THE BLOG

Democratic Delusions

The contrast between political rhetoric and everyday reality is often stark, even in democracies, where politicians are free to speak the truth about the ills facing their societies. But the discontinuity seems greatest in the Islamic world, where religious dogmas and delusions thrive, and nowhere greater than in Pakistan.

Just consider President Asif Ali Zardari's address to a joint session of parliament last month, following national elections that returned Nawaz Sharif to power as prime minister. After noting his role as the nation's first elected civilian to oversee a "democratic" transfer of power, Zardari praised the establishment of democratic government in Pakistan. He extolled the "grace and glory of democracy" that had taken root in his country. He announced the "success of a prolonged struggle" toward democracy, insisting that "a dream has come true; a promise has been redeemed." He claimed that parliament had "purged the Constitution of undemocratic articles." He explained that voter participation in the parliamentary elections "shows that the ethos of our people is democratic." Thanks to the sacrifice of the nation's political leaders, he said, "democracy has arrived."

The great, historic test of democracies, however, is not their capacity to hold elections. It is whether they deliver justice to the least powerful members of their societies, especially their ethnic, racial, and religious minorities. Put another way, democracies differ from tyrannies by their ability to make peace with modern pluralism. And by this test, Pakistan -- a self-declared Muslim state devoted to upholding Sunni Islam -- represents a loathsome retreat into sectarian terror.

"This is not an economic battle any longer, this is a battle of ideologies," Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council told a Washington, DC gathering last week. "Pakistan is what I would call a failing society."

That dark assessment was echoed at a panel discussion, hosted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), about the growing threat of religiously motivated violence against Muslim and non-Muslim minorities. The panel included Rahat Husain, legal affairs director of the Universal Muslim Association of America, which advocates for Shi'a Muslims; Peter Bhatti, chairman of International Christian Voice; Qasim Rashid, spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA; and Jay Kansara, associate director of the Hindu American Foundation.

USCIRF's report, "Pakistan: A History of Violence," documents 18 months of publicly-reported attacks against religious communities. The findings make the bloodletting in Iraq and Afghanistan almost seem like child's play. Over the course of the study, there were 203 separate acts of sectarian violence, injuring more than 1,800 people and claiming the lives over 700 men, women, and children. The largest number of attacks was against Shi'a Muslims, followed by Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. The methods include suicide bombs, bombs in markets and mosques, drive-by shootings, attacks on religious sites, torture, beheadings, and mob violence. The victims, overwhelmingly civilians, included:

  • An opthamologist and his son, shot and killed.
  • A doctor gunned down in his clinic.
  • Four shopkeepers fatally shot while at work.
  • A 14-year-old girl killed at a religious meeting.
  • A 12-year-old girl gang-raped and murdered.
  • An 11-year-old boy, burned, tortured, mutilated and murdered.
  • A 44-year-old school teacher fatally shot on his way home.
  • A 43-year-old school teacher tortured to death while in police custody.
  • A prayer leader killed in a mosque.
  • A disabled man burned alive by a mob.

And the list goes on. It is true that "private citizens" and militant groups officially banned by the government committed most of these atrocities. But the real atrocity is that Pakistan sustains what USCIRF calls a "climate of impunity" for this violence. Perpetrators are rarely apprehended or prosecuted. The overall response of the Pakistani government, according to USCIRF, has been "grossly inadequate."

The problem is not just a failure of political will, but rather a deep conflict between the doctrines of political Islam and the tenets of liberal democracy. A government that uses blasphemy laws to criminalize speech deemed "offensive" to Sunni Islam does not have a democratic ethos. A law enforcement regime that refuses to ensure the security of an entire community because of theological differences -- the Shi'a Muslims, who have endured scores of lethal attacks as police looked the other way -- does not have a democratic ethos. A constitution that politically disenfranchises people because of religion -- the Ahmadis, who cannot vote without publicly renouncing their faith -- does not have a democratic ethos. A state education system that vilifies people because of their beliefs -- the Hindus, portrayed in textbooks as extremists and "the enemy of Islam" -- does not have a democratic ethos.

No, the ethos that appears to be overwhelming the state of Pakistan is not inspired by democratic ideals. It is, instead, nurtured by the visions and hatreds and paranoia of a perverted faith.

This is the cultural crisis of Pakistan. It was on tragic display earlier this month, when Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager campaigning for girls' education, visited the United Nations in New York. The 16-year-old Yousafzai barely survived an assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban last October, when she was shot in the face at point-blank range. As she told an appreciative audience in New York: "Extremists are afraid of books and pens." Back home in Pakistan, however, Taliban leaders lashed out at her in an open letter to the Pakistani people, calling her efforts "satanic" and part of a larger Western plot to enslave the world.

The extremists seem to be winning the argument. "Many people hate Malala," Zubair Torwali, a newspaper columnists from the Swat Valley, told The New York Times. "Anything here in Pakistan related to the West or America becomes a thing of conspiracy. The Taliban's ideology is flourishing in Pakistan. It is victorious."

This ideology of exclusion and hate may not be triumphant in Pakistan, but it does seem to be gaining ground. A turning point came with the assassinations in 2011 of two prominent government leaders critical of the nation's blasphemy laws and systematic repression of minorities. One was Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim, and governor of Punjab, and another was Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, and the federal minister for Minorities Affairs. Their deaths were openly applauded by leading politicians and clerics.

The great tragedy of this lurch toward extremism is that it alienates large segments of the population from Pakistani society -- individuals and groups that could help to moderate and reform its political culture. The founding fathers of Pakistan "had a broad vision of inclusion" and recognized that "Christians have played an important role" in the history of the country, said Peter Bhatti, brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, who has taken up his brother's cause. Despite the spike in violence against Christians, he said, "we will remain loyal citizens of Pakistan."

What religious minorities in Pakistan appear to share, in fact, is a commitment to a democratic state worthy of the name: a nation that ensures equal justice under the law for all its citizens, regardless of race, gender, or creed. This is what constitutes a democratic ethos, in law and in custom. Political philosopher John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleraton (1689), explained the core moral obligation of a just state in this way: "It is the duty of the civil magistrate, by the impartial execution of equal laws, to secure unto all the people in general, and to every one of his subjects in particular, the just possession of these things to this life."

Pakistan's political leadership gives lip service to this principle, as if prompted by a guilty conscience. "Let everyone be judged by the same yardstick," President Zardari told the parliament. But until Pakistan takes significant steps toward this goal -- in its politics as well as its broader culture -- its descent into a violent, sectarian quagmire is assured.

Joseph Loconte, PhD, is an associate professor of history at the King's College in New York City and the author of Gospel of Liberty: John Locke and the Struggle for Religious Freedom (Lexington Books, forthcoming).

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