October 24, 2010

Beyond Pakistan's political elites

Commentor Zathras rightly took me to task on a post about India and Pakistan's relationship.

Pakistan's long-term interest lies in the two countries settling their differences. But, as Zathras says, what's in the interests of the country isn't always in the interest of the people that run it.

"Suppose Pakistan's political elites continue to be driven by the inertia that encourages policies bad for the country but helpful to the maintenance of their domestic positions?"

This is a valid point to make in any country (ie. politicians and bankers, or politicians and defence firms). Pakistan has not fared well in the past 50 years. Some might argue that the political groupings felt they needed to cement their positions in order to implement their vision for the country's betterment. However, the end result is that rural landlords have succeeded in paying little tax and the military as made itself the country's strongest institution, while state services, the national economy and now public security have suffered dramatically.

I passionately believe that the way to remedy this is to build on Pakistan's often overlooked advantages and empower its people to become involved their country's future direction. I am just coming to the end of a one project I was working on to facilitate a discussion about governance, religion and identity based on Pakistan's own religious traditions (which I have written about before).

But the process that needs to take place is a discussion with the aim of building a new consensus where for 50 years there has only been one group trying to impose its vision on others. To that end, it's really good to see more initiatives that aim to work with and engage the public.

After the floods, I wrote about the activities of young Pakistanis who had decided that the responsibility for helping their country lay ultimately with them. For the afpak article, I spoke to Ali Abbas, the head of the Pakistan Youth Alliance. A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to attend the launch of a new social movement that Ali, and other young Pakistanis, have started up.

Khudi was launched with the help of the UK's Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think tank. The launch in Islamabad gathered together figures from Pakistan's media, the young activists themselves, Maajid Nawaz, director of Quilliam, as well as Noman Benotman, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and a former associate of Osama Bin Laden.

Fasi Zaka, a well known and fairly outspoken commentator, talked about the responsibility the media has to promote reasoned, constructive debate. Hamid Mir, a well known TV anchor, talked about the limitations placed on the media. As Noman Benotman was speaking, a vocal section of the crowd cheered nearly every sentence he spoke. But when he paused respectfully during the call to prayer, a voice from the back called, "Where is your secularism now?"

I have friends that complained about the content and style of the evening. "It's not Pakistani enough." Or, "Why are they preaching at us?" Or, "The speakers are saying different things."

I differ. It is Pakistani by the fact that Pakistanis are taking a leading role in it. Also, Pakistanis find it appealing enough to become Facebook fans (13,500 Facebook so far). Also, I would say that the difference of opinion is the point of an initiative like Khudi.

In 2007, Maajid Nawaz, addressed a hall in London and laid out his reasons for leaving behind his former life as a leading member of the non-violent extremist group Hizb ut Tahrir. The hall was full of ultra orthodox Muslims (salafis), people who were sympathetic to his old group, generally interested young professional Muslims and many non-Muslims. Maajid laid out his thoughts and many people disagreed, vocally, right there and then. But the point was that it was debate. In the last three years, the space for debate amongst young British Muslims has grown.

Pakistan, a country where 60 percent of the population is under 30, also needs open debate. If everyone agreed from the beginning, it wouldn't be needed. Instead, in Pakistan, because there has been little national debate - and no consensus - about the core foundational questions that underpin the state, there is little common ground from which to start the debate.

A national consensus is the basis of political stability. It lays out a broadly agreed idea of what the country is about, the duties of the rulers and the ruled as well as the roles of its various intertwined communities (economic, ethnic, religious etc.) This sort of common understanding allows for differences of opinion to occur without ripping a country to shreds or bringing it to a standstill. A national consensus is necessary to develop a sense of political participation and the sense that leaders are responsible to the people. If that can be achieved, the elites Zathras mentions have less leeway to secure their positions at the end of their country.

Even though Pakistanis have little common solid standpoints from which to begin the debate, Khudi makes the point that desire for change amongst the youth is a powerful enough place to start.

In the long-term the answers can't come from abroad. If we accept that bad governance, the exploitation of deeply held beliefs and fears for short-term ends are amongst the issues that have contributed to extremism, then initiatives like Khudi and Karvaan-e-Amn (which I was working on) that promote debate and engagement are going to  ultimately br more useful than military aid.

From mid November onwards, I'll be moving on to another role involving communications in Pakistan. But I hope the long-awaited national dialogue amongst Pakistanis grows.