During my recent trip to Pakistan along with a select group of British politicians from both Labor and Conservative parties I got the opportunity of meeting President Musharaf, other members of his government and national politicians from across the divide. It was interesting to see Pakistan, after a very long time, in the grip of an intense debate on genuine political issues of governance that concern a developing economy struggling towards a sustainable democracy.
Elena Cohen, former official spokeswoman for Margaret Thatcher, and a member of our delegation, with tremendous experience of interacting with the press world wide, was simply amazed at the open and robust debate on constitutional and political issues in Pakistan’s print media. What makes it all the more special is that such vigorous and forceful debate is taking place under a military lead government. However, as an outside observer, a British Muslim, with intimate interest in Pakistan’s political process, there are three distinct observations I want to share with the readers in Pakistan.
One, at a time when in mature democracies people are getting more and more aware of the need to strengthen regulatory and oversight structures, to provide for greater accountability of the political and economic process many columnists in Pakistan seem to be arguing in a tone and tenor that seems to suggest as if the process of Accountability is perhaps less important-or somehow trivial-than holding elections. And it also appears that Musharaf government after showing an initial zeal tempered its Accountability drive in the interest of striking political bargains. This is simply unfortunate.
Contemporary political analysis proves this irrefutable fact that due to the influence of big money the principle of ‘one man one vote’ has suffered tremendous damage every where. This is especially so in developing countries where large majority of economically disadvantaged voters become easy victims of crass manipulation. No automatic process of elections in Pakistan will get rid of the massive political corruption that characterized Pakistan under successive Bhutto and Nawaz governments and that essentially deprived Pakistan from making economic headway in 90’s when most developing countries-including India-surged ahead.
From that perspective the sympathy pleas, that pour in from columnists for the likes of Bhutto and Nawaz, under the banner of old clichéd definitions of democracy, surprise me. This, lopsided perspective, coming from Pakistan’s intellectual circles, at a time when Pakistan is showing nascent but visible signs of economic recovery does not augur well for the process of sustainable democracy in today’s changed interactive global circumstances where regulatory structures and strict punitive Accountability are now ‘essential sine qua nons’ of the democratic process of holding elections.
Second, and perhaps the most important observation; Pakistani intelligentsia seems to suffer from knee jerk rejection for religious parties. This is understandable given the tortuous nature of religious politics é especially since the Zia era- and the primitive mindset exhibited by most religious pundits. Majority of the ulema appear to be suffering from some serious intellectual disconnect with the contemporary world. After all how will you explain that the delegation of Pakistani religious scholars sent by the government to Taliban, after 11th September, to convince them to turnover Osama Bin Laden instead assured Mullah Omar of their support in the fight against the Americans. Could there be a greater example of an existential divorce from reality?
However the mindset to reject everything in politics that takes inspiration from the universal principles of Islam is also insane. Religion remains the defining and sustaining anchor for the great majority of people in Pakistan.
The multivariate process of globalization with its rural urban migration, economic upheavals, information blast and inevitable digital divide is also unleashing brute forces of alienation. The millions of physically and mentally displaced and disoriented people in countries like Pakistan where this ongoing process is most intense will inevitably fall back on Islam to give them spiritual anchoring in their radically altered environments. This is already happening and needs to be understood. Rejection out of hand and denial will not work-it might even backfire.
The need is not to banish religion from politics- if for nothing else then to fear its inevitable reentry with a vengeance. -but to channel its energies in the arena establishing a connect with the issues of contemporary world. Repeated and misplaced calls for Jihad, by literally anyone who can get a microphone in his hand, has demeaned the concept and spirit to a level where world has started to equate the very concept with physical violence against the non-Muslims. It is time to wrench religion out of those hands that are unable to see life beyond its physical dimension. Jihad could also be the struggle against ignorance and intolerance; an effort and a fight to educate Muslims to integrate them with the larger world reality. Throughout Europe this is how we-the European Muslims- have started to see it. And with the grace of God we are witnessing lot of work in this direction-from UK to France to Germany to Norway.
A Pakistan origin organization Minhj-ul-Quran, of Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri, has done commendable work towards this cause in Europe. It has struggled in the last two decades to create awareness among Muslims in Europe for the cause of combining modern education with Islamic ethical and cultural values so that the future generations of Pakistanis living in Europe are not lost in a time warp. But at the same time it has involved European Muslims of Pakistani origin in the creation and sustenance of a large educational network in Pakistan. At this moment Minhj-ul-Quran and its political progeny Pakistan Awami Tehreek is also running dozens of schools, colleges and even a University in Pakistan. And during our short trip we did witness this impressive proliferation of interlinked educational institutions for poor children that also include Business administration and Computer Science colleges.
Minhaj stresses integration into the global consciousness. As a skeptic I attended their conventions in London and Paris and was amazed to see the congregation of thousands of Pakistani origin professionals-doctors, engineers, bankers and academics-both men and women, that came from places as diverse as Berlin, Frankfurt, Désseldorf, Vienna, Oslo, Amsterdam, and Hague among others to share a common vision of Islam that sees integration rather than conflict as its goal and that stresses modern contemporary education of arts and sciences as its strategy to achieve the desired integration and harmony with the secular world we live and work in.
I find it ironic that within Pakistan this movement, which in Europe is winning respect from Muslims and non-Muslims alike for its social and cultural goals, is treated like any other run of the mill religious party. I wonder why? Have Pakistanis closed their minds towards any social movement that derives its inspiration from Islam? I think that Dr. Tahir ul Qadri’s diverse educational, cultural and social agenda deserves a more detailed look by Pakistani intelligentsia.
Third, whereas Pakistani columnists stress endlessly on the spirit of British constitutionalism they seem to downplay the importance-if not show outright contempt-of local bodies. In year 2002 I find it rather amusing when Pakistani intellectuals talk romantically of the sovereignty of British Parliament by quoting hallowed clichéd statements of Sir Ivor Jennings and Leslie Stephens regarding what the parliament can and cannot do. Ironically even here there is a serious disconnect; with the greater integration into European Union and especially since the incorporation of European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law the ‘mother of all parliaments’ is also struggling to adapt its sovereignty to the changed circumstances in its backyard. Fortunately in Britain long time ago we learnt to express our democratic values through local bodies.
Author is a parliamentary candidate for Conservative party, in Britain, and an adviser on ‘Equalities’ to the leader of the Party Ian Duncan Smith.