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Ben Rogers: Musharraf, collect your marbles please

Ben_rogers Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist specialising in South Asia. He works for the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, serves as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and was Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham in the 2005 General Election. He has visited Pakistan twice. 

President Pervez Musharraf claims that his decision to call a state of emergency in Pakistan, suspending the constitution and restricting the media, is part of his efforts to crack down on extremism and terrorism. Pull the other one!

If it were truly part of the war on terror, why on earth has he jailed hundreds of lawyers, put the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion and Belief, the Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and former international cricketer Imran Khan under house arrest, and failed to go after key pro-Taliban and pro-al Qaeda groups? As Asma Jahangir, UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion and Belief and a prominent lawyer in Pakistan, put it after she was put under house arrest for 90 days, Musharraf has “lost his marbles”.

Let no one be in any doubt how serious and precarious the situation in Pakistan has become. As I have argued previously on this site, Pakistan is an incubator of terrorism. The security situation in Pakistan is a cause for grave concern. On my first visit to the country, in 2004, I missed a bomb by literally five minutes, so I know the risks and I don’t under-estimate the challenge.

The three key questions, however, are: 

  • how should Pakistan deal with the challenge of extremism and terrorism?
  • is Musharraf up to the challenge?
  • if not Musharraf, who?

Let’s take the second and third questions first, before attempting to address the first. 

Is Musharraf up to it?

Frankly, the world has been very patient with him. Musharraf has been trying to have it both ways for too long. He has been giving the West the impression – until recently, successfully – that he is fighting extremism, as our ally in the war on terror. Yet at the same time, he has in fact fanned the flames of extremism – he has taken some token steps, but left a large part of the pro-Taliban, pro-al Qaeda movement untouched, and has given succour to Islamists. And by excluding moderates, progressives and democrats – people with whom he should have been working – he has emboldened the extremists. 

I argued in August on this site that Musharraf needed to come off the fence, to stop posing as a progressive to the West while winking at extremists when our backs are turned. His extraordinary acrobatics have left him doing the splits with enormous inelegance – he has now succeeded in upsetting the extremists following his belated decision to crack down on the Red Mosque earlier this year, and the progressives following his decision to suspend the constitutional process, ignore the Supreme Court and sack the Chief Justice and many other judges. 

The tragedy is that Musharraf is, in his heart of hearts, a moderate – at least in religious, if not political, terms. His Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank executive, is hardly a chum of Mullah Omar. I have met him – and in his heart, he wants a liberal tolerant society as much as I do. Musharraf and many of his ministers have far more in common with the people he is locking up at the moment, than with the extremists to whom he is turning a blind eye. So why doesn’t he join them instead of jailing them? 

Until the events of this past week, I still believed Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto could form an alliance that would unite progressives and moderates and fight for a secular vision of Pakistan along the lines which its founder, Jinnah, envisaged. I still do not rule it out – but Musharraf has made it much, much more difficult. 

I personally know some of the people arrested in Pakistan. They are all moderates, striving for a Pakistan that respects basic human rights and freedoms. Yet while my friends are in jail, contacts in Pakistan tell me that pro-Taliban militants are gaining increasing control in various parts of the country. In North-West Frontier Province, pro-Taliban militants have gained control of several sub-districts, and taken over a police station and other government buildings in one place this week – while the police was spending its time rounding up lawyers, human rights activists and democratic politicians.   

The alternatives?

But if Musharraf’s splits have been painful, what are the alternatives? The democratic opposition, I must admit, does not inspire me. Benazir Bhutto is synonymous with corruption, and while she may be the most progressive politician available, her record in office is not exactly courageous. She failed to reign in the intelligence services’ support of extremists when she was Prime Minister. And Nawaz Sharif – turned away from the airport and sent back to exile recently – was on the verge of introducing full Shari’a law when he was in charge. 

There is absolutely a real risk that if Musharraf falls, something far worse could replace him. There is a danger that the extremists could take charge – and the world would witness both the Talibanisation of Pakistan, and a nuclear arsenal in the hands of al-Qaeda.

How should Pakistan deal with extremism?

Imran Khan got it absolutely right:

“This move of Musharraf's,” he said referring to the state of emergency, the suspension of constitution and the arrest of hundreds of democrats and human rights activsts, “will ignite militancy and extremism. When you suppress democratic forces then the only way to resist is through militancy.”

David Miliband and the EU seem to agree. The Foreign Secretary said:

“There is a unanimous view from the international community that democracy, and human rights, and political freedoms and constitutional rule are the allies of security and stability in Pakistan.” The EU said: “While recognising that Pakistan faces threats to its peace and security, the EU believes that stability and development can only be achieved through democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.”

Some of Musharraf’s actions this week have echoes of the scenes witnessed in Burma in September. Instead of Saffron-robed monks we have seen lawyers in black suits and ties being beaten up and taken away to jail. As in Burma, for a while communications were shut down or restricted, including the mobile phone network. One of the regulations issued in the state of emergency prohibits any media criticism of Musharraf and the government – and private television news channels were put off air. It seems a repeat of Zia ul-Haq’s martial law. 

The way forward for Pakistan if it is to fight Talibanisation and create a moderate, secular, democratic country that respects basic human rights, protects religious minorities and implements Jinnah’s vision is to uphold freedom and democracy. Islamism is fascism, and if it takes hold in Pakistan it poses a major threat to world security. Preventing Pakistan’s further slide into extremism requires the utmost boldness and wisdom. 

Musharraf should, no matter how far he has gone, pull back from the brink, immediately release all non-violent democrats recently jailed, and enter into a dialogue with progressives to work together. If Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto, Imran Khan, Asma Jahangir and other moderates put their differences and – in the case of the first two – their personal ambitions aside, and joined forces to confront extremism, there may be some cause for cautious optimism. If they tackled discriminatory legislation such as the blasphemy law and the Hudood Ordinance, which are grist to the mill for the Islamists and cause untold suffering for their victims, that would be a great step forward. If Musharraf wants to think in terms of his own ego and self-interest, surely there could be no better legacy than reducing discrimination, religious hatred, intolerance and violence, and building a secular, liberal democracy? He’d go down in history as a great man instead of as yet another brutal dictator. Musharraf, collect your marbles please and then go for it.


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