First of all let me thank USIP for this tremendous opportunity to engage with the policy community in Washington.
I am here today because I believe that the American people want to hear about how a frontline country and its democratic vanguard, the Pakistan Peoples Party, has forged a path to possible futures of stability and peace in a tough neighborhood. I believe that these experiences could shine a light for others to avoid the strategic whirlwinds reaped by unintended consequences.
We all know that at the heart of today’s debates lie competing ideologies, some real and some entirely imagined as faith. We also all know that Islam, like all other great religions, teaches and preaches peace. At the same time we are also all aware of the brutal devastation that has been caused by religious fascists masquerading as Muslims. It is also clear that among many agendas, these extremists seek a return to the dark ages.
In terms of history, this is a relatively new threat to the world. Yet while this threat may be new to the world, it is not new to me. It has defined who I am today.
My mother Shaheed Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by religious fascists.
This was not the first time she was attacked.
In 1988, she was elected the first female Prime Minister of the Muslim world and it requires very little research to verify that OBL funded her political oppositions attempt to oust her government.
When she was re-elected PM for a second time, the man involved in the first attack on the twin towers, Ramzi Yusuf and Mullah Omar, tried to have her assassinated and failed.
Extremism in Pakistan was founded by opponents of my grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – as a cover to legitimize their coup, his assassination and their reign. Over the next 11 years, under the dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan became the first country to fall to a traumatic program of State-led extremism. The world myopically supported this dictator and indeed funded his policy of Islamization because of Pakistan’s strategic importance in the first Afghan War when my grandfather – Pakistan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister – was overthrown and assassinated.
The world ignored Benazir Bhutto in the 1980s when she warned that supplying arms, training, and support to the mujahadeen to fight the Soviets had created a Frankenstein that would come back to haunt us. Many declared these men freedom fighters and dubbed them the moral equivalent of George Washington.
After 9/11, again the international community ignored BB when she warned that we must not run with the hare and hunt with the hound. Supporting dictatorship on the one hand while preaching democracy with the other was counter-productive. We have enough history to testify that this kind of strategy only strengthens the terrorists.
In her final election campaign and her posthumously published book ‘Reconciliation’, BB laid out a road map to combat religious extremism through reconciliation, democracy, social justice, and a new Marshall Plan. However, distracted by the great recession and exhausted by nearly a decade of wars, the international community once again ignored her advice.
More than a decade after the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center, the world has paid a heavy price in blood and coin to counter this threat.
At some point, we need to inject a reality check into this narrative. From our vantage it is clear that, despite our heavy military and civilian sacrifices, it is heartbreaking to still see no light at the end of this tunnel. Can anyone, in all honesty, tell me where these long wars are being won? This is a question that often keeps me awake at night.
Objectively speaking, we’ve seen this threat grow from a small-scale guerrilla army who carried out a spectacular attack on US soil that’s grown to a global ideological threat. From the Taliban to Al Qaeda, to Boko Haram to ISIS, no matter what the world throws at them, like the legendary Hydra, every time one head is decapitated another two emerge.
Despite the audacity of their attacks, the heinous massacres, and the hundreds of thousands who’ve died in the wars they’ve ignited, it seems that many outside this room still don’t see them as a serious ideological threat. They are still by and large seen as a national security risk, an army of crack combatants who can be exterminated through kinetic means. Something must be catastrophically wrong if a decade after this battle began they have managed to push much of the Muslim world into a dangerous civil war and have continued to carry out meticulously executed terrorist attacks in the US and Europe.
Religious extremism is just one strain of a virus that is the greatest threat to modern civilization since the end of the Cold War. But religious extremism is not limited to the Islamic world. While Islamic extremism dominates the post- 9/11 narrative, other forms of religious extremism are equally dangerous.
Religious extremists murder doctors, women’s health care providers, and even school children here in the United States.
Religious extremists’ most potent weapon is fear. They spread fear through terrorism. They provoke us into unending wars. They scare us into compromising on our ideals, into surrendering our fundamental freedoms, and into diverting our limiting resources away from crucial welfare programs. They infect our societies with fear, hate, and violence. They weaponize faith, manipulate religion, and terrorize societies to extinguish hope.
Why did the Iraqi army take off their uniforms, abandon their American-supplied war machines, abandon their posts, abandon their people, and flee in the face of a disjointed army of religious fascists? It was because the much smaller, less well-equipped ISIS, or really Daesh, claimed to have God on their side. Therein lies the problem. We don’t see their murderous and depraved path to a regressive world as a legitimate long-term ideological threat. We underestimated their power and their capacity to regenerate, and now we have a problem the scale of which shocks us as they push through the meltdown of many states, advancing to our gates and into our living rooms. The problem is they don’t claim to be the ones offering utopia at the end of their blood-soaked tunnel. They claim that the Quran does, the Bible does, and the Torah does. The only one who can prove them wrong is God himself.
We must understand that this is a serious ideological threat to civilization as we know it, framed in a powerful quasi-religious narrative. This is more dangerous than the threat of communism or simple fascism. The foot soldiers of religious extremism have graduated from primitive to sophisticated warfare while their digitalized narrative is spreading their vile message faster and stronger.
The world is left reeling from tragedy to tragedy. How can we stop the path to a possible Armageddon?
Let me remind you what FDR said during the last Great Depression, after world war one and before world war two; “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
I firmly believe, that no matter where the head of this hydra emerges, be it Pakistan, Iraq, France, the UK or the USA, the best antidote to the poison of religious extremism is democracy. Democracy alone cannot challenge such dogma, but it is the only system that allows open societies the legal sanction and legitimacy to challenge this assault on liberty and civilization. Democracy is the greatest ideological force humankind has to offer and we must harness its full potential to vanquish this evil.
The truth is we can’t just challenge these turbo-armed cavemen on the battlefield.
They are challenging our way of life. They claim to provide solutions to emerging public discontent and argue that our sinful modern way of life is the cause, not the solution, to the world’s problems. Many of us completely ignore this challenge because we don’t believe or buy into their parallel universe. However, we cannot ignore the fact that a growing number of young Muslims from all over the world and even new converts to Islam are recruits to their vision.
What drives young Muslims from all over the world, from all walks of life, to enlist? Why are thousands of Muslims leaving free societies and joining ISIS? Why did young Muslims hijack planes and fly them into the Twin Towers? Why did young British Muslims murder their fellow citizens on 7/7? Why would young French and European Muslims massacre innocent civilians on their own soil? How could any mother allow her baby to be used as a bomb on October 18th 2007 in an attempt to assassinate Shaheed Benazir Bhutto? I have had to accept the reality that there are people who seemingly defy rationality, and they hail from all walks of life, varying nationalities, race, and gender. They are the same in that they have signed on to the same extremist message and are willing to kill and die for it. This is the real threat that has gone unaddressed to this day.
The international community must of course respond militarily to protect its citizens. However, we must also seriously engage in the ideological conflict as well. We must not only challenge extremism, we also have to challenge ourselves, we have to challenge our countries, we have to challenge our democracies. No matter where you are from, ask yourselves: is your democracy, is your country, really the best it can be? Because it is our own failure that is exploited by our opponents. It is time to take responsibility for where we potentially create the vacuum extremism needs to thrive.
Democracy promises the basic principles of: equality, dignity, justice, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and peace. So we have to ask the question: why then have our democracies been unable to deliver on all these promises?
Every country faces its own challenges. Some are more democratic than others, some are more equal than others, some are more just than others, and some are more peaceful than others. However, just because no democracy has yet delivered on all these promises, it does not mean democracy cannot deliver. What is important is the direction in which democracies evolve. We have to pursue reconciliation and unite despite our differences. We must adapt, evolve and further strengthen democracy. We have to establish a new social contract to guarantee the welfare of all peoples regardless of race, religion or nationality. Our minorities and women have to feel included and empowered or the democratic model simply doesn’t work.
We cannot kill our way out of this war. Yet if we believe that this alone is the solution it makes us no better than the extremists. I may not be able to convince the world but I have certainly made it my mission to try. We in Pakistan have made great strides in our counter terrorism policy since the days of dictator Musharraf. However, my party and I are increasingly concerned that if the current government continues on its path of inaction we are in danger of reversing many of the gains that we have made.
Progress has indeed been made. Democracy has delivered where dictatorship could not, or would not. On the counter-terrorism and military front the PPP-led government forged national consensus and launched the first successful military operation in South Waziristan. In September 2013, the federal and provincial governments launched the Karachi operation, and we’ve seen a significant drop in crime and violence in the mega city. Sombered by the horrific APS attacks in 2014, the Sharif government announced an end to appeasement, following which we all built a national consensus and launched a military operation in North Waziristan, so a few more F-16s couldn’t hurt! Regional and international counter terrorism experts had long said this was necessary if we were to see any substantial gains in the fight against extremism. We’ve seen a drastic decline in terrorist attacks nation wide as a result. The state is finally articulating that it sees no good or bad Taliban.
This is all serious significant progress. We are also crucially invested in a model of regional growth and connectivity from South to Central Asia, and that includes creating a just peace with India and Afghanistan, but the question to ask here is not a new one. Is our western neighbor going to be left to fend for itself again after years of war? And will Pakistan, already mired in other pressing challenges, have to fend off the violence that will inevitably spill over? Most Pakistanis ask leading questions about how our border will be stabilized and who will manage instability if no peace equations are formalized. Right now the roadmap to peace sounds good on paper but real progress is not evident.
Back home, there is still a lot that needs to be done and we must be careful not to repeat past mistakes and undermine the critical progress we have made.
The National Action Plan agreed to by all political parties as well as the military establishment is a comprehensive strategy on paper, but for the most part it is unfortunately not hitting the ground. We know all kinetic action has to be sequential, but action has to be taken in Punjab. Outside the warzone of North Waziristan we see no action against terrorism or extremism in the province despite it being the most severely impacted. Our largest province of Baluchistan needs political reconciliation. In my home province of Sindh, we started the Karachi operation and have seen a drastic drop in crime rates. While the slums of Lyari in particular have become more peaceful and networks of criminal gangs have been dismantled, it would be dishonest of me to claim that we have beaten extremism or terrorism. Sleeper cells and no-go areas are still a concern and I can’t think of any major religious terrorist who has been captured as a result of this operation.
In addition to this we are also in danger of undermining the consensus built to fight religious terrorism and extremism as powers granted to the federal government for this task are used beyond the given mandate. We cannot afford for our young counter terrorism operation to be made controversial or politicalized. Nor can we sustain a counter terrorism effort without a counter extremism effort. That is why it concerns me to see the government pursing a policy of political victimization against parties who have strong counter-extremism and terrorism polices. Bans for example against the leader of the secular MQM giving speeches, political cases against members of the ANP, MQM, and PPP – especially under the guise of antiterrorism laws – is not only wrong but dangerous and undermines this government’s legitimacy. It allows genuine terrorists to also claim persecution at the hands of the state. This must end. Powers granted to the government to tackle terrorism should not be used to silence political dissent. In fact, just a couple of days ago, members of our airline union were shot and killed in broad daylight by our LEAS while protesting the government’s plan. Counter terrorism forces have no business suppressing legitimate democratic opposition or the people’s right to protest.
Beyond the military component, the PPP-led government has made serious efforts to address genuine grievances against the state that the extremists exploited to their own advantage. We attempted to address the concerns of nationalists. We gave the people of the NWFP the name they desired, KPK, an act that honored their identity and heritage. The state officially apologized to the people of Baluchistan and implemented the Baluchistan economic package in the strongest political move to bring the province into the national fold. We strengthened democracy by diffusing power through the 18th amendment, empowering the parliament over individuals, devolving powers to provincial governments, passed women’s, minorities and human rights legislation, introduced the country’s first social safety net in the form of Benazir Income Support Program, and much more. We conducted free elections and presided over the first constitutional peaceful transfer of power in Pakistan.
All such steps serve to cement democracy, improve the structural workings of the state and undermine the extremist counter narrative. The NAP goes beyond the military component of our counter terrorism and counter extremism policy but unfortunately most of this has gone unimplemented. As a result we are in danger of losing serious gains, both operationally as well on the crucial hearts and minds equation.
In our provincial Sindh government, the PPP has passed curriculum reform laws and are in the process of registering madrassas – all to improve the education system that will inspire the mind of our next generation.
Democracy has to deliver. Social justice and more effective governance are crucial for the demand for democracy to sustain itself. Big-ticket policy issues are yet to be addressed: How are we going to address the growing income inequalities, lack of social mobility and our inept judicial system? What are we going to do about our massive youth bulge and growing unemployment? We have to put our youth to work because if we don’t, the extremists certainly will. The rural unemployment rate in Sindh is half that of Punjab. Both urban and rural unemployment is a serious issue that our policy tools don’t quite address. Desperate poverty in Pakistan makes the poor easy fodder for extremism. Our failure as a nation to address our education emergency, to provide the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter forces the poor to look to ill-equipped madrassas to meet their needs instead of the state.
The PPP has struggled for democracy and against religious extremism from our inception to the present day. My mother did that every day of her life until her assassination in 2007. We still believe in investing in a vibrant democracy to combat religious extremism and terrorism in Pakistan and across the world.
But we are not the only ones.
There are Palestinians, Syrians, Egyptians, Libyans and many, many others who have their own experiences to share. But in order to hear them we have to listen to the people fighting this menace, and not the religious extremists.
I know that some see OBL as the face of Pakistan, but in reality he wasn’t even Pakistani. The true faces of Pakistan are Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, Shaheed Salman Taseer, Shaheed Shahbaz Bhatti, the young Nobel-peace prizewinner, Malala Yousufzai, and the vast majority of us who would prefer to risk our lives to fight these religious extremists rather than bow before them. Similarly the true face of Iraq is not ISIS, the true face of Afghanistan is not the Taliban, just as the true face of the USA is not Timothy McVeigh or the Boston Bomber.
I know this challenge seems insurmountable but as a young Muslim Pakistani I am determined to address these issues, not just because I want to, but also, because I have to. I am determined to see my generation succeed where those before us have failed. I believe as my mother did, that we are bound to succeed because truth, justice and the forces of history are on our side. As she said, “We’ve come too far, we’ve sacrificed too much, to fail now”. I can say the very same.