(ATP Note: On July 11, 2008, Samad Khurram broke his public silence on this episode in an op-ed published in The News. This post has been updated to include the op-ed in full, at the end of the post).
Islamabad, from where I write this, is abuzz with talk about Samad Khurram, the Pakistani student currently at Harvard University, who snubbed the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, by refusing to shake her hand or accept an award for Pakistani students from the Roots Academy – a top-notch private school – who are studying in leading U.S. universities.
Washington should also be paying close attention to what Samad Khurram is saying. Because what he is saying is reflective of the public mood in Paksitan much more than what they are hearing from the government – either from Gen. Musharraf or from Asif Ali Zardari and Co.
First, the relevant details of the event from Daily Times:
Pakistani student Samad Khurram refused to accept an award of academic excellence from United States Ambassador Anne Patterson on Wednesday, in protest against the US bombing in Mohmand Agency last week and its support of President Pervez Musharraf, who he said was an unconstitutional president and had destroyed Pakistan’s judicial institution. Patterson, who was due to present the award during a ceremony at the National Art Gallery, said she regretted the attacks, which were â€œa terrible misunderstandingâ€. Khurram returned peacefully and did not talk to reporters. The academic excellence award was being given to him for his admission to Harvard, a world distinction in thinking skills, a regional distinction in chemistry and 7 A grades in A level.
The reason Washington should be very very concerned about this incident is not just because it is a bureaucratic snub. It is because of who Samad Khurram is, who he represents and why such an action by someone like him is such a significant indicator of just how low U.S. support in Pakistan has become.
Before the story is spun out of control by those in the U.S. or the Paksitani media let us be clear on who Samad Khurram is not. He is not a religious zealot or a would-be supporter of any fanatic group. Indeed, he is quite the opposite. He is a liberal, probably secular, certainly modern, clearly democratic, apparently idealistic, and high-achievingly brilliant young man who dreams of a Pakistan molded in democratic, liberal, progressive and humanistic values. He is exactly the type of young man that the U.S. would and should be courting. They obviously are courting him, and it is obviously not working.
Samad Khurram is an active member of the Student Action Committee (SAC) which has been actively protesting with the lawyers movement for the restoration of the judiciary and removal of military rule from Pakistan. He was last in the news in Pakistan just a week ago when he along with other SAC protestors were beaten up by activists from the Islami-Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) – the student wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami – in a political scuffle on the judiciary issue in Lahore. He is a regular columnist for the Harvard University student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, where he has also written on Pakistan politics and why the U.S. should dump Gen. Musharraf.
The point that the U.S. needs to understand is that it never had a chance to influence the fanatics and bomb-throwers, but the consistent U.S. support for dictators like Gen. Pervez Musharraf and U.S. political manipulations including on the issues of a free judiciary and a continuing lack of respect for the lives of innocent Pakistanis living in the Northern Areas – where U.S. drones have been indiscriminately killing ordinary citizens and, most recently, Pakistani soldiers – has now made the U.S. policies as untenable amongst progressive and democratic forces.
Note with care what Samad Khurram said. He did not ask for Shariah, or claim support for the Taliban, or throw out a religious manifesto. He asked for the most basic of basic values that the U.S. proclaims for itself: dignity of innocent civilian life (regularly trampled by U.S. drones in teh Northern Areas), democracy (consistently disregarded through U.S. support for a military dictatorship), and respect for law (set aside by U.S. opposition to – or at least lack of support – for the ousted judiciary).
What he is saying is what so many Pakistanis have been saying. That the U.S. will not be respected if its actions defy its own words. It will certainly not be respected if it continues to kill innocent Pakistanis through its indiscriminate drones. Maybe its time that the U.S. begins to listen to the Pakistani people rather than to a few “leaders” who have become so very adept at telling the U.S. exactly what it wants to hear.
UPDATE: Samad Khurram’s Op-Ed in The News (July 11, 2008):
Standing up for your country
Continuous air strikes on Pakistani territory and repeated intrusions of Pakistani airspace by US-led coalition forces in stark violation of international norms and customs have troubled Pakistanis across the country. These are very similar to US interventions in the political sphere of our country, where elected leaders are constantly bombarded by the Negropontes and Bouchers of this world. A combination of US geopolitical interests in the region and incompetent leaders unable to say “no” to a global superpower, have seriously undermined Pakistan’s physical and political sovereignty.
It is disgraceful for Pakistanis to have their most important decisions being made in Washington and not Islamabad. Pakistanis, for instance, are vehemently opposed to the unconstitutional actions of Nov 3 by Pervez Musharraf and have rejected him and his King’s Party in the Feb 18 election. A recent poll by the International Republican Institute suggested that 81 percent of Pakistanis want Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry reinstated. Already the compromised political process is unable to function properly and the elected leaders are still unable to fulfil their pre-election promises. When the US constantly praises Musharraf, issues statements calling him a constitutional president, or when the Bouchers and Negropontes try and influence every political decision in this country, it becomes obvious to people just who is pulling the strings in their homeland.
Direct US actions have led to the deaths of many innocent Pakistanis, of the country’s constitution, of rule of law and of the political process in Pakistan.
A few days before an academic excellence award was to be awarded to me by Roots School International, about 30 Pakistanis, including 14 soldiers, were killed by US-led coalition air strikes in Mohmand Agency. Had this “accident” been committed by Pakistani forces we would have been eternally damned. The government remained muted, hardly any appropriate level of protest was lodged.
I had no objections to an award from my high school whose administration and teachers I have the utmost regard for â€“ or at least had until the Americans’ actions of June 18. However, the presence as chief guest of the American ambassador (who is basically the Bush administration’s representative in Pakistan) presented a rare opportunity to me for making known my concerns as a patriotic Pakistani. It was in the US, more specifically at Harvard, where I had learned to voice my dissent peacefully and non-violently, to stand up for what I believed in and to speak for those who could not have their voices heard, and I thought of putting some of these very values to good use.
After thinking of all the possibilities and consequences, I decided to attend to the ceremony and refuse the award politely in order to record my protest and make it known to the world that Pakistanis will not let their sovereignty be compromised. Osman Bhai, my ever trusted mentor and oracle, helped with his priceless advice and we worked out a 20-second speech. Any shorter might not have made an impact and a longer one may have resulted in security removing me from the hall.
And so I did just that.
After delivering the short speech–”I am refusing this award in protest of repeated US air strikes resulting in the deaths of many innocent Pakistanis and US tacit support for an unconstitutional president, who has destroyed Pakistan’s judiciary; my conscience will not forgive me for accepting this award”–I walked back to my seat, relieved that I had used my right to dissent, as guaranteed to me under the Constitution of Pakistan.
Due credit must also be given to Ms Patterson, who acknowledged my protest immediately and informed the audience how proud she was of students like myself. Her calm and political maturity at the day was admirable.
The same could not be said about the school administration. Many of their actions on that day were despicable and unfitting of those who educate the future of Pakistan. The administration of Roots should be thankful to my parents who have prevented me from disclosing what my brother and I had to go through–else the many articles on this protest would have also condemned many of their actions. Instead of being proud of a patriotic student from their school who spoke for the dignity of human life, rule of law and democracy, the school administration dared me to leave Harvard if I were so anti-American.
This led to many inaccurate news items claiming I had refused a Harvard scholarship. I contacted all the major newspapers to make clarifications on this misreporting but very few have made the appropriate corrections.
The scholarship I am receiving at Harvard University is funded through gifts of former alums, many of them Pakistanis such as the late Benazir Bhutto, and not by the Bush administration or the US military. Harvard itself has been very proactive in advocating for the rule of law for Pakistan, and recently it awarded the prestigious “Medal of Freedom” to the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The administration has been supportive of my activism and even permitted me to take a semester off so that I could be part of the historic lawyers’ movement. There are protests around the campus all the time: against the Iraq war, the Chinese crackdown in Tibet and for the restoration of Pakistan’s judiciary, among a host of other issues. Surprisingly, my old school administration has dared me to leave a university that stands for principles and is in no way connected to the US bombings of Pakistani territory or of the American government’s support for Musharraf!
Very well! The day the school’s students leave their institution in protest over Musharraf’s actions of Nov 3, I too shall leave Harvard. The frailty and naivete of such suggestions hardly deserves a rejoinder. Clearly, some people need to be explained the difference between private and public institutions.
I am really overwhelmed and thankful to the thousands of Pakistanis who have written to me and called me to show their support. The words of appreciation mean a lot to me and I am afraid I may not be able to reply to everyone. My sincerest gratitude also to all those who have offered scholarships to me in the event my scholarship is revoked. I don’t see that happening since such protests are very common in the US and never get the same hype that has been given to mine in Pakistan.
Furthermore, many people have asked me whether this was under the influence of any political person or party. I do not have any political affiliations and no one else influences my decisions. However, that being said, it would be wrong not to mention the commendable stance taken by Honourable Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the 60 other judges who stood up for principles and refused to sell their souls to the president. My inspiration comes from the lawyers who have been committed for the independence of the judiciary and rule of law and have given great role models for our generation to look up to. Without their principled struggle I do not think I could have taken this stand.
With this I would like to request an end to the media frenzy and not to contact me for future interviews and television appearances on this protest. I do believe I have had my voice heard adequately and more limelight on my person will overshadow other more important issues that require coverage, such as the restoration of Pakistan’s judiciary.