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DAWN - Features; October 12, 2002

October 12, 2002

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Govt’s failed prescription

By I.A. Rehman


Thursday’s general election has radically changed Pakistan’s politics. It will require some time before the implications of a sharp shift towards the religious wing and its impact on the affairs of the state can be fully gauged. However, it is quite clear that those at the helm of affairs will have to replace their misplaced faith in absolutism with a mature understanding of the political forces on the ground and a greater respect for the wishes of the people.

The most striking feature of the general election is that the vote apparently went against the establishment. Although the distortions caused in the result by excessive investment in creating a party of favourites, and such initiatives as the testing of missiles and publication of development supplements reminiscent of 1968, are evident, the establishment did not succeed in winning an endorsement of its prescription. What might have been the result if the people had been left as free to make their choice as they had been used to, even if reservations about their capacity to uphold democratic norms could not be put aside, is not merely an academic question.

Those who sow the wind should not be surprised if they have to reap the whirlwind. The consequences of the recent adventures in statecraft are likely to bedevil Pakistan for a long time.

The rise of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal as a major force in national politics is unexpected only in terms of the size of its victory because the trend in its favour had been foreseen. The alliance of religious factions owes a great deal to the regime. By exerting itself against the established political parties beyond the limits of reason and prudence, it created a big opening for the coalition, mindless of the consequences of the similar policies pursued by Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq.

The regime also failed to take a correct stock of its abrupt change of course on Afghanistan in 2001. The merits of this switch are not as relevant as the unavoidable consequences of the drift over the proceeding decade. The foundations of the MMA’s triumph were not laid after September 2001, this happened during the seventies. But that is not the whole story of the alliance’s march.

The parties that have been felled by the MMA should accept their default. It is true that their energies were considerably sapped by attacks from the establishment but they also seem to have paid for their habit of living in the past and ignoring the social changes around them as well as the people’s newly-discovered stake in politics. A significant factor in their rout on Thursday was their failure to realise that a low turnout favoured their fully mobilised adversaries. Besides, credit is due to the MMA leaders for keeping their ears to the ground and translating popular discontent at government by remote control and disregard for the economic plight of the underprivileged into easily intelligible slogans.

While the past certainly needs to be analysed if costly mistakes are to be avoided, much greater attention must now be paid to the tasks ahead.

There will be a considerable speculation about the impact of the MMA’s strength in parliament on the country’s external policies. The impression that the MMA and the present regime are completely at variance with each other is perhaps not correct. They share views on several critical issues, such as acquisition of nuclear weapons, high premium on national security, Kashmir, and attitude towards India. Indeed the existence of this common ground between them may have had something to do with the building up of the MMA. Yet, bridging their apparent differences on Pakistan’s special relationship with the United States, on the existing premises, may not be easy. The MMA should not be considered immune to the moderating effects of responsibility. Obviously, the time to test the establishment’s claim that it could manage the conservative elements has come.

However, the more critical issues lie within the domestic political domain. The way these matters are dealt with will also determine success or otherwise in the field of external policy.

The first imperative is that regardless of the circumstances and subjective considerations on the part of authority, the will of the electorate must be scrupulously respected. The MMA is fully entitled to the rewards of its electoral victory. Any hedging of bets will be counter-productive. Any impression that the authority the MMA may acquire will be subject to extra-political controls will be dangerous. Perhaps the era of the political parties’ amenability to the military establishment’s perceptions is over. If it is not, then there will be a serious trouble in store for Pakistan.

At the same time, the performance of the other political parties cannot be disregarded. Despite the heavy odds stacked against them, the People’s Party and the PML(N) have established their credentials as legitimate political forces in the country. The establishment would expose the state to new perils if it did not change its attitude towards these parties and their leaders. Whatever political sins they were accused of have been largely erased by the people’s verdict. The matter will not end with embracing the maligned ones. It will be necessary to reopen all matters related to the state’s constitution and political structure for resolution in accordance with the wishes of the elected representatives.

That the trends revealed in the general election will unleash a new competition for public loyalties cannot be gainsaid. The MMA in particular should be expected to strive to extend its influence. The society may also come under greater pressure to reject modernism, halt progress towards women’s empowerment or the mainstreaming of non-Muslim citizens. These will be tough challenges for all concerned, specially those who stand for rationalism, and success in meeting them will depend on setting the political structure in order. If it is understood that the entire humankind is subject to the laws of social development and that while societies here and there may temporarily delay its forward march they cannot for ever turn the clock back. Pakistan may not fail to respect, and even profit from, the dynamics of change.

The anniversary everyone forgot

THE BBC or CNN could be expected to forget it, but even our very own PTV — perhaps in the post-Sept 11 world — conveniently chose not to mention this date. Yes, foreign newspapers and wire services did mention it in passing but only in reference to policy pronouncements from the Pentagon or the White House on the matter. As for even our own local media other than state-owned PTV, not much mention was made of it, nor even in the papers. Frankly speaking, even I didn’t remember the date till a friend and colleague sent me an SMS on a sleepy Sunday afternoon reminding that Oct 7 was the first anniversary of the attacks on Afghanistan.

America launched its attacks on Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, a little under two months after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Hundreds of US and British (and the occasional French) jets flew thousands of sorties over Afghanistan in an attempt to flush out Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The air campaign, which went for well over two months, caused thousands of deaths and injuries, and ended up displacing hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghans. By conservative estimates tallied by experts and observers in the British and on some alternative anti-war web sites, the American bombing killed at least 5,000 innocent civilians.

A significant proportion of those killed were defenceless women and children who could not get out of harm’s way. Children were particularly vulnerable after the cluster bombing campaign because the bright yellow colour of the bombs and their relatively innocuous appearance made it easy for them to be mistaken for toys. The bombing campaign, and what followed later when American troops entered Afghanistan, also led to several known cases where innocent civilians were mistaken for Al Qaeda or Taliban remnants and bombed. Such deaths run into hundreds though the Pentagon continues to insist that all of them were valid targets. The bombing campaign added yet more orphans to the hundreds of thousand that already formed part of the country’s population.

However, despite all this human catastrophe, no media channel worth its name bothered to even mention this most obvious of fact: that the American-led campaign and its ‘war against terror’ has inflicted an enormous cost on Afghanistan. Any mention of this ‘other’ first anniversary was couched not in terms of the losses to the Afghan people or what they must have gone through but rather in terms of what the Americans had achieved in the past year (still no close to catching hold of Mullah Omar and not yet sure whether Osama bin Laden was even alive) and what they planned to do now. The only relevant fact that came out of any coverage of this anniversary in the mainstream media outlets was that a year after attacking Afghanistan, the US now had 10,000 troops stationed there.

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AND it’s good to know that one doesn’t write in vacuum. Last week’s column “Sanctimonious hypocrisy” on the Pakistani contestant who wanted to compete in the Miss International Beauty pageant in Tokyo got a variety of responses. A reader from Virginia in America, and presumably Indian, didn’t at all like the geographical qualifier “South Asian” used for all sanctimonious people. He sent in quite a nasty e-mail saying that there was no such thing as South Asia in the map and implying that if there were any sanctimonious and hypocritical people out there they certainly weren’t Indian.

Another response, essentially of support, came from Mr Ali Salim of Karachi who wrote: “Neelam Noorani was supposed to represent Pakistan in the recently held Miss International 2002 beauty pageant in Tokyo, Japan. She was supposed to be the first woman to represent Pakistan in a beauty pageant. Therefore, it was with utter disgust, that I read the news of her not being allowed to participate in the competition and being forced back to Pakistan by the government... In all honesty, it is Miss Noorani who has been disgraced by the nation and she is the one who deserves an apology not the one who should owe us one. The Pakistani government has once again made itself look like total fools on the international stage. For girls like Miss Noorani, it is another lost opportunity. For the Pakistani government, it is another error in judgment.”

One reader said, and this is sort of an old joke, that unfortunately our view and conception of culture limited to basically agriculture. One female reader sent me an English translation of a verse from the Holy Quran which refers to the way men and women are expected to dress. And another quoted a publicized meeting some years ago between a former chief justice of Pakistan and a former president (both were in office when they met). In that meeting, one of the gentlemen saw a TV on in the background and made some remarks to the effect that it was against one’s religion and culture to which the other gentleman was reported to have said that such impure thoughts were more in one’s mind rather than inside television. And the reader used this to basically say that indeed we were generally a nation of hypocrites, only that some were bigger hypocrites than others. — OMAR R. QURAISHI

(Email: omarq@cyber.net.pk)

ME tour gives Straw a hard time

THE British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, had a difficult time during his recent tour of the Middle East. Britain is enjoying quite cordial relations with most of the Middle Eastern countries, but Mr Straw earned public rebuke from Egypt, during his recent visit of that country, which told America and Britain not to “rewrite the rules” against Iraq or threaten force against Saddam Hussein.

Ahmed Maher, the Egyptian foreign minister, dismissed Mr Straw’s argument that the only way to achieve a peaceful solution was to issue a credible threat of military action. “Rewriting the rules in the middle of the game may not be the best solution,” said Mr Maher. “The important thing is to resume the work of the inspectors as soon as possible.” Even in Jordan Mr Straw was not able to secure a statement of commitment from King Abdullah.

Christiane Amanpour, a correspondent for the CNN, who has dual Iranian and British nationality, was denied a visa by the Iranian authorities despite repeated appeals by Mr Straw to his counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi. It was not only Christiane Amanpour who was barred from entering into Iran, the authorities in Tehran even banned one of the journalists on Mr Straw’s party from flying with him to Iran.

The move came only days after Britain climbed down in a diplomatic row with Iran over the appointment of a new ambassador to Tehran. This was a hint that the Iranians still mistrust the West and the Western media.

But senior British officials dismissed the cold shoulder from pro-Western Middle Eastern leaders as something for their own domestic politics. They say that the in private the Arab leaders are quite supportive.

Mr Straw might have been under pressure from the Arab leaders when he tried to avoid answering questions alongside his hosts on his tour of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Iran, but was later on persuaded, after some reluctance, to appear before the Arab media. Mr Straw knew that the questions would be difficult and sharp ones and most of times he had to answer as to why British policy was “a mirror of Washington” and British and US “double standards” in their treatment of UN resolutions dealing with Iraq and Israel.

* * * * *

Terrorism at home: After allegation that a group of Irish nationalists have been running a spying operation in the Northern Ireland Office, the government has once again drawn attention of the British public to the problem of terrorism at home.

This alleged latest revelation has once again forced the government in London to press upon the Irish nationalists to commit to exclusively peaceful means. This latest crisis in the British province of Northern Ireland shows that Britain has not been able to solve the problem of terrorism at home once for all. Many doubt that the Irish Republican Army, which has been waging violent campaign to separate Northern Ireland from Britain, would be fully ready to peaceful means.

While Britain is fighting its war against international terrorism, the terrorist problem at home still looks unresolved. The government in London is trying its best to know what the IRA is up to and how active it is internationally.

In last August the Colombian authorities arrested three suspected IRA men, accusing them of working with the FARC rebels. The IRA has denied any wrongdoing. But security forces believe senior republicans knew the men were there. Unionists who are strongly supporting Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain regard the Colombia affair as a clear breach of the IRA’s ceasefire.

The problem of terrorism in the province of Northern Ireland is an old one. There is continuing polarization of the nationalist and unionist communities in the province which occasionally flares into violence. The nationalists want independence from Great Britain while the Unionists believe that the prosperity of this impoverished province is possible only if it remains to be a part of Great Britain.

For many years the IRA waged a violent campaign to separate Northern Ireland from Britain, but in recent years it realized that it is getting unpopular because of its violent campaign and joined the political process and formed a provincial coalition government in Northern Ireland. But Unionist opponents in the Northern Ireland Assembly are accusing the nationalists of breaking the spirit of the deal by not matching their entry into democratic politics with the end of the IRA.