A False Choice for Pakistan

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By Salman Ahmad
Monday, November 19, 2007

As Pakistan descends into political chaos, much attention has been given to two leaders competing for power -- the current dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and the media-savvy former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. The White House appears to be backing Musharraf as its best bet in the "war on terror," while much of the world's media and Western liberal elite see Bhutto as a democratic savior for a country mired in Islamic fundamentalism.

Both fail to recognize the core problem plaguing Pakistani society: Without a strong and independent judiciary, Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state, will forever be at the mercy of dictators and power-hungry politicians. Lack of oversight and institutional accountability leads to coups, counter-coups and perpetual instability.

As an artist and social activist, I have worked with the governments of both Musharraf and Bhutto on peace initiatives and socially uplifting themes. I have been disillusioned by their lack of commitment to getting real work done; they appear to spend most of their time consolidating their power bases.

On several occasions after Sept. 11, 2001, I was invited to Musharraf's house in Islamabad, and he even joined me onstage at a concert to help support a united front against extremism. I, like many members of my generation, initially believed Musharraf's commitment to introducing an era of "enlightened moderation" in Pakistan, a nation that was hijacked by religious fanatics during the American-backed military dictatorship of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s.

We supported Musharraf because of his promises to fight extremism, bring accountability into politics, open up an independent media and reduce the immoral gap between Pakistan's rich and poor. But no amount of governmental fear-mongering can make us look the other way while he imposes emergency rule, intimidates the media, dismantles the judiciary and muzzles dissent. Without respect for civil institutions, his flawed government is doomed to fail.

Yet Benazir Bhutto is no savior. The queen of hypocrisy, she has managed to hypnotize Western liberals with her claim to represent progressive elements in the Muslim world. Bhutto is a charlatan. How can she call herself a democrat while also appointing herself head of the Pakistan People's Party for life? Her time as prime minister brought staggering levels of corruption and graft. Bhutto's niece and sister-in-law accuse her of conspiring to murder her own brother, Murtaza, who challenged her power during her second term. She continues to see Pakistan as her personal feudal fiefdom to be plundered. A false prophet of democracy, she threatens to bring back the rule of the gangster rather than the rule of law.

During the late '90s, I recorded a song called "Accountability" and made a video that satirized Pakistani politicians whose corruption scandals were being reported internationally. The response of Bhutto's government was to ban the video and threaten my life. In the years since Bhutto fled Pakistan to escape corruption investigations, her desire to regain power has blinded her to the struggle being waged by Pakistanis on behalf of true democracy. A member of her own party, Aitzaz Ahsan, the lawyer who won Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry's reinstatement as chief justice of the Supreme Court after Musharraf dismissed him early this year, languishes in jail -- along with thousands of others. Meanwhile, Bhutto attends diplomatic receptions and makes speeches about freedom and liberty. While lawyers and human rights activists faced the threat of injury and death for standing up to Musharraf's regime, she was in sunny Dubai, waiting for Washington's go-ahead to return.

Pakistan's future lies with neither of these "leaders." The key to moving forward lies in the genesis of Pakistan's freedom movement: Our nation's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, struggled and sacrificed to win our independence from Britain, setting clear examples of legal and political activism. Jinnah was a constitutional lawyer who blended Islamic and Western values of social justice. Sixty years later, most Pakistanis still see him as the best role model for our politics. He was tenacious, incorruptible and secular, but he said his inspiration was the prophet Muhammad, whom he called the greatest lawgiver in history.

The United States and its allies need to unequivocally support the Pakistani judges, lawyers, journalists and rights activists fighting for the rule of law. A strong Pakistani civil society would provide stability and a powerful institutional deterrent against violence and extremism. It is the best hope for discouraging future political and military actors from grabbing power unilaterally. The reward for such support now could one day be a democratic Muslim country at peace with itself and the world.

Shakespeare warned that a dictator's first instinct is to "kill the lawyers." He was right. It is the lawyers and the judiciary that are the hope and future of Pakistan. Let's stand by them and not surrender to pharaohs and false prophets, whether they wear military uniforms or Hermes scarves.

The writer founded the rock bandJunoonand is a U.N. goodwill ambassador on HIV-AIDS. He is a contributor to washingtonpost.com's On Faith. His e-mail addresssalahmad@hotmail.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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