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Strongman Syndrome

Published Aug 30, 2011 09:31am


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Pakistani politics has always been a messy business, it isn’t pretty and it usually involves angry Pakistani men with an inferiority complex. But it is the public discussion which is the heart and soul of any democracy – it is what the people think that truly tells us about the nature and health of a nation’s ‘civil soul’. Today as we look at the tragic situation in Karachi an attitude has come to the fore: The ‘Strongman Syndrome’.

To sort out the bloodbath in Karachi some would have us believe that more spilling of blood is necessary by calling in the Army. A popular call has been one of mass execution of politicians by the Army and then a messianic ushering in of a glorious leader who can quash any sort of dissent. First these pleas have to be put into context – this type of thinking comes from people who have been driven to desperation. Their pleas are a symptom of a failed democracy – they cannot be blamed. Mass executions though an example of ‘swift justice’ (I use the term loosely) is never a long term solution.

‘We need a strong man’ is a common plea by ordinary Pakistanis and we should be sympathetic to this but recognise that this is no solution. The answer to any political crisis is never a ‘strongman’ but rather is more democracy – real democracy in fact where parties have internal elections, where people don’t pay attention to your surname but your policies, where politicians have to face the public in town-hall style meetings and where the rule of law is strengthened. A democracy where people do not hide behind their ethnicity or faith but answer for their actions and speech directly.

I understand the call for a ‘strongman’ – it is only natural when jungle law is the norm in a city like Karachi. But it is a misplaced request – the rule of law has to be strengthened. Justice cannot be trusted in the hands of men it has to be enshrined in fixed laws that provide proper recourse and accountability. The law so to speak is what brings about equilibrium and reconciliation between the weak and the strong. The law is what mediates conflict and provides consensus and agreement. It is the law that has been shattered in Karachi and that is what has to be restored.

Rule of law is one of the sacred pillars of any modern liberal democracy – there is a reason why we must have a system of governance where there are checks and balances – it is so that we can eliminate the need for a ‘’strong man’’. No one is an angel and to trust mere man to deliver the deeds of saints is foolhardy.

The ‘strongman syndrome’ is an insidious threat to Pakistan’s already fragile if not dysfunctional quasi democratic system. It is what paves the way for autocrats and ensures their survival. The ‘strongman syndrome’ is the glue for the social contract between a dictator and his peoples – it is a deadly rot that crushes the democratic spirit. Karachi’s deliverance (in whatever form it will come) will only come about with more democracy and more dialogue – it will only come about when political parties are held to account and the rule of law established.

Our political conscience is still shaped by the experience of the Mughals and their benevolent and pious autocracies in the name of faith, the notion of a ‘Redeemer’ a quasi-messianic complex that will deliver the people to a state of bliss and salvation.

The reasons why in Pakistan the democratic experiment has never really taken off are many but surely one of them is the ‘strongman culture’. We wait patiently for a saviour who will deliver the solutions to our problems, instead of exercising our own rational autonomy and critical reason collectively in the public sphere in active deliberation. A nation cannot be uplifted on the will of one person.

This dissonance in political psychology while stating in a benign manner allegiance to democratic principles, whilst fervently waiting for a modern day Saladin or Mughal emperor (the Saladin complex) is endemic in the electorate, reflected in the spurt of new radical movements. Paradoxically, this utopian belief fosters a numbing fatalism – individual conscience has been relegated as useless daydreaming.

However, utopianism more often than not is a corollary of fanaticism and extremism and is emptied of the reservoirs of rational analysis, emphasising passion and emotion at the cost of reason.  What is happening in Karachi is an example of groups wishing to establish an ethnic utopia – a paradise where only people who are the ‘same’ have a right to life.

Underlying Karachi’s cancer of violence is a social culture – a culture that has been shaped by schools, governments, public personalities, religious leaders and politicians and that is a culture of intolerance. Laws can prevent violence but in the long run it is our national culture that will be the best defence against future tragedies. You can make laws of course but if the soil is barren then how do you expect roses of peace to bloom?

In the end, this process is never driven by a ‘strong man’ – it is driven by men and women of a strong conscience.

Ahmad Ali Khalid is a freelance writer and blogger based in the UK. He can be reached at or twitter.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (16) Closed

Ghulam Nassar Aug 30, 2011 05:36pm
This is true of any body of religious believers. Religion makes us look to an alleged deity to save us from misery. We should instead find secular solutions to our problems. A case in point is the current month of Ramdan when we lose productivity because of skipping lunch when we need it most. There is no reason for us not eating either lunch or a hearty breakfast and make that the only meal. OR eat a light breakfast and a light lunch and miss dinner. All prayers should be after we quit work, between sunset and sunrise. We can spend the time in the mosques praying except for a short spell of sleep. The Holy Book requires us to spend the time between sunrise and sunset in the mosques praying. We keep challenging Allah. I am sure Allah will forgive us if use common sense. And on no account should we stop drinking water. Allah does not want us to harm our bodies by depriving it of fluids. We should drink a glass of water every four hours. This is now a truly global economy and we are falling behind. It is time for reform to our faith.
Jawad Anjum Aug 30, 2011 05:53pm
Excellent article. Violence will not solve violence, it will only beget violence. There is no savior, no hero to save us. WE must set ourselves free of this authoritarian culture. WE must learn to think independently, free of dogma and societal 'norms'.
Moeed Hanif Aug 30, 2011 05:54pm
Again the questiong remains how to produce strong men and women of a stong conscience ??? The only answer is Quran. The problems we are facing at the movement are discussed, analysed and solutions are provided in the Quran. The words of Allah can nerver be wrong.
casey jacobs Aug 30, 2011 06:52pm
then whats stopping the 95% muslim population of pakistan in following their holy book?
Omair Khalid Aug 30, 2011 08:02pm
Allah's words are ofcourse never wrong. Its interpreting them wrong that has been landing us into trouble time and again.
abraham haque Aug 30, 2011 08:34pm
it appears that truth really hurts
Zulina Aug 30, 2011 10:56pm
In the time as such when the government is not doing performing their role, this is where the civil society comes in, in which educated liberal thinking professionals come in and try to change the society. When things are thought more from their minds rather than just mere old practices. These educated young people are the ones who can try to change one step at a time.
Ram, India Aug 30, 2011 11:10pm
Brilliant article. Democracy demands us to take responsibilty for our future. By us I mean all well-meaning people who wish for better in society. Praying for a messiah only postpones the time for action. It should be now!! All the best.
Munawar Aug 31, 2011 01:01am
Laws are useless unless they are enforced. There is no law enforcement in Pakistan. The state is weak as a consequence. As for saviors, this tradition began with the first caliphs who fell to assassins. Islam has yet to provide a mechanism that allows a leader elected by people. Only then can a leader be held accountable. These are existential issues.
Ahmer Aug 31, 2011 05:32am
Dont wait for a supernatural being (spiderman or superman) to come to rescue us of our miseries. We have to act ourselves to solve our miseries.
Salman Aug 31, 2011 01:06pm
you have missed the point of Ramadan. if we lose productivity it is because we are lazy. the poor man who cannot afford to have breakfast or dinner cannot also afford to lose productivity because then he Will not earn enough for dinner! its all about intentions and work ethic. i actually find myself more productive in Ramadan as there are no distractions like lunch or tea breaks. and praying 2 namaz in the day takes 20 mins total. please don't blame our decline on those 20 mins...
K S Ali Aug 31, 2011 02:01pm
Religion is part of the problem NOT the solution. What about rights of Christians? Hindus? Whose interpretation of Quran are you going to use? What about rights of atheist? Wake up. Religion is responsible for laf of the ailments. Why do you think all successful nations ARE secular?
Sharma Anil ( India Aug 31, 2011 02:45pm
By calling a strong man or a weak woman ..... Pakistan Govt should not let its people cry like this.
Rooster Aug 31, 2011 04:57pm
A very nice article and well written. But have you ever wondered that it is in all the Muslim worlds that strongmen exist; Gadaffi in Libya, Assad in Syria, Hussain in Iraq, Bashir in Sudan, Hussain in Jordan, Saleh in Yemen, and then the disposeed one in Egypt. If a muslim majority cannot find a strong leader, then there is killings; muslims killing muslims, as in Somalia and Afganistan. Pakistan has justed started on that road ... Think!
Mohammad Ali Khan Sep 02, 2011 07:41am
Time for Pakistanis to develop ingredients of a strong character.Be honest.Work hard.Respect others.Stop bribing culture at all levels.Do not litter.Be disciplined.Displace a bad culture with a good culture,sooner then later.Don't wait for others to fix.If you want things done,then do it yourself.
Saad Sep 03, 2011 11:26pm
i am all in favor of democracy but it only truly works when people are aware about the person they are voting for and do not sell their votes for a few thousand rupees.