Last autumn, I happened to be in Indonesia for a few days when there were massive demonstrations in several parts of the country against the visit of George W. Bush after the Republicans’ disastrous showing in the mid-term elections in the US. Although I was not there in any journalistic capacity, I managed to attend a couple of the demonstrations and get some good news pictures. Last month, coincidentally again, I found myself in Pakistan as the controversy over the dismissal of the chief justice unfolded. This time, I saw little of the controversy directly, although people assumed I must have been in the thick of it. Instead I followed events on television and through the papers, much like most local people, and listened with interest to the discussions that everyone was having on the subject. A few points quickly became clear, on the CJ issue (as quickly became the popular shorthand for referring to the case) and more broadly.
First, the total disillusion of virtually all Pakistanis with the current government; it is hardly surprising that what started as a protest by lawyers against a perceived attack on the independence of the judiciary soon became a wider protest against the government on numerous other grounds as well. One suspects that the CJ himself, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, was probably as surprised as anyone at how the protests mushroomed. It appears that many Pakistanis -- and not only opposition politicians -- were just waiting for an opportunity to make their feelings known.
Secondly, the disillusion of most Pakistanis with the broader political class and system. While everyone criticised Pervez Musharraf and explored various possible explanations for his decision -- some likely and some less likely -- few people had any expectations of political change in the near future, or that any alternative political leadership available in Pakistan would be any better. The general consensus seems to be that every established political party in Pakistan has proven itself to be self-serving and incompetent at some time or another.
Thirdly, that this disillusion extends, unfortunately, even to Pakistan’s established Islamic movements, particularly the Jama‘at-e Islami, which dominates organised Islamic activism in the country. Unfortunately, the failure of the Jama‘at’s repeated attempts to get involved in politics, notably by their alliances with Musharraf after his coup, and with General Zia ul-Haq before that, have convinced many Pakistanis that they have little to offer in terms of vision, understanding or leadership. The same is true of the many other, smaller Islamic groups and parties that operate in Pakistan, including both those that are part of the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) political alliance led by the Jama‘at and those that operate outside of it. When such groups do act on major Islamic issues, such as organising demonstrations in support of Iran during the recent US sabre-rattling against it, they are widely seen to be responding politically to public opinion, rather than on points of Islamic principle, and viewed with a degree of cynicism as a result.
And fourthly, most importantly, and almost paradoxically given the above point, most Pakistanis still look to Islam and Islamic leaders for solutions to their problems, even if they realise that these will not be found quickly or easily. Virtually all Pakistanis who think about the country’s political and social problems, and want to do something about them, think and act in terms of their Islamic faith and commitment. The fact that the Jama‘at is established and organised means that many active Muslims tend to work through bodies affilitated or associated with it, even if they do not agree with its political approach. For most Islamically-committed Pakistanis (which means most Pakistanis), Islamic Iran and the Hizbullah are the models they aspire to follow, if only there were some Islamic movement in Pakistan following a similarly clear, principled line. Unfortunately, as most Pakistanis recognise, there isn’t, which is why some young Muslims are turning to the simplistic but attractive line offered by Hizb al-Tahrir instead.
What Pakistan desperately needs is the emergence of an Islamic discourse, understanding and leadership that is not encumbered by established party dogma and is able to reconsider and rise above the mistakes of the past. Such an understanding may emerge eventually from within the Jama‘at, whose importance and contribution must not be disparaged, but only if there is a radical break from its current trajectory. However, the institutional conservatism of such movements makes this difficult.
So where in Pakistan are the present-day equivalents of Syed Qutb, Ali Shari‘ati and Kalim Siddiqui?