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DAWN - Opinion; May 1, 2003

May 01, 2003


Vajpayee’s talks initiative

By Swami Agnivesh & Rev. Valson Thampu

EVEN as the military juggernaut of Operation Iraqi Freedom was grinding to a halt Jac Straw, the British foreign secretary, made a whirlwind tour to several Arab countries in the Middle East to announce the birth of a new global reality. He urged countries like France, Germany and Russia to take note of it. A similar exhortation was issued by the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, from Washington.

In point of fact, it is nations in Asia and Africa, even more than their counterparts in Europe, that need to engage this new reality. Very likely, the Vajpayee government too has read the writings on the wall. Hence the radical shift in respect of the Kashmir issue and our tumultuous relationship with Pakistan. Less than a fortnight ago Vajpayee’s cabinet colleagues, Yashwant Sinha and George Fernandes, were recklessly rhetorical about the need for a pre-emptive strike on Pakistan in imitation of the American role model. In the last few days, however, Vajpayee has gone and come back from Kashmir on a two-pronged mission to endorse Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s healing touch approach as well as to extend a hand of peace to Pakistan. This is good news not only for the long-suffering people of Kashmir but also for the whole of South Asia.

Since his return from Kashmir, Vajpayee has reaffirmed his desire to “make a new beginning.” According to him, “the situation has changed and a defining moment for Kashmir has come.” Shri I.K. Gujral, former PM and the progenitor of the Gujaral Doctrine, hailed the PM’s initiative, “I must compliment the prime minister for going to Kashmir, addressing a rally and offering peace talks with Pakistan and the people of Jammu and Kashmir.”

Almost as significant as the PM’s visit to Kashmir was George Fernandes’s visit to China. Indications are that this has been a success. It must be deemed a breakthrough, especially against the backdrop of George’s ill-advised statement on China in the run-up to Pokhran II. While the details of his agenda in Beijing are not clear to us, it is more than probable that the “new reality” sired by the US and the UK is its diplomatic ambience.

What, then, is this new reality? In point of fact, this reality is not as new as it is made out to be. It is a new avatar of an old reality: the reality that the rest of the world will be coerced, directly or indirectly, to fit in with the interests of those who rule the roost in the global village. In a unipolar world this reality takes on a more ruthless look; and from Iraq the US has served notice on the rest of the world to this effect — that is all.

Of late, we have heard much about the dollar-euro tussle that underlies the Iraq war. The unforgivable sin on Saddam’s part was not that he gassed a few thousand Kurds or killed several thousands of his opponents. It was that he switched over from dollar to euro as the monetary medium of transactions, which played a part in boosting the euro and bringing European economic assets almost on par with those of the US. The war on Iraq was also a war on euro, the reason why it fractured the Nato. Vis-a-vis Iraq, these two centres of economic might were battling out their respective agendas at the cost of other people’s blood.

For the time being, the issue has been settled in favour of the US, only because of its awesome military power. Americans, as the French complain, have a penchant for redefining economic issues as military enterprises, to capitalize on their superiority over their European rivals. This is the new reality and it forebodes endless troubles for the rest of the world.

Our national debate in respect of the Iraq crisis limited itself to the morality of supporting either of the two sides. In point of fact, this is hardly relevant to the new scenario. What we need to address today is the imperative to evolve a counterbalancing centre of economic and military power to steady the tilted global balance. The current Euro-American engagement needs to be complemented by a credible and stable third force which is Asia-centric. Even more than Europe, it is Asia that has the potential to play a counterbalancing role to the overweening American ambition for global domination.

Quite rightly, the flattering ease with which the US steamrolled Iraq has sent shivers through several nations, including Russia. The question heard in several capital cities of the world was, ‘After Iraq, who?’ The answer to this should not have to depend on which way Bush is pleased to turn. It must depend on the people of Asia, if only they are willing to be wiser for their tragic and chronic mistakes over the last several decades.

Already there are enough indications that the Bush administration wants to get involved with other regions of endemic conflict. It was, after all, the inability of Saddam to live in peace with his neighbours that opened the floodgates of American intervention in the Middle East. The fact that Saddam enjoyed US patronage in the past is basic, not irrelevant, to this script. The US spokesman have been, in recent years, sounding increasingly anxious that the Indian subcontinent is a nuclear flashpoint and that it holds a serious threat to world peace.

Given this, forging enduring regional cooperation and unity in the Asian continent is no longer a diplomatic luxury today. It is, instead, a principle of survival. A united and economically buoyant Asia is the most sensible contribution we can make to world peace. Geometrically speaking, what we need in place of the current adversarial US-Europe axis is a triangle that can house global justice and peace. And only a united and prosperous Asia can provide the third corner of that triangle. Nations in this region must solve their problems, rather than wait for cues from Uncle Sam. We shall only fool ourselves if we assume that America is interested in anything other than its own advantages.

It is not enough for Vajpayee to hold out an olive branch to Musharraf for a while. For this to be an authentic initiative it is necessary that our domestic political culture also changes correspondingly. The BJP’s electoral strategies are almost wholly focused on fanning anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiments. This implies a compulsion to perpetuate, even aggravate in an opportunistic fashion, the tension between the two nuclear neighbours. Would Vajpayee’s endorsement of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s “healing touch” lead to a revision of his party’s ideological outlook? Gen. Musharraf, on his part, needs to make an all-out effort to clean up the mess of militancy from the subcontinent. This makes urgent sense, especially in the light of his own intuition that it will not be long before America shifts its attention from Iraq to Pakistan.

Perpetuation of an adversarial relationship between India and Pakistan can only invite and legitimize the American case for a brutal intervention in this region. Rather than see the Iraq war as the final statement on the inevitable and brutal domination of the world by the US, Asian nations must see it as a wake-up call to promote regional unity and economic development. May it be that Vajpayee’s Kashmir initiative, which all parties endorse, marks a determined step in this direction.

The writers are a Hindu-Christian spiritual partnership in the field of social justice and communal harmony in India. Swami Agnivesh is the international president of the Arya Samaj and Rev. Thampu, the Christian member of the Delhi Minorities Commission.

Seeking larger revenues

By Sultan Ahmed

CAN the government mobilise Rs. 506 billion as tax revenue in the financial year beginning on July 1 — Rs 46 billion more than the target for the current year or 10 per cent more, which is termed by our finance officials as a natural increase?

Officials of the ministry of finance and the IMF experts, who have worked out this target in Washington during their fifth review of the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility, regard this an achievable target, which would also mark the revenues crossing the significant Rs 500 billion barrier.

The probability of achieving the new target next year raises the question whether the current year’s target of Rs 460 billion itself is achievable in a country in which large gaps between revenue targets and actual collection are common. But the officials are confident of achieving the target in view of the fact Rs 310 billion has been raised as targeted until the end of March last, and the additional target of Rs 150 billion is achievable by June. However, the post-Iraq war fallout appears to cast its shadow on the revenue collection. And yet the deficit may not be very large. Tax refunds may be delayed in the next weeks to balance the budget and make such refunds next year.

While the revenues under the heads income tax and excise duty have been marginally below targets the import revenues and sales tax collection have been larger than targeted until March.

This undoubtedly has been an outstanding year for revenue collection. It took many years for the Rs 400 billion tax revenue barrier to be crossed, which happened last year. A total collection of Rs 414 billion was made last year against the target of Rs 457 billion to the glee of the finance officials. Earlier the revenues were far below the target for years. For example, in 2000-01 the tax revenue collection was Rs 382 billion while the target was Rs. 457.7 billion — a gap of Rs 65.7 billion.

A ten per cent growth in tax revenues is not exceptional for a healthy economy. The projection for next year is 5 per cent economic growth, while some experts hold that at 4.7 per cent. The inflation is projected at 3.5 per cent, which may not reflect the market reality. But what matters is the growth of the tax-paying sectors, like industry and imports with their import duties, sales tax and advance tax. Some quarters are demanding proper agricultural income tax as well to make up the fiscal gap, but larger revenues are not expected from this source initially. This year’s will be the first budget of the elected government and of Shaukat Aziz as an elected Senator. How populist will that be, and to what extent will it make the life of the masses less arduous in a country with massive unemployment and tough living conditions which belie the low inflation claims of the government for years together now.

He has said there will be no new taxes. That was what several finance ministers had said in recent years and more or less stayed by that commitment. But that does not mean the existing taxes cannot be increased or spread to new areas, the 15 per cent general sales tax in particular. The sales tax collection has risen from Rs. 117 billion in 1999-2000 to Rs. 206 billion in the current year, and is the premier tax today dwarfing the income tax collection a great deal.

The CBR is expected to collect a great deal more revenues this year by doing away with about 50 tax exemptions as agreed with the IMF. That should increase the tax revenues a great deal, but that will also cause a good deal of upset in the economy. And there can be a great many protests from trade and industry. Savings account-holders, including those who have deposited their money in the National Savings Accounts have been protesting against the coming withdrawal of the exemption from withholding tax of ten per cent. How Shaukat Aziz tackles the problem to please the IMF as well as the retired persons and widows with such savings remains to be seen.

The CBR is to be reorganised further and some of the over-lapping departments are to be merged. And self-assessment is to be given a further boost to reduce the contacts between tax-payers and the taxation officials. To what extent will that increase the revenues as hoped for remains to be seen.

What kind of tax relief is now to be provided to the industries and investors as assured by the minister for investment Dr Abul Hafeez Shaikh, industries minister Liaquat Jatoi and commerce minister Humayun Akhtar? Shaukat Aziz says time is ripe for the venture capital to play its full role, while the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission talks of raising the exemption period for taxation for such investment from seven to ten years. And the minister for investment talks of doing away with excise duty on cement industry and taxes on some other industries. If that comes to pass the country may see an industrial boom after the eight per cent in the first nine month of this year, along with double digit growth in a few industries.

He had a very optimistic picture of the industrial scene to present at the National Industrial Conference sponsored by the Institute of Business Management on Saturday. As a result he was expecting an assured six per cent economic growth within three years — from 5 per cent next year. The sugar industry has already achieved a record growth of 3.58 million tonnes this year.

Meanwhile the State Bank of Pakistan wants the banks take positive action to clean up their books and write off the loans of sick mills. If that helps some of the sick mills to spring back to full action that will be a welcome step.

Now the tax experts have been coming up with a number of suggestions. One of them urges the government to raise the threshold for taxation from Rs 80,000 to Rs 100,000 which is fair in view of the accumulated inflation of the years passed by. The loss to the state by accepting this demand will not be heavy.

When the people are taxed more the first question they ask is what will be done with the money. If that means a larger bureaucracy, more Toyota cars for the officers, and more gun toting guards for the ministers and other forms of wasteful spending, they are unhappy. If instead they see more schools, hospitals, roads and other amenities they will be delighted. If instead they see they have to spend far more on education of their children and on hospitals and doctors they will be unhappy. And if the middle class people feel they have to spend far more on buying water than they pay as tax they will be doubly incensed. What the citizen now feels is that after paying the full tax beginning with 15 per cent sales tax for much of what he buys, if he goes to a park he has to pay an increasing fee and if he parks his car anywhere a parking fee as well. The citizen has become a money-dispensing machine if he is not too poor.

But the state provides very expensive facility to its senior officers free, and often in unlimited quantity in reality. And at the lower level, the police officials are seen involving themselves in crimes openly to loot the public which finds it cannot get a FIR registered in the offending or any other police station. How to protect oneself from the police has become a major concern of people in Karachi, more so away from the city centre.

We ought to make a study of how all this impinges on the life of the average citizen in Karachi or elsewhere, economically, socially and otherwise. For the ordinary citizen his problem is not the LFO and its cognate machinery but simple subsistence amid such varied terrors without relief. And that nightmarish situation is getting worse all the time, particularly if he has a young wife or young daughters.

While the better off people are concerned with the quality of life in the country the average citizen is concerned with the quality of terror he faces and how it degenerates from day to day including for those overseas Pakistanis who return home by air at night in Karachi and get robbed of their savings on their way home by the cops and dacoits in police uniform.

Now the money coming from abroad as home remittances and accepted tax-free by the government has given rise to another question. Businessmen say much of this is the money sent out by fellow businessmen and brought back home tax-free and hassle-free. About 30 million dollars which came in this manner from Switzerland is reported to have gone into buying shares on the Karachi Stock Exchange.

Some businessmen say that while they have to pay a variety of taxes and finally 35 per cent of their income as income tax, the others are able to bring their money back safely tax-free after sending it out first. Hence they want to be allowed to whiten their money after paying ten per cent tax as done in the past at times. But the fact is that such whitener schemes, except in the days of Ayub Khan in 1959 had not been a success. Even Dr. Mahbubul Haq’s overly helpful scheme for the businessmen was not a success.

America’s new imperial lifeline

By Eric S. Margolis

BRITISH Prime Minister Tony Blair’s popularity has risen with the end of the Iraq invasion. Britons, like Americans, enjoy jolly little wars in which large numbers of heathen savages are mowed down by western military technology at minimal cost to imperial troops.

Add Britain’s most recent invasion of Iraq to its list of 19th Century colonial ‘little wars,’ like the Zulu, Ashanti, Afridi wars and, of course, the more famous campaign against Sudan’s Dervishes, and their ‘fiendish’ leader, the Khalifa, a 19th-century version of Osama bin Laden.

In spite of Blair’s modestly resurgent popularity, a thunderstorm of questions is coming from parliament, media and public over Bush/Blair claims that Iraq had to be urgently invaded because it posed, in Bush’s words, “an imminent threat to the US and the world,” and, as Blair claimed, “Iraq possesses huge quantities of weapons of mass destruction.” British Intelligence named scores of it, claiming it contained thousands of tons of biological weapons and poison gas, thousands more tons of precursor materials, nuclear weapons fabrication equipment, medium-ranged missiles, 500km-ranged drones equipped with to spray germs, etc, etc.

Embarrassed by their failure to so far find a shred of evidence, never mind a ‘smoking gun,’ to justify an entirely illegal invasion of a sovereign nation, violating international law and the UN Charter, London and Washington still insist evidence will be found. ‘We sold it to them; it’s got to be there,’ London wags are saying.

If it is, it had better be a mammoth underground trove worthy of a James Bond super-villain, not juts a few rusty old cans of chemicals left over from the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, when the US and Britain were Saddam’s principal suppliers of germ and gas weapons. And don’t for a minute believe Pentagon leaks about an ‘unnamed Iraqi scientists’ who says he knows where all the nasties are buried and, what is more, ties Saddam to Al Qaeda. American viewers of Rush Limbaugh will swallow this pap; most Brits are too cynical and worldly to accept such crude propaganda; many Brits and Europeans believe the US/UK will eventually plant fake evidence. What’s one more fabrication in a war of lies?

Calls are growing for parliamentary investigations of Blair’s war rationale and of British Intelligence. Critics ask if Her Majesty’s spooks were simply lying and concocting fake evidence to please their political masters, or were they producing junk intelligence at the cost of one billion pounds sterling annually? Every single weapon of mass destruction site listed in MI6’s notorious dossier presented at the UN, and cited by US Secretary Colin Powell as proof positive, turned out to be bogus. More trusting Americans have yet to raise similar questions about their $40 billion per annum intelligence agencies, the same ones that failed to predicted 9/11.

This week, another uproar occurred in Britain after The New York Times leaked Pentagon plans to establish four permanent air bases in Iraq, adding to its existing 184 bases around the globe. The Pentagon denied the report, but my military and intelligence sources say it is largely accurate.

Imperial Britain ruled Iraq from the 1920s until 1958 by relying on the RAF to bomb and strafe rebellious tribesmen. Winston Churchill even authorized the RAF to use mustard gas and chlorine against ‘primitive tribesmen’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US now appears set to follow the British Empire by keeping order in its new colony by use of air power rather than ground troops.

But the new US bases in Iraq, if established, have a far more important role than mere colonialism. They will form the last spans of a gigantic air bridge, linking the US with Central Asia. America’s new imperial lifeline goes from the US East Coast to bases in Britain or Spain, then to America’s newest client states in East Europe: Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Their bases link directly to US Mideast bases in Turkey, the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and, soon, Iraq.

The new Iraqi bases will give the US control of the region’s second largest oil producer, and allow a lower American profile in Saudi Arabia. They will be stepping stones to US Central Asian bases — Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan — created in 1991-92 to dominate the Caspian Oil Basin under the pretext of the so-called ‘war on terrorism.’

These aforementioned are all permanent bases that will give the US air force ten league boots it will use to speed warplanes, men, and war materials across there-quarters of the width of the globe. Just as Suez was the key to Britain’s imperial naval lifeline, so Iraq, and/or other Mideast bases, will be for America’s imperium. America’s mighty air force, the Dreadnaught of our modern day, will rule over all of the world’s richest reserves of oil and gas, extending from Morocco to China’s western border.

Increasing numbers of unhappy Britain’s are asking if they were not euchered into an imperial war as American auxiliaries rather than having saved civilization from ‘imminent danger’ allegedly posed by Paper Camel Saddam Hussein. Other, more hardheaded Brits, are preparing to grab their share of the spoils of war to ‘liberate’ Iraq’s oil.—Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2003.

SARS threat

By Gwynne Dyer

THE virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was identified on 15 April in a ten-country collaboration between 13 laboratories as a corona virus related to those that cause the common cold.

“Now we can move away from methods like isolation and quarantine and move aggressively towards modern intervention strategies including specific treatments and eventually vaccination,” said David Heymann, executive director of the World Health Organisation’s communicable diseases programmes.

That’s the optimistic view. In Canada, where most of the SARS cases outside Asia have occurred, the tone is more cautious. “The problem in China is out of control so this is a virus that’s not going away. We’ve got this forever,” said Dr. Donald Low, chief microbiologist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. But if quarantine measures continued to restrict the disease’s spread, he hoped, there would be time to develop a vaccine, or at least better therapeutic measures and diagnostic tests, before it spread too widely.

Almost on the same day, however, news broke that around five hundred members of a religious group in Toronto had been exposed to SARS and had continued to move around the city in the course of their normal lives for a week afterwards, raising the risk that the city is about to tip over into ‘community spread’. That happens when the diffusion has become so wide, and the difficulty of tracing all the contacts of each infected person so great, that individual quarantine ceases to be effective and it may be necessary to consider quarantining the whole community.

The worst of the four scenarios developed by scientists advising the SARS team in Toronto and leaked last week to the ‘Globe and Mail’ envisaged an epidemic spread of SARS in the city in which “the health-care system would be overwhelmed. Case fatality rates could rise due to inability to provide optimal care. Considerable societal disruption could occur and maintaining even essential services could become problematic.” That is the extreme case, of course, but it is not inconceivable.

The SARS virus is actually deadlier than the ‘Spanish influenza’ virus that caused the great pandemic of 1918, which infected between 20 and 40 percent of the world’s population and killed 20 million people in four months. SARS kills 4 percent of its victims compared to 2.5 percent for the Spanish ‘flu. The difference is in the speed with which it spreads: when the Spanish flu struck with full force in the autumn of 1918, tens of thousands died in just the first few weeks — and the young and healthy died just as fast as the old and those suffering from chronic health problems.

SARS, on the other hand, has probably killed fewer than 200 people in three months, and most of the victims have been over 65. The only worrisome thing is that the Spanish flu began with a mild version that travelled around the world in the spring of 1918, and then came back a few months later in a far more virulent form to ravage the planet — at which point public health care did collapse in many places and families had to look after their own as best they could. “I don’t think we know where on the path we are (with SARS),” said Dr. Edwin Kilbourne, professor emeritus at New York Medical College and one of the world’s leading experts on the 1918 pandemic.

The speed with which the medical world can identify new diseases and generate new vaccines is far greater than in 1918, but so is the speed with which new diseases can travel around the globe, thanks to cheap air travel. Since the main way for viruses to mutate into new and lethal strains is by hopping back and forth between people and their domestic animals, the urgent lesson to be learned from this episode is that China must clean up its act.

South China, where many rural people live under the same roof as their animals but also travel widely in the world, is a leading source of new viruses. The SARS virus first appeared there, in Guangdong province, in mid-November, but the Chinese government suppressed the news. — Copyright

How Americans view democracy in Iraq

By Dr Iffat Idris Malik

THE latest hiccup in American plans to control and exploit Iraq is the emergence of strong Islamist (Shi’a) forces within the country. These religio-political forces are vehemently opposed to both the ‘secular’ Chalabi-led administration that Washington is trying to foist on them, and a continued US presence in Iraq. Their chants are ‘No to America!’ and ‘Yes to an Islamic state!’

It is not so much the extremism of these views that alarms America as the fact that they are being echoed by the Iraqi people. Desire to be rid of America pervades Iraqi society; close behind it is the desire to bring the clerics into government. The reasons for this are obvious: a deeply conservative society, pent-up religious passions, political vacuum (both are the result of suppression under Saddam Hussein) and the humiliation of occupation. For now, Islam is the only avenue through which Iraqis can express their feelings and sentiments. The end-result is equally obvious: should elections be held tomorrow, they will bring Islamists into power.

The Bush administration is well aware of the Islamist threat. Should it come to fruition, all America’s strategic planning for the region will come to nought. Instead of reaping the harvest of Iraqi oil and spreading westernism among Iraq’s neighbours, Washington will have to deal with a hostile regime in Baghdad that could lead others up the Islamist path. The Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 was too extreme and non-Arab to inspire the Arab world: an Iraqi Islamic revolution in the post-9/11 world would be an infinitely more attractive role model.

How to deal with this threat? Why, with threats of one’s own! First came the warnings to Iran not to interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs. These warnings are a futile attempt to curb Islamist sentiment — futile because post-Saddam Iraq’s Islamist fervour is not imported from Iran: it has totally indigenous roots. (They also reveal American frustration in Iraq: unable to lash out at the clerics or the Iraqi public, Washington is venting that frustration out on Iran.) Then comes US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s direct warning to the Iraqi people, saying, “If you’re suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country the answer is: that isn’t going to happen.”

The significance of Rumsfeld’s warning is immense. What it does, in effect, is to deny the Iraqi people the very freedom and democracy that George Bush had promised them before the war. The message to the Iraqis is simple: ‘You can choose who rules over you, but only if your choice is pro-American and secular. You cannot choose a government that is anti-American and Islamist.’ This is democracy with very long strings attached.

On a deeper, more philosophical level, Rumsfeld is denying the possibility that democracy and Islam can coexist. Or rather, he is denying the value of democracy that brings in Islam. Rumsfeld is not the first western leader to make this kind of democratic value-judgment. In the cold war era the enemy was communism: undemocratic leaders were tolerated, even welcomed, so long as they kept the communists at bay. In the post-cold war years, particularly after 9/11, the enemy is Islam: all manner of despotic leaders and governments can be — indeed should be — supported if they keep the Islamists out of power.

There is no shortage of examples to illustrate this phenomenon. Start with Algeria. After years of military rule, the first democratic elections in the country’s history were held in 1991. The initial two rounds pointed to a majority for the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the national assembly. The military junta promptly cancelled the final round of voting, banned the FIS and launched a campaign of brutal suppression. Its unquestionably undemocratic conduct was applauded by George Bush Senior and, among others, by the French.

Move east to Egypt. Hosni Mubarak succeeded Anwar Sadat to power more than two decades ago. He has ‘won’ every election since then — a remarkable record for a democratic country, but not so remarkable for a country that crushes political opposition — predominantly Islamist opposition — with ruthless use of state instruments of suppression. Yet Hosni Mubarak’s government is the second largest recipient of US aid in the world (the largest being Israel, a country which unabashedly takes state suppression to new heights).

Move further east to Saudi Arabia. There have never been democratic elections — or even sham elections — in the desert kingdom. The House of Saud rules without question or apology. There is opposition to it within Saudi Arabia — Osama bin Laden can be considered the extreme tip of that opposition. As in Egypt, it is strongly Islamist in character. Far from encouraging these pro-democracy forces, Washington puts pressure on the Saudi authorities to take even stronger action against them. There are no calls for Saudi democracy coming out of Capitol Hill or 10 Downing Street.

And finally look at Iran. For years Iran suffered from the folly and brutality of the Pahlavi Shah. America’s relationship with him was so cosy it had its own people in the Imperial Palace to advise the Shah. When a populist revolution led by the Ayatollahs swept the Shah off the throne, America responded with condemnation and sanctions.

Islamic rule in Iran has not been a model of democracy: there have been abuses of power and violations of human rights. But over the past decade Iran has moderated its policies and even established a tradition of democratic elections. Iranian democracy, though still imperfect, is way ahead of its Arab neighbours. Yet it is Iran, not Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Jordan, that faces the wrath of George Bush’s.

Now America looks set to make the same democratic ‘modification’ in Iraq. If free elections will bring the clerics into power, then free elections can be dispensed with. The Americans, of course, will not be so blatant in implementing this agenda. They will delay elections for as long as possible, citing security and stability as two overriding needs. They will tamper with the electoral process, seeking — like many dictators in other countries — a way to present the facade of democracy while maintaining the reality of absolute control. (Pakistani history is replete with such examples, the presidential referendum being the latest). ‘Representative democracy’ is the new catch phrase being bandied around for Iraq — a euphemism for ‘sham democracy’.

The irony is that every time governments attempt to crush popular Islamist sentiment, they actually end up strengthening and ‘fundamentalizing’ it. Algeria is the perfect case in point. Denied the ballot box route to power, the moderate FIS became both extremist and (in reaction to state violence) militant. The tourist massacre in Egypt in the 1990s by Gema’a al-Islamiyya came after the authorities stamped down on the more moderate Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda might not have emerged if there was an option for political opposition in Saudi Arabia.

How will Iraqis react if the US denies them the right to choose a government of their own if they suspect it is likely to be predominantly clerical? There is every indication that they too will resort to violence — witness the passion on display in Karbala last week. And since in Iraq it would be a foreign authority trying to stamp out Islamist politics, the Iraqi Islamists having the added potency of nationalism, would fight back — unlike in other Muslim countries. The result would be more fighting, more humanitarian suffering and — at the end of the day — a more extremist Islamic government in power in Baghdad.

Subverting or denying democracy is not the way to curb populist Islam. Like every other political ideology — socialism, communism, free market capitalism and neo-conservatism — Islam as a political code has to be given the chance to prove or discredit itself. The yardstick for governmental success is universal: security, equity, justice and development. Islam in power will either deliver security, justice and development — in which case no one should have a problem with it — or it will be voted out by a disillusioned electorate.

The argument that, once in power, Islamists seal the ballot boxes (refuse to hold elections or leave power), has no basis in fact or logic. Islamic Iran has held presidential and majlis elections every four-five years without fail. How can it be right to hold back democracy today because of the unproven fear that, once in power, Islamists would do so tomorrow? Denying Islamists the right to contest elections both increases the allure of their ideology and drives them underground and towards extremism. Islam that comes in through the ballot box is less dangerous and more liable to be moderated than Islam that comes in through violence and coercion.

The US has already failed to deliver on many of its pre-war promises in Iraq. It should not add democracy to the list.