In countries like Pakistan where democracy wasn’t allowed to properly take root, there is always the threat of it becoming a backdoor for mobs of not very democratic people who exhibit the audacity to actually start making use of democratic principles, especially freedom of speech.
And the irony of it all is that on most occasions than not, they use this principle to attack democracy itself! And when countered in this respect, they express exasperation and anger, pleading that they have a democratic right to express their opinion — even if that opinion is usually about lionising the benefits of authoritarian rule over a democratic one.
Does, can (or should) democracy really tolerate such brouhaha? No. I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel across many European democracies in the last seven years or so and there I discovered that in these countries democratic principles come attached with an important condition.
It is about demonstrating a sturdy sense of responsibility, no matter what spectrum of political thought one comes from.
For example, a fascist individual or party will be taken to task if they preach hatred, bigotry or racism; but at the same time the person or the outfit will be largely tolerated if they decide to run for an election and take their agendas before the voters or in parliament.
The beauty of parliamentary democracy is bound to make a voice of hatred (if elected) eventually (and comparatively speaking) soften its stance. Otherwise it will expose it as a voice that was no more than a populist part of the lunatic fringe no matter how demagogic it may have sounded outside the parliament.
In Pakistan where democracy has always had to struggle to hold its ground in the face of both direct and indirect military interventions, we also have to keep an eye on the populist civilian advocates of authoritarian rule that (mainly through the mainstream electronic media) have been perhaps the most active exploiters of the whole democratic notion of freedom of speech and expression.
Largely made up of certain TV anchors, conspiracy theorists, politicians and televangelists, many of these have also been able to find applause from the country’s urban middle and upper-middle-class segments.
As mentioned earlier, they may be merrily using the notion of freedom of speech the most in a struggling democracy like Pakistan, but they remain largely demagogic and focussed on attacking democracy — either as an alien ‘Western/ Zionist construct’ or as a system that supposedly promotes chaos and corruption.
What is offered as an alternative by such men and women however, are some rather imaginative Utopian arrangements derived from a largely mythical understanding of Islamic and Pakistani histories in which certain prominent Muslim and Pakistani figureheads are spun into and explained as glorified hate-mongers!
This is then presented as ‘proof’ that Islam (and Pakistan) is historically not compatible with liberal democracy and its principles.
They will quiver passionately on the mini-screen; they will sweat, they will shout, wring their hands and clench their fists, pleading at the top of their voices the meaning of ‘patriotism,’ and ‘Islam’ and how both Pakistan and Islam are in danger of being infiltrated and obliterated by evil, enigmatic ‘lobbies’.
Perhaps it is this group of folks that is the most obvious lobby — on most occasions paternally patronised by sympathetic fatherly figures in the country’s largely conservative security agencies.
The truth is, all their pleading and shouting is a clear indication of their fear of liberal democracy and how this democracy can render them (and their intransigent ideas about the country’s social and political course) obsolete.
Nevertheless, such men and women are great software for mainstream 24/7 TV; and something for sections of the urban middle-classes to vent out their frustrations of feeling sandwiched between the democratic political parties and the classes that constitute these parties’ main vote banks.
But thus far these demagogic darlings of social media and TV have little or no popular roots in the figurative masses. But since many of them have become mainstream media mainstays, it has to be asked exactly how much can be tolerated of them and their rhetorical attacks on parliamentarianism, religious tolerance and their habit of turning demagogic fiction into ‘historical fact?’
Of course, they are more than welcome to make use of democratic principles and notions such as freedom of speech while operating outside the hard-fought democratic process, but they should not be allowed to do so without first understanding the all-important aspect of responsibility that inherently comes attached with this democratic notion.
More than the government, I think, the onus lies on TV channels that put them in front of the camera.
These televangelists, ‘security analysts,’ anchors and some politicians remain colourful media and cyberspace personalities.
Interestingly, such ladies and gentlemen have not been able to take root among the so-called masses, but thanks to their media presence they most certainly found a variety of fans amongst certain sections of the urban classes — from fashion designers to former rock stars, to born-again yuppies and businessmen, to young ‘revolutionaries’ who, figuratively speaking, are more impressed by the image of Che Guevara on a coffee cup, than by the man’s legacy as a guerrilla fighter in the hills of Cuba and mountains of Bolivia.
Democratic forces, both within the ruling elite as well as among their on-ground supporters and voters, should exhibit a bit of concern because, in the past, it has been sections of the well-to-do middle and upper-middle classes whose money and leverage were used to drill a destructive wedge in the democratic process.
For ‘national interest’ and the glory of faith, of course.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com
He tweets @NadeemfParacha
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.