Pakistan has taken several important steps forward over the past four years. From President Zardari’s willingly devolving powers that had been consolidated under past military dictators to an elected parliament completing its full tenure, there are, as Peter Bergen recently noted, many reasons to be hopeful about Pakistan’s future. But despite Pakistan’s overall positive trajectory, there remains a disturbing trend that threatens the promise of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Pakistan – the ongoing attempts to silence Pakistan’s progressive voices.
Deposed Pakistan dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf spoke with BBC about the recent pro-democracy movements in the Middle East. During his interview, Musharraf stated that “good dictatorship is better than bad democracy.”
Asked about his role in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and whether he had any prior knowledge of the attack, Musharraf replied, “I don’t want to discuss that.”
This latest statement of Musharraf’s anti-democratic political philosophy comes a week after the former dictator defended torture under his regime. Asked by BBC’s Peter Taylor if he believes “the ends justifies the means,” Gen. Musharraf answered, “Yes,” and went on to say that the British government gave “tacit approval for whatever we were doing.” The British government denies that any approval, tacit or otherwise, was given for torture.
Pro-democracy demonstrations across the Arab world remind us that Islam and democracy are not only compatible, but, as we are increasingly seeing, Muslims across the world yearn for freedom and self-determination. Reuel Marc Gerecht, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies observes in today’s New York Times that “the idea of democracy had become a potent force among Muslims, and authoritarianism had become the midwife to Islamic extremism,” phenomena brilliantly explained by Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in her final book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West.
Benazir Bhutto posited that there are two elements primarily responsible for the lack of democratization in Muslim-majority countries: The battle within Islamic factions for “raw political and economic power” and “a long colonial period that drained developing countries of both natural and human resources.”
Despite these obstacles, Pakistan has a democratically elected government going into its third year; Tunisia’s dictator for a quarter-century has been forced from power; Egypt’s Tahrir square is overflowing with Muslims demanding the right to choose their own leaders. These developments have received mixed reactions in the West. Too many continue to fear that elections in Muslim-majority country will result in the “wrong” people gaining power and voters will not wake up in liberal democracies promoting post-enlightenment values. This is the wrong lens through which to view the rise of democracy in the Muslim world. As Benazir Bhutto wisely observed, “Democracies do not spring up fully developed overnight.”
It is here that Pakistan can serve as a valuable guide along the path of democratization in the Muslim world. Having gained freedom from the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf in 2008, Pakistanis have been strengthening democratic governance, learning to balance political and national priorities, and creating an inclusive process that represents the aspirations of all Pakistanis.
That is not to say that there have been no mistakes, no set backs. But this is the nature of democracy. The difference this time is that mistakes and set backs are Pakistani in nature and not imposed by an outside power or an authoritarian dictator. As such, they can be learned from and reformed, and negative impacts will lack the permanence that they would otherwise. Benazir Bhutto described this process eloquently in Reconciliation:
We must think of a new democracy like a seedling that must be nourished, watered, fed, and given time to develop into a mighty tree. Thus, when democratic experiments are prematurely interrupted or disrupted, the effects can be, if not permanent, certainly long-lasting. Internal or external interruptions of democracy (both elections and governance) can have effects that ripple and linger over generations.
As we wrote on Friday, the US needs to give Pakistan’s democracy space to grow. This applies, of course, to all burgeoning democracies in the Muslim-majority nations. Islam and democracy are not incompatible, but will peacefully co-exist if allowed to grow and flourish naturally.
The political situation in Pakistan may appear volatile, and indeed the path of democracy, as our own history illustrates, is wrought with missteps. But there are no short cuts to democracy, and attempts to trade progress for stability will produce neither. Given nurturing and support, however, Pakistan can continue to serve as a guide to Muslims across the world who are struggling themselves for the ability to determine their own future.
The Brookings Institution yesterday hosted the official book release for Bruce Riedel’s new book, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of Global Jihad. The author, Bruce Riedel, is a career CIA officer and has advised four US presidents on South Asian policy. He is widely regarded as one of the United States’s preeminent experts on Pakistan.
The auditorium at the Brookings Institution, one of Washington’s oldest and most prestigious think tanks, was filled to capacity with representatives from several governments as well as the military. The rear of the room was packed with journalists from across the world. Mr. Riedel began his remarks by thanking several people, but he paused to give special praise for the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto whom he recognized for her courage and inspiration.
Mr. Riedel noted that Pakistan is one of the most important countries in the world not only for its proximity to the war in Afghanistan, but because it is home to the second largest population of Muslims in the world, it has the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal, and it is a long-time American ally. Despite its importance, however, most Americans know very little about the country.
According Mr. Riedel, there are three main issues that he deals with in his new book: Pakistan’s domestic politics, US-Pakistan relations, and the growth of the global jihad movement.
Pakistan’s domestic politics, he said, is influenced largely by two primary struggles: one between the military and the civilian government, the other between the moderate majority of Pakistanis and the vocal but minority of Islamists. He mentioned that these struggles are often exacerbated by an irresponsible press.
But Mr. Riedel pointed out that there is one thing that has always trumped these struggles over the history of Pakistan – “the yearning for democracy has pushed dictators out of power over and over.” There is, he said, a constant underlying push for democracy, rule of law, and accountability. This was a key theme of Mr. Riedel’s remarks – more than anything, the people of Pakistan want to decide their own fate.
On the second issue, US-Pakistan relations, Mr. Riedel was honest and open about the fact that the US has not been a consistent friend to Pakistan. He referred to the relationship between the two countries as ‘a deadly embrace’ – one in which neither side knew if they could trust the other – and urged the members of the audience to change this from a deadly embrace to a friendly embrace.
Mr. Riedel pointed out two major mistakes made by the US:
First, that over the history of US-Pakistan relations, too much has been built around secret projects that are not really secret. He referred to the U2 base in the 1950s; the role that Pakistan played as intermediary between the US and China during Nixon’s presidency; the cooperation between the US and Pakistan in arming the Afghan mujahideen during the Cold War; and most recently the drone attacks on al Qaeda. By continually basing our relationship on secret agreements, we allow an air of intrigue to mischaracterize what is often a healthy cooperation.
The second major mistake the US made, of course, was the support for Pakistan’s dictators over the years – an error of both Republican and Democratic administrations, and one that set back Pakistan’s democratic progress by decades. Mr. Riedel urged the US not never repeat this mistake again.
The third issue Mr. Riedel addressed is Pakistan’s relationship with the growth of the global jihad movement. Here, Mr. Riedel says, we should understand that Pakistan is a nation at war for its soul. While the vast majority of the country are peaceful, moderate Muslims, Pakistan is also home to the largest number of militant groups in the world. As such, the country is divided between those who are loyal to the vision of the nation’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and dark forces who seek to convert Pakistan into a jihadist state similar to Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
The roots for the global jihad movement, Mr. Riedel explains, can be traced to the dictatorship of Gen. Ziaul Haq during the 1980s – a dictatorship supported by the United States. Make no mistake, he reminds, the US shares responsibility for this situation.
The good news, however, is that Pakistan’s military is engaged in the most serious counterinsurgency efforts it has ever conducted. While there may be some elements of the military and intelligence agencies still supporting militant groups as a holdover from previous doctrines of “strategic depth”, the military has realized that the nation most threatened by these groups is Pakistan itself. In answer to a question from the audience, Mr. Riedel said that if you had told him two years ago that Pakistan’s Army was conducting counterinsurgency operations in six of the seven tribal areas, he would have said you were dreaming. Today, though, that dream is a reality.
So what is the solution that Mr. Riedel proposes?
First and foremost, he says, the future of Pakistan is not up to the US. Only Pakistan can decide its own fate, and the US must not repeat past mistakes and try to push Pakistan one way or the other.
The US must not undermine the civilian government or the democratic process. To those who question whether one or another politician is preferable, Mr. Riedel reminds the audience that democracy is not about individuals, but about a process.
The US must also support Pakistan’s efforts to normalize and improve relations with its neighbors, especially India. Mr. Riedel gave special praise for the efforts of Pakistan’s current President Asif Ali Zardari to improve trade between the countries. While these may seem like small steps, he said, it is this path of incremental change and trust-building that will ultimately succeed.
Above all, however, the US must not try to broker a peace between Pakistan and India. It will not work, he said, and we must trust and support the Pakistani leadership to develop a path to normalization that satisfies their own needs and strategic interests.
The people of Pakistan have shown a remarkable determination to hold on to Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan as a nation at peace with its neighbors and itself. There are no magic solutions, he warned, and progress will take time. But, he advised, we should never underestimate the people of Pakistan’s desire for democracy and peace. If there was one message that Mr. Riedel left the audience with that day, it was this: “Do not underestimate the Pakistani people.”
The assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer and the divided reaction among the Pakistani public reiterates the importance of American support for democracy and justice in Pakistan. As a nation that itself navigated dark days when forces of intolerance and extremism threatened violence across the land, the United States has a duty to stand by our friends as they struggle to secure their own future.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave a speech at Gettysburg in which he observed that the American civil war was testing whether any nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could long endure. In his resolve, he gave expression to the soul of the American nation:
That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The United States was 85 years old.
While Pakistan has not neared the threshold of civil war, this young nation founded on the principles of freedom and democracy faces a struggle similar to that which the United States wrestled as President Lincoln spoke those famous words.
Let there be no doubt we have a national crisis in Pakistan. We are fighting for the soul of country.
In 1947, the year Pakistan was founded, the father of the nation Muhammad Ali Jinnah said the following before the Constituent Assembly:
We are starting in the days when there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.
Six-months later he clarified this principle saying, “Make no mistake: Pakistan is not a theocracy or anything like it.”
Sixty-four years later, Pakistan is torn between a peace-loving, democratically-inclined majority fighting to keep alive the vision of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and a fanatic, violent minority who seek a theocratic state under a twisted interpretation of religion.
In the past, the US has, against its principles, supported military strongmen in Pakistan in the hope of stabilizing the country long enough for democracy to take root. Far from seeding democracy, however, these dictators sowed the seeds of religious extremism, poisoning the soil with hatred, intolerance, and mistrust.
While Pakistan’s militant groups do not have the strength or support to topple the civilian government, they are entrenched enough to disrupt the democratic process. They have assassinated two pro-democracy leaders in the past three years: Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and Salmaan Taseer in 2011.
Even more troubling is how the jihadi mindset that was nurtured by dictators with American acquiescence has spread. Considered unimportant until 9/11, this extremist ideology was left to work its way into educational curricula, into courtrooms, and into the rank and file of Pakistan’s security forces. Today it threatens to stunt the growth of democracy among a war-weary populace.
As Americans, we should be able to empathize. It was not so long ago that our own society was threatened by a poisonous ideology. Racist violence was perpetrated against individuals and the state by armed militias, schools taught pseudo-science based on an extremist ideology, and intolerance and hatred were institutionalized in courts.
But just as Americans came together to defeat the Ku Klux Klan, school segregation, and Jim Crow, Pakistan can and will see its way through the rocky waters they face today. Violence and intolerance is not inherent to Islam or to Pakistan, as is attested by the millions of peace-loving, tolerant Muslims and Pakistanis the world over. In fact, the natural affinity between Islam and democracy was made clear by Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in her final book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West.
As Americans, we have stared into the abyss, and we have seen what can become of a people who forsake justice. Ultimately, we chose the path of liberty. But this choice came not cheap, and the price was paid in the blood of hundreds of thousands of men and women.
Today, Pakistan finds itself staring into the abyss. The United States must stand by Pakistan in its time of trouble, providing guidance and support as it finds its own way to the path of liberty. We must not give in to the temptation of easy, short-term solutions. We have tried these before and they will fail us now as they have failed us before. We must stand firm in our principles and in our faith in democracy so that we may help the people of Pakistan ensure that their own government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Last night I had the good fortune to see the new documentary Bhutto at a public screening hosted by National Geographic. I have been looking forward to the film since I first heard about it a few weeks ago. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.
Bhutto was presented to a packed house. Talking to the people at the ticket counter, I learned that the the theatre sat 400, and they had over 700 people request tickets. I was glad I requested mine early.
While some of the crowd were average people curious to learn more about both Benazir Bhutto and her country, Pakistan, the audience also included a number of elite journalists and representatives of the American government. As such, the screening served both as a means to educate an American audience perhaps unfamiliar with the former Pakistani Prime Minister, as well a time for her American friends and colleagues to remember her life and contributions to democracy in the world.
Far from a funereal atmosphere, though, the event was above all a celebration of Benazir Bhutto’s life and her message. As secret service stood watch in the wings, the front rows were filled with representatives from the State Department, Department of Defense, and the White House – all of whom had come to pay their respects to the life and legacy of Benazir Bhutto.
The film was introduced by representatives of National Geographic and PBS (Bhutto will be shown on the PBS series Independent Lens on March 11, 2011), but the highlight of the opening were remarks by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who described to the audience her experience meeting Benazir Bhutto when she addressed a joint session of Congress in 1989, and what a moving and inspirational example Bhutto served for her personally.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi Speaks About Benazir Bhutto
Beginning with Benazir Bhutto’s childhood and the influential political career of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Bhutto follows the intellectual and political development of an amazing historical figure. Regardless of one’s personal political sympathies, Benazir Bhutto represents a leader who overcame incredible odds to not only become the first woman elected to lead an Islamic state, but a source of hope and pride for a nation beleaguered by decades of political turmoil. As such, the film introduces audiences who may not have a deep familiarity with this legendary figure to a precocious daughter, an intellectual student, a passionate leader, a devoted mother, and a woman who willingly sacrificed everything for the greater good of her nation.
A great credit to the filmmakers was the way they presented a balanced view of the Pakistani leader. Going into the screening, I was fully prepared for a political hagiography. But what I saw was nothing of the sort. The director gave significant time to critics of Benazir Bhutto, including Gen. Musharraf and a spokesman for Nawaz Sharif, a major political opponent. The film neither avoids her deepest critics, nor the various accusations that those critics made against her. This balance allows for a more complete view of this complex leader of a turbulent nation. That Benazir Bhutto may have made mistakes is not disputed – the film even includes recordings of her admitting as much. But Benazir Bhutto never claimed to be perfect – she only asked that her mistakes be judged in the context of her intent: to bring democracy to her nation.
Early in the film, someone refers to the Bhuttos as the ‘Kennedys of Pakistan’. As the final credits rolled, I could not help but to recall Richard Reeves’ brilliant biography of President Kennedy. There is a (perhaps apocryphal) story that Jackie Kennedy once told her children of Reeves’ work, “If you want to know your father, he is in this book.” As I left the theatre last night, I could not help but think that I had met Benazir Bhutto in this film.
Tariq Ali says in the film that, “the whole story of the Bhuttos has strong elements of a Greek tragedy.” The Bhuttos’ story does, in fact, include tragic elements. I defy anyone to sit through this film without finding tears coming to his or her eyes. But one need not walk away from this film feeling downtrodden. At the conclusion of the presentation, audience members talked among each other of the powerful impact Benazir Bhutto continues to have as a symbol of courage and the promise of a democratic world.
Though Benazir Bhutto’s life ended in tragedy, her story is, in many ways, one that has yet to end. In Pakistan’s democratic movement, Benazir Bhutto lives on. And when the end to this story is finally written, God willing, Benazir Bhutto’s dream will have been realized and Pakistan will be the modern democracy she always knew it could be.
At the end of the film it was clear to the entire audience – citizen and government representative alike – that in murdering Benazir Bhutto, her killers amplified her message, strengthened the resolve of her allies, and brought her dream of a democratic Pakistan that much closer to reality. Bhutto‘s tag line is true: “You can’t murder a legacy.”
Reactions at Sundance Film Festival
A United Nations Commission yesterday released a report on the facts and circumstances of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.[PDF] While stopping short of pronouncing criminal guilt, the report serves as a searing indictment of General Pervez Musharraf and the actions – or lack thereof – of authorities under his regime. While the report will likely spur criminal investigations in Pakistan, it serves as a harsh reminder of the vital importance of supporting the struggling movement for democracy in Pakistan.