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Discussing Democracy In Islamabad

By Yoginder Sikand

06 June, 2008

One of my many major grouses with the 'mainstream'
Indian media (and this applies to the dominant Western
media as well) is the despicable way in which it
treats Pakistan. It is as if bad news about Pakistan
is always good news for the media. It is also if there
is nothing at all good in that country to write about
or that anything good about it is not 'newsworthy'.

That grouse has been considerably reinforced after
returning last week from attending one of the most
engaging and lively conferences I have ever
participated in-on Democracy in South Asia-held in
Islamabad. Hapless victim of Indian media
stereotyping, I had hardly expected such trenchant
critiques of ruling class politics, US imperialism,
the misuse of religion by the powerful, patriarchal
traditions and so on by leading Pakistani politicians
and social activists, and that too in the
air-conditioned comfort of the plush Government-run
Convention Centre in the heart of Islamabad, just a
stone-throw's distance from the Pakistani Parliament.
This, and the numerous wonderful Pakistani friends
that I made on this recent visit, have set me off on a
mission to do my own little bit to convince victims of
the 'mainstream' media in India that there is another
side of Pakistan that they must know about, about
which they have been deliberately kept ignorant.
Voices for genuine democracy and social justice are
increasingly vibrant and strident in Pakistan today,
and, contrary to what Indians (and Westerners) have
been programmed to believe, Pakistan is not a failed
state on the verge of being taken over by religious

The three-day conference, organized by the
Lahore-based Citizens' Commission for Human
Development, brought together academics and social
activists from various South Asian countries. It was
probably the first effort of its kind held in Pakistan
to discuss and debate about prospects for democracy in
South Asia that involved participants from most of the
countries in the region. All credit for this goes to
the inimitable Farrah Parvaiz Saleh, head of the CCHD,
who conceived of the project and administered every
small detail that it entailed.

In his address to the conference, the Pakistani Prime
Minister, Syed Yousuf Gilani, talked about the
movement for democracy in Pakistan and suggested that
the various countries in South Asia had much to learn
from each other in this regard. Somewhat the same
general points were made by Faisal Karim Kundi, Deputy
Speaker of the Pakistan National Assembly. Other
leading Pakistani politicians made similar comments.

One of the most enriching presentations was by Raza
Rabbani, Leader of the House, Senate of Pakistan and
senior leader of the Pakistan Peoples' Party. He dwelt
at length with the prospects of genuine democracy in
Pakistan. He rebutted the allegation that Islam and
democracy were incompatible, arguing that this was a
convenient way to justify authoritarianism and deny
democracy to Muslim peoples. This argument, he noted,
distracted attention from one of the principal causes
of undemocratic regimes in many Muslim-majority
countries, namely Western imperialism, which has a
vested interest in backing such regimes in order to
serve Western economic, political and strategic
purposes, fearing that democratic regimes would refuse
to toe Western dictates. He referred to America's
strong backing to the late Pakistani dictator Zia
ul-Haq, under whose rule Pakistan experienced a long
spell of brutal authoritarian rule, and who supported
American interests at the cost of those of the
majority of the Pakistani people. He also cited
several instances of Western powers, particularly
America, actually overthrowing or undermining
democratically-elected regimes in Muslim countries. He
talked about the 'double-standards' of Western powers
in their attitude towards Islamic movements, as
exemplified in their support to such groups in the war
against the Soviets in Afghanistan and now having
totally reversed their stance. And today, despite its
rhetoric about supporting 'democracy' in the Muslim
world, Senator Rabbani stressed, America was
consistently supporting General Musharraf, who had no
democratic mandate to rule Pakistan and who, he
claimed, was bent on putting the Pakistani
Constitution into abeyance, for which he was being
solidly backed by his American patrons.

Pakistan, Senator Rabbani noted, is a federation, and
can survive and progress only under democracy (a point
that applies to other such states such as India as
well). The smaller federating units must feel that
they are vital stakeholders in the system, and their
economic, cultural and political grievances must be
addressed. This requires, he argued, a genuine
parliamentary system, not the quasi-presidential
system that Musharraf has converted Pakistan into,
where decision-making is confined to a single person,
where the cabinet is virtually redundant, where the
Parliament has been converted into a rubber-stamp and
where a President who does not enjoy the support of
the majority of the people has the right to dismiss
elected assemblies. Obviously, Rabbani pointed out, in
such a system where an individual's whims can rule
over vital state institutions and where the
military-bureaucracy-feudal lord nexus throttles
people's voices genuine democracy cannot flourish.

The same point was articulated equally passionately by
the cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, President
of the Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf party. He insisted that
Musharraf had no mass support and that he was
deliberately projecting to his Western backers the
erroneous specter of Pakistan being taken over by
Islamist radicals if he were removed from power simply
in order to be allowed to continue to rule the

A brilliant presentation by a young Pakistani scholar,
Junaid Ahmad, dealt with the question of democracy,
human rights and the so-called Western
'civilisational' project for the Muslim world,
including Pakistan. Ahmad noted that in recent years,
particularly after the events of 11 September 2001,
neo-conservatives in America have been on a desperate
search for 'moderate' Muslims, that is Muslims who are
'moderate' in terms of their attitudes towards the
American establishment, rather than being committed to
genuine social justice and democracy. Such 'moderate'
Muslims have little or no mass support, and are often
apologists for Western hegemony. The entire project of
'civilising' the Muslim world that the West has now
taken on itself reeks of the legacy of the colonial
White Man's Burden and is yet another means to bolster
Western domination. In this project, key issues such
as human rights, gender justice, poverty and
inter-community relations are allowed to be addressed
simply through Western-funded NGOs, which often have
no organic links with the masses, rather than through
political mobilization. This, in turn, has crucial
consequences in terms of depoliticization of social
movements and co-optation of committed social
activists as these issues come to be discussed simply
through conferences, rather than through mass
mobilisation. Further, such Western-backed 'moderate'
Muslims and their NGOs are, because of their financial
dependence on their patrons, not allowed to
effectively critique and challenge Western
imperialism, the global capitalist system, the
so-called 'war on terror' and internal and external
structures of oppression.

Ahmad called for the emergence of 'organic' or
socially engaged Muslim intellectuals (and the same
could be said in the case of other religious
communities as well), strongly rooted in their
communities, working together in solidarity with
others against all forms of oppression, including in
the name of religion. In this, he argued, these
intellectuals could be inspired by socially liberatory
understandings of their own faiths.

Equally trenchant critiques of ruling class politics
and alliances with imperialism were articulated by
some Indian participants. Karen Gabriel of the Centre
for Women's Development, New Delhi, spoke about the
state-sponsored virtual genocidal attacks on Muslims
in Gujarat, and of how these and other victims of
Hindu chauvinism, often in league with sections of the
state machinery, have made a mockery of India's claims
to being the world's largest democracy. P.K.Vijayan
from Delhi University argued on similar lines,
critiquing Brahminical Hinduism from a Dalit or 'low'
caste point of view, stressing that it was wholly
opposed to any sense of democracy. Azim Ahmad Khan,
Director of the World Learning Programme, Jaipur,
elaborated on this point by highlighting the
oppressive conditions under which the vast majority of
India's Dalits continue to groan under, suggesting,
therefore, that formal democracy, in the form of
voting rights to all citizens, was hardly enough to
guarantee substantive democracy in terms of social and
economic power.

My own presentation was on the debate about Islam and
democracy, in which I sought to problematise the
question by pointing to the diverse understandings of
both Islam and democracy. Based on a case study of
three noted Indian Muslim scholars, I sought to argue
against the tendency to essentialise Islam and Muslims
(or any other religion and religious community, for
that matter) and pointed out the possibility of
generating contextually relevant understandings of
Islam (and other faiths) that are genuinely rooted in
the quest for comprehensive social justice and
inter-faith solidarity against oppression and other
such democratic demands. My paper also entailed a
critique of liberal democracy, arguing that it was
unable (and unwilling, too) to deal effectively with
structures of economic, cultural and political
oppression and hegemony.

A host of other speakers graced the conference,
including several members of Pakistan's National
Assembly, both from the ruling Pakistan Peoples' Party
and from various opposition groups, as well as
participants from Nepal and Bangladesh, adding their
own invaluable inputs and insights.  

'This is just our first step', the amiable Farrah
Parvaiz Saleh, organizer of the conference, assures me
when we depart. 'There is much more that we hope to
do, working with other South Asian groups for our
common cause, of genuine democracy in our region'.

People-to-people contact in this and similar ways, I
can wager, I tell her as I reluctantly head for the
airport to get back to Delhi, holds much more promise
for peace and democracy in our common South Asian
region than sombre deliberations between stiff-necked
sarkari babus who are often guided by their
ill-intentioned notions of 'national interest'. And
Farrah ji nods and smiles in that inimitable style of
hers, while my eyes get clouded at the thought of my
imminent departure and the prospect that I might never
again meet the wonderful friends I have made in
Islamabad on this short trip. 

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