This is what democracy looks like

Pakistan's vibrant diverse culture

A column in Pakistan Observer by Sajjad Shaukat calls on Pakistanis to “unite against the foreign enemies”. In case you don’t know who “the foreign enemies” are US, India, Afghanistan and Israel who “are in collusion as part of a plot to ‘destabilize’ Pakistan for their common strategic interests…while main aim remains to disintegrate the country”. This is an old conspiracy theory, and the author offers nothing new in the way of evidence to support the theory (there is none).

But the way the author uses this conspiracy theory is what I think is interesting. He uses the alleged threat of ‘foreign hand’ as a national unifier to overcome ethnic differences.

No doubt, since its inception, Pakistan has been facing ethnic, linguistic and communal problems but in order to unite against the foreign enemies, our national, provincial and regional leaders must stop manipulating these problems and disparities at the cost of federation, which have hindered the path of national unity.

In this context, a blind dedication to one’s own race, tribe and creed should not be allowed to create hatred in one group against the other. Unity against the external enemies require that formation of alliances and counter alliances, based upon the principle of hostility for the sake of hostility should also be abandoned, while our politicians and leaders must eliminate lack of national cohesion among various segments of society. Besides, most of our regional and national parties which are divided on sectarian and ethnic lines should also stop manipulating the ongoing phenomenon of terrorism not only against one another but also against the armed forces. Otherwise, this selfish attitude will further block the path of national unity.

Echoing the Asharite rejection of critical thinking in exchange for obedience and order, Sajjad Shaukat argues that the threat of disintegration “demands sacrifices of individual selfish interests from the citizen of every province including every religious and political organization”. He goes on to say that the masses are incapable of understanding events, and that the politicians are being manipulated by ‘foreign hand’. His solution? Everyone should defer to the military and ISI without question.

Drastic implications of the situation cannot be grasped by the general masses at large, who abruptly change their opinion without reason. Hence, they become easy prey to the internal exploiters, unintentionally benefiting the external conspirators who want to weaken Pakistan by creating a rift between our general masses led by politicians and the security forces. Apart from it, foreign agents misguide the disgruntled elements that national institutions are not made to develop the backward areas, and policies formulated at Islamabad are not congenial to other provinces except Punjab. To castigate the conspiracy of the external enemies against the integrity of the country, our political leaders must avoid manipulating any crisis not only against one another but also against the security forces and ISI whose image are deliberately being tarnished by the external plotters.

This is, essentially, a call for martial law.

But Sajjad’s column also reminded me of something else I read recently – an article by Omar Ali, an academic physician living in the US. Exploring the question of whether Pakistan is descending into a ‘failed state’, Omar finds that it’s not, and that fears of ethnic clashes leading to the state disintegrating are based in gross exaggerations.

First of all, it is very hard to break up a modern post-colonial state. It’s been done, but it is not easy and it is not the default setting. The modern world system is heavily invested in the integrity of nation states and while some states do fail in spite of that, this international consensus makes it difficult to get agreement on any rearrangement of borders. In most cases, distant powers as well as surrounding neighbors find it more convenient to find ways to compromise within existing borders. Even a spectacular failure, like the collapse of the Soviet empire, actually ends up validating already existing borders rather than creating entirely new ones. The supranational structure of the Soviet Union collapsed, but its component nations remained almost entirely within their existing borders. In this sense, Pakistan does not have 4 separate ethnically and culturally distinct units joined by weak supra-national bonds. Even an extremely unhappy component like Baluchistan is not uniformly Baloch. In fact, Balochis are probably no more than half the population of that province. Sindh contains large and very powerful Mohajir enclaves that do not easily make common cause with rural Sindh. More Pakhtoons live in Karachi than in the Pakhtoonkhwa capital of Peshawar. Economic and cultural links (especially the electronic media) unite more than they divide. If nothing else, cricket unites the nation. In addition, the reach of modern schooling and brainwashing is not to be underestimated. Even in far flung areas, many young people have grown up in a world where Pakistani nationalism is the default setting.

Economically, the country is always in dire straits, but agribusiness and textiles are powerful sectors with real potential. More advanced sectors can easily take off if law and order improves a little and irrational barriers with India are lowered a little bit. The nation state is not as weak as it sometimes appears to be.

Despite the doom and gloom headlines that we read every day, Pakistan is not heading towards ‘failed state’ status. That’s not to say there aren’t some bit problems, but things are getting better, even if it’s slower than we would like. And things are getting better as the democratic process takes root and the participants (politicians, justices, military, etc etc etc) figure out how to effectively operate in their new roles. We tried Sajjad Shaukat’s approach under Gen Ayub, Yahya Khan, Zia, Musharraf. The nation long-term effect of each of these regimes was negative. The mistakes of each of these rulers brought us to where we are today. Actually it was this approach to governing under Yahya Khan that did more damage to Pakistan’s unity than anything under democratic rule.

Rather than ignoring and suppressing ethnic, tribal, or religious diversity in Pakistan, we should be celebrating it. The way to secure Pakistan is through allowing every man, woman, and child a sense of belonging and national pride that recognizes and appreciates who they are as individuals also. This is what democracy looks like. It looks like Pakistan.

Dictatorship vs. Democracy

From Huffington Post, the following article by Aparna Pande provides an excellent examination of competing political perspectives. We have often made the argument that debates should focus on reason, and the following piece gives some important historical context to the struggle between the preference for rational thinking which can be quite messy and the preference for order which is tidier. The author is a Research Fellow at The Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.

Aparna PandeWhile discussing the current Middle East situation in a recent interview, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf asserted that “good dictatorship is better than bad democracy.” Mr Musharraf’s quote is reminiscent of the traditional Asharite/Al Ghazzali view that “a bad ruler is preferable to anarchy.”

During the early centuries of Islam there were two broad views on political theory and philosophy — the Asharite and the Mu’tazilite. The Mu’tazilites, influenced by Greek philosophy and thought, emphasized reason and rational thinking (ijtihad), whereas the Asharites were more traditional and asserted imitation (taqlid). With the need for complete control desired by monarchs it was the Asharites who eventually won the debate and gained political blessing. The main reason was that every political system needs legitimacy and the Asharite view of taqlid was more likely to approve of the existing system than the Mu’tazilite view of reason and questioning.

While these views and names are rarely mentioned today, their basic conflict still remains. Across the Greater Middle East, this view has been prevalent for decades that autocracy or dictatorship is preferable to the anarchy or chaos associated with democracy. The Saudi dynasty’s legitimacy derives from an alliance with the Wahhabi clergy where the latter have consistently overlooked the personal indiscretions of the ruling family on grounds of avoiding anarchy. Al Ghazzali, a prominent Islamic theologian of the 12th century, often stated the need to avoid fitna (strife) and anarchy.

All of Pakistan’s military rulers, from General Ayub through Yahya and Zia till Musharraf, have held similar views on the need for order and avoidance of anarchy under democracy. General Ayub Khan (1958-69) believed that the people of the subcontinent were not suited either by temperament or by experience to the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. General Ayub also believed that democracy was best suited to cold climates and not to the tropical climate of Pakistan. That the same conditions prevailed in India did not seem like an anachronism to the general. General Ayub attempted to impose his form of autocratic rule under a system of ‘Basic Democracy’ which excluded political parties and instead installed an indirectly elected presidential system. Ayub’s failure in the end lay in his inability to gain legitimacy and the prevalence and popularity of local political parties despite attempts to get rid of the latter.

General Zia ul Haq (1977-88) sought legitimacy in religion, for him Pakistan had been created in the name of Islam and the reason for the 1971 break up as well as any problems to date had been because his predecessors had moved away from Islam. The Islamization of Pakistani society, education, politics and law struck deep roots under Zia’s era. Zia was fearful of democracy because it would show the strength of parties like his nemesis Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). Zia repeatedly asserted that it was his rule that had prevented anarchy, corruption and further break up of Pakistan by its eternal enemy India, helped by Soviet Union, Israel and other allies.

General Musharraf believed that he was the messiah who saved Pakistan from the corrupt, inefficient and constantly bickering rule of politicians. Thus he ended anarchy and brought efficient rule under a dictatorship. Musharraf’s policy of ‘Enlightened Moderation’ was very similar to Ayub’s ‘Basic Democracy’ — an attempt to build legitimacy outside of the political system. Musharraf’s views have not changed, as evident from his memoirs and speeches given after he resigned as President in 2008. He still believes he is the messiah who will save Pakistan from its chaotic democracy. Musharraf’s recent statements are reminiscent of his predecessors not just in his condescending views of democracy but also in his worldview. Just recently in an interview Musharraf stated that Pakistan is faced with an existential threat — not from the Taliban and jihadi groups who are eating up Pakistan internally — but from the eternal enemy, India.

The view that the Pakistanis masses are illiterate and do not know what is right for them and given the choice would choose inefficient, corrupt and self-serving politicians is a view held deeply by the military-civilian establishment. From this it follows that the military and technocratic elite are by education and temperament best suited to guide and lead Pakistan and protect it from its external and internal enemies. The Pakistani army strongly believes it is the guardian of Pakistan’s territorial and ideological frontiers.

The notion that “good dictatorship is better than bad democracy” arises from the need to have order and predictability. However, for any multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual country like Pakistan, any attempt to impose one view will have long-term repercussions. As discussed in my book, Aparna Pande Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India, Pakistan’s founding fathers constructed an ideological identity for the country, which subsumed and denied the religio-ethno-linguistic differences. The various internal challenges facing Pakistan today are a blowback of this basic challenge of identity.

While order and conformity suit the people in power, they rarely ever benefit the masses. The irony of Musharraf’s statement seems to be lost on him — the only way Musharraf can return to power is if he contests elections under democracy!

Saving Karachi


In the spring of 1992, a confident young mother of two took her children to Karachi, at the invitation of friends from college who now resided there. One bright afternoon, she took her children out for a walk to explore the city. They were only a few blocks away from her friend’s home when the sight of a bus stop covered in fresh, dripping red blood dripping caused her to scream. She immediately ran into a shop, called her friend to come get her, and went back to Lahore, shaken.

The young woman in that story was my mother. She told me this story a few weeks ago, as we were discussing the sharp rise of killings in Karachi. One isolated incident like the one my mother experienced is bad enough; today’s Karachi sees violence on a daily basis. The figures of 5, 7, 10 dead in a day have gripped the city with fear. Over 1,000 people have been killed in 2010 alone. Such murders are now being called “target killings” though we never know the details of why the victims were chosen. At its heart, Karachi is an economic center as well as being a diverse city. Ethnic tensions and political strife are alleged to be the main causes of the recent spate of murders, with each death sparking another round of targets.

This has to stop. The PPP government has called for an end to the violence, and is working with the MQM to stabilize the city. But this has to be a conscious effort from all sides. We must investigate each crime, and root out the individuals behind this. As Saba Imtiaz points out in Foreign Policy¸the sale of illegal guns continues unabated and it must be stopped. All political parties, community leaders, and the general public must stand together against brutal killings of Pakistani citizens

As the saying goes, “An eye for an eye will turn the whole world blind.” It is time we all worked together, regardless of ethnic origin or political affiliation, and rallied for peace.

Politics of Privilege

Politics of Privilege

A number of things have happened lately that, when looked at all together, point to a pretty interesting phenomenon in popular politics. By popular politics, though, I don’t mean what most people support, but what is the popular perspective among those privileged enough to spend all day talking about politics.

Feisal Naqvi dismisses intellectuals as “the 50 people who talk to each other on Twitter”, but considers Mr Zohair Toru, despite all his faults, a political hero. But think about what Feisal wants us to celebrate in Zohair.

First, let us first celebrate the fact that well-meaning, English-medium burger babies have been so roused from the depths of their traditional apathy that they are actually taking to the streets.

From apathetic burger-babies to “fantastically ignorant” (Feisal’s words, not mine) street protesters. This is an improvement? Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate if our privileged and educated youth put their time and energy towards analysing economic policy or water conservation? Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate these English-medium burger-babies getting off the street and taking up the less glamourous work of actually governing? Yes, they may have to start at the bottom of the ladder and work their way up, but surely spending their days taking notes and running errands is a small sacrifice for someone who has been given so much in life. After all, revolutionaries love to suffer, right?

Second, I think it is worth celebrating the fact that our burger-babies do not feel that it is appropriate for the police to push around non-violent protesters.

Talk about setting the bar low. Congratulations privileged youth! You don’t like to be pushed around by police! What an accomplishment.

It’s also a little bit of a stretch to say that these burger-babies don’t approve of police violence. Actually they don’t approve of police violence against them. If a group of “beret-wearing poli-sci types” took to the streets to demand the repeal of the blasphemy laws, would Imran Khan’s ‘Fashionista Army’ be on the streets to defend them?

We should also be a bit troubled by the blatant anti-intellectualism coming from “a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court”. But, of course, this is actually a faux anti-intellectualism, anyway. Do you really think Feisal Naqvi, Zohair Toru, and Imran Khan think their servants are fit to govern the country? I’m sure they have not bothered to read Gramsci, either.

Really, though, this defense of Zohair Toru’s silliness is just the latest in a line of self-praise for meaningless and ultimately ineffective tantrums by the privileged class. It is the latest expression of the people who look down on the great unwashed masses and look up with envy to the super-wealthy who keep them from what they believe is their rightful inheritance.

When Shah Mahmood Qureshi left the cabinet, I talked to so many people who acted as if he were Jinnah come back to save the country. Everyone said he was starting a new political party (a claim SMQ himself has publicly denied) that would sweep to power and solve every problem in the nation.

I suspect that this attitude also this accounts for the appeal of political parties like PTI to so many in the middle class. I always laugh when people tell me that Imran Khan is an alternative. Imran Khan? The ego-maniac millionaire celebrity play boy is an alternative? The man with the huge private estate and the ex-wife back in London is an alternative? The pseudo-religious know-it-all is an alternative? An alternative to what?

Let’s be honest, shall we? PTI has been around for almost 15 years now, so it’s not exactly fresh and new. PTI first contested elections in 1997. They won 1.7% of the votes. In 2002, they actually did worse, only taking 0.8%. In 2008 they didn’t even bother to show up. Imran Khan has been peddling his brand of politics for nearly a decade and a half and guess what?

Nobody is buying it.

People like Feisal Naqvi try to dismiss everyone who doesn’t agree with them as elitists, but who is more elitist than a bunch of people who can’t convince anyone to vote for them and still insist that they represent the people? In this sense, Zohair Toru is a perfect representative of PTI, or even some new party like PPP (Ghairat-e-Qureshi).

People who are used to getting whatever they want – and easily so – who simply cannot understand why, in the words of Feisal Naqvi, “politics is inherently a dirty business”. That’s also why their answer is always to ask for some “man of impeccable character” or Khalifa to save the country. They don’t want to get their own hands dirty, or stand in the sun too long, or get pushed around by police. They want a national daddy to fix everything so they can get back to “concentrating on their hairstyles”.

There is no doubt that people are frustrated – and with good reason. But we need to ask whether we’re channeling our frustration into pragmatic solutions or whether we are acting out and throwing tantrums in the hopes that daddy will buy us a new Prado with better features than our old car. We need to ask whether the “Revolution” being peddled by these spoiled middle class kids isn’t the same thing as trashing the car so that daddy will HAVE TO buy them a new one.

And it’s not just Pakistan, so don’t give me that answer either. This same phenomenon is found in other democratic countries where the privileged middle class loses all sense of perspective and forgets that governing is harder than throwing tantrums until you get your way. In the US, Ralph Nader ran for President in 2000 which was an expression of the frustration of the American educated middle class. He only won 2.7% of the vote, but it was enough that ended up resulting in eight years of George W. Bush. They wrecked the car, but the replacement wasn’t what they bargained for.

In the UK, this lesson was learned the hard way by Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats party when they won 23% of the votes in 2010. Neither of the two largest parties in the UK – Labour and Tories – had a solid majority, so Nick Clegg found himself in the position of ‘king maker’ by forming a coalition government. That meant that rather than organizing street protests of “fantastically ignorant” youth, Mr Clegg and his Lib-Dems were suddenly required to fix the problems they had been complaining about for years.

Turns out it’s easier to stand in the sun and get pushed by police for a while before going to a fashionable party.

We Don’t Need To Import Other People’s Crazies

Robert Anderson is a professor at an American Community College, and was in the US Air Force 44 years ago. He claims that, while he was in Vietnam, he was ‘loaned’ to the CIA for covert work. He also says quite explicitly that he was “was not an official of the CIA”. Nevermind that small detail, his story is presented as if he were the head of CIA himself. Also, nevermind the fact that the only proof that Mr Robert Anderson was a covert agent of CIA in Vietnam was his own word.

I learned about Mr Robert Anderson from an interview published by Dr Awab’s blog. I read the interview and found myself laughing out loud. It was so silly I could not believe my eyes. It seemed to be published with no critical thinking perhaps because Dr Awab liked what he had to say. So what if he is a liar? Can you prove that he what he is saying isn’t true? Too many people seem to be willing to set aside all of their critical thinking and accept anything anyone tells us as long as it is what we want to hear.

What is funny is that Dr Awab also presents this interview  which was conducted by the blog Talkhaaba which has accused Pakistani bloggers of being “seized by the Ahmedis/athiests” and having the goal “to throw each and every true Muslim out of this state of Pakistan”. The blog even accuses Dr Awab specificially by name! This same blog has been a promoter of anti-American conspiracy theories for years now. So what should we expect from such a source?

Actually calling this an “interview” is a stretch of the imagination. What sort of interviewer asks a question like this:

Given the capability of Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan, some defense analysts assert that terrorist attacks in Pakistan can’t be carried out by Taliban; instead these are planned and perpetrated by CIA? In the light of your experience in Laos, can you endorse and substantiate this assertion?

Of course, Mr Robert Anderson answers that “It is possible but I don’t know any details”. Nevermind that this man admits he was never a CIA official and has never stepped one foot in Pakistan and admits that he doesn’t know any details. IT’S GOOD ENOUGH! An American who was in the military and claims to have been secretly loaned to the CIA almost half a century ago says it is possible!

Mr Robert Anderson also points people to another American named John Perkins. Mr Perkins wrote a famous book with the title, ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’. A friend loaned me a battered copy several years ago and told me that if I read this book I would learn the truth. I did read it, and it had a big effect on me. How could it not? An exciting story about secret plots to create chaos, control weak government, and take over the world through economic sabotage! Exciting stuff!

But once you set aside the drama and look at what Mr Perkins actually claims, there’s not much there. And what is there doesn’t make any sense. Don’t take my word for it, either. Sebastian Mallaby who is an expert in global economics termed Mr Perkins “a frothing conspiracy theorist, a vainglorious peddler of nonsense” and thoroughly debunked his ‘confessions’ back in 2006.

Also, this isn’t the only book that John Perkins has written. He has also written a book called ‘Shape Shifting’ that examines “the actual transformation of a human being into another living creature”. That’s right, this man who was supposedly a top secret agent of the US wrote a book about humans transforming themselves into plants and animals. Really.

This is what makes me so mad that my head hurts. Dr Awab and a lot of other people who buy the non sense being peddled by these conspiracy nuts are TOO SMART FOR THIS. But time after time I see people ignoring their basic common sense and believing any lunatic who says something that they want to hear – NO PROOFS REQUIRED!

I’m not asking you to believe one way or the other about America or Raymond Davis or drones or anything else. I’m just asking you to THINK FOR YOURSELF. Just because someone is an American, it doesn’t mean they are an authority on anything. People in American build careers from cheap conspiracy theories just like people do here. For every Zaid Hamid or Ahmed Quraishi, the Americans have their own guy just like him. We have plenty of our own crazies, we don’t need to import other people’s, too.