Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Democracy Debate

I was watching Dawn TV the other day, and Mr. Ali Azmat was being interviewed on Talk Back. After waxing eloquent about the poor and the oppressed, Mr. Azmat suddenly launched into an aggressive anti-democracy tirade. For ten minutes he said something to the effect of Musharraf is the man. Then pompously, he said that Pakistan doesn’t deserve democracy and democracy only means that the illiterate idiots (I am roughly translating jahil, the word he used with much contempt) of this country will vote for other illiterate idiots and promote “feudal” politics.

It is not like I have not heard this argument before. Every opponent of democracy in Pakistan will dutifully cite this argument, and I would not really bother to rebut it if not for the fact that it leaves many proponents of democracy completely stumped.

So let’s settle this once and for all. The fact that Pakistan’s literacy rate is an abysmal 50% does not mean that it is unsuitable for democracy. This argument assumes that people who cannot read are automatically incapable of both rational thought and of deciding what is best for them, which is about all that people need to make a democracy work.

During elections, politicians outline what they will do if elected. Individuals vote for those who they think will best represent their interests. The person/party that represents the most people’s interests wins the elections. If by the next elections it does not deliver on its promises or if the people now want something those in government are not offering they are not reelected. Democracy in a nutshell.

Now, it does not take a person decades of schooling to decide (a) what he or she wants from the government and (b) whether once elected the government has followed through on its promises. Then why does this argument have currency with so many people in the “literate” upper and middle classes (UMC)?

The answer is simple. Just as the British colonizers had the myth of the incompetent natives to justify colonization, the UMC of Pakistan have the myth of the illiterate idiot poor person to justify a form of governance that suits them.

Military dictators in Pakistan have historically been economically beneficial to the UMC. In both Ayub and Musharraf’s eras, the economic growth benefited only those who were already well to do. Economic disparity grew dramatically making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Zia came in and put an immediate stop to Bhutto’s spree of nationalization and his socialist economic program, which was really hurting the UMC and benefiting the “illiterate” masses.

Simply put, the UMC and the masses have divergent interests. The masses want living wages, labor unions, better government education and health. The UMC want a liberal import policy, tax cuts on businesses and lots of protectionism for local industries. Democracy means that the masses get their way and the UMC lose out.

Therefore the conveniently created myth of the illiterate idiot masses. The interests of these unfortunate people can only be protected by the kinder and more liberal of the UMC, like Mr. Azmat. They cannot, of course, be allowed to govern themselves because they are not yet sophisticated enough. They must educate themselves to earn that privilege. So on and so forth.

Remind you of colonial rhetoric much?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Faiza Silmi

If you have read the New York Times recently, you will probably be familiar with Faiza Silmi. She is a 32 year old Moroccan woman who applied for French citizenship. She was denied because she wore a veil (not to be confused with the headscarf). When she appealed the decision, the French court upheld it and ruled that Faiza's radical practice of Islam was not compatible with French values such as secularism and equality of the sexes.

I personally find the institution of the veil extremely abhorrent. It is based on the misogynistic logic that women bear the guilt for exciting men's sexual desires and therefore must efface their bodies so that men can remain pious. It absolves men from the responsibility of controlling their gaze and desires and makes situations possible where a man can harass a woman and later with complete moral satisfaction say that she was asking for it because she did not wear the veil.

But Faiza's case makes me extremely uncomfortable. Denying Faiza citizenship on the basis of her religious beliefs is setting a dangerous precedent for religious discrimination. Her beliefs and practices may be repulsive to the French but they should not be grounds for rejection, especially in a secular country, where the state is supposed to be blind to the individual's religious beliefs.

Her case immediately made me think of Pakistan and how disastrous such a logic would be if applied here. Since I do not believe that men are more equal than women as ordained by the Quran (2:228, 282), I would become ineligible for Pakistani citizenship. Similarly, if someone disagreed with any Muslim belief or value, he or she could be denied Pakistani citizenship, too. 

To me this narrow-minded way of defining a country and its citizens' identities is extremely unsettling. In today's multicultural world where citizens of the same country are becoming more and more ethnically, linguistically, religiously and morally diverse, France's retrogressive ruling can only engender more intolerance.

Freedom of Speech

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” On Liberty, John Stuart Mill.

We in Pakistan don’t like to be contradicted. Fathers scold their children for correcting them; rulers forbid the press from criticizing them; teachers punish students who question them; religious leaders threaten those who challenge them; and the religious majority lynches or hangs those who contradict their beliefs.

All because of the deep-seated intellectual stupidity prevalent in our society.

Free speech does not harm anyone (except when used to instigate people to violence). It does, however, inconvenience those who do not like to think, who have passively received ideas and beliefs from their family or their society. Their intellectual laziness runs so deep that they would rather riot, burn things and murder than pause to think and respond to words with words.

Ideas should be challenged; people should be inconvenienced. The state should not protect ideas and beliefs from criticism but it should protect the critics from any physical danger that their critique puts them in.

Progress is only possible through the dissemination of new ideas and we as a society must learn to tolerate them, even if they challenge everything our society stands for. We do not need to accept the ideas, we do not even need to like them, but we cannot quash the ideas just because we disagree with them. It is not for the state or society to censor or privilege ideas and beliefs. Every individual must be allowed to decide the matter for his or herself.

Besides, if we believe that what we hold to be true is in fact absolutely true, we should not shrink from letting people challenge it. The truth by its very nature must stand up to all criticism. But if we do doubt ourselves, is it not better to listen to those who claim to have some answers? The only thing we could lose is our doubt.

Endnote: I strongly recommend J.S. Mill’s On Liberty to anyone who has not read it. At the very least read the first and second chapters. His arguments for free speech are excellent. Here is a link to the book if you are interested:

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Hypocrisy of the Pakistani Muslim

Pakistani Muslims are always telling people that their Islam is nothing like the Islam of the Taliban. You will find them ever ready to paint a rosy, peace-loving picture of their Islam. "Do you know that the Muslim greeting assalaamualaikum means peace be upon you?"

Well, that's very comforting to hear!

They will nod their heads vigorously and prepare to launch into an angry tirade against the Western media's conspiracy to fool the world into thinking that all Muslims are terrorists. But when you cut them off and suggest that all this must mean that they wholeheartedly condemn Islamist terrorism, most of them will flinch.

In rapid succession, they will bring up imperialism, Israel, American arrogance, state-sponsored terrorism, poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. Oh they will paint a heart-rending picture of the Islamist terrorist as a misguided child driven to violence by a cruel and unjust world. Some may partially condemn Islamist terrorism after many qualifications and after placing a good portion of the blame on the West itself. But only the brave few, the very few morally-brave few, will condemn it entirely, without explanations and clarifications and apologies.

It seems to me that Pakistani Muslims, who spend so much time nowadays denouncing "Islamophobia", are more often than not implicit supporters of the Taliban.

Think about it. If they really believed that the Taliban are following a twisted and perverted version of Islam then there would have been extremely loud demands (by which I mean rioting) forcing the Pakistani government to constitutionally declare the Taliban as non-Muslims, much like with the Ahmadiyyas in 1953 and 1974. There would have been great jubilation at the Pakistani Army fighting the Taliban in FATA and NWFP. It would have been welcomed as the triumphant swoop of the Pakistani-Muslim Army rescuing Islam from the blight of terrorism.

But wait. That is not what is happening... The Pakistani Muslims are screaming at the government to withdraw the army from FATA and NWFP and even after the Islamist terrorists have killed thousands of Pakistani soldiers and civilians the Pakistani Muslims claim that the government is acting against the terrorists only to protect America.

You are left just scratching your head in bewilderment.

So then, dear Pakistani Muslim, you don't want the terrorists in your country to be reigned in and their bases destroyed?

Uncomfortable silence.

So you're a Taliban sympathizer and even the most virulently anti-Muslim Western media outlet has been far too kind in their portrayal of you?

At this point your conversation will be terminated by a punch to the face by a very indignant and equally flustered Pakistani Muslim.