Monday, July 09, 2007

Fearing too much democracy

A few days ago, Mike posed the following question regarding Pakistan:

Is it possible to support the pro-democracy forces without risking the replacement of an autocratic but friendly regime with a fanatical hostile one?

My own initial reaction was that intense fear of that prospect, which Mike described as "terrifying," might often cause Americans to overestimate the actual risk. (Yes, John Edwards, I'm talking to you.) Now, over at Chapati Mystery, our colleague Sepoy goes a step further, arguing not simply that it is possible to support the pro-democracy forces without that feared outcome materializing, but that doing so in fact offers the best hope of avoiding it. His essay offers some useful background on the current standoff in Islamabad at the Lal Masjid (and in particular, its roots in the Islamization policies implemented during the 1980s by the last military dictator in Pakistan supported by the United States, General Zia ul Haq). The full post is well worth the read, but here's the punch line:

The strengthening of miltant forces in Pakistan - and their inward gaze - has not come from any radicalization of Pakistani society but from the incomplete operation of US forces in Afghanistan. The war in Iraq drained away any plan for a viable and functioning Afghanistan. The defeated troops carried their tribal allegiances back across the border into the Northern and Western regions of Pakistan - and turned their attention onto Pakistani state. Musharraf, busy consolidating the military’s dominion had no viable way of combating these tribes - he has no legitimacy. I could be writing an alternative version of this recent past, if democratic tendencies had actually been allowed to develop in Pakistan since 2001. You may call it ‘paradoxical’ but the only solution to de-Islamization of Pakistan is democracy - not the support of dictatorships.

* * *

While many western observers praise Musharraf’s brave decision to side with the United States, the truth is that it was a no-brainer for him. The majority of Pakistan’s population has long maintained a healthy distaste for the involvement of religious leaders into statecraft - taking perhaps as axiomatic Bulleh Shah’s old verse: Mulla tay mashaalchi dohaan ikko chiz / Loukan karday chananan, aap anhairae vich [The Cleric and the Light Bearer are both the same / Trying to illuminate others, but in darkness themselves]. The outpouring of support for the Chief Justice is just one indication that the country is hungry for relief - note, please note, that Chaudhry Iftikhar is not some bearded mullah with any agenda for Shari’ah implementation in Pakistan. And yet, that old canard is forever being bandied about that if given democracy, the insane mullahs will control Pakistan. The choice has never been between Musharraf and the Mullah or the Mosque and the Ballot. The truth is that there never has been any choice. And the Pakistani public demand a choice. And they can be trusted to make the right decision just as much as any other citizen in any other democracy in any nation of this world [cf. 2000 and 2004, United States of America.] [link]

Pakistani military analyst Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, author of the recent book "Military, Inc.," offers a related perspective here.

(Oh, and that photo at the top of the post? It's not from yet another stop on the Chaudhry yatra, but rather from a 100,000 person rally in Karachi against the Lal Masjid clerics back in April.)

9 comments:

Benjam said...

fantastic post. i wish there was a tip jar.

is pakistan primarily pashtun and sunni? is there less sectarianism or are the divisions primarily tribal?

the claim is made that the pakistani army is largely secularized and not infiltrated by extremists. i tend to believe that it is a much more advanced and professional infrastructure. after all, they do have the bomb. they also cooperate with extremists in afghanistan and in kashmir. and the US is left to hope that they arent infiltrated by radical elements. if you look at what the ISI does, however, it tells a different story. and that, ironically, is due in large part to our dependence on pakistan for cooperation in the war on terror. that dependence has given them a freer hand in other areas.

i do believe there are strong democratic impulses in pakistan. that country competes with india and they see what muslims in india have. one would suspect that most pakistanis want those same freedoms and opportunities. they see first-hand that a secular government can work in a multi-ethnic state. we can hope that someday those democratic impulses will transform into democratic institutions for the benefit of the pakistani people, including the oppressed women of that nation. until then we can only judge pakistan on its record and that record is pretty grim. as far as the bush administration is concerned, musharaff is simply the devil they know.

Michael C. Dorf said...

To be clear about my earlier post, I think that wariness with respect to Musharraf is warranted, that mild support for the democratic movement is probably our best policy option, and that the great majority of Pakistanis oppose a radical theocratic regime. Nonetheless, the entire history of the last century (and longer) shows that the transition from autocracy to democracy can be a period when small, dedicated groups of fanatics can seize control and establish ideologically driven brutal dictatorships that are very hard to dislodge and that export violence. My fear is not that Islamists would win a nationwide plebiscite but that a loosening of Musharraf's grip would leave an opening for Taliban-style radicals to create chaos and then to seize power. That fear is not necessarily a reason to embrace Musharraf as warmly as the Bush administration has, but it cannot be dismissed either.

Manan Ahmed said...

I would have to disagree. Pakistan is not Afghanistan nor is it Colombia - there is a robust civil society, not to mention an intransigent bureaucracy, an all too-powerful army, a sizable middle class and an economy on the uptick for a decade. Hardly the vacuum-scenario in which chaos can be filled by radicals.

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