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.
The popular Pakistani blog, New Pakistan tweeted yesterday the following:
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.