I was flipping channels when I came across the solemn image of Pakistan’s minster for Human Rights, Dr. Shireen Mazari, preparing to be being interviewed by Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hassan.
I did know I was about to see a public evisceration of an official narrative on live TV.
The journalist asked her how she can reconcile her beliefs with the Pakistani state’s silence about China’s ongoing violations of human rights. Recently, credible reports have come out across the world detailing how China is imprisoning populations of Muslims in “reeducation camps”, euphemisms for prisons designed to brainwash Chinese Muslims out of their faith. A New York Times story mentions that many people come back to find their relatives simply vanished, occasionally with a note that tells them they’ll be back after their “reeducation”. The threat that they may never come back at all is ever present.
Mazari remained calm, trying to pivot to the idea that until the government has credible evidence of wrongdoing, they weren’t prepared to go “shouting on the streets”. When pressed about whether the government has expressed their disapproval privately, she said that they are hearing China’s “point of view” – which is when the journalist really lost it.
Like most things in the world, I sense it comes down to a sense of branding. The trouble is that when one sells something that doesn’t exist, people eventually find out, and that’s partly why our argument for being the flag-bearers of human rights is both presumptuous and preposterous
I don’t envy Mazari her job at all. To defend our country’s record on human rights often means juggling all the obvious and often indefensible hypocrisies in our foreign and domestic policy. Like a Desi Kellyanne Conway, Mazari herself spent the better part of the last several months demanding the world listen to Pakistan’s evidence about the treatment of Muslims by Indian authorities in Kashmir. Why, the journalist asked in a deeply cathartic TV moment, should the world listen to Pakistan’s protests of the treatment of Kashmiri Muslims when it’s outrage is so demonstrably selective? Why care about Kashmir but not about Xinjiang? The obvious answer is that it is in our “interests” not to care about the latter. But this Mazari couldn’t say, so she smiled – even when he brought up Balochistan in light of the repeated accusations that the state is responsible for the enforced disappearances of thousands of people in over a decade of trying to quell a separatist movement.
“We have now prepared a bill against enforced disappearances,” Mazari said with po-faced resignation. “We have a commission which is focusing on checking out enforced disappearances […] anybody can complain, and if there is a problem, it will be dealt with, within the law of the land.”
This vagueness was countered with an exhaustive recounting of Pakistan’s own intolerance to its religious minorities, much of which revolves around the use of blasphemy-related legislation.
“Coming now to the non-Muslim citizens,” she said, “yes, there have been problems. But now the Supreme Court has set a very good precedent that false accusations on blasphemy charges will be punishable and those who do it will be punished.”
The fact is that fact has very little to do with our self image. It never has. As a people we rejoice at the ability to remonstrate with the world all the many injustices we think we suffer.
But interviews like this demonstrate how very tone deaf those remonstrations can come across as being – particularly faced with a fact sheet that betrays us. Mazari will never come out and say we have a deplorable human rights record, and that we like other countries routinely use human rights discourse as a convenient cover for pushing other issues.
Like most things in the world, I sense it comes down to a sense of branding. The trouble is that when one sells something that doesn’t exist, people eventually find out, and that’s partly why our argument for being the flag-bearers of human rights is both presumptuous and preposterous.
It’s an extension of why some people became incandescent with rage when they found out the body of the man who was responsible for the stabbing attacks on London Bridge will be brought back to Pakistan to be buried. That he lived here with his grandmother wasn’t the point: his burial here appeared to them an tacit acknowledgment of complicity. Perhaps they’re right, and the British are trying to take responsibility away from their own courts that let the man go. But it is also true that Pakistan is not without blame when it comes to terrorist groups, or, as Mazari put it, “Yes, in the past, we have backed some freedom fighters, and we had bad groups supporting those freedom fighters, that was a long time ago.”
It’s skirmishes like these – Mazari’s interview, the terrorist’s post-mortem expatriation, etc. – that highlight the faultlines of our delusions. And most of them are as deep as that interview was awkward.
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