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Musharraf's Image Problem

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As the BCC's Karachi bureau chief Aamer Ahmed Khan noted in a tough, incisive article yesterday, the Pakistani goverment of General Musharraf faces a public relations nightmare over its detention and intimidation of international human rights hero Mukhtaran Bibi.

mukhtarmai.jpgHe is right. Musharraf's government, established by military coup over a democratically elected administration, has spent five long years attempting to achieve legitimacy on the international scene. Ironically, the attacks of 9/11 helped, because President Bush needed an ally with some muscle next-door to the al Quaeda camps in Afghanistan. Musharraf was at the right place at the right time, and has been embraced as an ally by the U.S. Administration. (For Americans who know little of the region's politics, this is essentially the dominant view of Pakistan). The firestorm over Mukhtar Mai's treatment by Pakistan - led by Nick Kristoff at the Times, the British media, and a determined cadre of bloggers - is a real and present threat to Musharraf's prestige in the liberal, western world.

The trouble for Pakistan is this: Musharraf agrees.

That is to say, his government views Mukhtaran Bibi as a public relations problem - her speaking tour of the United States, organized by the ANAA, could only spell trouble for Musharraf. And Musharraf needs support in the State Department, at the White House, and on Capitol Hill. The simple solution was to take Mukhtar Mai into detention, intimidate her into retracting her visa request, and hold her passport indefinately.

But it was also the simpleton's solution in a freely-wired world that can easily route around Musharraf's uniforms and tell Mukhtar Mai's story to anyone with a connection.

Yet the apologists continue their braying about patriotism and PR. Their work in the pro-Musharraf Pakistani media is obvious and really not worth quoting; generally it goes like this: Musharraf is "on Mukhtar Mai's side, this is a Pakistani problem, we are handling it." More troubling are the views of the prominent social critic Dr. Aslam Abdullah, a naturalized U.S. citizen who is editor of the Muslim Observer and director of the Islamic Society of Nevada, Las Vegas, as well as the director of the Muslim Electorates Council of America. Dr. Adbullah's work appears on sites like alt.muslim and Islamicity - sites that are inherently progressive because they allow many differing viewpoints of the modern Islamic world. In a nutshell, this is Dr. Abdullah's view of the case (from Islamicity):

This case exposes an aspect of Pakistan's social reality and must be condemned, but when such cases are selectively exploited by government officials and special interest groups for political purposes, it also exposes a hypocrisy that must also be taken to task.

Ah yes, I can see it now: from his perch in Vegas, Dr. Abdullah is going the "special interest group" route or the well-worn "outside agitators" route used for so long in the old segregationist South. Here's more:

It is not their concern for the victims of rape as their commitment to their own agenda that has brought them in the forefront. If they were serious about her case, they would have allowed the judicial process to take its full course before deciding any action specially in a situation when the highest executive authority of the country himself stood by her and assured the nation that justice shall be done.

By bringing her to the US or to the UN, they were not helping Mukhtaran but promoting their own agendas. What was done to her was inhumane and Un-Islamic? The feudal and tribal system that promotes this kind of action must be challenged because who knows how many Mukhtarans have been living in the agony of harm done to them. By exposing her to a society where there is a growing anti-Islamic environment the activists are primarily serving their agenda to humiliate those who stand for Islam or Pakistan.

What a load of dung. Sure, my agenda is to "humiliate those who stand for Islam or Pakistan." That's clearly Nick Kristoff's agenda. And it's the agenda of the 100 bloggers who have sounded the call in Mukhtaran Bibi's defense. Throw in the Guardian, the Independent, and the BBC - all of which have been all over the story. It's the ANAA's agenda, alright. And that of MercyCorps and Amnesty International. And it's surely a goal of the U.S. State Department, which lodged a needed but too-mild (in my view) protest of Ms. Mai's treatment by Pakistan.

Read this well Dr. Abdullah, and you agents of President Musharraf, and everyone else who would see Mukhtaran Bibi and her supporters as just another public relations problem in the cause of power and regional hegemony - as somehow disloyal to state and religion:

It is Mukhtaran Bibi who stands for Pakistan and for Islam. She is clearly a patriot and a Muslim.

UPDATE: The ANAA, which had sponsored Mukhtar Mai's trip, has organized two protest meetings this coming week in New York and in Washington, DC. I will try to attend the New York conference. Please turn out and pass this along. Here is the info:


Date: Wednesday, 22nd June 2005
Time: 10:30-12:30 PM
Location: 65th Street, Fifth Ave
New York, NY 10021
Directions by subway: Take the N/R train to Fifth Ave.
Open to Public. Please bring your friends.

2. WASHINGTON DC Protest Rally:

Date: Thursday, 23rd June 2005
3517 International Court, NW
Washington DC, 20008
Open to Public. Please bring your friends.

SUNDAY UPDATE: Is She Really Free?

Nicholas Kristoff today celebrates the return from government detention to her home of Mukhtaran Bibi, the international hero and human rights symbol from rural Pakistani. If anyone deserves a victory lap, it's Kristoff of the Times - who has brilliantly galvanized support worldwide for Ms. Mukhtaran, the victim of a so-called honor rape who turned her terrible plight into a celebrated cause for education and modernity and human rights.

MukhtarmaiphotoBut I suspect it's way too early to exchange high-fives, American style - and reading between the lines of Kristoff's NYT column today, looking at the tone, I think he agrees. It's the end of a small skirmish, the beginning of a longer war. Ms. Mukhtaran is back home, but she still cannot travel, her future is still not certain, and the President of her country refuses to answer questions. First, excerpts from Kristoff:

Pakistani officials had just freed Ms. Mukhtaran and returned her to her village. She was exhausted, scared, relieved, giddy and sometimes giggly - and also deeply thankful to all the Pakistanis and Americans who spoke up for her.

"I'm so thankful to everyone that they keep a woman like me in mind," she said fervently. Told that lots of people around the world think she's a hero, she laughed and responded: "God is great. If some people think I'm a hero, it's only because of all those people who give me support."

That is so well said. For those who don't know, Ms. Mukhtaran was herself illiterate. The very schools she opened with her settlement money from the criminal case - schools she also opened to the children of the perpetrators - are teaching Mukhtaran Bibi to read and to write.

Is there a better story of redemption, courage, and leadership in the world?

Kristoff continues his criticism of Musharraf (more in a moment on his latest moves) and you can clearly read in his column the limits he is facing in reporting on Ms. Mukhtaran's situation; they are close, he is protecting her. There are things he will not say. Read the tone. The details are slim.

Ms. Mukhtaran says she can't talk about what happened after the government kidnapped her. But this is what seems to have unfolded: In Islamabad, government officials ferociously berated her for being unpatriotic and warned that they could punish her family and friends. In particular, they threatened to have the father of a friend fired from his job.

Fittingly, the government is facing its own pressures. Government officials have denounced Pakistani aid groups for helping Ms. Mukhtaran, and Mr. Musharraf added that they were "as bad as the Islamic extremists." So now the aid groups are threatening to pull out of their partnership with the government.

Mr. Musharraf has helped in the war on terrorism and has managed Pakistan's economy well. But in my last column, I reluctantly concluded that he is "nuts," prompting a debate in Pakistan about whether this diagnosis was insolent or accurate. After Mr. Musharraf's latest remarks, I rest my case.

On Friday, Ms. Mukhtaran told me that one of the prime minister's aides had just called to offer to take her to the United States. It seems Mr. Musharraf wants to defuse the crisis by allowing Ms. Mukhtaran a tightly chaperoned tour of the U.S., controlled every step of her way.

"I said, 'No,' " she said. "I only want to go of my own free will."

Hats off to this incredible woman. President Musharraf may have ousted rivals and overthrown a civilian government, but he has now met his match - a peasant woman with a heart of gold and a will of steel.

Hats off indeed. Meanwhile, President Musharraf has been on a world tour, trying to bring support to his regime. In New Zealand, with the Mukhtaran story sweeping the blogosphere and the UK press (still silent in the U.S., Kristoff notwithstanding), Musharraf cancelled two interviews. He's afraid. He's defensive. The free press in the land of the Lord of the Rings was all over the dictator. This in the New Zealand Herald:

Privately, General Musharraf is enraged at how Ms Mai's case has brought infamy to Pakistan. The President even threatened to "slap" a reporter "in the face" for publishing details in an international magazine about Ms Mai's defiance. Officials are desperate to hush up the brutal justice of the tribal hinterlands in Punjab.

And this insanity from Stuff, the online NZ magazine:

General Musharraf said he had done much to improve women's rights, probably more than New Zealand's two women prime ministers, but changes needed to evolve rather than be imposed.

Finally, there was this statement, widely reported, from opposition Green party leadership  in New Zealand (you know, the kind of statement people can make in free, democratic countries):

"Musharraf is all but a dictator, and the Prime Minister will be betraying the Pakistani people if she doesn't speak out strongly against his shocking human rights record during his visit here," Green Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Keith Locke said.

"It is good for New Zealand to have closer relations with Pakistan, but they must be accompanied by plain speaking on human rights.

"The routine torture of political dissidents in Musharraf's prisons has been condemned around the world, including in US State Department reports. Pakistan's Human Rights Commission estimates 5000 cases of police torture a year, including beating, whipping the soles of feet, and administering electric shocks.

"Miss Clark says she will be discussing counter-terrorism with Mr Musharraf. We ask her not to accept excuses from the President that the 'war on terror' justifies the use of force against prisoners and their detention without trial. The truth is that many ordinary Pakistanis have been terrorised by the country's security forces."

Mr Musharraf had also failed to protect women's rights, and our Prime Minister should relay our disquiet, Mr Locke said.

"At least 1500 women are killed in Pakistan each year for 'dishonouring' their families. Rape victims are discouraged from laying a complaint. Women can even be charged for the crimes of family members."

The kicker today is this: nothing on the Sunday morning television shows, nothing on the nightly news, nothing on the big mainstream media sites (except for Kristoff). We've moved a nice-sized corner of the blogosphere this week folks, but when does the American media wake up from the Michael Jackson case, the Terry Schiavo case, and the Runaway Bride - and stand up for human rights and women around the world?

And where is President Bush?