Blasphemy.” When you hear that word in the U.S., it conjures up visions of the Salem witch trials or, worse, the Middle Ages and the Inquisition. It is not a word that’s common in the think tanks of Washington, D.C., or around the capital’s dinner tables, where Sherry Rehman imposes herself with elegant authority as the ambassador of Pakistan.
She specializes in questions of national security and speaks clearly and confidently, defending her nuclear-armed government against its many critics on Capitol Hill and in the Obama administration. She was sent to Washington in late 2011 to “put out fires,” as she often says, after the U.S. administration tracked Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan and killed him there. She speaks out against American drone attacks that, she says, create more terrorists than they destroy. Blasphemy is just not part of the discourse. And when you look at the stylish, urbane, and impeccably educated Rehman, religious extremism seems distant indeed. Yet allegations of blasphemy have now become for her a matter of life and death.
Earlier this month the ambassador returned to Pakistan knowing only too well the risks she was taking in a country where everything you say can and will be used against you—or just used to kill you. The absurd notion that somehow she insulted Islam’s Prophet in a heated debate on a television talk show more than two years ago suddenly was given credence in January when Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered an investigation. Lower courts and the police had previously declined to do so.
As Rehman’s lawyers have made clear in their pleadings, by giving the slightest credibility to such charges, the Supreme Court should know full well it is passing a de facto death sentence. In late 2010 when Salmaan Taseer, governor of the Punjab, criticized the blasphemy laws, one of his own bodyguards murdered him just weeks later, on Jan. 4, 2011. Barely two months after that shocking assassination in Islamabad, the Pakistani Taliban ambushed minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of the federal cabinet, and slaughtered him in a hail of gunfire just outside his mother’s house, also in the Pakistani capital. As Rehman’s lawyers wrote to the court, “The outcome of the police investigation and eventual exoneration of [Rehman] may prove entirely meaningless”; the mere order to investigate will be “regarded by the extremists as proof of guilt.”
The ambassador herself is not making any statements on the case, and the atmosphere is so volatile that even many of her friends and supporters are reluctant to talk on the record. As one of her colleagues from the diplomatic corps suggests, the court’s action appears largely political: an effort by far-right religious and nationalist forces to discredit the government of Rehman’s Pakistan Peoples Party as it heads into elections on May 11. Last year the courts forced out the prime minister, and in January they ordered the arrest of his successor. Rehman’s predecessor as ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani, was convicted in absentia of treason because of his close relations with U.S. officials before and after the Obama administration killed bin Laden and because of his alleged involvement in the Memogate scandal of 2011. Haqqani, who vehemently denies the allegations, now lives in Boston, effectively exiled from his homeland. Some of the same political cynics and extremists who were at work in those other cases, says Rehman’s colleague, now “want to scare the crap out of her.”
“This is a way to intimidate all those who want to reach out to the world and have a vision of Pakistan as a democracy connected to the world—who disagree with the ideology imposed on the country by extremist leaders and by previous Pakistani military leaders,” says Haqqani.
But anyone in Pakistan should know by now that Rehman, 52, is hard to frighten, and such is her courage that when she is scared—as she admits she has been several times in her life—she doesn’t let that stop her from doing what she thinks is right. “Injustice is not something we need to show tolerance for,” she told Newsweek shortly after the murders of Taseer and Bhatti. “Extremism will have to be challenged now, especially when it takes a murderous turn. Pakistan must not be allowed to turn into a country where a person is killed for their beliefs. This is not who we are, either as citizens or Muslims.”
Shehrbano “Sherry” Rehman is in many ways the epitome of what Pakistan had hoped to be: sophisticated, upwardly mobile, proud, and capable as a player on the world scene. Rehman often describes herself as from “the elite,” but she is not from the old feudal aristocracy. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother was the first woman vice president of the State Bank of Pakistan. Rehman had to get a scholarship to go to Smith. Her early career was spent as a journalist, including a 10-year stint editing Herald newsmagazine. Meanwhile, her husband, Nadeem Hussain, rose in the world of finance to be a highflier at Citibank in Europe and the United States. When Rehman entered politics full time more than a decade ago, she supposedly told him, “I cannot keep moving with you like a trophy wife; my work is rooted in Pakistan.” He went back with her and founded a microfinance bank.
Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto had persuaded Rehman, personally, to enter the political fray. “She was a force of nature,” Rehman said in her Newsweek interview. “How could you ever say anything but yes to her?” In 2002 a quota of 60 seats was set aside for women in Pakistan’s Parliament, and the effect was dramatic. “It’s women who always tackle the difficult, head-on challenges—always the women,” she said.
More than 22 percent of the members of Pakistan’s recently dissolved National Assembly were women (compared with about 18 percent in the U.S. Congress). Pakistan has had a female head of state, speaker of Parliament, and foreign minister. The courage of a girl like Malala Yousafzai, the young teenager shot because of her fight for education, is no anomaly.
“Any time there has been any real change in Pakistan, women have been in the forefront,” says Nuchhi Currier, a Pakistani-born friend of Rehman’s who is president of the Woman’s National Democratic Club in Washington and has a keen sense of politics on both sides of the world. Pakistani women “are out on the street demonstrating, risking baton charges by the police and even incarceration,” says Currier. Rehman herself wound up in the hospital after a rally against Gen. Pervez Musharraf when he was still in power in 2007. That same year, she was caught in clashes that cost at least 42 lives. When Bhutto made a triumphant return, suicide bombers slaughtered 136 people during her homecoming procession, and Rehman witnessed the carnage firsthand. Bhutto lost her life in a suicide attack at a political rally in Rawalpindi on Dec. 27, 2007. When Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, became president, he made Rehman the country’s first woman information minister.
Yet even as she fought to build the country, Rehman was disturbed by how much it had changed. As she recently reminded an audience at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, “the toxic backwash” of the war next door in Afghanistan these last 30 years has flooded Pakistan with refugees, fostered radicalism, and nurtured a ferocious internal fight with Pakistan’s own Taliban that has displaced millions of citizens. When American and other NATO troops pull out of Afghanistan for good in 2014, said Rehman, that may end one chapter of American history, but Pakistan’s will go on.
For years the urban upper classes imagined they could somehow live with the ugly evolution of their country. But Rehman became painfully aware that her hometown of Karachi is a very different place for her daughter than it was for her growing up, even if others wanted to pretend that everything would somehow work out in the end.
“People in Pakistan have lived with uncertainty and a sense of dichotomy for so long that they become somewhat immune to looming threats,” says Currier. “It’s a little bit like London under threat from the IRA”: in the 1980s the Irish Republican Army blew up cars “fairly regularly on busy streets and at landmarks such as Harrods, but people went about their business.”
“I suspect Sherry also has a fatalistic attitude,” says Currier. “There is much to be done. You can surround yourself with the best minds, and then life in Pakistan is wonderful, for the elite anyway. Benazir Bhutto had also operated under a security threat for so long, she became indifferent to it. Bad things happen to other people, until you fall victim yourself.”
But for many progressives in Pakistan, the last four years have been like zero dark thirty, those hours after midnight when it seems that the dawn will never come. In 2009, a petty dispute over a glass of water in a farming village 30 miles outside Lahore started a chain of events that challenged to its core whatever complacency remained among the hopeful liberals of Pakistan’s middle and upper classes. A Christian woman named Aasia Noreen, the mother of five children, was picking berries with other villagers on a hot day in June. She offered them a glass of water, but they refused to touch it, saying they were Muslims and she, who was not, was unclean.
This was not only a religious matter. There is more than a hint of discrimination left over from the old caste system in which Christians often did work that Muslims found disgusting. And in that village, specifically, Noreen had a dispute with a powerful local leader, according to a report in The Guardian. They had fought over water, and she had claimed his buffalo were eating fodder that belonged to her goats. Noreen said later that the Muslim women often harassed her, trying to make her convert to Islam. So when a shouting match began between her and the other berry pickers, it quickly grew bitter.
Precisely what was said is not clear. One of the perverse aspects of blasphemy prosecutions is that nobody wants to speak the supposedly offensive words lest they be accused of blasphemy themselves. But Noreen was arrested, tried, and condemned to death. Governor Taseer learned about the case and decided to come to Noreen’s defense personally. President Zardari said he would back him, and one of his fellow politicians in the Pakistan Peoples Party—parliamentarian Sherry Rehman—stepped forward to demand changes to the blasphemy laws.
In October 2010, Rehman appeared on a television program to debate the issue and immediately came under attack from another panelist for being “so lenient and helpful toward blasphemers.” He asked, with the condescension of an overbearing man chastising an uppity woman, “Why not introduce bills about other matters?”
Rehman’s response was very careful, but very forceful. Although she does not cover her hair and wears stylish clothes, she is intimately familiar with the Quran, the teachings of Islam, and the many sayings attributed to Islam’s Prophet. “There are so many cases we can tell each other about,” said Rehman. “But to throw the hadith in our faces like this and say that one time the Prophet, peace be upon him, said this—the justice of the Prophet, peace be upon Him, was balanced and fair … We cannot commit injustice in the name of Islam.”
An ambitious businessman in the Punjab, watching this exchange, decided to bring charges against Rehman for blasphemy. At first the police and local courts weren’t interested, but he kept pushing. Meanwhile, religious firebrands started to focus their hatred on both Rehman and Taseer. A preacher in Karachi, her hometown, declared her “fit to be killed.” Crowds set her effigy on fire, and had she not lived in a well-protected compound, they might well have done the same to her.
Then Taseer was assassinated.
Pakistan’s liberals were shocked not only by the event, but by its aftermath. Lawyers, among others, made Taseer’s killer out to be a hero, showering him with rose petals as he arrived for an appearance in court. Many Pakistanis—or at least many Pakistanis in the media industry—appeared to agree. The murderer was the good guy; the voices of tolerance the villains.
On March 2, 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti was killed, and Rehman looked like she might be the obvious next target. Then two months later, American Special Operations Forces landed in bin Laden’s compound within sight of Pakistan’s premier military academy and killed the world’s most infamous terrorist.
The Pakistani military and much of the public were furious at this breach of sovereignty. Religious extremism, nationalism, and political cynicism coalesced around that anger, and, as Rehman had warned months earlier, “blasphemy and anti-Americanism” became “one deliberate conflation.” Repeated American drone attacks against Al Qaeda targets on Pakistani territory continued to fuel the outrage like a shot of adrenaline. Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., was forced to resign. Zardari, ignoring pressure from the military to appoint a general, named Rehman to replace him in hopes of a new beginning. But just three days later, American troops in Afghanistan accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at the border post of Salala. Islamabad cut off NATO’s supply lines. For months the Obama administration refused to apologize. Pakistanis refused to open their border to NATO. Congress threatened to cut off aid. Slowly, persistently, charmingly, Rehman worked to address what she called “the cognitive disconnect” between Islamabad and Washington. She aimed to show people in Washington the painful impact of 30 years of history with the Americans and Afghanistan; the alternating American obsession with and abandonment of the region; “the tangible ghost” that hovers over the negotiating table, she said, “the one of memory.”
Finally last July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a formal statement in which she said flatly, “We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military.” As troubled as the relationship has been, she said, echoing language often used by Rehman, “our countries should have a relationship that is enduring, strategic, and carefully defined.”
Zardari had turned to Sherry Rehman to “put out the fires” in Washington. That mission is almost accomplished. Whether she or anyone else can put out the fires in Pakistan remains to be seen.
From our April 5, 2013, issue.