By Ahmed Quraishi
In Brussels, Pakistani
senators have turned down the Belgian waffle, and
walked away with their pride.
Pakistan’s dignity is a question of bipartisan
consensus inside the country, especially when this
dignity and respect is challenged in a foreign land.
So it was heartening to see eight Pakistani senators
refuse to leave the airport in Brussels when Belgian
immigration authorities detained their colleague,
Senator Maulana Sami ul Haq, on 19 April on the
lame excuse that he is sympathetic to Taliban.
The Pakistani senate delegation included liberal
and secular-minded senators such Mr. Mushahid Hussein
Syed and Mr. S. M. Zafar. The former has written
a letter of protest to the Belgian government and
the latter, a prominent attorney, decided to take
up the legal aspects of the issue, especially the
delay and the inconvenience that Pakistani senators
faced at the hands of Belgian authorities.
To drive the point home, the Pakistani Foreign Office
has rightly summoned the Belgian and the European
Union envoys in Islamabad to protest the way Pakistani
senators were treated. The Belgian ambassador and
the EU’s envoy here, who is a Finnish diplomat
and The Netherlands ambassador, heard some exceptionally
strong words from the Foreign Office. According
to reports, the EU envoy tried to be “cute”
and change the subject but was not entertained by
the Pakistani official meeting him.
It is still not clear how what happened at Brussels
is in the interests of Europe and the European Parliament.
European legislators were supposed to open a dialogue
with the Pakistani senators. It was the right thing
to do, especially at a time when the difficult changes
and reforms taking place in Pakistan can positively
impact the stability in the nearby regions of South
and Central Asia and the Muslim world. Europe, home
to the world’s finest and oldest democracies,
was expected to support this process.
But a British Labor MP from West Midlands managed
to scuttle this important dialogue, and I sincerely
hope the fact they she was born in India has nothing
to do with it. Mrs. Neena Gill, who heads the European
Union assembly’s South Asia Inter-Parliamentary
Committee, spearheaded the effort to cancel a meeting
her committee was supposed to hold with the Pakistani
senators, all of them members of the Pakistani Senate’s
Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs. A similar
meeting with the EU assembly’s foreign affairs
committee was also cancelled.
As if that was not enough, Mrs. Gill tried to introduce
the ‘uncouth Pakistanis’ to civilization,
giving this interesting excuse for sabotaging the
Pak-European parliamentary dialogue: “The
European Parliament espouses the ideals of democracy,
equality and human rights. We cannot condone therefore
individuals who place themselves outside these parameters,
for they represent everything that we stand against.”
This statement smacks of arrogance, to say the least.
Anyone with even a passing understanding of the
vibrant Pakistani civil society would have known
that our senators did not need to hear a lecture
from Mrs. Gill on democracy. Most if not all of
the Pakistani senators visiting Europe represented
forward-looking opinions. But if someone was on
the lookout for any excuse to derail the Pak-European
dialogue, then certainly Senator Sami ul Haq was
as good an excuse as any.
That kind of pompous condescension needs to be confronted
and not dismissed as a simple misunderstanding.
If we are all trying to create a world where people
listen to and understand each other better then
the approach the lady British MP used would only
exacerbate misunderstandings. Ironically, Mrs. Gill
wants to use liberal ideals to deny Mr. Sami ul
Haq his right to be part of a democratic institution
and peacefully espouse his constituents’ views
and his own.
The only other logical alternative is to exclude
people like Mr. Sami from the political process
and stop them from running for elected assemblies.
The last time a country followed this recipe –
Algeria – the result was a decade-old civil
war that ended up strengthening the most extremist
elements within the religious parties.
Mrs. Gill’s concerns could be genuine and
free of malice. In this case, her views are even
more condemnable because they represent an extreme
that does not believe in dialogue with ideological
opponents. Mr. Sami ul Haq’s sympathies with
the Taliban and how much of that is reprehensible
is not the point here. Far more important is that
he’s not brandishing a weapon and his views
have a tough time competing for the hearts and minds
of Pakistanis, who are a vibrant and dynamic people
with diverse interests. Talking to him could have
given the likes of Mrs. Gill a better understanding
of public opinion dynamics in Pakistan.
The British parliament itself and the European Parliament
have scores of members who have sympathies for extreme
rightwing ideologies. But Mrs. Gill can’t
or won’t demand their expulsion. She, however,
would gladly jump on Pakistan’s case because
she apparently thinks Pakistan is some kind of a
punching bag. Well, we better not be.
It would be a good idea if our legislators seriously
consider the veteran journalist Mr. Nusrat Javed’s
excellent proposal that they boycott EU meetings
in Islamabad until an apology is given for the mistreatment
of Pakistani legislators. That would be one good
way of saying that we don’t like to be insulted.
(The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist)