February issue 2016

By | News & Politics | Published 4 years ago

Eminent Pakistani political analysts answer the same questions posed to visitors during a New York Times summit in the US — and their answers demonstrate how Pakistan is grappling with the same overarching dilemmas as the rest of the world.  

The participants: 

– Ayaz Amir is a columnist and former member of the National Assembly.

– Pervez Hoodbhoy is a nuclear physicist and teaches physics and mathematics in 

Forman Christian College University, Lahore.

– Raza Rumi is a consulting editor at The Friday Times and a faculty member at Ithaca 

College, USA.

– Ghazi Salahuddin is a journalist, writer, and political science scholar. 

Is Liberal Democracy universal?

531062-AyazAmirEXPRESS-1365076029-560-640x480-150x150Ayaz Amir:  Liberal Democracy based on universal suffrage in historical terms is a recent development. Apart from a form of democracy in Britain and intermittently in France, it did not exist even in Europe in the 19th century. The end of the First World War saw the advance of democracy in some European countries and the rise of fascism in others, and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

Even today you will have to put on blinders to give this democracy a universal application. There is none of it in China, a peculiarly Russian democracy in Russia and, in much of the Islamic world, apart from one or two exceptions, the attempt to move towards democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring has created just the opposite conditions — chaos as in Libya, war as in Iraq and Syria, and a massive backsliding as in Egypt. The universality of this principle therefore becomes rather obscure.

It is important also to make another distinction. Liberal Democracy as it existed in the United States right up to the civil war was more akin to Athenian democracy — for free men only, not for the slave population. This also brings Israel very close to this definition of democracy — the full exercise of democracy for the Jewish population, but a different state of affairs for the Palestinians.

Economic advance in East Asian societies has been indebted more to authoritarianism than to any notion of Liberal Democracy. South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and even Thailand to a large extent have all been led by strong commanding figures — Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir Muhammad, Park Chung Hee. In Hong Kong the role of strongman was played by the British-led civil service. All these countries are now democracies but with an Asian face…which means with a touch still of paternalism. And there are people out there who think they are better off for it.

The final triumph of Liberal Democracy should have come after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. With it should have come a moment of grace and humility. After all a chapter in history, the Cold War and the bitter rivalry between the eastern and western blocs, was coming to a close. But what the world saw was hubris as American ideological warriors went about proclaiming the end of history and eternal American domination.

The face of Liberal Democracy was represented by George W. Bush and his hyper team, and they turned out to be not the best advertisement for any kind of liberalism or democracy.

Is inequality the challenge of our time?

It’s a problem and is taking centre-space in the American presidential race. We all know that globalisation has led to a great concentration of wealth in the topmost tiers across the globe. But it is not ‘the’ challenge. Islamic extremism is not born of inequality. The refugee crisis hitting European shores is not a product of inequality. Russian assertiveness as in Ukraine and Syria are not related to this phenomenon. There are other factors at work which are best examined while trying to answer the next question.

Are western democracies the mortal enemies of Islamic extremists?

Nothing could be further from the truth. The western democracies through their policies of mayhem and shortsightedness have been the greatest promoters of Islamic extremists. It’s a long history but this is how it works in short.

In their drive to counter the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan the western democracies, foremost among them the United States and Britain, did not care who they took on board to conduct that fight. All the elements in the Islamic world who today qualify as extremists were encouraged and recruited to become foot-soldiers in that ’jihad.’ Co-sponsors of that ‘jihad’ were the Saudis and the CIA. Pakistan was a front ally whose territory became the staging ground, the fallback safe haven and the training area for that venture. A generation of warriors drawn from all corners of the Islamic Crescent acquired battlefield experience in what was then the biggest CIA operation anywhere in the world.

When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan the Americans also dusted their hands and pushed Afghanistan out of their memory banks. The ‘jihadis’ — called ‘mujahideen,’ warriors of the faith — were left high and dry, left to their own devices. Some of them morphed into Al Qaeda, some turned to Kashmir, and some took wives and settled in Pakistan’s tribal areas (FATA), while still others dreamt of establishing Islamic rule in their home countries. The dragon’s teeth were scattered across the world of Islam.

This was a pause, something like hibernation. The ingredients were all there. The spark, something to light the fire, was missing and this was provided by the strike on the Twin Towers. The United States went into overdrive and, as the provocation was great and it had to do something, it attacked Afghanistan. Had that been all, the fire-gods of vengeance would not have arisen. But the United States, driven and goaded by its ideological warriors — Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of the neo-con brigade — scarcely paused after the invasion of Afghanistan before launching the more ambitious invasion of Iraq.

The stage for Part One of the jihad saga was set by the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the response of the western democracies to it, aided of course by local foot-soldiers, principally Pakistan. Part Two of the saga was set in motion by the invasion of Iraq. Just as the first generation of jihadis flocked to Afghanistan, the second generation gravitated to Iraq. In the killing fields of Afghanistan was born Al Qaeda. In the killing fields of Iraq arose a deadlier mutation — in the form of Daesh or the Islamic State.

Iraq should have appeased the American taste for not-carefully-thought-through adventure. But, as Horace warned, “power not temper’d with counsel” leads to its own consequences. The western democracies could not resist the destabilisation of Libya. They got rid of Qaddafi, their old bugbear, and prepared another haven for the Islamic State. Nor could the western democracies resist the temptation of doing an Iraq on Syria. And they would have done it and succeeded in their designs if Russia had not stepped in and drawn a red line and if Iran and Hezbollah had not come to Assad’s assistance.

The road to the Islamic State, the highest expression of Islamic extremism, leads from Iraq to Libya and then to its apotheosis in Syria. And with it comes the refugee crisis which would not have happened if the western democracies had not begun their Syrian adventure.

Is Liberal Democracy universal?

000_PAR2003111021624-150x150Pervez Hoodbhoy: Not at all! The wonderful idea of a Liberal Democracy requires a crucial philosophical prerequisite: a vision of the world that is inclusionary, not exclusionary. Concretely, that individuals are not endowed with some special quality by virtue of their birth in a particular religion, race, or class. Else democracy becomes an excuse for majoritarian rule. The notion of democracy has suffered a spectacular defeat in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, a horror for non-Muslims like Yazidis, Coptics, and others.

Liberal Democracy is under grave threat in the United States as well, as shown by the rising popularity of unabashed anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican racists, such as Donald Trump and Sarah Palin. In European countries, as the competition for jobs and resources intensifies, the separation between “us” and “them” is likely to become still sharper. The paradox of our globalising world is that it has reinforced old tribal identities, and even created new ones. This needs to be actively combatted lest humanity regress as a whole.

Is inequality the challenge of our time?

There’s a vast — and rapidly growing — underclass almost everywhere in the world that lives in the most wretched of circumstances. We humans should be thoroughly ashamed of how we treat our own species. Modern society has become unfair to the extreme. In an unregulated capitalist system of rewards and punishments, the rich become richer and the poor poorer. This is what the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call the “winner-take-all economy.” Even as unemployment has increased globally and people have been forced to leave their homes, financial rewards are increasingly concentrated among a tiny elite. On the other hand, corporate CEOs have never had it better, with economic risks born by an increasingly exposed and unprotected, non-unionised middle class. The global financial elite refuses to take losses on its extravagant bets, such as currency speculation. Therefore third world countries — and now even Greece — have had to pay the price

Are western democracies the mortal enemies of Islamic extremists?

You have to be kidding to ask this question. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is the supporter, overtly and covertly, of the most virulent forms of Islamic extremism. Its kings and princes have heads and limbs chopped off on a daily basis, whip those who ask for democracy, and are openly sectarian. And yet for decades KSA has been the anchor of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

I could go on with example after example of various western powers that have torpedoed secular governments in the Muslim world, to be subsequently replaced by outright fundamentalist ones. Does anyone remember that Mossadeq in Iran was a secular socialist-nationalist before the CIA got him and Khomeini was the ultimate result? That Afghanistan’s Noor Mohammed Taraki was the godless communist who was ultimately crushed and defeated? Or that the struggle for Palestine, from the days of the British Empire till the 1980s, was in the hands of nationalists and not today’s religious crazies?

Is Liberal Democracy universal?

raza-rumi-pak-writer-fb_0-150x150Raza Ahmad Rumi: Liberal Democracy with its Eurocentric, and now American hegemonic overtones, has been promoted as a universal idea throughout the world. The values and freedoms that the idea enshrines are getting more and more traction across the globe. In fact, we live in a world where unprecedented democratisation has taken place across Asia, Latin America, and Africa since the de-colonisation moment. Yet, the results and practices are uneven. Liberal democratic trajectory requires an indigenous demand and certain conditions of societal development. In many post-colonial societies, institutions designed by the erstwhile colonists persist and that render the idea of democracy as a farce.

National elites, who inherited the colonial states such as India or Pakistan, sought to consolidate their-newly gained power. The case of Pakistan is clear where the people by and large have struggled for democratic ideals, but the civil-military bureaucracy has been in charge for decades and even today rules the roost. Political turmoil, imbalance, corruption, instability, and lack of rule of law in many other countries have marred the growth of indigenous forms of democratic development. This is why so many countries have suffered military coups, civil wars, and unaccountable modes of governance. While the West has promoted the ‘universal’ idea of Liberal Democracy, in some cases, democratically elected governments were overthrown with their covert or overt interventions. For instance, Iran in 1953, Chile in 1973, or even Egypt of 2013 have seen democracies undone for strategic reasons. The US has built alliances with undemocratic and non-liberal regimes to pursue its own interests. The case of Pakistan during the Cold War and post-9/11 is an example.

Countries like India are an exception with strong institutions and leadership, and empowerment of constituent states/territories contributing to democratic continuity. Still it faces significant challenges such as inequality and a bureaucracy that was created by the British for different reasons.

The ideas of a Liberal Democracy have a universal appeal and most states are signatories to a human rights charter that can only be ensured with a democracy of sorts. The reality, however, is the emergence of non-liberal and/or ‘unsecular’ democracy in many parts of the world. It is therefore an idea in progress and over time more functional and viable models may emerge

Is inequality the challenge of our time?

Perhaps the greatest challenge of our times is the rising inequality or what is also referred to as hyper-inequality. Today, the top one percent of the globe’s population owns nearly half the world’s wealth. Such is the starkness of this divide that the world’s richest 62 people own as much wealth as the poorest 50 per cent — i.e. three and a half billion people. This trend is prevalent across the rich and developing countries. In developed countries this is leading to xenophobia, fear and social polarisation, and in the developing countries it is making things even worse by fanning existing conflicts and giving violence a justification.

In South Asia, billionaires are viewed with a sense of pride. India, a country struggling with poverty and endemic injustice, showcases its billionaires as a measure of success and development. China has already jumped on the inequality bandwagon with a growing gap among regions, classes and communities. But China is at least responsive to the issue and its recent efforts to expand westward is linked to creating more regional balance.  In Pakistan too, inequality is a major dilemma and given the developmental model that is preferred by the state, the gaps are going to remain for a long time.

Some thinkers argue that inequality is a major driver of terrorism in the Middle East. For instance, the top 10 per cent there earn nearly 60 per cent of the income, and the top one per cent more than 25 per cent across the region. Violence, social and political fragmentation and instability have been linked to this disparity. Puritanical ideologies make it worse as they facilitate resistance and the pursuit of utopias such as an ‘Islamic State’ — whatever that means

Are western democracies the mortal enemies of Islamic extremists?

Most brands of Islamic extremism — and there are quite a few now — reject outright western notions of democracy as ‘unIslamic.’ They invoke a literalist interpretation of the early Islamic eras to suggest a model of governance that attempts to recreate seventh century Arabia. While this is the fringe, lack of democratic development in many parts of the Muslim world has also disillusioned the moderate and educated sections of societies. This is more valid for the Middle East where decades of misrule, injustice and ‘moral corruption’ by ostensibly secular elites has left a question mark on secular democratic governance frameworks.

Often this is a reaction to western influence and how dictatorial regimes have been supported by so-called global ‘democratic leaders’ such as the US and UK. Western Europe today faces a dilemma: how to isolate extremists among their large Muslim populations, and also ensure that the rest continue to remain a part of the larger society. The prevalent policy has been to encourage multiculturalism, which has evidently failed.

But the uneven integration of Muslim communities remains a paramount issue. Europe’s colonial past gets compounded by the regressive interpretations of Islam, which keep segregation intact and alive. The appeal of the IS to the hundreds who left Europe is, in part, rooted in a complex experience of alienation. Disengaged from larger societies, Islamism gives a sense of identity, of belonging to an abstract collective of Muslims “persecuted” by the West. It is within such a worldview that horrific acts of violence are also perpetrated and justified.

Current models of multiculturalism and assimilation require an urgent review. Many non-practising but disillusioned western Muslims get lured online by utopian solutions provided by groups like the IS.

The truth is that Islamic extremists have killed more Muslims than citizens of western democracies. The flashpoints in the Middle East and elsewhere require fresh thinking by western governments, as the past decade has been disastrous in breeding disaffection and hatred. The current enmity therefore is a phase and not a permanent situation. It has to be tackled by Muslim societies and western governments in tandem, as they face a common threat. We live in a world where maintaining isolation is virtually impossible.

Is Liberal Democracy universal?

 ghazi-salahuddin-150x150Ghazi Salahuddin:  Something is surely not right in the state of Liberal Democracy. And that has impeded its spread across the globe, though this trajectory seemed to have been dictated by history not so long ago. Some attributes of democracy — universal education, emancipation of women, rule of law and related features of fundamental human rights — will continue to define popular aspirations, even in manifestly non-democratic, authoritarian or ideological states. But the ideals of Liberal Democracy have been tainted or cloaked by the present crises of terror, regional conflicts, economic failures and a surge of refugees fleeing from the war zones in the Middle East. One baffling contradiction of Liberal Democracy is the radicalisation of the Muslim youth born and brought up in, say, France, Great Britain and the United States.

We live in fractious times and one sombre reflection of how Liberal Democracy is beset by doubts about its own sense of direction was available in President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address in January. He acknowledged that many Americans feel frightened and shut out of a political and economic system they view as rigged against their interests. His words: “As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background. We can’t afford to go down that path.” Ah, but they still have to contend with the rise and rise of Donald Trump.

Coincidentally, the New Year celebrations in a German city were marred by a large number of sexual assaults on women and most of the culprits were refugees. This one incident has threatened to subvert Chancellor Merkel’s universally applauded resolve to welcome Syrian refugees on humanistic grounds.

Is inequality the challenge of our time?

This question poses a strange paradox. For ages, human societies have been exceptionally unequal, with a vast gulf between a small ruling class and the oppressed multitude. This was divine justice, undiluted by any hope for redemption. It was in the modern world that social mobility became possible. In recent decades, millions and millions of people have been rescued from abject poverty. Steady economic growth — China being the most dramatic exemplar of this marvel, irrespective of its present travails — in recent decades has raised the standard of living.

Yet, it is now that we are confronted with the spectacle of one per cent of a country’s population owning as much wealth as that of the remaining 99 per cent. More’s the pity that this kind of disparity, as Thomas Picketty has certified in his ground-breaking analysis of capital in the 21st century, is manifest in the economies of the United States and Europe. That is how the slogan ‘we are the 99 per cent’ of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ campaign in the US was born.

This level of inequality in liberal democracies would naturally raise issues about the world’s social and economic structures. In a sense, the validity of market capitalism in a world that is being transformed by technology and digital advances will begin to be suspected. Already, debt crisis in some countries of the European Union has put stress on the concept of unity. Economy has usually served as the justification of a democratic dispensation. Hence, inequality is likely to feed anxiety and uncertainty in different regions. This should be more so in broken societies afflicted with social and political turmoil.

Are western democracies the mortal enemies of Islamic extremists?

More than a decade after 9/11, Islamic extremism has undergone a metamorphosis from Al Qaeda to ISIS. For the first time, a terrorist network has been able to found a state and its deathly lure has even radicalised a number of Muslim youth, including women, residing in western democracies. But there are other manifestations of Islamic extremism that have been nurtured in separate Muslim societies. Pakistan has been struggling to combat domestic terrorist networks and sources of extremism and the campaign is being led by the military. A terrorist attack on a university campus in northern Pakistan on January 20 is the most recent example of how deadly this clash within a civilisation has become.

So far as the equation between western democracies and Islamic extremism is concerned, the internal dynamics of the Muslim world become relevant. The west and its ideas have stood out as the enemy in the eyes of Muslim radicals for a long time. An ideologue of the Iranian revolution had propounded the theory of ‘westoxication’? Terror attacks in the States and in Europe were an extension of this deep animosity.

But western democracies and Islamic extremists should not be classified as mortal enemies. In the first place, Islamic extremists cannot overthrow a government in a western country or generate any semblance of a social movement. Acts of terror may at best affect homeland security arrangements. On the other hand, Islamic extremists may be able to subvert the ruling arrangement in a Muslim country. In this respect, the most lethal ingredient is sectarian conflict in the Middle East and the rise of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran is merely a symptom of this deeply rooted schism in the world of Islam.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2016 issue.