He may be a polarizing figure to some, but to Karachi, urban Sindh, and Pakistan’s leftwing, he’s the immutable, impassioned voice charging against Pakistan’s slow surrender to terrorists. Altaf Hussain founded the All-Pakistan Mohajir Students Organization in 1978. This became the Mohajir Qaumi Movement in 1984 and then the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, one of Pakistan’s most powerful political parties, in 1997. (His party has been in power in either Islamabad or Karachi, or both, since 2002.) Facing attempts on his life, Hussain went into self-exile in London in December 1991, some six months after which the then government launched an operation against the MQM. Unlike other key political leaders, Hussain can speak about Islam and the Army with some authority: both his grandfathers were religious scholars and he served in the Army’s Baloch Regiment. We spoke with the 60-year-old over email recently about Pakistan’s politics, his legal challenges, and more. Excerpts:
The MQM has been an outspoken critic of the Taliban and their affiliates. And it has been punished for its clear position against terrorism through target killings and bombings. How far and wide have the militants penetrated Karachi and how can they be tackled?
My party, MQM, has led the opposition to terrorism and religious extremism. The Taliban have assassinated four elected MQM members in the last three years. Their latest victim was MQM’s Tahira Asif, a member of the National Assembly who was gunned down in Lahore on June 18. Since 2008, MQM has also consistently pointed out the perils of Talibanization in Karachi. When I first publically raised this issue, my political opponents ridiculed me. I was accused of fear-mongering and stoking ethnic tensions, but now everyone admits that my apprehensions were spot on.
Following military operations in the federally-administered tribal areas and Swat Valley, a large number of militants and internally-displaced persons moved to Karachi. Taliban militants have since made Karachi their key hideout and fund their terrorist activities through kidnapping-for-ransom, bank robberies, extortion and land-grabbing. A number of investigative reports have appeared in the local English-language print media in recent years revealing transfers of extensively large sums from banks located in Karachi’s heavily [ethnically] mixed neighborhoods. A recent report by a major U.S. newspaper acknowledged that the Taliban now control as much as a third of Karachi. This report merely confirms what I have been saying all along. There are large areas in Karachi where the Taliban have set up a parallel government, including courts that are dispensing their own brand of justice; where they have imposed their own version of Shariah and where people are routinely sentenced to various punishments according to the Taliban version of Shariah.
The Taliban attack on Karachi Airport in June did not come as a surprise to the people of Karachi who are witnessing a steady rise in the illegal stranglehold of the Pakistani Taliban over Karachi. Taliban militants have used Karachi’s large slums as their main refuge. The writ of the state is virtually nonexistent in these illegal enclaves. Most of the phone calls for extortion and incidents of kidnapping-for-ransom in Karachi originate from these areas. Taliban militants have also grabbed large swathes of land in Karachi’s outskirts, particularly around the city’s critical exit and entry points. The government must take control of these illegal slums. Eliminating hideouts of extremists in Karachi is essential to stop funding for terrorist activities countrywide as well as worldwide. There should also be a strict system of screening for IDPs as well as illegal immigrants.
As a liberal, progressive party, the MQM is viewed with suspicion by conservative and religious elements in Pakistan. Is this a reason that the MQM has not been able to become a truly national party? What factors do you attribute to its lack of success in vote-rich Punjab?
Your observation, sadly, is true to some extent. In the last 15 years or so the MQM has made every possible effort to become a truly national party, but the harder it tries, the more obstacles are put in its way. Despite all hurdles, the MQM has nonetheless made some important gains outside Sindh province and it now has two members in Azad Kashmir’s legislative assembly and one member in Gilgit-Baltistan’s. We believe that MQM is the only party in Pakistan whose progressive and liberal ideology truly matches that of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who made his vision for Pakistan absolutely clear in his historic address to Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly. In this address, Mr. Jinnah said without mincing words that Pakistan would be a country for people of all religions, faiths and sects and everyone would be allowed to practice their faith in Pakistan. The MQM wants to make Pakistan into what Mr. Jinnah wanted: a modern, liberal, progressive, neighbor-friendly, pluralistic, and tolerant country—not a theocratic, intolerant state.
Since the days of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, religious groups and rightwing forces were deliberately strengthened in Pakistan and used as a bulwark against the Soviets. Although the Soviet Union eventually fell apart, these rightwing forces continued to flourish but, like Frankenstein’s monster, they have now become a threat to their own masters, including Pakistan. These forces have their own brand of Islam where religious minorities—Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jews, as well as various Muslims sects—have no room to exist, and where women are not even entitled to basic education let alone equal rights.
I would also like to add here that besides its progressive and liberal policies, the MQM is prevented from playing its proper role in the national arena because it is the only political party whose leadership comes from a nonfeudal background. The MQM’s policy of empowering middle-, upper-middle and working-class people is also seen as a challenge to the hegemony of the landed elite and corrupt oligarchy in Pakistan who have been ruling the country since its inception.
You have vowed to assist the Armed Forces in the latest military operation, Zarb-e-Azb, held a rally for the military’s morale on July 6 in Karachi, and even offered the help of MQM workers. What kind of actionable, on-the-ground help can MQM provide?
MQM has long been saying that Pakistan and religious extremism cannot coexist. It is evident that there is no room in Pakistan under the Taliban’s twisted ideology of Islam for religious minorities and women’s rights. Mr. Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan as a modern, democratic and progressive country has been turned into a nightmare. To protect society in general and in order to salvage Pakistan’s reputation in the world, a comprehensive antiterrorism policy coupled with firm action to eliminate the Taliban and their allies is vital.
The MQM is supported by millions of people drawn from all sections of society. The party has offered its full and unconditional political and moral support for any action that the government and the Armed Forces undertake to curb terrorism and religious extremism. I believe this mass support will be critical in ensuring the success of any effective campaign against the Taliban and their allies. MQM’s charitable and welfare body, the Khidmat-e-Khalq Foundation, has a vast network of public-welfare activities in many parts of Pakistan. In the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake in Azad Kashmir, Islamabad, and parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, MQM dispatched tens of thousands of volunteers within a day to the affected areas for relief and rescue activities. Our volunteers set up field hospitals, dispensaries, blood banks, and tent cities. MQM’s field hospitals were even equipped with surgery capabilities and our volunteers performed such a remarkable service in the country’s far-flung areas that the Army, media, and even our political opponents admired our work.
More recently, during the devastating floods of 2010, MQM members played a crucial role in providing food and shelter to homeless people who sought shelter in Karachi and also all over rural Sindh. MQM can certainly play a similarly crucial role in providing relief and rescue activities where required. MQM has the capability to mobilize tens of thousands of dedicated volunteers on very short notice. Our volunteers, doctors, paramedics, and other skilled members can play a very meaningful role in assisting the government and our Armed Forces to deal with the current IDPs crisis as well as other challenges in this ongoing war on militancy.
Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has long been at odds with the MQM. It even accused the MQM of the killing of its senior officer in Karachi ahead of last year’s election and PTI supporters called Scotland Yard demanding action against you. How do you view the PTI and their performance in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa? What do you make of the PTI’s charges of rigging by the ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), and the protests it is organizing?
Yes, the PTI leadership and supporters launched an organized campaign in May 2013 to defame the MQM. Subsequent investigations by both Pakistani authorities and the Metropolitan Police in London into these allegations have vindicated our position that these allegations were politically motivated. PTI’s allegations concerning electoral rigging should be investigated. The problem is that this same election also brought the PTI to power in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and gave it a few seats in the Punjab. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party of Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman has been making the same complaints about the election in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. How can the Election Commission of Pakistan address PTI’s complaints while ignoring the JUIF’s? As far as the PTI government’s performance in the province is concerned, events since May last year have laid bare that it is much easier to sit on the fence and criticize those who are facing the music. Terrorism under the PTI government has not relented. In fact, the province is now witnessing a huge surge in incidents of extortion and kidnapping-for-ransom and a large number of the province’s traders are showing their frustration with the provincial administration’s failure to deal with the law and order situation. The PTI leadership’s soft approach toward the Taliban has disappointed the party’s educated and enlightened supporters.
According to the interior and defense ministers, there have been differences between the PMLN-led federal government and the Army. What is your understanding of these differences and how do these get resolved?
I have no direct knowledge of any such differences, so it is difficult to comment. However, it is evident that the federal government was very much in favor of dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban rather than direct action against the militants. The Army, on the other hand, seemed more inclined toward action against the Taliban. The media highlighted this apparent divide. Some recent statements by a few incumbent federal ministers also fueled speculation about the rift and some media reports have further reinforced the perception of division. If these reports are true, then it is nothing less than a tragedy as the country can hardly afford any delay in decisive action against religious militancy. My contention is that domestic terrorism, motivated by religious extremism in particular, is now the biggest threat that Pakistan faces. To me, it is a now-or-never situation for Pakistan. Inaction is not an option, as this threat has the potential to inflict irreparable damage to Pakistan’s very existence. Given the geopolitical importance of Pakistan, the stability and unity of the state are critical for Pakistan’s future and for the peace of the region and the wider world. The civil and military leadership must sit together to resolve any differences they may have and deal with the Taliban menace with one voice.
The West had long been demanding an operation in North Waziristan. That offensive finally started mid-June. Why was the operation delayed? Why was it ultimately necessary? And what will it lead too?
The MQM has always had a clear vision on the issue of terrorism. We have always considered the Taliban and extremist forces as a threat not only to the social fabric of Pakistan, but also to the region and the world. However, successive governments, rightwing political parties, and certain elements within the [security] establishment saw these forces as strategic assets which could somehow win us “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and also Kashmir. Recently, however, there has been a paradigm shift in the Army’s attitude and policies and the internal threat is now seen as greater than the external one. The Armed Forces now view the Taliban and its allies as an existential threat to Pakistan. The delay in launching the operation was inevitable since many powerful elements within the government, the opposition, and the media preferred dialogue over action. The PTI, which runs the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government, opposed action until the last moment; while the Jamaat-e-Islami, both JUI factions, and a few other religious parties remain opposed to what they call an “others’ war,” despite the killings of tens of thousands of Pakistani soldiers and civilians. The operation against the militants is in Pakistan’s vital interest and I am confident that our Armed Forces will deliver the required results.
The MQM has said that the PMLN government has not been supportive of your right to obtain a Pakistani passport. Is it true? Some media analysts have also asked aloud why you applied for a passport at this stage. Are you planning to one day return to Karachi? What do you most miss about the city?
I am a British citizen, but let’s not forget that I am also a Pakistani and have every right to apply for a Pakistani passport. British and Pakistani laws permit me to hold both citizenships at the same time. My recent application for a National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis was not my first application. I have applied for this in the past but my applications were turned down on each occasion without providing me any reason. I recently applied for the identity card in the presence of Pakistan’s former high commissioner to the U.K. I completed all legal requirements, but my application was held up for weeks. When I inquired about its status, no satisfactory answer was given. When my party’s legislators raised the issue in the National Assembly, they were given conflicting answers as to why I was not being issued the card. In the end, the government said that it had received the application but the concerned department had lost all digital records of my application. I was never told how this happened. I am now required to file a fresh application for which the Pakistani High Commission has promised its full cooperation. Pakistan is my homeland and Karachi is my hometown, where I was born and grew up. I have longed to return to Karachi, but as conditions were never conducive, my party members did not permit me to return to Pakistan. Naturally, I miss most the people who have supported me unreservedly, with steadfastness and great resolve, even though many have not had the opportunity to see me in person as I have been away for over two decades.
How do you rate Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s performance so far? Has he been able to fulfill electoral promises on the economy, peace, foreign policy, transparency, load shedding? What advice would you give him?
There seems to be a national consensus that Mr. Sharif’s government has failed to live up to the rhetoric that the PMLN generated in the run-up to the 2013 elections. Power outages have gone from bad to worse; industrial output is suffering due to the current energy crisis; and inflation and the unemployment rate are still very high. And yet many critical ministerial positions are still vacant.
The biggest challenge that the government has failed to tackle effectively is the menace of religious militancy. It is evident that Mr. Sharif’s government was keen to appease the militants by adopting a policy of negotiations with the very terrorists who are responsible for the killings of tens of thousands of Pakistani soldiers and civilians. These terrorists have caused immense losses to Pakistan in the last few years, yet the government has failed to recognize this challenge. It has also failed to come up with a comprehensive antiterrorism policy. Pakistan’s economic growth and prosperity are directly linked to the restoration of peace in the country and the curbing of militancy, yet the government completely ignores this. Mr. Sharif’s government is also badly neglecting the economic development of the country’s smaller provinces and focusing only on the development of a certain part of the Punjab. I applaud the government’s investment in the development of the Punjab, but developing one part of Pakistan at the cost of the rest of the country is a very serious mistake. If this practice continues unchecked, it will foster a serious sense of deprivation in the other provinces as well as in the tribal areas.
What is the status of your cases in the U.K., and are you satisfied with the justice system there?
First of all, I have immense respect for the British judicial system, but since investigations are ongoing, I am unable to comment further at this time. What I can say with confidence is that I have not broken any law anywhere in the world and I deny all the allegations against me. As a law-abiding British citizen, I have been extending my full cooperation to the authorities and will continue to do so.
There are media reports that your movement has been “restricted,” and that you are required to report to the police every month. Is this true?
As this is an ongoing legal matter, it is not appropriate to comment on it.
What is the most common misconception about the MQM and how have you been able to address it?
Since its inception, the MQM has been subjected to many allegations and misconceptions. To begin with, we were branded as an ethnic and separatist party. As part of the state-sponsored action against the party, which began in June 1992, the authorities alleged that the MQM wanted to create a separate state, “Jinnahpur.” We have never been a separatist party and we vehemently denied the allegation. In fact, our forefathers were among the founders of Pakistan. The authorities later withdrew the allegation. Because MQM’s program challenges the established order in Pakistan, the authorities have always been quick to make up allegations against us and continue to do so. We will not be deflected. What is important is the message of the MQM, which is to make Pakistan a modern, democratic, pluralistic, business-friendly and successful state where everyone is entitled to social justice, religious freedom and all other basic human rights. By promoting the election of educated and enlightened leaders to various parliaments, the MQM is weakening the grip of hereditary politicians in Pakistan’s politics. Through our determination and perseverance, we have been able to correct misconceptions and rebut false allegations. As a result, our message is finally reaching all Pakistanis. It is an uphill struggle, but we believe that we are doing the right thing and we will continue to do it.
How do you see the protests being organized by the PTI, Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri and the Muslim League of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain? Does Pakistan look ripe for a “revolution”?
One thing is certain: Pakistan is in desperate need of reforms at multiple levels. From its inception, the country has suffered under an archaic, mediaeval political system controlled by feudal lords, tribal chiefs, and privileged elite. Ordinary Pakistanis are getting poorer. Corrupt practices are rampant, with citizens deprived of basic amenities such as access to potable water, quality education, properly equipped hospitals, electricity, gas, and food—even in the cities. The electoral system is also corrupt and under the control of the ruling elite and cannot therefore be expected to deliver any meaningful change. Elections alone are not the sole component of democracy. Good governance is also an essential component, which has never been available to the people of Pakistan since the country’s inception. Those who have been excluded from power by this corrupt political system should be given the chance to improve life for ordinary Pakistanis and enable Pakistan to fulfill its true potential. To me, the word “revolution” is too revolutionary, but Pakistan is certainly ripe for reform.
From our July 5-12, 2014, issue.