Pakistan has elections. But so have many other countries which we would not call democratic. The Soviet Union had elections. For a country to be a democracy it needs more than elections. It needs a strong civil society, an inclusive social and political dialogue, and a shared commitment by all to resolve political disagreements through shared democratic institutions.
And while the integrity of elections in Pakistan has been increasing in the recent years since the ousting of President Musharaf, and Pakistan has managed the peaceful transition of democratically elected governments, the social and political trends it displays outside of that are rather more worrying.
According to former Pakistan parliamentarian and author of the seminal book ‘Purifying the Land of the Pure’, Faranaz Ispahani, Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, had wanted Pakistan to be a secular democratic state where the Hindus, Muslims and others would be equal. As leader, Jinnah, a Shia Muslim himself, had appointed a Hindu, several Shias, and an Ahmadi to his first cabinet.
But it has been all down-hill from there. No sooner than Jinnah had started than Sunnis within Jinnah’s cabinet began plotting to make Pakistan a Sunni Islamic state, with Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan first Prime Minister, leading the narrative of Islamic victimhood, according to Ispahani. And today, that same narrative of Islamic victimhood still animates the parties of the religious conservatives to push the country ever closer to their goal of an exclusionary, theocratic Islamic state.
Closer to the Conservatives’ goal
And the religious conservatives are closer to their goal than they have ever been. On its founding date, Pakistan had 23% of its population belonging to religious minorities. Today, that number stands at 3%, after 70 years in which successive governments and regimes have created an increasingly hostile environment for more and more minorities. Today, it is unthinkable that anyone could appoint an Ahmadi to the cabinet or give them a prominent role.
What is worse, with the entrenchment of the election process in the national life, politicians and politically motivated military leaders are finding that there are votes in pandering to the well-organized religious extremists, and the political discourse in the country seems to be steadily veering to the right. This has put items such as the blasphemy law or religious extremism beyond the possibility of debate in the mainstream conversation.
Young people in particular are increasingly agitated by the ways in which political discourse in Pakistan has become so divisive, sectarian and exclusionary. They chafe under the cultural restrictions imposed upon their thought and speech, and which manifest themselves in the blasphemy law, but also as the flash mobs who assault and kill outspoken critics of religious extremism. They feel they can vote in Pakistan, but that they need to be careful when they speak, lest they be met with violenceDr. Azeem Ibrahim
But there is a mounting fight-back. Young people in particular are increasingly agitated by the ways in which political discourse in Pakistan has become so divisive, sectarian and exclusionary. They chafe under the cultural restrictions imposed upon their thought and speech, and which manifest themselves in the blasphemy law, but also as the flash mobs who assault and kill outspoken critics of religious extremism. They feel they can vote in Pakistan, but that they need to be careful when they speak, lest they be met with violence.
This is not democracy. This is not even mob rule. It is the chaotic rule of the loudest, most extremist mobs. Yet the yearning for true democracy remains. Blogs critical of political decisions or cultural and social trends continue to flourish, despite the present and real threat of death. Young people continue to organize, to discuss, to debate. Indeed, few countries have young people who are as politically engaged as they are in Pakistan.
I recently attended Afkar e Taza (“Fresh Ideas”), a three-day academic literary festival held in Lahore, organized by Dr Yaqoob Bangash from The Center for Governance and Policy at Information Technology University. Dr Bangash’s motivation was to create safe spaces in which contentious topics can be discussed such as the judiciary (always a touchy topic in Pakistan), the culture of honor killings, higher education, history and Sufism. All topics which in the current climate might be deemed “sensitive”, but which are essential to discuss. This sort of event is exactly what Pakistan needs, and exactly what the young people of Pakistan need more of, if the country is to build the democratic culture and society. And it is heartening to see that such events are taking place, and that young people are so engaged. There is hope for democracy in Pakistan yet.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.