic manifestation of the problems created by extended periods of military authoritarianism. There have been continuing tensions between the center and the provinces, most notably in Balochistan.

If Benazir Bhutto (assassinated in 2007) were alive and in office today, how might things be different in Pakistan?

Well for one thing the PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) would not be in the shambles that it is after a dismal show of governance between 2008 and 2013. Benazir was unequivocal in her opposition to militancy and support for the rights of minorities and women. Her absence from the political scene has constricted the space for powerful voices of moderation to influence debates on the pressing issues confronting Pakistan.

Are you optimistic about the future of democracy in Pakistan?

Pakistan’s turbulent history reveals that democracy, however flawed, is a necessity rather than a matter of choice. Military governments too have needed to give themselves a civilian face in order to claim a semblance of legitimacy. Even as it is grappling with religious extremism, regional dissidence and a swarm of political and economic challenges, this is the moment when there are appear to be some prospects of Pakistan leaving the state of martial rule behind.

Military regimes in particular have used Pakistan’s geostrategic location at the cross hairs of competing dynamics connecting South Asia with the Middle East and Central Asia to claim a pivotal role in international affairs. But with the Cold War now over, the military’s ascendancy is more of a liability than an asset in negotiating global politics. How well a nuclearized Pakistan is able to make the necessary adjustments in civil-military relations will have large implications for its internal stability as well as global peace.

The 2013 elections marking the first ever constitutional transition from one elected civilian government to another is an important milestone in Pakistan’s history. Rejecting Taliban terror and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s edict declaring elections un-Islamic, the endorsement of democracy by the largest voter turnout in four decades was an encouraging sign. But the voters have also registered a stern warning: they want elected governments to urgently attend to the task of governance and will not hesitate to protest and vote them out if they falter and fail.

How can Pakistan shed its reputation as “a hub of extremism”?

(They can do this) by confronting the truths of history and changing the security driven narratives of national interest that have justified meddling in the affairs of Afghanistan and sustaining a proxy war in Kashmir to the grave detriment of country’s political stability.

A negotiated peace on the disputed border with Afghanistan and concrete steps to resolve the Kashmir conflict with India can go a long way toward helping Pakistan overcome its insecurity complex that has over the past three decades only created greater insecurity for its people.

A recent piece in The Economist noted that you believe America “should keep on engaging and funding nuclear-armed Pakistan.” Is it true? What should be America’s priorities in its engagement with Pakistan?

I did not propose that the United States should fund Pakistan and thereby perpetuate an untenable dependency relationship. What I suggested is the importance of continued engagement with a geo-strategically located nuclear state. Throughout the Cold War the United States provided more funding to military dictatorships in Pakistan than to civilian governments. In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, American support for Pakistan was based on understandings with General Pervez Musharraf’s military government. The United States needs to recalibrate its approach to Pakistan and focus on helping strengthen the democratic process to ensure eventual civilian control over the military.

What can Pakistan learn from Turkey and Egypt as it charts its course for the future?

Turkey’s success in establishing a functioning democracy after a history of military authoritarianism is a model for Pakistanis seeking an end to the recurrence of military interventions. Egypt’s experience since 2011 is a telling lesson for Pakistanis who are struggling to overcome their own history of military authoritarianism but are disillusioned with the performance of their elected governments. Ineffective governments can at least be voted out of office unlike military governments.

Joseph Richard Preville is Assistant Professor of English at Alfaisal University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Tikkun, The Jerusalem Post, Muscat Daily, Saudi Gazette, and Turkey Agenda. He is also a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary.

Julie Poucher Harbin is Editor of ISLAMiCommentary

ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

Mirrored from IslamiCommentary

Related video added by Juan Cole

Times Now: “Exclusive report from Peshawar, Pakistan”