“Democratic Discourse”: Reflections in the Pakistani Mirror

Examining the extremism in both American and Pakistani political discourse.

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Glenn Greenwald has a fascinating post up about “tribalism” in our political discourse on Israel. I’ll leave the particulars of that issue alone here, but I thought this piece was particularly revealing [emphasis mine]:

Doesn’t the most minimal level of intellectual awareness — indeed, the concept of adulthood itself — require that re-analysis? And, of course, the “self-hating” epithet — with which I’ve naturally been bombarded relentlessly over the last week — is explicitly grounded in the premise that one should automatically defend one’s “own group” rather than endeaveor to objectively assess facts and determine what is right and true.

This is true in almost any political debate. As he says, it is entirely natural that he will be attacked for not automatically supporting his own group. In his case, it’s a religious identity, but we see it repeated time and again across the political spectrum. If you don’t support the purest of perspective, you are the enemy. If you refer to the Tea Parties instead of “teabaggers,” that makes you a secret Republican. If you think the stimulus might have saved a few jobs, that makes you a pinko communist infiltrator. Or if you support legislating a timetable for withdrawal in Congress instead of magically making Obama decide to leave tomorrow, well that makes you a closeted war-monger (if you’re lucky, they’ll use the word “incrementalist”).

But lest we think this is some sad state of affairs caused by rampant hyper-partisanship and a dysfunctional media, both of which plague the US, it is in fact merely the price of a free and open debate. Anyone who holds an extremist view necessarily fears an honest debate because they know facts invalidate extremism, no matter what side of the debate they ultimately come down on. Extremism thrives on victimization, and facts present options to escape (Change?) the very victimization that gives them purpose. What’s the point of being Glenn Beck if you don’t believe that the Obama administration is a secret fascist conspiracy? You’d have no reason to exist.

Not only do Americans struggle with this, but we see the same thing in Pakistan. There the citizens also struggle for progressive and liberal policy advancements, and while we most often hear about the extremism of the Taliban and their ilk, it is important to see that the purist, victimized crowd exists in all corners of their political discourse. I’d also be happy to argue that the Taliban push ideology far beyond the relative blandness of “extremism” and safely into other categories like “criminal,” “fascist,” and “psychopathic,” but again this isn’t about the Taliban. No, we’re looking at progressives in Pakistan, and we’ll see what happens when they attempt to engage in an open and honest debate.

Here’s prominent columnist Mosharraf Zaidi’s assessment of the movement:

As children of Jinnah’s Pakistan, perhaps aspiring liberals and progressives need to start to ask questions about the nature of our citizenship, the nature of our engagement, and the nature of our politics within the broader canvas of realpolitik in Pakistan. The most important paint on this canvas is the green-coloured traditional South Asian Muslim sentiment of the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis. Pakistan’s central conversation is not a Sufi rock concert. It is a race for the next rupee, whilst carefully stepping over a cocktail of Barelvi, Deobandi, Wahhabbi, post-modern, Salafi and Shiite veritable “landmines”. Pakistani Muslim orthopraxis is diverse and contested — but it is central to defining the lowest common denominator in Pakistan’s issue-politics.

Asking questions about how to improve the rate of success of liberal causes in Pakistan requires us to take a break from mullah-bashing, and introspect. It is a political minefield if you’re a reformer interested in stripping Pakistan’s Constitution of its Muslim identity. It is an orchard ripe with fruit if you’re interested in exploiting existing religious stereotypes and biases in Pakistani society. Where can we reasonably expect every politician to eventually land every single time?

What he’s saying is that progressives should avoid the partisan games which feed the corruption of politicians and empower some of the most criminal policies. Instead, they should reflect on their own tactics, the nature of their engagement, and decide whether or not it’s the movement itself which needs a course correction, outside of the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim (Think Progressive/Conservative, Democrat/Republican) limitations. Zaidi questions the success of “mullah bashing” (hating the “teabaggers,” “Rethuglicans”, etc) and concludes that only concerted systemic reform can achieve their goals, not blind partisanship.

Big mistake.

Blogger Ahsan at Five Rupees takes him to task in a post titled “Blaming the Victims.” If you had any doubt as to the similarities of US and Pakistani politics, this should clear it up:

In Mosharraf’s view, liberal and progressive Pakistanis haven’t done enough to be engaged in Pakistani politics, and have ceded space to the the more hardline elements of our society. As a consequence, we have been complicit in things like the anti-Ahmedi discriminatory legislation that was at the root of last week’s massacre. In essence, liberals — to borrow the Bush/Obama administrations’ favorite catch-phrase — need to “do more”.

Ka-boom! Because Zaidi acknowledges failures by the progressive movement, he’s compared to George W. Bush. Why? For supposedly blaming the victim. In Ahsan’s calculation, he’s happy to say that liberals are fighting hard for change:

You don’t think that’s what liberals have been doing since forever? We’ve been asking questions about the nature of citizenship, the nature of engagement, and the nature of our politics for a long time.


The problem, you see, is that we’ve received answers to those very questions, and they’re not pretty.

Oh there’s the victimization. He explains:

The simple fact is that today’s Pakistan (or yesterday’s for that matter, but definitely today’s) has no space for liberals or liberal ideas. None. If progressives got rounded up and shot tomorrow, the country wouldn’t blink, and it wouldn’t miss us. Why? Because we don’t matter. Why don’t we matter? Number one, because we speak inconvenient truths, that people would rather ignore; number two, because there’s not enough of us; and number three, because we don’t use guns and riots to get across our points of view.

Blogger Sepoy at Chapati Mystery has a much more wonky explanation for why progressives are the real victims [emphasis mine].

So about this “democratic discourse”. The Islamization of Pakistan, under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and the Sunnification of Pakistan under General Zia ul Haq were both top-down, constructed processes which were at odd not only with the public but with the Courts and the Constitution. Before 1973, there was only the Objectives Resolution – a preamble with some general principles. The 1956 Constitution introduced Article 198 which stated that “no law shall be enacted which is repugnant to the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah” but only that a commission will make recommendation as to which laws, and how, can be conformed to Islam while enshrining minority rights. This Constitution was waylaid two years later, in 1958, so none of this had any effect on the working legal courts. The 1962 Constitution was much more restrictive in its “Islamic” hues. Pakistan became a Republic from an Islamic Republic and Islamization procedures were dropped. An amendment, in 1963, added an Advisory Council of Islamic Ideology [pdf] which could only advice the President. The provisions in the 1973 Constitution moved the rhetorical goalpost back -becoming again, the Islamic Republic and enshrining Islam in the preamble and the declarative bits. But it was Zia ul Haq and his Hudood Ordinances which set up a parallel legal apparatus to Islamicize all of Pakistani laws. Notice now, that none of the above described processes were “democratic” in any sense of the word. There never was a mandate for any party to do Constitutional reform. See now the perniciousness of the claim that the anti-Ahmadi law represent “democratic discourse”? But, here is another damning detail – not only was this criminalization of the Ahmadi un-democratic, it was also judicial activism (well, they also gave legal sanctuary to the military coups).

Note that Zaidi never did blame progressives, but you see where we’ve gone? We’re not seeing the open and honest debate on engagement that Zaidi called for. We’re seeing reasons why progressives are victims, why their enemies are the real bad guys, and why Zaidi might just be helping those bad guys by acknowledging that Pakistan’s policies grow partly from democratic discourse.

The whole affair prompted this tweet from Zaidi:

@mosharrafzaidi: Pakistani “liberals” respond to their own dislocation, by attacking people who point out the high price we pay for this dislocation. Nice.

That’s how the debate goes. This is to be expected from the purists. They can’t allow honesty. If you survive on mullah bashing, why would you listen to Zaidi’s call for restraint? If your only reason for being is to attack the “lamestream media,” why would you acknowledge their facts? If your argument is based on victimization, you lose that argument when you’re no longer the victim. It doesn’t matter if you’re an American or Pakistani, that’s how the debate works. Even though we normally only experience this through the lens of American politics, we see in other democracies, even in countries with clearly despotic regimes and oppressive policies, there will always be a purist there to block an honest dialogue.

Let’s go back to Greenwald’s piece:

Doesn’t the most minimal level of intellectual awareness — indeed, the concept of adulthood itself — require that re-analysis? And, of course, the “self-hating” epithet — with which I’ve naturally been bombarded relentlessly over the last week — is explicitly grounded in the premise that one should automatically defend one’s “own group” rather than endeaveor to objectively assess facts and determine what is right and true.

This is important to keep in mind as work through these important foreign policy issues, including the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It doesn’t matter if you’re a journalist like Greenwald or a columnist like Zaidi, there will be extremists everywhere who attack you and decry your work as helping the enemy. But Greenwald is right, an objective assessment of the facts is required. Ignore the purists. You are not a victim. Determining what is right and true is empowerment. It empowers you to actually make progress, to accomplish your goals. And that’s what it’s all about, right?

So drop me a line in the comments, and let me know how this post helps Rahm Emanuel and/or Rush Limbaugh defeat you. Afterward, join us on Rethink Afghanistan’s Facebook page and collaborate with the tens of thousands of others around the country working to bring the war in Afghanistan to an end.

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