Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Editorial: Democracy and religious extremism
If there is going to be a “deal” between the PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto and President General Pervez Musharraf, the issue of the uniform has to be resolved. Ms Bhutto says she is not ready to support a uniformed president at any cost. This is understandable. Given the anti-Musharraf mood in the country, she simply cannot risk alienating her passionately pro-democracy and anti-military vote bank
Some leaders from the ruling PML have welcomed the possibility of an “understanding” between Ms Bhutto and the president; others have not, insisting that if a deal is to be made it should be made with the entire opposition, not with the PPP alone. Clearly President Musharraf’s party is not taking the current moves kindly even though the president may have taken “clearance” from its top leadership before going to Abu Dhabi. This suggests a possible pattern of PML “reaction” if the deal goes through: a group could pack its bags and try to move back to the PMLN even though the “parent” party has vowed it will not accept its “lotas” back. The others would stay on and try to undermine any possible working arrangement with the PPP.
There are reasons why President Musharraf has to talk to the PPP and why he can’t talk to the other parties, meaning the PMLN and the MMA. The PPP is the only party in the opposition that has accepted the “fact” of terrorism and extremism in Pakistan. It has supported him on the Lal Masjid operation when some ministers of his own PML were in two minds about it. He can’t talk to the PMLN and the MMA because their take on terrorism is different from his and because they are opposed to the counter-terrorism policies that Pakistan must adopt if it has to survive. If the hope among the PML leaders is that talking to the entire opposition will dissuade him from his campaign against terrorism, it is counter-productive as it strikes at the root of the justification for going on ruling as the ruling party.
Ms Bhutto’s conviction that President Musharraf should take off his uniform if he wants to continue as president derives strength from the fact that the Supreme Court is most likely to strike down the rather nebulous legal justification given for his getting re-elected, uniform and all, from the current assemblies. The president must have realised that if she doesn’t do it, the rest of the opposition will go to the Supreme Court on the question with public acclaim. This is now his weakness and he has seen how the apex court decided to “go with the people” on the question of the dismissal of the Chief Justice
Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. There is therefore no reason for him to contest the offer that he become a “civilian” president after leaving the rank of army chief.
The opposition wants him out. Its leaders are saying he can’t stay on as president — in other words, he can’t be helped into another term by the PPP — after retiring from the army because the law and army rules debar him from politics for two years in any case. But the “pro-PPP-deal” leaders within the ruling PML think that this hurdle too can be removed through an amendment of the Constitution.
Whatever the polemic of continuation may be, the fact is that President Musharraf has entered his weakest phase — which might conceivably be terminal — and has done little providentially to head it off. He lacked political support for his anti-terrorist operations, but instead of reaching out for it from across the floor he has consistently painted himself into a corner. The point of all negotiation is that it be undertaken from a position of relative strength. He didn’t do it when he was strong; now he has to run the gauntlet of accepting conditions when he is at his weakest ever.
For Pakistan, democracy is important, but even more important than that is the extirpation of terrorism and its parallel governance. What if Pakistan should get its democracy but the political parties that ride its crest are not interested in fighting the unavoidable war against the combination of Al Qaeda and the Taliban? Relying chiefly on negotiations from a position of weakness, they will go on making concessions to the terrorists in the hope of “mainstreaming” them, a strategy that has failed so resoundingly in the past that it would be criminal to take that route all over again. In this process, of course the MMA will feel empowered, but the supporters of the PMLN may become alienated and entire populations, propelled by feelings of insecurity, may change their outlook on the state itself. Equally, while the representatives of Pakistan’s sub-nationalisms are now on the side of the combined opposition in order to get rid of the army, but what if they should opt to leave Pakistan on the basis of their separatist beliefs based on the “states” in the 1940 Lahore Resolution.
Under the circumstances, if a clerically sponsored transformation of the state takes place under “democracy”, large swathes of territory could become interested in opting out of the state. Indeed, if there is an exodus of populations incapable of bearing the brunt of the sort of Islamic “reforms” already promised in the NWFP, Sindhi and Baloch leaders may appeal to neighbouring states for help. This is an extreme scenario but is a logical consequence of the supremacy of the clergy fortified with Al Qaeda “monopoly of violence”. That is also the only way Al Qaeda can survive in the world.
Al Qaeda wants Pakistan as its headquarters, nuclear weapons and all. Its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has found the going tough in Iraq and Somalia, but in Pakistan almost the entire nation hates America and is in denial about Al Qaeda’s presence in the country. Therefore let us be clear about the relationship of democracy and the war against extremism. It is crucial that democracy should return to Pakistan. It is equally crucial to fight the war against religious extremism. Therefore if democracy is to return to Pakistan it should pledge to accept the challenge of fighting Al Qaeda and its extremist allies in this country. *