Shoe Leather Politics

In the past political scientists often referred to the art of political campaigning as ‘shoe leather politics’ because candidates wore out the soles of their shoes walking the streets to speak with voters. Today, though, we have a new ‘shoe leather politics’ that is taking the place of ideas and constructive dialogue.

Back in August we saw a media circus erupt when a fool in London threw his shoe at President Zardari. Today we read that Pervez Musharraf received the same treatment over the past weekend, again in London.

According to TV channel reports, Musharraf was speaking about his rule when a man, followed by another, hurled shoes at him which did not hit him. The men were raising slogans in favour of Dr Aafia Siddiqi. The guards overpowered the two and took them out of the hall.

It should be noted that the man who threw his shoe at Musharraf is suspected of having links to al-Muhajirun, a banned Islamist group. When a shoe was thrown at Zardari during last August, it was during protests organized by another Islamist group, Hizb-ut Tahrir.

And this is where we see the real problem with these made for media theatrics: they are a poor excuse for not having any ideas. No amount of shoes will improve economic growth, eliminate militancy, or heal relations with our neighbors. Solutions for these issues can only be found in honest assessment of the facts and reasoned dialogue with ourselves and others. Groups like al-Muhajirun, Hizb-ut Tahrir, and Jamaat-ud Dawa don’t have any answers to the nation’s problems. This is why they attempt to substitute circus acts.

Whether you agree or disagree with Musharraf, Zardari, or anyone else, you should be able to explain yourself with words and ideas. Resorting to shoe throwing only demonstrates that you have nothing to add to the conversation.

Will The Political Establishment Wake Up?

This post by Agha Haider Raza was originally published at his blog on 12 January 2011.

Our country is at a crossroad.  Pakistan has come to a point where thousands believe they are righteous and have divine authority to carry out God’s acts on this earth.  The repugnant response by the supporters of Salman Taseer’s alleged killer has truly been mesmerizing.  Qadri’s fan base has distorted Islam to such an extent that it has become laughable to comprehend how they perceive themselves to be protecting the sanctity of Islam.  Are they protecting the very Islam, which teaches that murder of one human is the equivalent of killing mankind? Are they protecting the very Islam, which allows for questions over ambiguity? Are they protecting the very Islam that believes in modernity and equality for all? The unfortunate reality today is the religious parties although do not have the political capital; they have influence over our society.  These parties need to be exposed to the Pakistani public through education and the media.  Their dangerous interpretation of Islam needs to be questioned and highlighted.  Many in our country have been manipulated through religion and this should not be tolerated anymore.  This twisted ideology has taken too many innocent lives in our country.  Surely this madness needs to come to an end?

Mumtaz QadriMuch has been discussed, gossiped and publicized on Governor Salmaan Taseer’s inhumane assassination a week ago.  Above the chorus about the Governors personality, character and political viewpoint, what I find completely baffling is the absence of condemning cold-blooded murder.  I am not talking about the monotonous paragraph that has appeared on behalf of our government officials denouncing the murder, “we condemn the killing…will investigate”.  What we need from our ‘democratically elected’ leaders is, showcase to Pakistani’s around the country the draconian way of life many of our ‘religious scholars’ have adopted.

I find it highly unfortunate that the President of Pakistan and co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Asif Zardari, has not used stronger words to deplore the heinous act.  Furthermore, only two politicians, Imran Khan and Shujaat Hussain have linked Taseer’s murder to the growing extremism that many of the political establishment enjoys turning a blind eye towards.  Murder is not justified – under any circumstances.

Those who argue that Islam has no place for modernity are incorrect.  The Prophet (PBUH) was a 7th century Arab who married an older businesswoman.  He broke with tradition.  The Prophet broke idols that were in the Kaa’ba.  He broke with tradition.  The Prophet stopped female infanticide during his time.  He broke with tradition.  Islam was introduced at a time of jahaliyat and it was Prophet Muhammad who brought about a social change, expanding the concept of modernity.  Why have we been estranged from the very foundation of Islam?

What is the purpose of believing in the Day of Judgment if we are judging people and deciding their fate in this world? Is it not blasphemous for Qadri to be carrying out God’s work? If Taseer was wrong in what he said or did, why was Qadri allowed to take away the Governor’s opportunity of repentance?  Is it not blasphemous of Qadri to kill a human being when (in Islam) only God is the decider of our destiny?

The clergy has always been a powerful institution throughout history.  One cannot deny the power and sway they maintain, but in a religion where we believe that God has the divine authority, I find it hard to believe how a moderate country like Pakistan has allowed the ‘right Ummah’ to become the ‘righteous Ummah’.

It also seems very hypocritical that we seem to merrily criticize any other religion on this earth.  We mock the Jews, pass judgment on the concept of the Holy Trinity and laugh at believers who worship their own deities.  And yet, when it comes to Islam, we don’t stand for any religious tolerance.  How does one expect others to respect our religion when we don’t return the favour?  What right do we have in condemning Aasia Bibi (who is a Christian) for blasphemy, when we are guilty of the same charge when it comes to her religion?  Have we forgotten what the white stripe represents on our national flag?

The rising bourgeoisie in Pakistan needs to be exposed to heinous crimes that are being committed at the beck and call of the religious right.  Such parties are entitled to voice their opinions and sentiment, but they are not allowed to instigate violence.  The religious party (JuI) has been active prior to partition (1947).  They have never been able to secure the Federal Government.  If Pakistan believed in the ideology the religious parties put forward, we would have been a very different country today.  It is in fact, the Pakistan Peoples Party, a grassroots, liberal, secular party that is not surprisingly, the largest political party as well.

The Establishment needs to wake up and smell the putrid air that has encompassed Pakistan.  Pakistan no longer believes in their concept of ‘strategic depth’, Pakistani’s don’t want any further deaths in Kashmir, Pakistani’s don’t want to fund madrassah’s that mass produce suicide bombers.  It is the very seed that was planted decades ago, which we reap today.  It is the very ideology that was preached during the 1980s, which convinced the alleged assassin Mumtaz Qadri to empty two magazines on Governor Taseer.

The blasphemy laws in Pakistan are no doubt a very sensitive issue.  But so was the Hudood Ordinance, which was rectified by Parliament.  Pakistan went through a very turbulent period under General Zia-ul-Haq.  Laws were incorporated that reeked of a very conservative and distorted form of Islam.  But as the Governor rightly said, these are ‘man-made laws, not God-made laws’.  They can and should be amended.  The Political Establishment needs to challenge and enlighten those parties, groups and individuals who believe in suicide bombings, murder and religious intolerance.

Governor Taseer was murdered for what he rightly believed in a law that is dangerous to a prosperous society.  This law has been interpreted to a point where a citizen believes it is lawful to murder another citizen.  The blasphemy laws have been interpreted in a manner, where a citizen believes he does not need to respect the law enforcement agencies, the judicial courts or the legislative authority of Parliament.  Max Weber famously articulated that a state solely possesses a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.  When the power of violence shifts from the state to the people, we also see a shift from a state to anarchy.

Maybe this is what President Zardari meant when he awkwardly stated, Mumtaz Qadri threatened democratic institutions.  The only logical explanation would be that if the blasphemy laws can be interpreted in a manner that threatens institutions, would it not be appropriate to repeal or amend such a law?

Learning Lessons, Moving On

From the very first, the controversy begun by news reports that the government was secretly planning to withdraw the reinstatement of judges was a bit ridiculous. At this point, though, the non-story has become simply a waste of everyone’s time. Now that Prime Minister Gilani has publicly and nationally addressed the controversy and assured that the government has no intention of sacking the judges, it’s time to take our lessons and move on.

From the very beginning, the story was a bit silly. Whatever you think about Zardari’s political mistakes, it’s hard to imagine that he would do something so obviously self-destructive as sacking the Supreme Court. If the PPP thinks they are getting attacked now, the result of sacking the judiciary would be nuclear annihilation in comparison.

There are some important lessons to take as we move on from this fiasco, though, and Dawn does a good job of pointing them out:

There are, however, clear lessons to be drawn from the latest near-upheaval in the country, if such incidents are to be avoided. First of all, the media regulators, industry-run and public, need to conduct a thorough inquiry into the events leading up to certain news channels airing the de-notification claim. The results of the inquiries should be made public, not just to ascertain what happened that fateful evening, but to prevent recurrences. The media — which now appears able to wield political power of its own — must open itself up to fair and proper scrutiny.

Next, the superior judiciary must reflect on behaviour unbecoming for an institution which is supposed to be cloaked in an air of calm and dispassion. Flip through news channels day or night and one is likely to find some outrageous news or the other that is soon either denied officially or quietly taken off the airwaves. Anything is possible in Pakistan, but some things are less likely than others. A judiciary which even a military dictator could not sack is unlikely to be undone by a weak political government saddled with fractious coalition partners and surrounded by opponents. Politics does not happen in a vacuum.

Finally, the PPP-led government. Its bona fides would not be so casually suspected if it were serious about governance and developed a reputation for smart but fair play. The party may feel aggrieved, but that is part of the reason a media rumour can instantaneously turn into political ‘fact’ in the minds of many.

This is good advice to all the players involved. We’re still suffering from the psychological scars of the past, but we must work together to move forward. Rather than treating everyone with suspicion and jumping immediately to wild accusations, let’s inject a bit of civility into the political discourse, shall we?

Interview with Asif Ali Zardari

President Asif Zardari

In an interview with Muhammad Badar Alam in the monthly Herald, President Zardari talked about the floods in the country, the international response, on the role of military in the Pakistan government, the next elections, disaster management in the country, on the role of military in Pakistan and rumours surrounding the current government.

Q. Do you think there is a credibility gap between the government, the people and the international community?

A. This question has been asked of us before. Democracy is young, needless to say. That’s obvious. If you see the money the Unites States is providing through Kerry-Lugar aid law, it is three times what [General (retd) Pervez] Musharraf got. The Reconstruction Opportunity Zones were never on the table when Musharraf was in power. If you see new market access, it was never even given, despite Pakistan being the most allied ally of the West, even when he [Musharraf] was in government. The amount of money that has poured in since the flood happened is also unprecedented. When Ban Ki Moon [the United Nations Secretary-General] came over, he said that in the 65 years of United Nations history, he had never confronted such a disaster as the flooding in Pakistan. If this is what CNN, Fox News, Express TV and Dawn News had highlighted on the first day of the floods, then the message would have gone through. The Kashmir [earthquake] death toll was a 100,000 which was unparalleled in the history of Pakistan. So that hit harder and it had a reaction. I am not at all disappointed in the world’s reaction; I am quite encouraged by it. What I am hurt about and feel concerned about is the reaction of our own people when we said, “we are going to tax the houses of the affluent, the people who are not affected by the floods.”

Q. There is a strong opposition to this because people say why should we pay the government more taxes when we are not getting returns for the taxes that we do pay…

A. That is a matter of debate and you can research how much the country gets [in taxes]. It is very small compared to what our gross domestic product is. What is the running cost of the country of our size? What is the magnitude of the threat that we are facing? Like, for instance, the threat of terrorism [because of Pakistan’s] international geo-strategic location. This is a natural result of where you are located.

Q. But the government stumbled into it…

A. No, you did not stumble into it. You were created out of it. You supported the winning side in World War II. Out of that conflict, the Muslims of the subcontinent asked for a country and got a country despite a lot of opposition. The then Pakistan was like what you see in the flood areas. There was no infrastructure. Roads were made, areas were brought under irrigation, and look at the per acre yield and the amount of industries you have now. And in between you are struggling for your survival and had five wars.

When you talk about governance and about giving taxes and not receiving [anything in return], you must remember, we are living in a country of our own. I should be the one to complain the most. I have done prison time for 13 years without any conviction.

Q. If we compare the current situation with what we witnessed in the 2005 earthquake, there were no reports that we see in the media today…

A. There was no media, please give me that much. The media wasn’t even allowed to go there.

Q. But can’t this be put to the civil-military disconnect that there is in Pakistan. At that time there was no such disconnect.

A. You cannot put it to that. This disaster is too humongous. You must understand when the world is saying that it has never seen such a disaster in 65 years. It is not a big disaster in terms of human toll but it is huge in terms of area covered which is approximately 100,000 square kilometers — the area affected is 2.3 million hectares. Twenty-one per cent of your population was affected, the houses affected are in millions, health and education facilities affected are in the thousands. Even the Haiti earthquake and hurricane Katrina were nothing compared to this. We are still not out of the symptoms and you are talking about the cure. The flood has not receded as yet. To pass judgment is easy. Can anybody else tell me an example from anywhere else in the world where they moved faster and did more? Look at the positives — the loss of life and the outbreak of disease is minimal, for now. Hunger deaths I don’t hear of. Mind you, there are areas where we still cannot reach, that are cut off from the rest of Pakistan and where we requested countries like China to help. Our information ministry is no match to today’s free media. There was a time when the ministry could be very effective but in today’s time where there are 64 channels, it is not possible. The media is a dragon that needs to be fed everyday. The best thing is to have a nice juicy democratic government which can’t even bite back.

Q. Why is there a perception that the military is not part of the government?

A. I don’t think the military can even step out without the government’s permission. Who pays the military — for the fuel they use, for the men flying helicopters? Who bought them these helicopters? Sixteen of them were given free to me last year by the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi. Some are at the army’s disposal. The army is one of our sectors. Anywhere in the world, when there is a catastrophe the marines are called in.

Q. But do the orders follow in such a way that the civilian government tells the military to go to certain areas for disaster management and not the other way round?

A. Of course, there is no other way round. This impression is again created by the 64-channel strong cottage industry surviving on one young democracy.

Q. Do you think efforts to manage and mitigate such a huge disaster would have been more effective if we had local representatives on the ground?

A. My chief minister and irrigation minister were literally sleeping on the dykes in Dadu. If the ruling party had not been working in Sukkur or in Jacobabad, do you think these people would have been alive today? It is the party which came into action. Because the democratic aspect of it is less attractive – there are no helicopters, it doesn’t make good visual angle – doesn’t mean that it is not there. During these floods, there was an election happening in Bahawalpur and the next district, Rajanpur, was inundated. If people are so unhappy, why are they voting for us?

There is a disconnect between the media, the people and the pseudo-intellectuals. Jamshed Dasti [Muzaffargarh MNA] is a case in point. You should take it up as a case study. The judges forced him to resign; he stands for re-election, everyone in the 64-channel media goes against him and he still wins. All of a sudden the parliamentarians’ degrees have become important when the law requiring them does not exist. When the law existed, nobody’s degrees were challenged. When the law does not exist, not having a degree has become an offense retrospectively.

Q. Do you see this as a conspiracy?

A. No, I think people are small-minded and have a narrow vision. They do not know how far-reaching the effects of the decisions they take are. God forgive them, for they know not. As far as we are concerned we are used to fighting against odds and so is Pakistan. We shall motivate the people and get out of it.

Q. There is a lot of discussion of the government completing its five-year term…

A. There is no discussion. There are a few headlines and questions asked and answers given. We haven’t sat down and discussed how the government is going to pass the five years.

Q. But after the mandate expires and you go to the elections, what will you take to the voters?

A. If you ask for a journey’s end while the journey is going on it is rather unfair. Let the journey finish and let the people decide. If you ask about the two and a half years, we managed to get a dictator out first time ever without confronting the institution or making the nation aggressive. We could have made the nation aggressive creating a law and order situation but we talked him out of it. First time in Pakistan we made a woman the speaker of the parliament and made a consensus prime minister. We gave Balochistan an economic and political package; we gave the National Finance Commission, the eighteenth amendment. We restored the judges with right timing, after Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar retired, so that nobody loses. This is democracy at its best. At the same time going to the International Monetary Fund is not a populist decision. If I was thinking of populism, I could have said why should I increase the tariff of electricity and take away the subsidy? So we have taken difficult decisions. That again is democracy’s strength that it can take and sustain difficult decisions.

Part I of the interview

Part II of the interview

Sometimes madness is just madness

Syed Yahya HussainySomething is very wrong with the state of US-Pakistani relations at this critical time in the war against extremism and fanaticism. In the midst of this defining moment in the war effort in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the US has turned its guns not on its enemies but on its friends. After the clumsy spectacle of the Untied States publicly insulting and degrading Afghan President Hamid Karzai almost derailed the NATO offensive, it seems the Obama Administration is stumbling into an even greater political blunder in Pakistan. It may be unintended but it is nevertheless unprofessional. The amateurish undermining of Pakistan’s democratically elected civilian government by “unnamed administration officials” who claim they are preparing for a replacement of the current government over the next months, may be antagonistic to a friend and ally at its best, or a tragic self-fulfilling prophesy at its worst.

The United States has run roughshod over the people and politics of Pakistan for large chunks of Pakistani history. The US on-again-off- again commitment to democracy and human rights in Pakistan was turned off like a spigot to prop up a brutal dictator like General Zia ul Haq in the eighties, and then again the Musharraf dictatorship in the first decade of the new century. If the American people ever want to know why only eleven percent of the people of Pakistan view the US as a friend, they don’t have to beyond the US presidential dances with Pakistani dictators while the country’s economic and social infrastructure collapse. The reason the people of Pakistan think the US has exploited and manipulated their country is because it has. And it looks like it is planning to do it once again.

It is said that Pakistan is ruled by the three great “A’s” — Allah, the Army and America. We assume Allah is politically neutral. The army has episodically intervened to take over power whenever they thought they could get away with it. And getting away with it always centered on whether the third “A’ — America, was signaling green light, yellow light or red light. Administration sources telling the NY Times and Washington Post that they expected a change in leadership in Pakistan had to be viewed as a bright green signal to an Islamabad and Rawlpindi that lives off rumor and gossip.

Why would the US turn against its only reliable political ally in Pakistan? Asif Ali Zardari, the President of the country and the leader of PPP the ruling party, may not be Pakistani right wing’s political cup of tea, nor Pakistan’s left wing intellectual cup of tea, but he is the best thing America has going for it in Pakistan, and there’s nothing and no one even close. He has been consistently underestimated over the last twenty years, and he has survived and thrived, defying the pundits and the odds. I expect he’ll defy the latest assaults as well. If Washington is betting against Zardari, who exactly is it betting for? Another military dictatorship? A conservative opposition that is viscerally anti-American and has been historically bonded at the hip to the jihadists? What does the US accomplish in undermining Zardari other than undermining itself?

Zardari declares war on the terrorists and orders the army into Swat and South Waziristan. Zardari publicly defends the United States despite the enormous political price he pays for his friendship. Zardari pushes for educational reform and closing of political madrassas. Zardari asks for “trade not aid.” Zardari commits Pakistan to a green, renewal energy future. Zardari’s government mobilizes the nation and evacuates twenty percent of the country before marauding flood waters can kill millions of Pakistanis. Zardari then orders a millionaires tax on the wealthiest people in Pakistan to pay for flood relief, infuriating the Punjabi urban super-rich business barons of the PML(N) opposition, and the Karachi and Hyderabad anarchistic upper classes of the MQM. These ideologically diametrical right and left poles of Pakistani politics are held together only one common trait: their common elitist nihilism. The filthy rich conveniently and sanctimoniously use alleged corruption of the Pakistani government as an excuse not to pay taxes but also don’t contribute a nickel to Pakistan’s poor underclass and flood refugees.

What more would a progressive White House want from an ally in Pakistan other than strong anti-terrorism and a liberal, secular domestic agenda. Does Obama think he’d get that kind from a new military dictator or a Jihadist supported Nawaz?

Is there method to the White House’s madness? I think not. Sometimes madness is just madness.

This article was originally published at HuffingtonPost.com