Pakistan and the limits of democracy

Islamabad is not one of my usual ports of call, but a concatenation of circumstances found me with an invitation to join a small group travelling to that faraway spot next week to witness the Pakistani elections. A local newspaper got wind of the visit, and the invitation was quietly withdrawn two days before Benazir Bhutto was gunned down by an Islamist fanatic (pardon the pleonasm).


Friends and family breathed a little sigh of relief when I announced that I would not, after all, be embarking for Islamabad. At first, I was disappointed; yesterday’s events incline me to temper the disappointment. One friend with whom I discussed the trip when I was first invited suggested that Pakistan was probably the most dangerous country in the world at the moment. Of course, it got a lot more dangerous yesterday.

It will be interesting to see what unfolds in that tormented country–using the word “interesting” in the sense intended by the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

The first thing we need do is adjust our eyesight so that we can see Pakistan aright. There has been a lot of nonsense written about President Musharraf and “democracy” is recent weeks, as if it was primarily he who stood in the way of a burgeoning liberal regime in The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, home to the second largest Muslim population in the world.

Over at National Review Online, Andrew McCarthy has some wise and sobering things to say about the discrepancies between the two Pakistans: the Pakistan of our beneficent imagining and the Pakistan that actually exists. “There is,” McCarthy writes,


the Pakistan of our fantasy. The burgeoning democracy in whose vanguard are judges and lawyers and human rights activists using the “rule of law” as a cudgel to bring down a military junta. In the fantasy, Bhutto, an attractive, American-educated socialist whose prominent family made common cause with Soviets and whose tenures were rife with corruption, was somehow the second coming of James Madison.

Then there is the real Pakistan: an enemy of the United States and the West.

The real Pakistan is a breeding ground of Islamic holy war where, for about half the population, the only thing more intolerable than Western democracy is the prospect of a faux democracy led by a woman — indeed, a product of feudal Pakistani privilege and secular Western breeding whose father, President Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, had been branded as an enemy of Islam by influential Muslim clerics in the early 1970s.

The real Pakistan is a place where the intelligence services are salted with Islamic fundamentalists: jihadist sympathizers who, during the 1980s, steered hundreds of millions in U.S. aid for the anti-Soviet mujahideen to the most anti-Western Afghan fighters — warlords like Gilbuddin Hekmatyar whose Arab allies included bin Laden and Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the stalwarts of today’s global jihad against America.


“Democracy,” as the etymology of the word revels, means rule by the “demos,” the people. The unpalatable reality we find it hard to digest is that, in many parts of the world, rule by the people is not just contrary to the interests of liberal, Western-style democracy, it is actively hostile to those interests. As McCarthy notes, “Whether we get round to admitting it or not, in Pakistan, our quarrel is with the people. Their struggle, literally, is jihad. For them, freedom would mean institutionalizing the tyranny of Islamic fundamentalism.” It is worth pausing to ponder this unpleasant possibility, so confounding to our generous instincts and liberal preconceptions. Just to get things in focus, remember the fate of the journalist Daniel Pearl who in 2002 was beheaded–beheaded–on camera by a few of the 46% of the Pakistani population who approve of Osama bin Laden.

When you look up Pakistan on Wikipedia, you are reminded by a table of salient facts that the present form of government there is “Military Dictatorship.” We are nice people, and we do not like military dictatorships. They are nasty things, dictatorships, and what could be worse than a dictatorship that is controlled by the military, i.e., people with guns? Nice folks like us do not approve of people with guns who lord it over others, telling them what to do and (even worse) what not to do.


Reading further in that entry about Pakistan, you come across the fact that Pakistan is also a nuclear power. A link takes you to a page that lists those states with nuclear weapons. Pakistan, it is estimated, has about 80 warheads, 30 of which are thought to be active.

Jihad. The world’s second largest Muslim population. Eighty nuclear warheads. Rule by the people. . . Think about it.

Benazir Bhutto’s brutal murder was a horrible thing. What should we conclude from it? That “Musharraf must go”? This from Reuters: “Chants of ‘Shame on the killer Musharraf, shame on the killer U.S.’ were heard from the throng lining the road and standing on rooftops.” The New York Times: “There is no time to waste. With next month’s parliamentary elections already scrambled, Washington must now call for new rules to assure a truly democratic vote.” “A truly democratic vote”?

Reality, alas, does not always conform to our desires. “Democracy” is an easy word to pronounce. The reality we like to believe it fosters is somewhat more difficulty to procure. “Free government,” Santayana once observed, “works well in proportion as government is superfluous.” In Pakistan today, government is the opposite of superfluous. It is not an agreeable situation. But Andrew McCarthy is right: “For the United States, the question is whether we learn nothing from repeated, inescapable lessons that placing democratization at the top of our foreign policy priorities is high-order folly. . . . Jihadists are not going to be wished away, rule-of-lawed into submission, or democratized out of existence. If you really want democracy and the rule of law in places like Pakistan, you need to kill the jihadists first. Or they’ll kill you, just like, today, they killed Benazir Bhutto.”



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