Pakistan's Woman Warrior

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey

Accused of blasphemy, Sherry Rehman fights back.

"Blasphemy." When you hear that word in America, 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 or around the capital's dinner tables, where Sherry Rehman imposes herself with such 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 the Hill and in the administration. She was sent to Washington in late 2011 to "put out fires," as she often says, after the Obama administration tracked 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 her, so stylish, urbane, and impeccably educated (Smith College, class of '85), religious extremism seems distant indeed. Yet allegations of blasphemy have now become, for Rehman, 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 the Prophet Muhammad 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 2011 when Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, criticized the blasphemy laws put on the books under a military dictator in the 1980s, one of his own bodyguards murdered him. A few weeks later, members of the Pakistani Taliban ambushed Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of the cabinet, and slaughtered him in a hail of gunfire just outside his mother's house. 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 friend and ally, President Asif Ali Zardari, as it heads into elections this spring. Last year the courts forced out the prime minister, and in January they briefly ordered the arrest of his successor. Rehman's predecessor as ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani, was accused of treason because of his close relations with U.S. officials before and after the Obama administration killed bin Laden. Haqqani, who vehemently denies the allegation, 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 very 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. …