Discussing Pakistan’s Future

Rasul Bakhsh Rais talks about old-fashioned liberal values in Pakistan.

Standing up to extremism, and countering terrorism, is a part of liberal values. However, this is simply a political position and does not represent liberalism as an ideology. True liberalism is about constitutionalism; rule of law; popular sovereignty and representative government. And this is an issue at the centre of the political divide in Pakistan

Later Rais gets down to the heart of the problem and the reason why Mushy is talking to Bhutto about sharing the government.

There is greater foreign interest in the politics of Pakistan than before for two reasons. First is the threat of Talibanisation, and the rising power of Islamist groups with a transnational ideological agenda. None of the countries in the neighbourhood of Pakistan, or beyond, would like to see these groups gain enough power to shape Pakistan’s society and state in their image. If that happened, it would have serious consequences for the stability of US-centred regional geopolitics, including the larger Middle East. Americans in the wake of 9/11 have become sceptical of Islamist groups and movements, and tend to believe that the Islamist position cannot be reconciled with notions of civility, peaceful change or harmony with the West. This understanding of Islamist groups might partially explain British and American preference for the Musharraf-Bhutto combination.The second reason, which is more compelling for the West, and not many Pakistanis wish to debate, is our nuclear capability. Instead of enhancing national sovereignty and providing increased flexibility and autonomy in domestic and foreign affairs, it has subjected us to greater international scrutiny. The West, in the present climate of fear, hostility and suspicion about Islamic radicalism, would not allow Islamist forces to assume political ascendancy through Talibanisation or normal political channels. The bomb that the Islamic parties of Pakistan so emotionally supported has sealed their political fate. Western concern about Islamic parties coming into power even through democratic means is universal, but the interest in preventing them from controlling Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is greater than ever before.

Western unease about Islamic radicalism and the nuclear bomb might explain why Britain and the United States are so interested in the direction of political change in Pakistan. Pakistan is too important a country, a ‘pivotal state’, to be left alone in choosing its future destiny. In their eyes, religious intolerance, extremism and violence have already exceeded acceptable thresholds.

There are no divisions of opinion between truly liberal sections in Pakistan on the fact that Pakistan needs social reforms, economic development and good governance to regain its capacity to be an effective state and modern society. The difference lies in the choice of strategy. With all due respect for our foreign friends, I think it would be a better choice to support a true transition to democracy in the country. A deal brokered between two leaders with personal political interests in its outcome would be short-lived, and would work against our common interest in achieving a transition to democracy. Western support for a truly democratic political setup in Pakistan is the best step towards defeating Islamic radicalism and militancy.

I think everybody knows exactly the stakes that are on the table, but here they are just so nobody can argue they don’t understand what the risk is.

What America wants to know, Mr. Rais, is can the Pakistani liberals win a fair election against the militant Islamists and keep the Islamist paws out of the nuclear cookie jar? Is the rule of law, the constitution, and the representative government strong enough to resist calls for implementation of extremist interpretations of Sharia? Or will fair and free elections lead inevitably to invasion and/or massive bombing of Pakistan with the attendant loss of life? That’s a result that nobody wants to see.

But it would be better than giving nukes to the Lal Masjid and Al Qaeda.

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