August Issue 2008

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 16 years ago

Sixty-one years old this August, Pakistan is still confined in the cradle of its confusion about what it wants to be: a modern democracy or some kind of an Islamist polity. And in this season of national disenchantment, prospects of a democratic future for Pakistan are held hostage in the remote outposts of the tribal areas.

What may be described as the Talibanisation of Pakistan is attended by steady regression across the social sector and the tragic failure of the present theoretically democratic dispensation to take control and improve the country’s governance. In spite of this remarkable blossoming of the independent electronic media, the threat of the militants against their opponents and critics is gaining strength.

Ambivalence about how the government would want to deal with religious militants raises concerns that some elements in the establishment may still be allied with the Taliban. Our rulers have repeatedly asserted that our war against terrorism is not America’s war. But the battle lines are not clearly defined. Nor is there any clear understanding of how this war has to be fought. Extremism, after all, is the enemy within.

Meanwhile, the world is watching Pakistan’s rather shoddy struggle against militants with deep apprehension. Again and again, scary prognostications about Pakistan’s future are made by international experts and think tanks. It has even been described as the most dangerous place in the world.

A news report published in the last week of July quoted a top US official as saying that Pakistan portrays a worst-case scenario because the government in Islamabad is not aggressively pursuing the militants in the tribal areas and is instead offering them sanctuaries in return for a ceasefire. He said that the government is unable to understand that the militants want to destabilise the country.

On the same day that this report was published, the main headline related to the decisions taken by the leaders of the ruling coalition in a meeting that was also attended by the chief of the army staff and chiefs of intelligence agencies. On the eve, almost, of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani’s visit to Washington — a mandatory yatra for the leader of a new administration — the coalition resolved to pursue dialogue rather than a military operation in FATA. Yes, they also said that force would be used only as the last resort.

What would be the last resort when it comes to making Pakistan safe for democracy? This question may be supplemented by another: Are they, the actual wielders of power in our country, convinced about the democratic imperative? Is there sufficient room in our national security planning for peace, democracy and social development?
We know that the West, led by the Americans, has for long been pressurising Pakistan to “do more” to contain militants operating in the tribal areas, with allegations that these militants cross over into Afghanistan to commit acts of terrorism. But the breeding of militancy also has an impact on Pakistan. It has been noted that terror-related fatalities have increased three times since 2006.

The Lal Masjid operation may have a lot to do with this fearful increase in terror activities and suicide bombings in Pakistan. However, Lal Masjid is also an example of how our agencies may be playing both sides. We may refer here to the wages of Pervez Musharraf’s ‘enlightened moderation’ that he professed to have pursued after the U-turn that was imposed on him after 9/11.

Far from the tribal areas, the dark shadow of religious militancy falls on all parts of the country. The irony is that this shadow is apparently deepening in the early days of the PPP-led government. This impression, to some extent, is also a reflection of the inability of the government to take charge and justify the confidence that the people had reposed in the coalition after the February elections. There has been no attempt to devise a proper strategy to deal with militancy and terrorism. The nation lacks consensus on this issue. Hence, the government confronts a threat to its writ not just in the tribal areas.

One very tragic consequence of the PPP’s aversion to the restoration of the judiciary that it had formally promised is that the impetus for social renewal that the lawyers’ movement had generated is beginning to dissipate. This is bound to be a great setback to the democratic aspirations of the people. Add to this the devastation that is caused by high inflation and a general feeling that the government has no sense of direction.

Consequently, Pakistan at this time, in a collective sense, feels frightened about its future. And the human capital that it possesses is so weakened that it cannot forcefully surmount the challenge that is posed by the Islamists. It is becoming difficult to speak out against them because of their threat of violence and intimidation.

One relevant example — relevant because it happened in July — is that the khateeb of the Lal Masjid, taking exception to some contents of the Urdu daily Aajkal, led a demonstration against the newspaper and the Daily Times, its sister publication. He even mentioned the name of Najam Sethi, the editor of the Daily Times. His threat was directed towards all “un-Islamic elements,” who will “not be tolerated.” In apparent response to expressions of solidarity with the newspapers and its staff, the khateeb upped the ante and said that the newspaper staff, had committed blasphemy. Obviously, all liberal and secular people need to be on their guard.

An instructive dimension of this episode is that, according to the management of the newspapers, nothing significant was done about the safety of the editors and the staff, even after they had apprised the government and other state organs of the threat. And this was in spite of the Salmaan Taseer connection.

We must also remember that Pakistan and democracy have no relevance for the radical Islamists. Seminary leader Umme Hasan has said that Islam can only be established through khilafat and not democracy.

Finally, a sharp increase in violence against women during the months that the present government has been in power is a glaring sign of what is happening to our society. Very alarming figures in this context were part of a report released in Islamabad in the middle of July by the Aurat Foundation. Consider also the fact that the Taliban do not even allow girls to go to primary schools. In a general sense, there is evidence that Pakistan is gradually becoming poorer in human capital. It stands 137th in the UNDP’s Human Development Index.

This means that the potential for our society’s resistance to forces of obscurantism and fanaticism is also declining. We are repeatedly reminded by experts that our society is becoming dysfunctional. The pity is that our rulers do not seem exceptionally worried about it. So, where do we go from here?

Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.