Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar dismisses radical cleric's threat

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar
CBS News

NEW YORK On the day that thousands protested in Islamabad, led by vocal cleric Tahirul Qadri, and a roadside bomb killed more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers in North Waziristan, Pakistan's outspoken Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, was still able to smile in an interview with CBS News at the U.N. headquarters.

Khar, who will preside over the Open Debate of the Security Council on counterterrorism, said the Pakistani government, which had clearly been rattled by the large demonstration in Islamabad, turned off the ubiquitous cell phones in parts of the city as a security measure.

They were concerned the demonstrations would get out of hand. Qadri apparently hopes they will create a Pakistani version of Egypt's Tahrir Square. Cleric Qadri's supporters, who began in Lahore on a 400-mile march to revolutionize the Pakistani system, want a postponement of national elections, among other things.

The Foreign Minister smiled when asked about the cleric, saying: "The reason I smile is because this is a person who, until a few weeks back, was enjoying a comfortable life in Canada, oblivious to the many demands of the weakening of the political system that he now feels so heartedly and passionately for. And then he arrives on the Pakistani scene."

He is not eligible, she said, to contest the elections in Pakistan because he is a dual national, according to the Constitution.

It is the cleric's popularity and demands for a fundamental change that appears to receive Khar's scorn: "He comes in and creates demands, which are in some ways against the constitutional fabric of Pakistan. He wants a role for the judiciary and the military in the political disposition. That is preposterous. It can be called many words, which I will not like to use. You have to have a credibility or a legitimacy and make legitimate demands. We all know Pakistan has its challenges. I am aware as much as he is of the challenge that corruption presents. But what is the way, can you circumvent those challenges?"

The cleric is not all that is troubling Pakistan. In recent months, Pakistan has had more suicide attacks, now targeting Shiite Muslims. It is trying to calm tensions with India that have flared up over the Kashmir region. It is dealing with what might happen when U.S. and international forces leave Afghanistan. It is also responding to a growing number of protests against the U.S. drone attacks against militants.

What surprises the foreign minister are the divisions in the country that were not present before, between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

"Interestingly, Pakistan, unlike many other countries in the Muslim world, is a country where being Shia or Sunni does not define you. When I went to school, I did not know which girl in my school or which boy in my school was Shia or Sunni," Khar said. "In the workplace you typically do not know who is Shia and who is Sunni, so we are a country that is a melting pot of all ethnicities."

The continued U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan spark Khar's anger: "They have no legality, they are completely unlawful, and we also believe on top of everything else, they are counterproductive. Because you see, when drone strikes take place, you take the war away from a Pakistani war against terrorism to being a U.S. war on terrorism, which is enforced on Pakistan. And secondly, you give the ideological space for these people to dance around it and to ruin. There is now evidence - not collected by Pakistanis, but by British and Americans - that there is a fair degree of civilian casualties."

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.