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Pakistan's Vulnerable Revolution in 2006
by Nasim Zehra Bookmark and Share

Throughout 2006 President Pervez Musharraf led the call for moderation in Pakistani politics and society. In the closing weeks of 2006 he also shepherded state institutions and parliament to take concrete steps like the passage of the Women's Protection Bill and introduction of an additional bill to end illegal, unconstitutional and un-Islamic practices against women including domestic violence.

A long overdue revision of the school curriculum took place to broaden historical and cultural horizons and to remove the language handicap the Urdu medium students face, impeding their academic and professional development.

While credible democracy is still missing, on the ideological plane there is an overall spirit of tolerance and inclusion that the Musharraf-controlled state and official politics is displaying. These are almost revolutionary steps coming from a state and political class that through acts of commission and omission has, for almost quarter of a century, beginning with its participation in the US-led 80s' 'international jihad' against the Soviet Union, tolerated and promoted intolerance and violence in society.

Pakistan's state institutions, encouraged by global politics of the 80s and 90s actively violated the constitution, undermined internal security, and trashed the founding vision of Pakistan seeking to promote the finest values of Islam and humanism - justice, freedom and excellence. Instead, a dark stifling shadow was cast over the Pakistani state and society.

Many exceptional efforts resisted state pressures but in Pakistan the collective and institutionalized spirit of inquiry, of commitment to social justice, of academic excellence were maimed. And for too long. It was a shadow that killed the spirit of art and culture, it numbed the sensitivities and it promoted fear and conspiracy.

Why did mostly the fearful, the crooked and the conspiratorial fill our public space? Many in Pakistan consistently harped on these questions. They spelt out the dangers of sectarianism, bigotry and organized violence to people and politics. They demanded change. No less than a cancer was sown in society.

Logically therefore this 2006 turnaround was long overdue. Logical requirements however don't easily become items on political agendas. It took this government half a decade whether and how to remove the deviations from the essence of Quranic teachings and the constitution from the various aspects of state-controlled private and public life. Finally multiple triggers- domestic, political, media support and foreign pressure, as well as Musharraf's personal orientation prompted the 2006 ideological turn around.

Significantly the military rulers have been responsible for introducing constitutional changes and promulgating ordinances that introduce fundamental changes in the position of women. Ayub Khan introduced the Family Laws Ordinance granting additional rights to women while Zia ul-Haq legalized and institutionalized injustice against women. The difference between the Ayub and Zia moves, and Musharraf's, is that Musharraf, though a military president, initiated the Women's Protection Bill that enjoyed the support of the parliamentary members, constitutional institutions like the Council of Islamic Ideology, national and regional parties including ANP, PPP and MQM which enjoy popular support, the executive and the media.

The women's bill therefore went through the parliamentary process and enjoys considerable popular political support. Through this move Musharraf started to tangibly root out Zia's legacy of distortion of religion and patriotism he had initiated for the overlapping causes of personal survival and the security agenda devised by his regime.

Musharraf's regime also appears to be actively withdrawing from religo-political groups the authority of defining and determining national security and national ideology. Until now the state had merely looked on while the values of tolerance and co-existence became subservient to group and clique notions of religiosity.

On anti-terrorism, Musharraf's articulation has been faulty. As the head of state his call can only be to ask for citizens' adherence to law; to the state's commitment to enforcement of law; to the promotion of values and vision as enshrined in the words of the Founding Father and in the constitution. The rest he must leave to the political class which alone fires up popular imagination. That class alone can win hearts and minds and effectively defuse hate and anger. Does this have staying power?

While in 2006 the lifting of the long and dark shadow has begun, yet the effort has at best initiated a vulnerable revolution; one that can be undermined by negative pressures generated by other unresolved questions. An invincible revolution requires government's engagement with the three challenges woven into the tapestry of Pakistan's contemporary power and politics. A holistic engagement requires responding ably and most importantly simultaneously, to the three connected challenges of 'credible democracy', internal security and ideological reorientation.

While the government has taken significant steps to promote ideological reorientation, it remains weak on credible democracy and on anti-terrorism policy that is at the heart of internal security. Credible democracy security requires holding of fair and free elections and internal security requires fighting terrorism using transparent methods.

It is also important to remember that no anti-terrorism policy can really succeed without credible democracy, which allows more space to mainstream political parties. In the Pakistani tool kit of anti-terrorism, the crucial missing factor is an alternative political vision that captures the people's hearts and minds.

Yet for it to take roots the frameworks, discourse, narratives and contestations should all promote a tolerant way of being. More importantly, Pakistan's 60-year history and Musharraf's seven years specifically clearly underscore that credibly functioning state institutions and political system together constitute the enabling environment in which judicious politics
will prosper.

Interestingly, the media, the state, the government's allies including PML-Q and MQM, the mainstream opposition party PPP and civil society groups are all promoting the alternative tolerant discourse. Yet the unresolved question of democracy, human rights and anti-terrorism policy sharply divides these groups with the opposition parties, media and civil society confronting the government over issues of democracy, human rights and anti-terrorism policy. As things stand, these issues trump the common denominator of a tolerant political worldview. Hence the common space of ideological reorientation is insufficient to earn the government sustained and widespread support.

To make the 2006 moves invincible, the government will have to move simultaneously and credibly and imaginatively along the democratic path and the internal security path.

(Nasim Zehra, columnist and national security strategist, is currently a Fellow at the Harvard University Asia Center. She can be reached at 

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