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!