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Defend Threatened Muslim Moderates: Save Husain Haqqani

Nina Shea

Husain Haqqani may soon be put on trial for his life in his native Pakistan. That country’s ambassador to the United States until last November, he now faces allegations of treason in the so-called “Memogate” affair, accused of instigating an unsigned memo to the U.S. government warning of a military-coup plot against Pakistan’s government an allegation he denies. Haqqani’s defense lawyer, the valiant human-rights advocate Asma Jahangir, has filed an appeal to the Supreme Court challenging due-process irregularities in a preliminary investigation against him, and, fearing assassination from vigilantes, the ambassador has sought safety in the prime minister’s home, where he is a virtual prisoner.

There is every reason to believe that the real reason Haqqani is being targeted is that he is a prominent moderate Muslim, one of the few remaining in Pakistan’s government. Farahnaz Ispahani, Haqqani’s wife and a member of Pakistan’s parliament, wrote in the Washington Post on January 10 that her husband’s case is part of a pattern: “The systematic elimination or marginalization of every intellectual and leader in Pakistan who has stood up to the institutionalization of a militarized Islamist state.” She explains, “Ever since the military dictator Mohammed Zia ul-Haq created the well-oiled machine of religious extremism, Pakistan’s progressive and liberal voices have faced allegations of treason and corruption.”

Ms. Ispahani fears that her husband will meet the fate of Punjab’s governor Salman Taseer and Pakistan’s minister of minorities Affairs Shehbaz Bhatti. A year ago this month, Taseer was murdered by a member of his security detail for protesting Pakistan’s blasphemy law and speaking up for Asia Bibi, an impoverished Christian mother of five who, denied her right to due process, has been condemned to death under that law. When the killer was taken into court, he was showered with rose petals by members of the reputedly liberal Pakistani bar association, and otherwise heralded as a hero by many others of his countrymen. A court later convicted the governor’s assassin, but in reprisal the judge himself was targeted for death by Muslim fanatics and forced into hiding. A few weeks after Taseer’s killing, Bhatti was gunned down outside his family’s home for his own considerable efforts to repeal the infamous blasphemy law and his lifelong advocacy of religious tolerance.

Both Bhatti and Taseer were Haqqani’s personal friends. They shared a vision of Pakistan as a religiously and culturally tolerant and pluralistic society. Last spring at the embassy in Washington, Haqqani, in an act of undeniable courage given the trend at home, held a memorial service for Bhatti, a Christian. At it, he implored, “It is time for us to stand up, courageously against intolerance, against discrimination and against extremism.”

Before his ambassadorship, Haqqani was my colleague at the Hudson Institute. When, after the 9/11 terror attacks, some would ask “where are the moderates,” he was among the first I would point to. With a background in traditional Islamic education, as well as in modern studies, he worked assiduously as a scholar and writer to expose the “well-oiled machine” of Islamic extremism referenced by his wife in her op-ed. As the co-editor of Hudson’s Current Trends in Islamic Ideology, he provided cogent analysis of extremist groups and their supporters, including those here in the United States. His articles “‘Weeding Out the Heretics’: Sectarianism in Pakistan,” “The Politicization of American Islam,” “India’s Islamist Groups,” “The Ideologies of South Asian Jihadi Groups,” and “Afghanistan’s Islamist Groups“ deserve careful reading today.

In Haqqani’s eulogy for the slain cabinet minister on minorities last year, he forewarned:

Those who would murder a Salman Taseer or a Shahbaz Bhatti deface my religion, my Prophet, my Quran and my Allah. Yet, there is an overpowering, uncomfortable and unconscionable silence from the great majority of Pakistanis who respect the law, respect the Holy Book, and respect other religions. This silence endangers the future of my nation, and to the extent the silence empowers extremists, it endangers the future of peace and the future of the civilized world.


This silence now endangers Haqqani himself. There are a number of sensitive security issues on the United State’s priority diplomatic agenda with Pakistan. As extremism threatens to engulf that country, one of them must be saving Husain Haqqani, a true believer in religious pluralism and tolerance. 

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