A flawed view of Pakistan
Dawn, 23 March, 2009
IT was a triumphant day in Pakistan when power lost to principle. Elsewhere, however, the mood must have been more sombre.
For several months now, the western media has been projecting Pakistan as a failed state, the citizens of which have been branded as either extremists or sympathisers. The indolent coverage by the western press of Pakistan’s historic moment reveals how difficult it must have been for some analysts to grasp the new Pakistan.
Following Washington’s newfound fascination with this country, the western press spawned a coterie of lay journalists who began to tag themselves as experts on Pakistan. Shying away from the labour involved in discerning the true political aspirations of Pakistanis, these novices relied on old knowledge. And, of course, readymade frames were all too easily available into which they painlessly fitted the entire nation: extremism, tribalism and Islamism.
Pakistan has spoken back, and forcefully. No matter how ingeniously the gurus of western media attempt to recast their frames, Pakistan will no longer fit in them. Instead, Pakistan has presented the world with a new model of progressive political change. It is worth remembering that in most countries that democratised during the last three decades, the critical factors had been elite pacts or foreign intervention. In Pakistan, it was rightful resistance by the legal community that created the opening for democratic change.
But this is not all. The Pakistani legal complex has presented a new paradigm of democratic resistance. In no other country in the world have lawyers mobilised and sustained a movement in support of the rule of law. While it is true that the legal community in most countries favours political liberalism, the arena of contestation has always been the court. The weapons of resistance have historically been writs and petitions. But, where the courts were filled with inept regime-friendly judges, the lawyers felt powerless in challenging abuses of power by the state.
Not the Pakistani lawyers. In my own scholarship of this movement, I have searched extensively to find a comparable case in which the mobilisation of lawyers changed so dramatically the politics of a country. The black coats of Pakistan stand apart. By contesting the unrule of law on the street rather than in incapable courts, the uncompromising Pakistani lawyers have invented a new method of rightful resistance.
The reinstatement of the judiciary is a well-earned victory for the legal community, the political opposition and the ordinary citizens who marched in support of the rule of law. But, as we celebrate, we must also stop to ask what this struggle means for Pakistan. How has the mobilisation of people altered the political landscape in Pakistan? What have we gained?
There has been much informative commentary on the immediate impact of political mobilisation in Pakistan. The restoration of the judiciary is of course the most important outcome. But analysts have also detailed the responsible role played by the opposition parties and the military. Further, political analysts are making an important contribution preventing the government from seizing the credit for the restored judiciary. Even if international actors such as Richard Holbrooke term the reinstatement a ‘statesmanslike act by [the] president’, the citizens of the country are well aware of the cost they had to pay in removing the roadblocks to justice.
Much of recent political discourse, however, focuses on personalities. But this was history made by millions. It would be unfitting then to think of this struggle only in terms of who will win the next election. The marching millions have opened new spaces in Pakistani politics, leading to structural transformations that we must contemplate. I see three revolutionary aspects of the movement.
The most significant aspect of the lawyers’ movement was its indigenous origins. This was not a movement initiated by NGOs funded by western donors. The belief that Pakistan somehow has to be democratised from the outside no longer holds any merit. For a country that has unfortunately been in the grip of foreign intervention in the political arena, the purely localised nature of the movement is excellent news. The fact that the native impulse for reform arose under inauspicious circumstances confirms the promise of indigenous nation-building in Pakistan.
Second, I believe the lawyers’ movement acted as the occasion for the initiation of issue-based politics in Pakistan. Since the only opening available for the opposition was through this movement, the politicians were led into using the claims of the movement. Hence, the promise was no longer ethnic (greater resources for a province) or clientalistic (we will give you more government jobs). The claims were larger, more abstract and related to national ideals. The new vocabulary of politics — with its primary emphasis on justice — has initiated a new phase of democratic politics in Pakistan.
Third, this was not only a lawyers’ movement but a media revolution. It was thrilling to see the commentary, the level of professionalism and critique by journalists. The media has opened channels for the powerless in Pakistani society, providing a platform for new voices. This development, is, I believe, irreversible and has created a critical space for public engagement in Pakistan. Rather than merely infusing people with consumerist ideals, the Pakistani media offered political consciousness to its audience. This is an arena which even India — with all its freedoms of press — will be envious of.
Finally, it seems that those who continue to find only extremism and violence in the Pakistani political scene have lost credibility. Pakistan is a democratic nation that has shown its uncompromising belief in the rule of law. The long march and the restoration of the judiciary are a message to western nations and intellectuals to act more responsibly when generating simple-minded discourse about the country.
For the editors of the bestselling weekly who recently wrote ‘there is no country on earth more dangerous than Pakistan’, let it be known that Pakistan is also the country which has given the world a new model of peaceful resistance and change. Perhaps Newsweek should consider a new cover story about Pakistan’s triumphant moment to rectify its previous misrepresentation.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University. firstname.lastname@example.org