Pakistan: Pakistan's moderates are beaten in public

International Herald Tribune
'Teach the bitch a lesson. Strip her in public." As one of the police officers told me, these were the orders issued by their bosses.
The police beat the woman with batons in the full glare of the news media, tore her shirt off and, though they failed to take off her baggy trousers, certainly tried their best.
The ritual public humiliation over, she and others - some bloodied - were dragged screaming and protesting to police vans and taken away to police stations.

This didn't happen to some unknown student or impoverished villager. This happened to Asma Jahangir, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion and head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the country's largest such nongovernmental group. The setting: a glitzy thoroughfare in Lahore's upmarket Gulberg neighborhood. The crime: attempting to organize a symbolic mixed-gender mini-marathon on May 14.

The stated aim of the marathon was to highlight violence against women and to promote "enlightened moderation" - a reference to President Pervez Musharraf's constant refrain describing the Pakistani military's ostensible shift from state-sponsored Islamist militancy and religious orthodoxy to something else (just what is not entirely clear).

Others arrested included Hina Jilani, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and 40 others, this writer included (an observer, not a runner - too many cigarettes). The police, faced with embarrassing media coverage, released us a few hours later.

The marathon was organized by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and affiliated nongovernmental organizations in the light of recent "marathon politics" in Pakistan. Until early April, it was government policy to encourage sporting events for women, so Punjab Province organized a series of marathons in which men and women could compete. The brief experiment ended abruptly on April 3, when 900 activists of the Islamist alliance, the Muttaheda Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA - which was effectively created as a serious political force by Musharraf and is backed by the military - attacked the participants of a race in the town of Gujranwala.

According to a government statement at the time, the MMA activists were armed with firearms, batons and Molotov cocktails. Yet within days the activists were released without charge and Musharraf's government had reversed its policy of allowing mixed-gender sporting activities in public.

The public beating of Pakistan's most high-profile human rights defenders highlights what most Pakistanis have known all along: "Enlightened moderation" is a hoax perpetrated by Musharraf for international consumption. What is known in Pakistan as the "mullah-military alliance" remains deeply rooted, and the Pakistani military and Musharraf continue to view "moderate" and "liberal" forces in politics and society as their principal adversaries.

The reason is simple: Democracy, human rights and meaningful civil liberties are anathema to a hypermilitarized state. Pakistan's voters consistently vote overwhelmingly for moderate, secular-oriented parties and reject religious extremists, so the military must rely on the most retrogressive elements in society to preserve its hold on power. Jahangir and others were beaten because they tried - in a symbolic but crucial way - to challenge the mullah-military alliance on the streets of Lahore.

In Washington and London, Musharraf presents himself as the face of enlightenment; in Pakistan there is another face. The Bush administration, Musharraf's chief backer, should realize that its friend in the war on terror came to power in a coup, continues to hold office without facing Pakistani voters, refuses to schedule a vote, and bans women from running in mixed-gender races. Those who stand for the values of human rights and democracy that the Bush administration calls universal are seen as the enemy within and are beaten on the streets.

Instead of allying himself with espousers of hate and intolerance, Musharraf should pursue a genuine path of enlightened moderation by telling the MMA and others that the days of treating women as second-class citizens are over. If human rights defenders can be beaten for running for their rights, will they have to run for their lives before the rest of the world and Musharraf's patrons wake up?

Ali Dayan Hasan covers Pakistan for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.
Originally published on 15 June 2005.