Scuttling Pak-European Parliamentary Dialogue
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)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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