Interview with Raza Ahmad Rumi

Ray Chaudhury

Raza Rumi is a Pakistani author, policy analyst
and a journalist. He has been affiliated with The Friday Times, Pakistan’s
foremost liberal weekly paper, as a writer and an editor for a decade. Raza is
also a commentator for several Pakistani, regional and international
publications. In Pakistan, he worked in the broadcast media as an analyst and
hosted talk shows.
In 2014, Raza moved to the United States after an
assassination attempt. Currently he is a scholar in residence at Ithaca
College, New York. He is a fellow at National Endowment for Democracy (USA),
the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs (USA) and Jinnah
Institute (Pakistan).

Raza continues to be the consulting editor for
weekly The Friday Times, and a senior fellow at the Jinnah Institute in
Islamabad. In addition, he has been a commentator and a current affairs talk
show host in Pakistan and is affiliated with the Express TV, Pakistan. He
contributes regularly to Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, New York Times, The
Diplomat, Fair Observer, CNN and Al Jazeera, Daily O, Scroll India, The Hindu
and Indian Express. He is the author of ‘Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a
Pakistani Traveller’ published by HarperCollins, India.
Here’s his interview by Antara Ray Chaudhury over
email where he spoke about his new book, state of civil liberties in South
Asia, religious fundamentalism, and reimagining the future of the region.
1. Your
new book ‘
The Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition’ looks at contemporary Pakistan from 2008
onwards which marked the transition from General Pervez Musharraf’s
authoritarian regime to a democratic order. How this transition has withstood
the challenges of radical Islamic forces, role of Army, weak civil society and
Imperialist interventions especially by US post 9/11.
The transition has been greatly affected by the
factors identified here. That is the underlying story of the essays in my book.
Military rule, internal and regional conflict and Islamist insurgencies have
had their toll on governance in Pakistan. The civilian government led by Asif
Ali Zardari inherited all these challenges and tried to grapple with them. The
real success of the civilian government was to devolve powers to the provinces
and reset Pakistan’s constitution debased by two military dictators. But there
were endemic issues of corruption, nepotism and inability to take the state
close to the people especially through local governments. Pakistan’s story in
Indian or global media however ignores the bigger picture. The truth is that
not only civilian government undertook important measures (e.g. revising the
visa regime with India among others) but it also completed its term and handed
over power to the incoming elected government. This happened for the first time
in Pakistan’s history thereby setting a new trend.
Furthermore, while the Army remains the most
powerful of institutions, it had to take a back seat during 2008-2013. Since
2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been undermined at times by the
opposition backed by sections of the military but the constitutional order has
continued. In 2014, despite the calls by Imran Khan and sections of Pakistani
media, the Army Chief did not contemplate a coup. The democratic process is
taking root in Pakistan the civilians have wrested some space within the power
matrix. This is the underreported story of Pakistan in the global discourse as
the world is not interested in Pakistani people but its military to deliver
certain objectives. Pakistan’s civil-military binary is becoming more
complicated now as the media, and the judiciary have emerged as power centers
in their own right.
You survived an assassination attempt in 2014 by extremist forces. Considering the
radical extremism and terrorism prevalent in Pakistan, how do you see the
prospects of reform, free speech in Pakistan & also about the possibility
of reforms ‘within Islam’ itself?
Constitutional rights such as free speech are
linked to democratic governance. Historically, Pakistani state run by civil and
military bureaucrats has used censorship for all sorts of purposes. The key
objective has been to muzzle dissent and critical reporting that would lead to
some measure of accountability of the elites. Over the years, this situation
has improved. Pakistan’s media industry has expanded manifold and contributed
to the downfall of Gen Musharraf in 2007. This has made the state insecure and
in recent years there has been reversal of some of the freedoms gained after
much struggle. Due to the security policies of Pakistani government, non state
militias have also grown in size and influence over the years and now they also
compete for control of media narratives along with the state. The journalists,
activists and intellectuals are in the crosshairs of these ongoing power
Freedom of expression is also a victim to state
sponsored Islamic identity that has been fostered as a national unity project
since the early years of Pakistan. During 1970s under Bhutto and later Gen
Zia’s regime (1977-1988) this process was intensified and key legal changes
were enacted. For instance ‘blasphemy’ was made punishable by death. The state
pampered the Mullah lobby to gain legitimacy for its unrepresentative rule, to
create ‘consent’ for the proxy warfare in Afghanistan etc. Consequently, the
situation has become more and more dangerous for those who want to challenge
orthodox mullahs, sectarian outfits and uphold the rights of religious
minorities. I am told that the assassination attempt that I faced was carried
out by extremists who found my TV commentaries dangerous and offensive (for
they had the potential to influence public opinion).
But this is only one side of the story. There are
many brave human rights defenders, journalists and political workers who are
resisting these historical trends and continue to defy curbs on free expression
and rights violations. That is what gives hope for the country’s future.
How do you assess the threat of ISIS- A lot is talked about its novel social
media tactics, as well as its radical break from nation-states as we
understand; is ISIS a continuing force of Islamic fundamentalism or a ‘break’
of sorts?
The Islamic State of ISIS ‘threat’ is neither new
nor as global as it is being made out to be. First of all it is directly
related to Western policies in Iraq and later Libya and Syria. Some of the
groups that have now coalesced into ISIS are the same, which were supported to
sustain ill-planned invasions and state building projects by Western countries.
Essentially, the states have disappeared in these countries and ISIS is but a
response to that vacuum. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the toxic
ideological content has always been there. The fringe in Islamic tradition has
always tried to adopt literalism, opposed rational interpretation of faith and
engaged in violence for dominance. It’s a centuries’ old struggle.
Yet, ISIS is neither prehistoric nor medieval
despite its rhetoric. It employs all the tools of modernity for instance
technology, social media, weaponry and capitalizes on the fissures within
Western societies such as the alienation of Muslims. At the same time, as Peter
Bergen in his new book has highlighted, its threat to America is highly exaggerated.
Similarly, Europe’s racist and right wing attitudes will only exacerbate the
Further to the above question, the
Left is often
accused of being apologetic towards Islamic terrorism in its desperate bid to
fight US & imperialism. On the other hand, Islamic fundamentalist forces
also treat the Left as prime enemy (from Afghanistan to Kurdistan). What should
then be primary contradiction in this problematic: imperialism or
identity-based fundamentalism.
This is a contentious debate and there are merits
on both the sides. However, the accusations against Left are rhetorical and
polemical to disguise what the military industrial complexes, aided by media
they finance, everywhere seek: a continuous cycle of war and profit seeking. At
the same time, we cannot ignore what centuries of stagnation within Muslim
societies. Ijethad or application of
reason to interpret scripture according to the needs of the day has not
happened for centuries. Colonial experience worsened this situation in many
parts of the world and the lethal mix today has resulted in this huge mess.
Sadly, the many movements within Islamic tradition are scattered, victim of
sectarian loyalties and suppressed across the ‘Muslim world’. Radicalization is
real and it cannot be overlooked or understood as a simplistic reaction to
Western ‘hegemony’.
For a stable South Asia; peace between neighbors, especially India &
Pakistan is very important. However, given the history of Indo-Pak relations,
how do you see this peace process moving forward?
I have been an advocate of Indo-Pak peace and
have participated in many Track II consultations. My work in media industry has
emphasized this. But I am not hopeful about this process gaining ground at
least in the short term. Pakistan’s elites have to redefine the country and its
national interest outside the imperative of ‘security threat’ posed by India.
The encouraging sign is that almost all the political parties in Pakistan want
normalization of relations with India. They are relatively weak at the moment
but with continued democratization and space civilians would gain in the
future, this could change. But the rise of religious nationalism in India makes
this process even more complicated as it becomes a mirror image of Pakistan’s
self-definition as a Muslim state protecting itself from ‘Hindu’ India. This
dangerous narrative may end up feeding hostilities on both sides. Yet history
tells us that ideas and boundaries within Indian subcontinent have always been
fluid and there is no reason why the present deadlock will remain permanent.
There are three imperatives here: first rescuing
the regional imagination from the bureaucratic clutches on both sides; second,
creating greater economic and cultural ties which are always transformative;
and civic movements around natural resource conservation and distribution. It
is appalling that we allow our armies to fight on a glacier in an era when the
world is getting ready to mitigate climate change. There will be a time when
dangers of climate change and global warming would push us towards regional
South Asia has been witnessing attacks and curtailment of the people-to-people
contact as well as civil liberties as well as rise of fundamentalism of all
stripes. What is the way out?
The curse of imagined nationalisms requires
‘othering’ of states and communities. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh all employ
the threat by the ‘other’ to justify the strong states and curtailment of civil
liberties. The global discourse on ‘terror’ has provided another justification
to the South Asian states to repress their people. India displays this in
Kashmir and other insurgency hit regions, Pakistan has been bombing FATA and
tightening security measures in Balochistan and Bangladesh has embarked upon
many waves of repressing political opposition. Another dangerous trend is the
rise of electronic media which is powerful in all three countries to fuel hate,
fear and jingoism. Indian TV channel voices, with exceptions, are no different
from Pakistan’s irresponsible TV gurus. Corporate media serves both the state
hegemon and narrow band of powerful elites in all countries.
One way out of this imbroglio is to reimagining
the future of this region – as an economic union on the lines of the European
Union and to devote all resources to fight poverty and deprivation of all
kinds. This may sound utopian but change has always been driven by ideas and
not the prescriptions of ‘realists’ in strategic communities. Fortunately,
independent media especially in the digital world, despite its uneven reach, is
already promoting alternative imaginations to war-obsessed and hate spewing mainstream
7. You are
an author who has published not only on Pakistan but about Delhi as well. We
would like to know more about your 2013 book, ‘Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a
Pakistani Traveller’ and its reception on both sides of the border.
The book was well received by the readers on both
the sides. Every other day, I get messages on social media from those who read.
Despite the limited access to English language this feedback is quite
heartening. Some in India however think that I have focused too much on the
Muslim past of Delhi and India and that in the extremist view is search for
Islamic supremacy. In Pakistan, the book landed me in a bit of trouble as
viewing the ‘enemy’ as part of your cultural tradition is not acceptable to the
hyper nationalists. They think that by adding ‘heart’ in the book’s title I am
a sell-out. I am tired of such invective and had I not suffered an
assassination attempt and witnessed the death of someone close to me, I would
have not bothered. But I do get worried at times as to how would I reiterate my
loyalty and patriotism if and when I go back to my country. This leads one to
the larger question: why are we pushed to prove our loyalty for the birthplace
when the very idea of ‘belonging’ is inherent to a relationship with a land?
Sufism, prime symbol of syncretic culture in South Asia has come to define a
strong cultural bond shared by Indian & Pakistani people. It is often said
that Sufi message of hybrid faith, and disregard for scriptural theocracy can
effectively counter the fundamentalism in South Asia especially in cultural
sphere and in shaping ‘common sense’. Do you see such a possibility? 
The utilitarianism of such an approach and use of
spirituality to achieve X or Y objectives are problematic to say the least. I
recently followed the efforts of BJP in India to promote Sufism as some sort of
‘alternative’ and acceptable version of Islam. Under Gen Musharraf, similar
state patronage was given to bolster the ‘war on terror’. Sufism is central to
Islamic idea of spirituality and more importantly it is the lived faith for a
majority of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. It binds us together as a
cultural tradition and certainly it has an immense value there. Similarly, the
Sufi ideas except the Barelvi views on ‘blasphemy’ are an antidote to the Saudi
inspired Wahabism. The real importance of this tradition is to popularize it.
The jihadists print their pamphlets and papers and have crowded markets in
Pakistan but there are fewer acceptable translations of Sufi texts in modern
idiom. I think that may just be a starting point and should be encouraged by
both states. Instead of doling out money to dynastic administrators of Sufi
dargahs, we should publish the works of Sufi Masters in the vernacular and
adopt them in popular culture. A loose parallel is Rumi’s massive popularity in
the West. Why can’t we do that the same for our local Sufi treasures?


The Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition is Raza Rumi’s latest book published by Harper
Collins India in May 2016.