SYED HAMAD ALI*
|The sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other senior judges under Pervez Musharraf’s infamous emergency in November 2007 caused widespread protests and chaos throughout Pakistan.|
These are bleak times for Pakistan. Not a day seems to go by without the country somehow managing to capture the world media’s attention. Sometimes I wish, watching the spectacle from a safe distance thousands of miles away from the mayhem, that the Pakistan I grew up in was not so much in the news all the time.
Surely there must be other stories to report on; whatever happened to the economic meltdown in Iceland or the asteroid that nearly hit earth?
But it seems Pakistan is in vogue at the moment, and for all the wrong reasons. The latest episode with the Sri Lankan cricket team has been a shocker, irrespective of how catastrophic the situation already was. The eastern city of Lahore, known for its historic Mughal buildings and gardens and its cultivation of the arts, had been largely spared the chaos engulfing the northwestern part of the country that borders Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, writing in London’s The Independent, has placed the blame on Pakistan’s involvement in the badly conducted War on Terror: “We were taken into this war against the public will. There were no Pakistanis involved in 9/11. We were sucked in deliberately by a dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who wanted to strengthen his position and receive American money.” Khan has hit the nail on the head.
The Pakistani nation was, without a doubt, forced to become a party to this war under the Musharraf regime, and little seems to have changed since President Asif Ali Zardari took office. If anything, the situation has become worse. The US drone attacks, now revealed to be operating from inside Pakistan, right under the very noses of the military brass, ineluctably also kill innocent Pashtun civilians, including children; they have created widespread anger and hatred against the rulers.
The extremist forces, under the banner of the Taliban, feed on society’s lack of faith in what is seen as the current lot of weak and compliant satraps. The West is spectacularly losing in the battle for hearts and minds in Pakistan by not connecting with the popular sentiment. The US is conducting the war as if the Pakistani people simply do not exist; it is as if the only players are the Taliban and the coalition forces battling it out in a desolate landscape.
But the landscape is not desolate; there are an estimated 170 million people who call Pakistan home. It is the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire who are paying a very heavy price with their lives and who are being mass displaced from sometimes remote villages to safer havens, all this while President Obama gives directions from the luxury and comfort of his White House. Is this the liberal justice and “freedom” espoused by the United States of America where it seems only might is right? There is a general consensus among many Pakistanis that their country is being made a scapegoat for America’s failures in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, in the eyes of many in the Western media it would seem the struggle in Pakistan is some sort of an epic battle between the forces of secularism and fundamentalism. But the reality on the ground is far removed from this. This is not some set for a Hollywood action thriller. Such a representation is misleading because it excludes the vast majority of people in the country, who would fit into neither the category of secular nor fundamentalist.
Make no mistake about this, the majority of people in Pakistan do not support the fundamentalist ideology of the Taliban, just as they do not support the US in the way it is conducting this never-ending war. The Taliban are an embarrassment, not just to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but to the wider Muslim world. The very name Taliban, derived from the Arabic word Talib and meaning student, is a complete misnomer judging by the actions of these people. There is nothing remotely educational or student-like about blowing up girl’s schools, as has been happening in the troubled Swat valley. The uneducated Taliban have only served as fodder to the likes of Fox News and other right-wing propaganda machinery.
But the big question to ask is if there is any road that can lead the country out of this quagmire. The answer is a definite “Yes,” because this war has never been Pakistan’s war, and the first step on any road to stability is to bring back the country’s deposed judges. The spread of the fundamentalists can be checked by restoring Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other senior judges sacked under Musharraf’s infamous emergency in November 2007. There is still a chance to rein in the spreading lawlessness, but it is certainly not by the US method of dropping bombs and expecting results.
The late Benazir Bhutto, at the time of the emergency, had demanded the judiciary’s restoration and had said: “The flag of Pakistan used to fly over the house of the chief justice. That flag, which was the flag of justice, the flag which was the flag of the judges; who has let down this flag?” She had demanded the restoration of the judges, but unfortunately once in power her own widower and the Pakistan People’s Party seem to have forsaken her wish to see the judges brought back.
Among others, Amnesty International has been urging the government of Pakistan to declare as illegal the sacking of the judiciary by Musharraf. But there is a reluctance to bring back Chaudhry, perhaps because an independent justice system would mean accountability. President Zardari, who has been faced with accusations of corruption and even murder, is speculated to be in fear of court cases against him being brought back to haunt him under such a setting. The chief justice, before getting the sack, had also been calling for the release of some of the hundreds of Pakistan’s missing persons who have disappeared since the country signed up to the Bush administration’s War on Terror.
Now these are the people, the courageous lawyers and judges, who the US and other Western, “freedom-loving” governments should be supporting. That is, if they are serious about defeating the Taliban.
And there are certainly those who, at least verbally, have shown their support. During her campaign as a presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton spoke out eloquently to CNN about the need for making a connection with the educated middle class. These were the words she used: “The people in the streets are wearing suits and ties; they are lawyers, they are professionals, they are the middle class of Pakistan, which really offers the very best hope for a stable, democratic country and that is in America’s interest, but more importantly, it is in the interest of the Pakistani people.” Now that she is secretary of state, one hopes that Clinton can actually bring herself to act on those words and pressure Pakistan’s government to bring back the judges. The West must show it believes in its own values.
With the country sliding into perpetual chaos, outsiders could be forgiven for thinking the restoration of the judges may not be so pressing an issue. But this would be a mistake of epic proportions. The need of the moment is to strengthen the moderate middle class in Pakistan, not the power-hungry military, nor the corrupt and feudal politicos who currently hold sway. And certainly not the Taliban.
It would seem President Zardari needs the threat of an ever-encroaching Taliban to frighten the West to keep supporting him, and the Taliban need the excuse of an unpopular leader like Zardari in order to step in and fill the vacuum of power. Instead of curbing extremism, the presence of Zardari & Co. has actually acted as a catalyst to the rising tide of fundamentalism sweeping across sections of the country. The strongest deterrent to the rise of the Taliban is if people can have their faith in the judicial system restored. The alternate prognosis, if the rule of law is not restored, is a further descent into chaos and violence. No one wants that.
*Syed Hamad Ali is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, UK.