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Pakistan and Democracy – Time to Be Realistic?


By Asim Salahuddin

Its that time in Pakistani politics again, where after roughly two years of coming to power the ‘elected’ and ‘democratic’ regime is once again under threat of being thrown out on one charge of misdemeanour or another. It would really be a lot simpler in one sense if we all just accepted that Pakistan is going to have elections after two years rather than four; it would make the pretence of transparent and accountable rule a bit easier to swallow. At least the people would feel they have some power whilst the new overlords are installed after receiving their political baptism in Washington. The only drawback with this sort of plan is that the ‘disgraced’ politicians who are regularly recycled in Pakistan would not have had enough time out in the ‘sin-bin’ for their transgressions to make them palatable enough for the people to accept them as rulers again.

The National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) set up by the currently disgraced Pervez Musharraf as part of his plan to leave power whilst preserving Western interests is now seemingly doomed to failure. With the end of November deadline of ratification set by the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry fast approaching, Parliament has not ratified the bill and it would seem several individuals currently occupying high office could soon be thrown back in to the lowly shadows from where they crawled out from almost 3 years ago. Chief amongst those threatened are the Sarah Palin admiring, land grabbing President Asif Ali Zardari, the Interior Minister Rehman “All roads lead to Waziristan” Malik, the man in America Hussain Haqqani (the one who no one is ever sure if he is Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington or Washington’s Pakistan representative) and of course the Pakistani student courting party lover in London, Wajid Shamsul Hasan.

The fact that the people of this ilk have made it this far in to power is testament to the total and utter failure of the political set up. Surely it is an insult to every person’s intelligence, bribed and un-bribed, that the whole NRO is a farce regardless of what Iftikhar Chaudhry says. In origin it was designed to cobble together an administration by the flagging Musharraf at the behest of his Western masters so America’s War on all things worth conquering and Islamic in nature can continue in South Asia. At the time of Musharraf’s declaration of the state of emergency, many a pseudo ideologue across the globe came out in protest that this situation was intolerable, and that Musharraf must surely now go. The solution, it was parroted, was that democracy must be restored with immediate effect. A debate quickly ensued as to who should be empowered in the soon to be re-democratised Pakistan, and to the dismay of many answers were few. When questioned that surely the only people who will win from democracy returning to Pakistan are the corrupt politicians whom Musharraf came to power to throw out in the first place, a rather academic and utopian response was issued that “For the principle of the matter we need democracy”.

Translation – we want to be able to pick the people who let the Americans bomb us, and we don’t mind if they help themselves to the nation’s wealth while they are at it. We just want to feel good about putting a cross on a bit of paper in a box that ultimately is probably going to get ‘lost’ or ‘misplaced’ somewhere anyway.

And surely this is the trouble in Pakistan. That some blindly speak of implementing democracy with a religious zeal that would give any extremist a run for their money without considering its practical consequences is a problem for the country. Encouraged by Western sponsors, be they governments or Western think tanks, Pakistan and indeed the rest of the Muslim world is being constantly cajoled or harried towards adopting democracy. Yet democracy has a consistent track record of utter failure in Pakistan. Whilst many are forever complaining that democracy has never established itself in Pakistan or given the chance to flourish, they fail to appreciate both the finer philosophical/ideological underpinnings of democracy and the practical societal and political set up of Pakistan that would reveal why democracy is doomed to fail. Democracy is held up as the way to progress (whilst the issue of Western nations supporting and doing business with dictators, tyrants and despots like Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah of Jordon, Pervez Musharraf, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and others is brushed under the carpet). Pakistani political elites, being somewhat victims of an inferiority complex at Western technological advances, economical supremacy and cultural depth rush to add their voices in agreement.

Pakistan is a country dominated by the super rich industrialists, the feudal land owners and the army. These three interest groups have a strangle hold on the levers of power in Pakistan and often work together and against each other as pragmatism would dictate in order to maintain the status quo. Any idea that the common man can actually have a say through the ballot box in such conditions is naïve at best. With many feudalists bringing with them a ‘chor bank’ instead of a vote bank, the industrialists being able to buy their way in to power and the army just able to take power at the barrel of a gun, utilising the ballot box is an exercise in sheer futility.

Coupled with the fact that the country finds itself in an economically stagnant condition, this leaves it reliant upon external sources of finance which in turn turns it in to a political dependent on foreign powers. This further entrenches the power of these three interest groups as foreign powers, such as America, simply turn to the group that would best serve its agenda at any given time. Carrots are offered in terms of international recognition, being feted on the global scene, turning a blind eye to domestic corruption and offering financial ‘bailouts’ (read bribes) in exchange for implementing their agenda and strengthening their grip on the country. The Kerry-Lugar bill is an example of this money for control neo-colonisation.

Philosophically, democracy is promoted as a natural progression for mankind, including Muslims, as it is simply said to be a system of where the people can have their say on who rules them and how. Democracy is said to be compatible with Islam, with even some Muslims citing the traditions of Shura in Islam as being democratic traditions, going so far as even saying that the Western world took democracy from Islam. Yet the essence of democracy is fundamentally opposed to Islam philosophically. At its core lies the concept that man shall rule over man by popular consent. Issues of how this is administratively carried out are secondary and do not change this core aspect of the system. Whether this is the result of a parliamentary system or a presidential system does not alter the fact that the collective or aggregate wisdom of the population is deemed appropriate to establish laws to regulate and govern society.

Laws are established to enforce the values of a society, and in a democracy all laws are subject to change pending the will of the people. What is legal in one time may be illegal in another, and what is illegal in one time may be legal in another. For example, in many countries in the Western world homosexuality just a few decades ago was considered illegal, yet now not only is it legal but a form of ‘marriage’ recognising gay couples exists.

Islam is philosophically at loggerheads with such an approach to governing. At the core of Islam lies the concept of Tauheed, which establishes the worship of Allah alone, having no other partners. The concept of worship includes not simply engaging in acts of ritual spirituality, such as the five daily prayers or fasting during the month of Ramadhan, but to fundamentally hear and obey all commands of Allah. In the Quran, it is stated that

“…Do you then believe in a part of the Book and disbelieve in the other? What then is the reward of such among you as do this but disgrace in the life of this world, and on the day of resurrection they shall be sent back to the most grievous chastisement, and Allah is not at all heedless of what you do.” [Surah Al-Baqarah (2), Verse 85]

“It is not fitting for a Believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger to have any option about their decision: if any one disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he is indeed on a clearly wrong Path.” [Surah Al-Ahzab (33), Verse 36]

“They have taken as lords beside Allah their rabbis and their monks and the Messiah son of Mary, when they were bidden to worship only One Allah. There is no Allah save Him. Be He Glorified from all that they ascribe as partner (unto Him)!” [Surah At-Taubah (9), Verse 31]

“Once while Allah’s Messenger (saw) was reciting this Verse (9:31), ‘Adi bin Hatim said, “O Allah’s Messenger! They do not worship them (i.e. the rabbis and monks).” Allah’s Messenger (saw) said: “They certainly do. They (i.e. the rabbis and monks) made lawful (Halal) things as unlawful (Haraam) and unlawful things as lawful, and they (i.e. Jews and Christians) followed them; and by doing so, really worshipped them.” [Narrated in the books of Hadith by Ahmad, At-Tirmidhi and Ibn Jarir]

These citations from sources of Islamic law clearly state that the idea of following Islamic law in all spheres of life is inextricably linked to the concept of worship. To attempt to alter, dispute or reject any law set by Islam is tantamount to disbelief. Yet in a democracy the representative(s) of the people are empowered, on behalf of the people, to establish a set of laws of which none are sacrosanct, being subject forever to the ever changing will of the people. The rabbis and monks in a modern context, it would appear, would be the MNAs, MPAs and Senators.

It is clear that it is not just the superficial act of bowing one’s head towards a physical idol that is considered as having made partners with Allah, but also obeying anyone or group of people over and above the commands of Allah is considered as having made association with Him in worship. This, coming back to the core tenet of Islam, violates the concept of Tauheed and is therefore shirk, the most severe sin in Islam.

This is in contradiction to democracy which being built upon the ideals of secularism, which removes the commands of Allah from the State, promotes the idea of freedom. This value of freedom promotes the role of man to establish whatever laws he may wish and in Islamic terms elevates man to the level of Allah.

After understanding this simple concept, it becomes clearer to see why democracy on a philosophical basis is having a hard time taking root in Pakistan and indeed the wider Muslim world. At a creedal level, democracy is an anathema to the Muslim mind. The very basis for the establishment of democracy in a modern European context was to provide the population with a mechanism to implement secularism and attempt to establish representative rule in place of monarchies who may have ruled in the name of Christianity.

In Islam, the tradition of consultation (Shura) is well established, as it is mentioned in the Quran

“…So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult with them upon the conduct of affairs. Then, when you have taken a decision put your trust in Allah. For Allah loves those who put their trust (in Him).” [Surah Al-Imran (3), Verse 159)

Due to this Quranic injunction recommending the ruler to consult the ruled when making a decision about matters, when looking at the administrative side of democracy where Parliament or a Congress or a Senate debate matters some mistakenly believe that democracy is compatible with Islam and an ‘Islamic Democracy’ can exist. This is why many a poll can seemingly give confusing results about many in the Muslim world wanting democracy yet at the same time a similar percentage, if not greater, wanting Sharia law and a Caliphate. It is only when both democracy and Islam are understood from a creedal level that it becomes clear that the term ‘Islamic Democracy’ is a misnomer, as you cannot have two contradicting philosophical values such as Tauheed and Secularism coexisting within one system.

Pakistan’s salvation lies in moving past this schism in the State – Pakistan needs to decide whether it wishes to live and abide by Islam and in doing so adopt all of it, or whether it wishes to move on and attempt to become a fully fledged secular liberal democracy and abandon Islam completely. It cannot continue to sit on the fence, for this dithering between wanting to remain a spiritual Muslim in the personal sphere yet be secular in the public one is a malaise that is pulling the country apart. And for those who cannot decide, perhaps they should turn to the Quran for some political advice,

“And verily, if you ask them: “Who created the heavens and the earth?” Surely, they will say: “Allâh (has created them).” Say: “Tell me then, the things that you invoke besides Allâh, if Allâh intended some harm for me, could they remove His harm, or if He (Allâh) intended some mercy for me, could they withhold His Mercy?” Say : “Sufficient for me is Allâh; in Him those who trust (i.e. believers) must put their trust”.” [Surah Az-Zumar (39), Verse 38)

What would happen if the decision was made in favour of democracy? To make such a decision would be near impossible, as you have a country of about 170 million strong that would need to be convinced to abandon Islam from a creedal perspective. And this has always been the problem for the Western backed secular elite in Pakistan – the people have been viewed as being backward and the problem for not embracing Western values of secularism and freedom en mass. And conversely, the people view the antics of these corrupt elite with equal disdain, as they implement societal, economic, and political decisions that contradict Islam such as importing Western or Indian culture, implementing an interest based economic system and pursuing a foreign political agenda, such as fighting America’s latest colonial war in the Muslim world.

It would seem that the population would find it easier to accept an Islamically legitimate system, such as an enlightened Caliphate. Such a system would provide the optimum mix of accountability via systems like Shura and at the same time implement time-independent laws and formulate policies which are in line with the Islamic sentiments of the people.

Ironically it would seem that to a Muslim a democratic system is a backward form of ruling, as Islam views the rule of man over man as tyranny and placing him under the rule of Allah is justice.
The question is – can foreign powers like America and the corrupt domestic stakeholders in the current rotten structure allow such a system to emerge?

This article was first posted at Haqeeqat.org

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Vision 21 is Pakistan based non-profit, non- party Socio-Political organisation. We work through research and advocacy for developing and improving Human Capital, by focusing on Poverty and Misery Alleviation, Rights Awareness, Human Dignity, Women empowerment and Justice as a right and obligation. We act to promote and actively seek Human well-being and happiness by working side by side with the deprived and have-nots.

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