Saturday, 7 August 2010

Pakistan, democracy and Islamism - time for a new strategy maybe?


The reason for us crawling very slowly up Manningham’s White Abbey Road became clear – several young ladies plus a couple of bearded young men were waving buckets at passing cars to raise some cash for the relief effort in Pakistan. I wound by window down and dropped a couple of quid into the bucket wondering whether this was actually the first time I’d donated to an Islamic charity – in this case Islamic Relief.

This fact got me to thinking – not about whether Islamic Relief was any better or worse than other aid charities with in-your-face religious affiliation such as Tear Fund, Cafod or Salvation Army but about Pakistan, Islamism and the future for what is a pretty dysfunctional place. It seems to me that Pakistan is a nation going backwards – away from the goal of freedom, prosperity and happiness promised by Jinnah and the country’s other founding fathers.

We tend in our assessment of Pakistan’s travails to seek explanations in either geopolitics – the relationship with India, the ongoing problems in Afghanistan and the legacy of colonialism or the ‘Great Game’ – or else in what we have convinced ourselves is the malign influence of Deobandi and Wahhabi Islam. And the people running Pakistan, attached as they are to the clan-like elements of Pakistan’s politics, escape from criticism. These men and women –often corrupt and venal – are feted and protected on the increasingly thin argument that they stand as bulwarks against the triumph of radical Islamism.

Yet we never ask whether the rule of men like Nawab and Zahavi – and those before them like Zia and Bhutto – are ultimately the reason for the attraction of Islamism. And the aggressive – often violent – suppression of Islamist organisations and politicians legitimises the use of violence as a political tool by the Islamists. What Pakistan really needs is a moderate Islamist movement – a Muslim parallel to Christian Democracy rooted in the importance of Islam to national identity but recognising pluralism, choice and justice.

Rather than protecting the failing Pakistani state and through such actions further encourage violent Islamism, could we support the creation of a moderate Islamist movement similar to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) or Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD). Or will we continue to view – from our arrogant eyrie – Islam as inherently anti-democratic:

The motives of these parties are often doubted by some political analysts. They argue that the commitment of these parties to liberal democratic principles may be thin and of a purely instrumentalist nature. In other words, they may use the rules of the democratic game to ascend to power, but there is no guarantee that they will continue to play by them when they are established. The fear that the hidden Islamist agenda of moderate Islamic parties may emerge as soon as they gain control of their respective states haunts many European political actors and local secular liberal groups. Although these fears may not be completely unrealistic, the experience of recent years has shown that Islamic political parties that have entered the democratic political game by participating in the parliament or the government have tended to moderate their political agenda and adopt more circumspect positions on relations between Islam and the state rather than attempt to precipitate an Islamist takeover.

It may be too late for Pakistan – generations of corrupt, self-serving government and the use of appeals to Islam as some kind of political Pavlovian tactic may make it too hard to achieve moderate change. I hope not. I hope some of the fine, intelligent, well-educated men and women in Pakistan will take up the cudgel of justice on behalf of the millions sinking further and further into poverty – to a world where the afterlife seems more appealing than the depressing drudgery of subsistence. And I hope the Pakistani diaspora stands up too – making the case for pluralism and arguing strongly that democracy, liberty and justice can reach an accommodation with Islam just as they have with Christianity.


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