Right Wing Wolves in Sheeps Clothing

Nadeem Paracha leaves aside his usual wit and satire today, but his column in Dawn is still a must-read for anyone that believes in Pakistani democracy. Paracha’s point, in short, is that the new right wing in Pakistani politics is much more sophisticated than the military dictatorships of the past. As part of this sophistication, the right wing parties are less likely to show their full beliefs, instead hiding their intentions behind ambiguous approaches to democracy, religion, and other areas where their controversial positions might alienate the masses.

The one area in which I might disagree somewhat with Nadeem is when he says, “much of the New Right in the country is rather ambiguous about its views on democracy.” While this is true for the more mainstream elements such as PML-N, there are other quite popular right wing voices such as Ahmed Quraishi who continue to openly call for an end to democracy in Pakistan through a military coup.

But Nadeem’s larger point is quite correct: The ‘New Right’, as he labels it, has become much more slick and clever in its marketing its backwards ideology. TV characters like Zaid Hamid and Ahmed Quraishi might be peddling the same neo-Maududi’ist that have been rejected since the birth of the nation. But now they do so with expensive western clothing and fancy hair-dos. It’s a classic ‘wolf in sheeps clothing’ approach to misleading people.

Boiling within the mix of the New Right politics and sociology in Pakistan are also characters operating as televangelists, ‘security analysts’ and TV journalists. In appearance and content they are consciously avoiding the persona of the greying guard of the old right, and attempting instead to sound and look a lot more contemporary.

Behind all their manufactured ‘cool’ though is the same attitude that has been responsible for all of Pakistan’s ills over the decades. They may be on Facebook, but they are anything but modern. Most disturbing, though, is that even the mainstream right wing groups are providing political validation for the blatantly anti-democratic and backwards ideas promoted by smaller fringe groups – in an extreme example, Taliban.

Whereas the top tier of the Pakistani New Right (PML-N and certain senior TV anchors) are merging lofty political notions such as constitutionalism and accountability with vigilante-type ‘judicial activism,’ the second tier, mainly made up of small rightist political parties and a new breed of TV preachers and personalities, are (for want of a better word) glamorising retro-Maududi’ist and Tableeghi notions of ‘Islamic society’ by encouraging a neo-conservative reading and practice of religious texts, history and ritualism.

More dangerously though, undaunted by the obvious failure of political Islam in the Muslim world, the country’s New Right is trying to rekindle it and that too at a time when various Islamic reformist movements the world over are consciously trying to detach Islam from the political moorings it was convolutedly given in the 20th century by men like Maududi and Syed Qutb. Moorings that may have played a major role in plunging many Muslim countries in the state of cultural stagnation and political turmoil they are in today.

Let us hope that Nadeem’s words do not go unheeded. We are at a moment in our history where we find ourselves at a crossroads. Backwards ideologies and anti-democratic politics dressed in fancy clothes is still backwards, and it is still anti-democratic. We have been down that path before, and sacrificed too much to get back to a place where we could rebuild our democratic, modern government. We can’t let them steal this opportunity now.

Pakistan Perceived Abroad

Specifically, fashion week was reported as being a political protest against Talibanization, and this was description of the events was met with great discomfort by many commentators. From major news media like the UK’s Guardian to bloggers the response was the same – why does everything in Pakistan have to relate to Taliban in the international media?

This is a great question to think about. Mary Bowers, who writes for UK newspaper The Times, provides an important look into the mindset of the outside world when they try to understand Pakistan, and the difficulties that they have in understanding our nation properly. Obviously, the greatest responsibility for properly understanding and reporting on another country falls to the international journalists. They are the ones whose words will be read by their fellow countrymen. But it is also important for us to understand how we are perceived abroad so that we can make sure to correct any misperceptions or misinformation from foreigners around us and in the media.

“Can we do anything in Pakistan without it being linked in some way to either appeasing the Taliban or kicking sand in their faces?” asked blogger XYZ on CafePyala.com, who also had a few choice words to say about my methods of journalism (which incidentally I would gladly tackle off-pitch if I know the name of the faceless cackler to whom I make my argument).

Mr or Ms XYZ was writing in reference to an article I wrote over the weekend for The Times entitled “Pakistan fashion week pushes back boundaries”. In it, I couched fashion week in terms of a defiant action in the face of radicalism and conservatism – a tack taken, I noticed, by most of the other international media present. Considering this, and saving the riposte for another time, I’d like to answer XYZ’s original and very pertinent question with an apologetic but hopeful ‘not yet.’

Last week I was interviewed by three South Asian television stations, two of them Pakistani. Their immediate questions were all the same: why couldn’t the West report on Pakistan without mentioning terror? Well, for precisely the same reason that for years, few articles about the United States failed to mention the blunders of George Dubya, or that a piece about Hollywood can rarely omit botox and colonic irrigation. Not everybody voted Republican (as it turned out in 2000, the electoral majority didn’t); for each surgically enhanced smile there is certainly a tramp living among the rats off Hollywood Boulevard.

Pakistan throws parties and puts on fashion shows; it wears jeans and listens to hip hop. It smokes joints and drinks beer and catches up on all the latest HBO box sets. You can get a good plate of sushi in Lahore and a decent macchiato in Karachi with relative ease. But it’s also impossible to enter that restaurant parking lot without having your bonnet and boot checked for devices. I wouldn’t be able to pick up a bottle of Johnnie Walker from an Islamabad supermarket on my way home,  or have hopped on a bus to the local shopping mall as a lone woman. Any visitor to the country couldn’t fail to notice the road blocks, the armed guards, and the number of automatic weapons on any stretch of pavement. The fact is, a journalist arriving at the opening of London Fashion Week would not have a car full of policemen dedicated to her protection.

The first point to be made, therefore, is that however normal it has become for residents, Pakistan still has a problem that foreign commentators find fascinating. Not least because in the UK we can in some ways sympathise. Going through police checks and repeatedly handing over IDs or having venues double searched for explosives reminded me of what it was like to grow up in the 1980s and early 1990s in the midst of IRA terror. We were comparitively blessed to escape such constant vigilance, but at the time we considered it humdrum. How immune we are even now to walking through infra-red body sensors before getting on a plane, or listening to announcements about unattended baggage on the London Underground. This wouldn’t have happened on September 10, 2001. Sometimes outside eyes can see what others cannot.

Secondly, and more cynically, the challenge for the journalist is to package a story in a way that will woo editors and educate and entertain readers, without patronising their sources or betraying journalists’ most unforgiving of masters: the truth.

Put bluntly, even if a Western journalist wanted to ignore the bombs and threats, Pakistan’s fashion week will not yet make the editorial schedule on its own merit, not least in the week where New York closes its catwalks and London’s open. The story for the UK commuters making their way through the drizzle on a grey February morning is not that Pakistan has favoured canary yellow taffeta over last season’s cornflower blue satin, but that it has a fashion industry at all. If that’s ignorance, then mea culpa.

I blush in acknowledgment of the phrase ‘parachute journalism’ and all that it (often correctly) implies, and the perils that come with a job that require reporters to become five-minute experts on everything.  But some – often the acronymed and unaccountable world of the blogosphere – like to suggest that journalists are at best automatons, “led up the garden path” by their sources,  as my critic suggested. At worst, they are guilty of that most overused of phrases, “lazy journalism.”

People talk about parachute journalists as if they’d be quite pleased if the rip cord broke on their descent. Some think that we dust ourselves off and dash as quickly as we can to the nearest air-conditioned hotel room with wifi connection and stay there until it’s all over. Our stories are apparently researched by a quick skim through the ‘culture’ section of the Lonely Planet guide. But we also pack a few books and local newspapers, or a list of useful contacts in with that parachute, we go to social gatherings and make phone calls, and talk to people whose geographical and cultural territory is their birthright.

And then we walk through that territory with the eyes, ears and prejuduces of a mediated resident citizen of our own country. I want to argue that this is a most necessary of evils.

Our readers’, editors’ and journalists’ prejudices in the UK are formed of a war that has cost us over 260 lives in Helmand, a spate of attempted bombings at London airports, stations and roads, and a successful attempt which killed 52 people and wounded over 700. Along with other coalition forces, we are fighting an unwinnable war against an enemy we don’t understand. Two colleagues working for UK media have been killed in the field in as many months. The idea of a fashion show in Pakistan is light relief – we find ourselves in a situation where we have what might be peversely termed ‘tragedy-fatigue’. Perhaps you will understand why radicalism is our frame of reference.

Ask any foreign correspondent who has been stationed for a significant period of time, and they will tell you that the most difficult thing about their job is remembering the worldview they’re writing for when all they have to hang on to is the voice of their editor on a crackling phone line. They are in the unenviable situation of having to assimilate into an alien culture and plunder its rich resources, whilst wrapping themselves in the mindset of that distant land called home once in front of a computer screen. They face conflicting pressures from their neighbours and from their mother ship. They tread a fine diplomatic line. This loneliness, what we might call the ‘journalist’s condition,’ is documented by writers from Graham Greene to Evelyn Waugh.

When I was working as a nascent freelancer in New York, I asked a good friend of mine – the stationed correspondent for a well-respected UK broadsheet – why the sassy, alternative pitches I’d been throwing back home were falling at the first hurdle. “Guns and diamonds,” he replied. If it wasn’t about either of those, no one would want to read it. Did my pitch include mafiosi? Police corruption? Scandal amongst the young, rich and beautiful? Because no one wanted to hear about housing projects being demolished or the Madison Avenue jewel thief who was found not guilty.

Pakistan can and will shake off the yoke of terror reporting. But it will take time, and more stories such as fashion week, to portray Pakistanis with what they deserve: a human face and a sense of humour. But shortcuts only bewilder readers: only the slow chipping away of decades of cemented perceptions can counter that greatest and most ignorant of faceless beasts: fear.

Hillary Clinton Seeks Increased Aid to Pakistan

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress on Wednesday that her department was seeking $3.2 billion for Pakistan during the next fiscal year, which begins on Oct 1.

She told a Senate appropriations committee that the money would be spent “to combat extremism, promote economic development, strengthen democratic institutions, and build a long-term relationship with the Pakistani people”.

This includes funding of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman initiative, which pledges $1.5 billion of non-military aid a year for the next five years.

“The budget we are presenting today is designed to protect America and Americans and to advance our interests and values,” she said.

The fiscal year 2011 request for the State Department and USAID totals $52.8 billion. That’s a $4.9 billion increase over 2010.

Of that increase, $3.6 billion will go to supporting US efforts in “frontline states” – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

The request also includes a 59 per cent increase in funding for Yemen to help counter the extremist threat and build institutions.

Other funding will grow by $1.3 billion, and that is a 2.7 per cent increase over the last budget.

“With that money we will address global challenges and strengthen partnerships,” Secretary Clinton said.

In Afghanistan, this past year, the US tripled the number of civilians on the ground, and this presence will grow by hundreds more with the $5 billion in this budget.

In Iraq, the US is winding down its military presence and establishing more civilian missions. The budget for Iraq includes $2.6 billion for this purpose.

“The defence budget for Iraq will be decreasing by about $16 billion – and that’s a powerful illustration of the return on civilian investment,” Clinton said.

Source: Dawn “US seeks $3.2bn for Pakistan, says Hillary”

Who is watching the watchers?

Now that the judiciary ‘crisis’ has settled down and the TV progamme directors are scrambling to invent find the next ‘crisis’ to increase their advertising sales, one question remains: If the judiciary is watching the government, who is watching the watchers?

Munir Attaullah asks some questions that have not been talked about in his column in today’s Daily Times.  These thoughts bear close consideration if any good is to come out of this latest episode of political drama.

We are all well aware of the story – at least as it has been presented in the popular media – so I will spare you a retelling. But let’s look at Munir’s take on the new power that the judiciary has seized for itself:

I am no spokesperson for the government, nor am I privy to its thinking. But I have a lot of sympathy for the view of Prime Minister Gilani, expressed publicly but always obliquely, of the need for institutions not to encroach upon the traditional territory of others. Discreet as the prime minister may be, no one should doubt where the finger is pointed. The problem is as follows: an independent SC is now an effective check on executive excess and its attempted constitutional transgressions. But what are the checks on possible constitutional transgressions by the SC?

Effectively, none. For, the SC is the final arbiter on the constitution. So its pronouncements and actions — by definition — can never be, no matter what, legally violative of the constitution.

If the Supreme Court can truly never be legally violative of the constitution, does the constitution even apply to it? Is the Supreme Court now, essentially, above the law? What are the responsiblities of such a body? Munir says,

Such unbridled power brings with it the awesome responsibility to always act sagaciously if the institution is to retain the respect and confidence of the whole nation. At all costs the SC must avoid becoming controversial, or even appearing to be so. It is not for nothing that a policy of judicial self-restraint is universally viewed as the key ingredient for the maintaining of such public confidence.

There is an honourable place for suo motu cognisance, and for the questioning — even the directing — of high functionaries of state, by the courts. But where, in doing so you are, on the face of it, stepping into what is normally the territory of others, the guiding principle should be ‘if in the slightest doubt, do not’.

But these are famous last words, I’m afraid. Sir John Dalberg-Acton famously wrote in 1887 that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Should we not be worried about giving the SC unbridled and unchecked power? How can anything good possibly come from this?

As I said, if the superior judiciary chooses to take upon itself to decide what the price of sugar or petroleum products should be, or whether bureaucratic appointments, promotions, or transfers by the prime minister are in order, or gives direct orders to officials rather than act through their political masters, or insist some officials be sacked, it is impossible by definition for anyone to say it is acting unconstitutionally. But a political government is not that foolish not to know what is really happening in such cases: under the guise of the popular slogan of ‘providing justice to the people’, it is high politics in the wider sense.

And so it is that the government, knowing it cannot fight its battle on the turf of legality, will be forced to fight it on the battlefield of politics. In particular, a policy of incrementally making the SC politicised and controversial is very much an option (and is not the SC by its actions unwittingly aiding in this endeavour?).

Now that the SC has put itself into the political fray, Mr. Munir sees a new fight on the horizon as the government tries to rein in the judiciary’s power and impose some limits on their ability to act above the law. The question, then, is whether or not we can avoid some new political drama by putting some controls on the Supreme Court’s power before it gets to that point. Now, I am not so bold as to present the answer here myself. Actually, this is something that we need to work out as a country.

So, what do you think?

What does not kill us, let it make us stronger

The past year of the Zardari government has been filled with controversy and tension. Every week there is another prediction that the government is breathing its last, and only a matter of days will go by before its death. But with each of these controversies, each of these ‘near-death experiences,’ the government comes out not only alive, but actually stronger.

A few months ago, the chattering classes were all predicting the downfall of the government because of some disagreements between the military and the executive over the Kerry-Lugar bill. In the end, the discussions between Gen. Kayani and President Zardari brought the two closer together.

Most recently, the judiciary did not see eye-to-eye with the executive about judiciary appointments. Again, the chattering classes began preparing kafan. Again, though, the government appears to have navigated the crisis without upending the ship. According to Malik Muhammad Ashraf, it appears again to have helped strengthen the bonds of our leaders.

The settlement of the judges’ appointment issue as a result of the initiative taken by the prime minister marks a new beginning in relations between the judiciary and the executive, the two most important institutions of the state. The sagacity and foresight shown by the prime minister in ironing out the differences in perception between the government and the Chief Justice (CJ) on the letter and spirit of Article 177 of the Constitution, is praiseworthy. The prime minister, by participating in the dinner hosted by CJ in the honour of Justice Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday and then inviting the CJ over to the Prime Minister’s House for consultations on the points of difference and ultimately accepting the position taken by the judiciary has set a very healthy tradition of showing unqualified respect to the judiciary, something very rare in the political history of Pakistan.

It also goes to the credit of the government that despite having a different legal perspective on the issue, it did not make it a question of prestige and thought it appropriate to resolve it in the best interests of the nation, as stated by the prime minister while speaking to the media after his meeting with the CJ. Pakistan and national interest must take precedence over everything else. The amicable resolution of this issue represents the triumph of democracy and success of the policy of reconciliation and consensus adopted as a political creed by the government. People can see for themselves how a dictator dealt with the judiciary and how a democratic and representative government has treated it.

A democratic government is new to much of Pakistan after living under the rule of various dictators for far too long. Even those leaders who are committed to democracy – and these are in almost all the political parties – are not well practiced in the arts of democratic dialogue and compromise. Actually, we still tend to revert to what we have gotten too used to – street politics and winner-take-all strategies that have failed us in the past.

These anti-government strategies are easily found in each of the controversies that we have seen. Though some anti-democratic voices like to pretend that these controversies are caused by the President and not whipped up hysteria by their own media organizations and political supporters, the truth that they are controversies being manufactured by right-wing groups does not escape the public who can see them for what they are.

The resolution of this issue is also a great snub to the elements who were trying to foment confrontation between the government and the judiciary and those who were hell-bent on discrediting and embarrassing the government by attaching all kinds of motives to it for having taken a different view from the judiciary. Their ongoing charade against the government and the portrayal of an alarmist view of the situation instead of taking difference of opinion as an essential ingredient of the democratic process did create a sense of despondency among the masses and dented their faith in the democratic process. But thanks to the political maturity exhibited by the government, the machinations of these elements have not succeeded and they have had to eat dust in the end. But as they say, cynics will remain cynics; these elements have still not given up on their agenda and the propensity to malign and discredit the government. The government initiative is being projected as a climbdown and giving in to the demands of the judiciary. They regrettably fail to see and appreciate the whole affair in its true perspective.

There is a predominant view within civil society that during the standoff between the judiciary and the government, some political outfits — notwithstanding their dismal and condemnable record in regards to respect for the judiciary — made deliberate moves to extract political mileage from the prevailing situation. By showing solidarity with the judiciary, they also tried to politicise the institution. A certain section of the media also overstepped its mark by indulging in politics and arrogating to itself the role of an adjudicator. It made concerted efforts to encourage the establishment to intervene. Nobody in his right mind can have a grudge against freedom of expression, but the proponents of this freedom have to realise that nowhere in the world the media enjoys unbridled freedom and licence to commit indiscretions in complete disregard of universally accepted professional and ethical norms. What was conveniently forgotten was that freedom of expression can best be safeguarded by the media itself, by showing a sense of social responsibility.

But could it be that these anti-democratic forces in some ironic way are actually helping the government? Consider this: each time the right-wing groups manufacture outrage over some controversy and try to drive a wedge between the President and military, or the President and the judiciary, or the President and the PM – the result is that these groups are brought closer together.

The reason is obvious. Gen. Kayani, President Zardari, PM Gilani, and CJ Iftikhar are all intelligent, reasonable men. Yes, they may have some disagreements on particulars. But each of them is dedicated to strengthening and preserving the democratic process and the democratic government. When they are thrown into some crisis, their reaction is not like some immature student political thug who lashes out against perceived enemies. No. These are statesman whose reaction is to work together to find some common ground where they can negotiate and come to a satisfactory conclusion for the good of the nation.

There is a famous saying that whatever does not kill us only makes us stronger. It seems that, despite the best efforts of anti-democracy forces, the democratic government continues to get stronger and learn from its mistakes and the controversies that are thrown at it. Depsite the naysayers in the chattering classes, any new government will face controversies. The fact that all of the controversies facing Pakistan’s government have been resolved without destroying the democratic government is a good sign for the future.