Putting History Back on Track

The Arab revolutions that promised to overturn the illegitimate regimes that ruled the Muslim world for decades are not over. Syria is presently suffering terribly as a dynastic dictator carries out a brutal crackdown against his own people. Government attacks have been going on for over 10 months and have killed over 5,000 innocent civilians. Just today, at least 44 innocents were killed as regime troops attacked a city with mortars.

Over the weekend, a UN resolution against the regime was defeated when it was vetoed by Russia and China. The UN resolution backed by the West was not a Western plan for imperialism, it was supporting a plan dictated by the Arab league – Muslim countries that know very intimately the history of Western colonialism and meddling. It should be noted that Pakistan supported the resolution alongside the Americans.

In another Muslim country, another attempt to turn back the tide of democratic change is taking place. In Egypt, the first free elections in decades allowed the people to elect their own leaders and even gave religious parties the opportunity to openly enter politics. Unfortunately, the military has been dragging its feet in letting go of power, and pro-democracy protestors have taken to the streets only to be attacked by their own military.

When religious parties won Egypt’s elections, many expected the Americans to step in and support the military in an anti-Islamic crackdown. But something funny happened. Instead of supporting the military against the religious parties as they had done in the past, the Americans supported the Egyptian people. Egypt’s military has reacted by arresting Americans working for pro-democracy NGOs.

These stories are fascinating to me because they suggest the possibility of a revolutionary change in the direction of world history. Muslim political history went wildly off course in 1953 when the CIA overthrew the democratic government of Iran. Throughout the Cold War, the nation that supposedly supported democracy actually supported vicious dictators in Muslim countries in an effort to ‘contain’ communism.

American support for dictators resulted in suffering across the Muslim world. After a while, it resulted in suffering across the West also. Jihadi groups like al Qaeda struck out against Western countries for their support of the illegitimate regimes that they believed were preventing them from creating a new Khilafat across the Middle East. The West responded to these attacks by supporting the illegitimate regimes even more, creating even more resentment among the people.

Despite the West’s fears, a new jihadi Khilafat was never going to rise up. Majority of Muslims didn’t want to get rid of dictators in military uniforms only to replace them with dictators wearing clerical robes. The people wanted to be left alone to rule themselves according to their own laws and their own customs. They wanted the democracy that was taking root in 1953 before history went wildly off course.

The Arab Spring, then, was inevitable. What was not known was how the West would react. Would they repeat their past behaviour and support illegitimate regimes in a Quixotic quest for ‘stability’? Or would they return to their supposed principles and support the wishes of the people? Recent events provide real reason to hope that the answer is, finally, a return to principles and the support of the people.

History takes a long time to unfold. In the past, the West and especially America has made policies based on short-term thinking. Though it may seem strange, American support for dictators in the Middle East was based on the same short-term thinking as their support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. But this short-term strategy brought long-term problems. Just as it takes 100 lies to tell 1 lie, so it takes 100 short-term policies to enforce 1 short-term policy.

Today, the Americans are throwing their weight behind Arab League plans for a political transition in Syria, and they are supporting the democratic elections in Egypt even after those elections returned a victory for the religious parties. These decisions might not be in the short-term best interests of American policy, but they could signal the turning of the tide away from short-term thinking to long-term thinking by the world’s super power. If this is the case, we could see 2012 as the year not of an Arab spring, but a global democratic spring.

Talk of ‘carrots and sticks’ is often used when discussing American attempts to influence Pakistan’s foreign policy. We have always considered our own carrots to be our willingness to help the Americans in Afghanistan or against India when they were with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But what now? Today we have an opportunity to increase our influence with the ‘carrot and stick’ of our support for them in return for their support for Muslim democracy.

We can bring the Taliban to the table in Afghanistan and help negotiate an end to the war that allows the Americans to leave without losing their pride. In return, we should ask not for aid or weapons, but for continued American support for democracy in Syria, Egypt, and other Muslim countries.

Experts debate what shared interests Pakistan and America could possibly have. If the Americans are serious about turning over a new leaf and supporting Muslim democracy, that is certainly one shared interest that our countries share. And it’s not a bad starting point for developing a relationship based on mutual respect that Ambassador Sherry Rehman spoke about recently. More importantly, though, we have the opportunity to help put history back on track and serve our proper role as a guide for democracy in the Muslim world.

The Turkish Path


APP reports that Pakistan and Turkey have agreed to explore further economic cooperation. This is fantastic news, and provides a great opportunity to re-orient the country onto a productive and prosperous path. Actually, looking at Turkey, we may find an alternative way out of the mess that we currently find ourselves in.

Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir praised Turkey’s important role for bringing peace and stability in the region. And he is not the only one singing Turkey’s praises lately. On a visit to Istanbul last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave the country high marks.

“I just want to see Turkey get stronger and more prosperous and have your democratic institutions be even more durable and be an example for so many of the countries that themselves are trying to figure out how to make political and economic reforms,” she told the coffeehouse audience.

Clinton went on to note that Turkey can serve as a role model for other new democracies.

“I think across the region, people from the Middle East and North Africa particularly are seeking to draw lessons from Turkey’s experience,” Clinton said. “It is vital that they learn the lessons that Turkey has learned and is putting into practice every single day. Turkey’s history serves as a reminder that democratic development depends on responsible leadership, and it’s important that that responsible leadership helps to mentor the next generation of leaders in these other countries.”

This is important to think about not because it was praise from an American official, but because the American official is RIGHT. Turkey can be a great role model for how to develop a successful democracy without giving up religion and culture. Irene Khan, Consulting Editor for The Daily Star, made this same observation recently.

Under nine years of AKP rule Turkey has changed radically, shedding its military past in favour of liberal democracy and combining strong economic growth and social development with Islamic conservatism and an assertive foreign policy.

Turkey’s economy is booming. A member of the G20 group of developed and emerging economies, last year its GDP grew by 9%. The Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) predicts Turkey will have the fastest-growing economy in the OECD until 2017. Unemployment has fallen from 14.4% in 2009 to 11.5% this year, and social development programmes are beginning to tackle poverty in some of the more remote and troubled areas.

This economic miracle has spawned a new political class of Sunni Muslim businessmen from Anatolia, committed to global market principles but fiercely conservative and deeply religious. They form the backbone of support for AKP and have replaced the military-backed urban elite as the new ruling class of Turkey.

Notice however that the “Islamic conservatism” that Khan speaks about is not the same as backwards-looking calls for medieval kalipha systems or Talibani brutality. Rather Turkey takes an approach of tolerance for individual religious practice. AKP has been a voice for women who want to choose to wear hijab, but they stop well short of suggesting that the state should be making that choice for women.

This is the way of the future for Muslim democracies. Even in Egypt, which many Westerners feared the Muslim Brotherhood would turn the country into a new Iran, the MB is disovering that being in power means that they have to move beyond organising street protests and learn how to govern.

As the Arab Spring turns to blazing summer, Islamist movements have quickly formed political parties and mobilized national campaigns designed to unveil their new image before elections in the fall and winter. Paranoid rhetoric about threats to Muslim identity have given way to political messaging that could have been lifted from the party platforms of any Western democracy: It’s all about jobs, investments, inclusiveness. A new broom to sweep clean decades of corruption. A new dawn of can-do Islamism.

And governance is the key because people take responsibility for their own souls – from the government they expect results.

The group has long been feared in the West as the source and exporter of radical Islamist ideology: violent groups like the Palestinian Hamas are direct offshoots of the Brotherhood. Some scholars trace the origins of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda to the Islamists. In Egypt, however, the group long ago rejected the rhetoric of violent jihad, and it is seen as a social movement as much as a political entity. Egypt’s poor have long associated the Brotherhood with its social services, like free clinics and schools.

Now the Brotherhood needs to broaden its base to include middle-class and affluent Egyptians. Many of the young men and women hanging out on the October 6 Bridge on a Thursday evening — enjoying a cool breeze off the Nile and the chance for some mild flirting — seem comfortable with the idea of an Islamist-led government. “We know these guys. We go to school with them, eat with them, play soccer with them,” says Fadel, a 20-year-old university student. “If they come to power, we’ll judge them by their results, not the size of their beards.”

President Zardari is meeting with regional leaders like Ahmedinejad as he should. After all, these are our neighbors whether for better or for worse. But it is our ties with nations like Muslim nations that are looking to the future – not the past – that has the most promise for improving our own path. Turkey and Egypt are giving a glimpse at the future of Muslim democracies in Europe and the Middle East. Pakistan should follow this path of democratisation and restore its place as an example for Muslim democracy in South Asia. This was the dream of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It is up to us to make it real.