GOOD governance, human rights and individual freedoms, and rule of law are among the main features of democracy. A democratic state cannot choose one, or some, of these and reject others. Common citizens may see good governance as a priority because this is directly linked to their daily life needs. But the significance of freedom and other attributes of democracy cannot be discounted; they are equally important to fulfil one’s physical and emotional needs. Denying emotional, spiritual and aesthetic needs to people does not mean these cease to exist. This is as simple as it is evident.
Complexities arise when certain state institutions or groups of people start to believe that people need only what the power elites think they need. Eventually, the power elites start seeing the people as their subjects who have only physical needs; other needs, in their eyes, fall in the domain of religion. At the same time, these elites try to also regulate religion because they fear ‘miscreants’ can exploit it and create trouble in the way of good governance.
Although the Muslim world on the whole is facing this dilemma, the Arab world is a chronic example of this model of governance that looks after only the physical needs of the people. The Arab Spring epitomised the fact that people are not merely subjects; nor are their needs merely physical. In some cases, power elites provided more space to their people to resolve the crisis. In others, power elites refused to do so thus plunging their states into turmoil. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for power elites in these countries to use this model of governance as a tool to suppress freedom and democracy.
Ironically, Muslim countries including Pakistan, which are in a process of democratic transition, still seek inspiration from failed models. One’s interaction with power elites in Islamabad would suggest that the concepts of democracy and freedom do not figure in the latter’s ideas of state-building. For instance, Middle Eastern controlled-regime models continue to inspire many retired military top officials and some of them even talk about replicating these models in Pakistan. In their case, it is understandable because they come from a disciplined background, but when former diplomats and bureaucrats also start advocating the same, it surprises many. Pakistani political elites, too, have similar views: many politicians see Turkey and Malaysia as model states in terms of governance, democracy and freedom of expression.
Power elites conceive of democracy only in the electoral perspective and reject other democratic values.
Interestingly, an overwhelming majority of former civil and military officials and politicians also admire Chinese political and governance models even though they know that despite many commonalities, they cannot be fully adopted in Pakistan. Dig deep into their mind and sources of inspiration and you will find one common thing: desire for a controlled regime in Pakistan. Political leaders, however, favour controlled freedom through the power of the vote.
Another important common factor in their thought processes is that they conceive of democracy only in the electoral perspective. They hardly believe in other democratic values. Here they use religion as a crutch to argue that the people already have a socio-political code of life provided by religion. This dichotomy exists in other parts of the Muslim world as well. A debate on the compatibility between Islam and democracy still consumes the intellectual energy of Muslim scholars.
In Pakistan’s context, this discourse provides an opening for the partnership between the religious clergy and security and political power elites. In many instances in the past, the first segment became a beneficiary in the power-sharing mechanism and developed a comfortable working relationship with both civilian and military rulers. The religious elite’s ability to manipulate street power and provide ideological narratives in support of power elites has furthered their own religious-ideological cause as well.
The sustainability and legitimacy of regimes also depends on two institutions: judiciary and media, which limit the absolute power of the state. Both institutions address the need for justice and freedom and enjoy comparatively more freedom in democratic regimes, but controlling these institutions is a desire that remains alive among states in democratic transition. No doubt the process of democratisation takes time, but the media and judiciary are major instruments in this process. If these institutions are not functioning well, that means a blockage has occurred in the transition process.
Many scholars maintain that the true spirit of pluralistic and secular democracy has never been followed in the country. For instance, renowned scholar Kamran Tahir believes that the Objectives Resolution of 1949 allowed undue space to religious elements in the country’s social and political set-up. As a consequence, political instability and authoritarianism became an abiding feature. Other scholars see democracy from the perspective of governance and advocate that democracy is not the final or only form of governance. Among them, a few argue in the socio-political context and assert that it is only the elites who rule in the name of democracy. Others bring in the religious argument to advocate that justice should be the ultimate objective of any form of governance.
The latter point of view is closely aligned to that of religious scholars who also believe only in the electoral process. Non-democratic tendencies among the religious clergy are very common in Pakistan. Religiously inspired militants also borrow this argument from the clergy that democracy is contrary to Islam. All shades of religious clergy have strong belief in religious identity and value it above democratic norms. The authoritarian power elites see no problem in these views and narratives but are against violent struggle for achieving the objectives. The power elites believe that non-violent clerics should help the state build counter-narratives against violence.
Pakistan is not part of the Gulf or Middle East region. Nor is it located in Central Asia or North Africa. It cannot pull itself out from the South Asian region. Though the state of democracy, good governance and freedom of expression is not satisfactory in the region, its fate is nevertheless linked with democratic institutionalisation.
What else could be the counter-narrative to extremism than democracy, good governance and freedom of expression?
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2015