This article first appeared in The News on September 23, 2007.
What would politicians be without their gift for the gab? Thanks to their oratorical vigor, propensity for righteous rants, ability to dwell on the details, and vulnerability to making off-the-cuff remarks, they stay in the news and shape our views. In the run-up to elections, however, politicians – and their politics – tend to become reductivist. Issues are often boiled down to the level of liberal or conservative, for or against, good or evil.
Even in Pakistan, where a plethora of political parties and politically motivated actors exist, bipartisanship seems to be a growing trend. With an election date looming, the country’s complicated socio-political cocktail is being distilled into a simple case of either/or. This urge to simplify arguably helps citizens in relatively healthy democracies navigate elections and cast the right vote. But in our case, banking on binaries will only take the common Pakistani a step further away from genuine representation.
In an editorial published in The Washington Post last Thursday, Benazir Bhutto declares that the “central issue facing Pakistan is moderation vs. extremism”. She points to democracy as the only way to win back the “hearts and minds of a generation” in the battle against fundamentalism. Her decision to simplify the ‘Pakistan problem’ to a neat binary was strangely echoed in the recording by Osama bin Laden released on the same day. In his 23-minute-long diatribe against General Musharraf, the al-Qaeda leader urges Pakistanis to wage ‘jihad’ against the president, his army and other supporters. In other words, bin Laden breaks down Pakistan’s political state of affairs into a case of militants vs. the military.
Since the Lal Masjid showdown, Pakistan’s political landscape has been repeatedly reduced to the binary that pits extremist militants against the military. Take, for example, the oft-quoted survey released earlier this month by the Washington-based think tank Terror Free Tomorrow. Local and international politicians, policy makers as well as the mainstream media have highlighted the fact that the survey shows bin Laden to be more popular than General Musharraf amongst Pakistanis, with the former boasting approval ratings of 46 percent against the president’s 38 percent.
Of course, the politics and problems of a nation as diffuse as Pakistan are rarely so easily summarized. What most media coverage of the Terror Free Tomorrow survey neglects to report is that the statistics also show Pakistanis to have a 69 percent approval rating of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, 63 percent for Benazir Bhutto and 57 percent for Nawaz Sharif. The average Pakistani’s ability to see that there are many influential actors in the epic drama that is national politics is, however, dismissed in favor of a neat binary placing the military in opposition with the militants.
Similarly, Bhutto’s convenient thesis that extremism is the thorn in Pakistan’s side that can only be removed once the moderate masses are mobilized and democracy restored is quickly complicated – even within the space of her editorial. In the course of her “moderation vs. extremism” argument, she discusses the pitfalls of martial dictatorship, the longstanding affair between the mullahs and the military, the fragility of the Pakistani Constitution, dynastic politics, and the challenge posed by disenfranchised youth. While she tries to present the political challenge facing Pakistan as straightforward and black-and-white, she too must permit for shades of grey.
One of the main dangers of casting Pakistani politics in terms of binaries such as moderation vs. extremism and militancy vs. the military is that such constructs promote the fallacy that Pakistan is facing one, monolithic problem – the increasing tide of religious extremism. Unfortunately, we all know that this is far from the truth. Glancing at the headlines in major English dailies last Friday alone, I was reminded that Pakistan has yet to contend with pressing issues such as the raising of dams, the reconstruction of earthquake-devastated areas, nationalist movements in Baluchistan and the Northern Areas, inflation, the challenges of nuclear proliferation, foreign policy snafus with India, Afghanistan and the US as well as human rights infringements such as child marriage and karo kari. Indeed, extremism is merely one of many beasts that have yet to be wrestled.
Another danger of turning to binaries when discussing Pakistani politics is that we may come across as naïve enough to believe that there is one simple solution to the problem of extremism. A return to democracy or the brokering of a power-sharing agreement between politicians and generals will not reduce instances of militancy in the country.
Facilitating social mobility, making primary and secondary education mandatory, promoting religious scholarship and debate, improving ties with Afghanistan, fostering a sense of nationalism or state ownership, and making our society more tolerant by championing minority rights are only a few of the ground-up measures that will be required to stem the tide of fundamentalism. To acknowledge this complexity is to explode the simplicity of the catchphrase that a return to democracy will heal what ails the nation.
Speaking to colleagues and friends in the US and across the Pakistani diaspora, I am also made aware of the fact that binaries that do not exactly add up lead to much international confusion about Pakistani society. Soon after the release of bin Laden’s anti-Musharraf recording, I received a number of phone calls and emails from people asking for clarity on the ‘Pakistan problem’. They knew that the Pakistan Bar Association was opposed to Musharraf because of the general’s open disdain for Supreme Court rulings and constitutional mandates. They also knew that bin Laden had called for a movement against Musharraf. Did that mean, they asked, that Pakistan’s judiciary was sympathetic to the cause of fundamentalists?
While most Pakistanis know that this is not the case and remain aware of the largely secular standpoint of the judiciary, we should not underestimate the power of mixed signals that binaries can generate. We should also consider the fact that if well-educated, upper-class, newspaper-reading Americans are having a hard time parsing out the bigger picture of Pakistani politics, then perhaps low-income, illiterate Pakistanis with only sporadic access to information are having the same difficulties keeping the nuances of our political landscape straight.
The fact is, the first step towards restoring democracy in Pakistan must be increased political transparency at all levels. Rather than throw out catchy binaries and present problems in ‘us vs. them’ terms, politicians should clearly lay out their positions regarding different issues, contextualize their relationships with other political actors, and talk with some complexity about the different problems facing the country. The media – both international and local – should also make an effort not to frame multifaceted issues in terms of either/or and refrain from sensationalizing points of contention as dramatic showdowns. It is only when we as a nation move beyond binary that we can begin to edge towards democracy.