Sunday, November 26, 2006

Interview: Straight Talk with Khalid Hasan - US Correspondent of Pakistan's 'The Friday Times' Weekly and the 'Daily Times' Newspaper

One of Pakistan’s most acclaimed journalists gives his take on Musharraf & Mullahs, democracy & dictatorship, and on being a Pakistani in the US.

[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

Mr. Khalid Hasan is the US correspondent for the Lahore-based newspaper Daily Times and the weekly The Friday Times. His columns - Postcard USA in Daily Times, Private View in The Friday Times, are published on Sundays and Fridays respectively. Author of more than 40 books, including Rearview Mirror - four memoirs, The Return of the Onion, and The Umpire Strikes Back - People and Politics in Pakistan, Mr. Hasan lives in Washington DC.

Breaking the Ice

I’m glad to have veteran Pakistani journalist Khalid Hasan for an exclusive interview. Khalid sahib, welcome to Pakistan Paindabad. Since how long you have been stationed in US?

I have been living here since January 2000.

I understand you were born in Srinagar which is the capital of a part of Kashmir that is under the Indian control. So how come you end up in Pakistan?

Like hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the former State, we were among those who found refuge in Pakistan.

Since your birthplace remains in India, which Pakistani city do you consider your hometown?

I spent my growing years in Sialkot. It is in Punjab province, situated close to the Indian border.

In your website http://www.khalidhasan.net/, there are pictures of you with many noted figures of Pakistan. In fact, you served as press secretary to the then Pakistan Prime Minister Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto till he was overthrown in a coup. (Later executed by General Zia-ul-Haq.) You have seen Pakistani rulers like Ms. Benazir Bhutto, Mr. Nawaz Sharief, and General Pervez Musharraf from close quarters. Which leader did you find the most dynamic? Who among these was able to capture your imagination?

I think there can be no two opinions about it. No one that I have known had Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s charisma, his brilliance, and his sense of history. He was not without his faults but no matter what measure is used to judge him, he was a great man. He continues to remain a hero to countless millions nearly 30 years after his execution, the consequence of a trial that was neither fair nor legitimate.

Politics in Pakistan

Pakistan's present military ruler, is definitely more progressive than its last dictator. The current handpicked Prime Minister, Mr. Shaukat Aziz, is not as tainted as the democratically-elected former Prime Ministers. Pakistan's relations with India too have improved tremendously. Besides, no foreign power can dare to attack this nuclear-powered country. The economy is also spiraling up with unprecedented growth. And still, most of the Pakistani journalists, including you, continue to be critical or cynical. Why?

There may be an element of truth in all that you say, but it is not to be assumed that these things would not have happened with a civilian, elected government in office. Military rule, no matter in what form or for what reason, is wrong and unacceptable. The people of Pakistan reject it. General Musharraf remains in power, but not by leave of the people of Pakistan, I can assure you.

In one of your columns, you described certain Muslim women in the west, for insisting on wearing the hijab, as 'exhibitionist' and 'deluded'. You called them 'hooded bandits'.

I consider the abhorrent practice of burqas as more tribal than religious. In that column, I was referring to women in Europe, especially England, who have created yet another unnecessary controversy around Islam and Muslims by going around in Niqabs. The attempt, sometimes it seems to me, is to convey that “we Muslims cannot live with you Westerners". But they have no intention of moving back to their countries of origin.

Pakistan is ruled by a dictator but if you read its opinionated newspapers, watch its activist news channels, and listen to its people holding a wide variety of views, it appears to be the most democratic country in the Islamic world. How do you view this dichotomy?

It may be the most democratic country in the Muslim world, but that is not good enough. I want Pakistan to be known as a democratic country, not “democratic” in a comparative sense when pitched against other Muslim countries. Pakistan came into being on the basis of a democratic principle and through a constitutional struggle, so it is ironic that it should have remained under more or less chronic military rule.

President Musharraf has intended the 2007 general elections to be the ‘mother of all elections’. You are an experienced observer of Pakistan politics. Whom do we expect to see as Prime Minister by the end of 2007? Who is the most likely candidate in your opinion?

Frankly, half the time I do not know what General Musharraf means. From what has so far become apparent and, given the General’s own stellar record in holding democratic elections, the 2007 elections are going to be rigged. He is not holding them to be thrown out of power.

You are not a soothsayer but what is the probability that President Musharraf will remain at the helm till his last breath?

Things are getting difficult for him. The ruling alliance of sycophantic and time-serving politicians, diehard Mullahs, and a compliant army, with whose help he has been ruling Pakistan, is beginning to come apart at the seams. The most honourable course for him and the best thing for Pakistan would be that he step down and let a fair and free election with the full participation of all political parties and their leaders take place. That is his one chance of going down in history. However, it is unlikely he will take it.

Watching Pakistan

During my recent trip to Lahore, I visited the red-light district of Heera Mandi. Taking a midnight stroll in its streets was a strange experience. Many of the foreigners imagine the Islamic Republic of Pakistan as a regressive nation where people are supposed to be intolerant about singing, dancing and pleasures of the flesh. And yet, places like Heera Mandi survive. How is that possible?

Why is that not possible? That is the way Pakistan – and India too – is. Pakistan is not a country of long-bearded Mullahs. The people of Pakistan are like people everywhere. No attempt to impose obscurantist regimes on them and make them intolerant of such diversions and traditions that you observed in Lahore will succeed because it goes against their grain and their native good humour and love for the good life.

It has come as a relief that Hudood laws have been moderated. It will help the raped victims claim justice. Can you think of other laws you wish to be changed?

The entire body of such laws should have been scrapped long ago. What also needs to be scrapped is the 1974 constitutional amendment that declared the Ahmadis community as non-Muslim. No one has the right to pronounce a judgment on who is or isn’t a Muslim, or a Hindu or a Sikh for that matter.

2007 will be observed as ‘Visit Pakistan Year’. You have been very sarcastic about it. The title of one of your recent columns was titled 'Visit Pakistan in 2007’ — and get shot'! Were you being funny?

No, I was not being funny. We need to have better law and order and security than we have. We also have to make Pakistan fun to visit. Not everyone comes to look at mountains or lakes. Most tourists want to cool their heels, have a drink in the evening and visit a good night spot. We used to have it all well into the 1970s. Those facilities need to be brought back. Also Pakistan’s hotels are either five-star establishments or dumps. We need a lot of low-priced and clean hotels with good food and decent comfort. We ought to realize that the average tourist is not loaded with dollars. We should learn from the Indian experience and study how India has promoted its tourism.

Who, in your opinion, are the greatest Pakistanis since the year 1990?

Imran Khan won the Cricket World Cup for Pakistan in 1992 at Melbourne. So being a cricket fan, I would place him among the best men we have produced. He has also built the commendable cancer hospital in Lahore in the memory of his mother, Shaukat Khanum, who herself had died of cancer. A lot of poor people, who would otherwise not get treated, are treated there free of charge. I only wish Imran Khan was as successful at politics as he was at cricket and in building his hospital.

Pakistani Diaspora in US

There are frequent news reports of British citizens of Pakistani origin being suspected of plotting terrorist attacks. Some of the mosques there are accused of preaching extremist ideologies that foment terrorism. Fortunately, this lamentable impression of Pakistanis in the UK is not the fate of their counterparts in the US. How do you explain this difference?

Fortunately not, or at least not so far; but there is a more than fair sprinkling of the fire-breathing Mullah in this country too. These clerics are retrogressive in thinking, uneducated, ignorant but good at spreading confusion and pulling people back into the Middle Ages instead of propelling them forward. Muhammad Iqbal, Poet of the East, wrote: 'the religion of the Mullah is to spread strife'.

You have been working in America since 2000. What, according to you, are the major negative misconceptions held by Americans about Pakistan, impressions that you feel are quite unfair?

The problem is that Pakistanis do not mix. They live in their own cultural ghettos and thus remain uninvolved in the larger life of the community. There always can be a happy marriage between our own traditions, culture, way of life, food, music etc. and the norms, requirements and obligations of the societies in which we live.

Following 9/11, have you faced any serious discrimination in US because of your name or your passport?

Yes, “Traveling while Muslim” is now a fact of life. I myself have been subjected to special attention almost every time I have returned from abroad. I am sure that has to do with my name and my looks. Such discrimination is abhorrent and it is against what we knew as the American Way of Life. Hopefully, with time it will pass, but who knows?

There are many great things about America which, if adopted, can make Pakistan a still better place to live in. But what are those aspects about the West that you do not wish to be emulated by your country?

It has to be that American instinct for rank commercialism to the exclusion of all else.

Reading Pleasures

Did you read General Musharraf's memoir In the Line of Fire? What do you think of it?

It is a third-rate book, and it would have been better if he had not written it or had it ghost-written. It also contains many untruths - Kargil war with India for instance - and it makes some uncalled for and most unfair attacks on individuals, including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Let me put it this way: General Musharraf may have many talents, but writing is not one of them.

I can not resist sharing an interesting if irrelevant observation on this entire book hype. Mr. Musharraf’s memoir was first released in English, then in Hindi, and lastly in Urdu - Pakistan's national language. And the Urdu version was titled Sabse Pehle Pakistan (Pakistan First)! Wasn’t that ironic?

The entire book, and what preceded and followed it is best described as an embarrassment.

You are also an acclaimed translator and have translated many important works of the great Urdu writer Saadat Hassan Manto into English. Now, Mr. Manto was a writer who generously sprinkled sex in his short stories. But he is perhaps best known for articulating how religious passion could turn a decent man into a beast. In such context, what example this legendary writer holds for the young generation of the present-day Pakistan? What can they learn from his writings?

Manto was a humanist and that is what we need to learn from his writings.

Please suggest a few books to help us understand your country better?

All you have to do is seek your answer through 'Mr. Google'. I would only add that those interested in Pakistan should read Pakistani literature – fiction and poetry. But people only seem to read books on politics or recent history. That can at best provide a single dimension, if that.

Khalid sahib, thank-you for spending time with us.

My pleasure, Mayank. I wish you the best of luck with your commendable effort to enlarge friendship and understanding between our two countries: India and Pakistan.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

this is yet another propaganda by indians. that few pakistanis are cooloborating in this is no surprise.

sajjad-from-multan said...

Very nice interview. I'm not surprised that Khalid Hasan considers Bhutto the greatest leader. He was his press secretary. But it was Bhutto whose ambition to become Prime Minister was primarily responsible for breaking up Pakistan. But hasan is right in other issues. Military is not the answer for Pakistan's problems.

one patriotic pakistani said...

Pakistan may not be the best country but why Khalid Hasan who is a Pakistani journalist had to criticze his country in a indian web site. Why do he need to wash our dirty linen in enemy's door? One doubts if he has any strong feeling for his country.

Vishal said...

Mayank, this was a great interview. You have done it again. Khalid Hasan sounds like a sensible chap. If there were more Pakistanis like him.

Anonymous said...

The interviewer is a Indian. He is one of those secularists whose herat bleed for Pakistan. Why did not you ask any question about terrorists that Pakistan train in its camps? Please stop this appeasement. Or else go to Pakistan. Islamic terroprism is teh biggets threat to India and it can destroy our country.