In a recent “discussion” on Twitter, centering around Imran Khan and whether he is the “real thing”, a fellow tweeter, Usmann Rana, pointed me to a post on his blog, Our Inane Leader (Thoughts on Imran Khan’s NDTV Interview), in trying to convince me about contradictions in Imran’s statements. As endless 140 character back & forths were impractical at the time, I sought his permission to write a riposte on my own blog here, which he graciously granted. So here goes…
Referring to Imran’s statement that ‘the age of martial law is over… Whatever happens I don’t see military takeover,’ Usmann asserts that he is being naïve in his belief that the “military makes its presence felt only through martial laws and coups“. If you go back to the interview, though, you will find that what Imran was referring only to direct military intervention to take over government. His contention was that with the vibrant media and an independent judiciary, democracy in Pakistan has evolved to a point where the army understands that martial law is no longer an option. That their influence continues to be strong, Imran knows well. That is why he is keen on the Asghar Khan case being heard and brought to a conclusion by the Supreme Court, to reveal the truth, not only about military and intelligence influence on politics, but also about how certain political leaders have been happy to accept this, as long as the result was that they were brought to positions of authority, allowing them to perpetrate their corruption and to get away with it.
When Imran talks about the supremacy of the Constitution, Usmann disagrees. “But if the constitution is supreme and not the parliament, what about the fact that the parliament can amend the constitution?” he asks. Of course, Usmann is correct; with a two-thirds majority, parliament is able to amend the constitution. That may well mean that the parliament is supreme, not the constitution. On the other hand, the Supreme Court has the power to strike down a law enacted by parliament if it considers that the law is violates the constitution. Could it be argued, therefore, that the Supreme Court is “supreme”? The fact is that, in a democracy, the constitution, parliament and judiciary each have their own roles, their own authority and their own power. They serve to provide checks and balances over the executive, which is responsible for actually running the affairs of state, and the military, which is responsible for protecting the state from external threats.
The point that Imran was making (and making it very well) was that the government (not parliament, but the executive) is in open defiance of orders of the Supreme Court and, by doing so, it is defying the constitution. It is this attitude that endangers rule of law and puts democracy at risk. Using the argument that this is about preserving democratic supremacy only serves to confuse the issue, which is that there are eighteen judgments of the Supreme Court that the government has not implemented. Under no circumstances, for no reason, is this acceptable in any civilized society.
Then comes the big one! This refers to when Imran got angry and referred to certain elements in the media, self-proclaimed “liberals”, as “the scum of Pakistan”. With respect, I think that Usmann has got this one wrong. He states that Imran labeled “Pakistani liberals across the board as drone loving ‘fascists’, or ‘scum of Pakistan’ against the interests of Pakistan” which is factually incorrect. Here is a transcript of what Imran said (18:35 onwards, in the YouTube video of the interview):
“Who are these liberals? I want to know… I don’t know who you talk about these ‘liberals’. I don’t know these ‘liberals’. Because these ‘liberals’ back bombing of villages! They back drone attacks! I mean, I don’t call them liberals, I call them fascist. In my book, these people are fascist. They have criticised me because I oppose this war on terror. I oppose this criminal bombing, aerial bombing of villages, women and children getting killed, and these people were applauding it! These are not liberals. This is the scum of Pakistan, who call themselves ‘liberals’, who have brought this country to this stage. Because of them we have extremism in this country. When they look at these people who stand behind every American policy and which allow this country to… um… all human rights being violated, people being picked up and disappeared, and they have applauded all that. These ‘liberals’, so-called ‘liberals’ applauded the incineration, where they bombed this mosque, where there were children and women in it, students in it, and these liberals were in the forefront. I don’t call them liberals. I really think they are the scum of this country.”
I completely agree with Imran when he says that people who support drone attacks, air strikes on villages, acceptance of innocent deaths as “collateral damage” and the complete and utter abandonment of the presumption of innocence are not, by any stretch of the definition, liberal. A true liberal would, in fact, advocate the exact opposite. By definition, a liberal would favour concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, especially as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties. A dictionary definition of liberal is:
- Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.
- Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded.
Liberalism is defined as:
Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis) is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally liberals support ideas such as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights, capitalism, and freedom of religion.
The person who is credited for being the creator of the liberal philosophy was John Locke. He argued that, based on principals of natural rights and justice, the rule of law should prevail at all times, that rulers need the consent of those they govern, and that every individual has a fundamental right to life, liberty, and property.
The frequency of drone attacks, disinterest from the media, the distance of the northern tribal areas from the urban television audience, conflicting opinions about the consequences of the attacks and the use of terms such as “collateral damage” have desensitized us. Even using the word “strikes” rather than “attacks” is in itself a PR master stroke as it invokes the image of surgical precision, rather than destruction caused by a 100lb Hellfire missile carrying an 18lb blast fragmentation or incendiary warhead. So much so, that after 118 such strikes in 2010 and more than 70 in 2011, in which as many as 1,500 people have been killed, we have actually stopped thinking about the human cost of drone strikes. In fact, some actually advocate the use of drones and applaud the killing of alleged militants, who are presumed to be guilty of horrendous acts of terror and deserving of death by being burnt alive. If you are in favour of drone attacks, you are not liberal.
Those that Imran was describing as the scum of Pakistan are not those Pakistanis who work with organisations such as Reprieve and Human Rights Watch, and campaign tirelessly for the rights of victims of drone attacks, the alleged terrorists picked up by intelligence agencies and held for years without charges or trial and conveniently labeled “missing persons” and the women and children who are attacked because they are guilty of the grave sin of being a family-member of a militant. The ones Imran was referring to were the ones who stand on the sidelines, shouting “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” Forget presumption of innocence and a trial to prove guilt, they are not even given the opportunity of a trial in which they can prove their innocence. Instead, they are just eliminated. Poof! Now you see them, now you don’t.
What can I say about Imran’s criticism of corruption in the PPP and the PML-N? Even Usmann cannot help but agree that making corruption the main criteria for judging a potentially effective leader makes sense in our context. I believe that that the current leadership of the mainstream political parties are corrupt to the core, completely incompetent, totally inept, utterly unsympathetic to the plight of their workers, entirely devoid of any compassion, thoroughly unpatriotic and wholly untrustworthy. Ask anyone what they think of Zardari, Gilani, the Sharif brothers, Rehman Malik, Chaudhry Nisar, Babar Awan or any of the others that form the core of their current leadership. You will hear chor, badmaash, zalim, na-ehel, bay-rehem, bay-eeman, daakoo, and synonyms thereof. The first thing that we need to do, to make any improvement in our lot, is to tackle corruption.
I agree with what Usman says about the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) and about Hafiz Saeed being “religious zealots”. I disagree with him, though, when he says that Imran “failed to answer adequately why he would send PTI representatives to Saeed” – in fact, Barkha Dutt did not even ask him about why he sent representatives to the DPC rally. He brought that up himself. Some of the subsequent dialogue went as follows:
IK: Of course we should send our representatives, because we want to engage people. If you don’t engage them you marginalize them.
BD: But does that mean you endorse them? In a way aren’t you legitimizing their very radical, dangerous views?
IK: Tell me, today the Americans are engaging the Taliban… Does that mean they are endorsing their views? This is what always should have been done. Politicians believe in political settlements. You don’t believe in marginalizing people. You believe in bringing them into the mainstream… If you bring all these people into the mainstream, you develop a consensus where they have to come into the middle. Rather than marginalizing them, and then the only option left is to then kill them. You send your army and you do military action and you destroy your society.
Imran has been very consistent in his message of the need for reconciliation in our society, which is, as he keeps saying, very polarized. He keeps talking about his hope that he can be the bridge between the extremes of society, which could be viewed as an idealistic, impractical and perhaps even naïve dream, but it certainly cannot be seen as contradictory. The most important part of this argument is that the only other option then left is a violent one. What Imran has now been saying for years may not appease our justified sense of outrage and anger at the senseless acts of terror being inflicted upon us on a daily basis, it may not help to fulfill our desire for revenge, but it does make sense. Fighting is not the answer. Killing will only lead to more death. Revenge will only lead to more anger. There will be no winners, as history has shown numerous times. The US government reacted with anger and out of a desire for revenge after 9/11. Ten years, billions of dollars and thousands of lives later, where do they stand today? Making attempts at engaging the Taliban in dialogue. That is the only sensible way forward.
Not marginalizing fundamentalist voices does not automatically mean silencing the voices of progressive Pakistanis, Usmann. On the other hand, if we continue to marginalize them, we will continue to live in fear of violence, in a society in which matters of “national security” will continue to take precedence over fundamental rights. To get beyond the security state and to embark on the journey towards a welfare state, we first need peace. That peace cannot be achieved by engaging in a war. Sure, mistakes have been made in the past. There have been many. Grave and fundamental mistakes. But those were in the past. We now need to look to the future. And in doing so, if we don’t learn from our mistakes and simply repeat them in a slightly different context, we will end right back where we started. In a polarized society, where sane voices, advocating tolerance and justice, condemning fundamentalism and extreme positions, are either silenced like Governor Salman Taseer, or are forced to flee, like Javed Ghamdi.
Imran is an enigma. On the one hand, he is accused of being a representative of the Jewish lobby and on the other hand of being “Taliban Khan”. This is because of peoples’ need to stereotype, to put others in buckets, to label. Those who are religious, are labeled “rightist” or “conservative”, whereas those who are profess to be “leftist” or “liberal” don’t want to be caught coming out of a mosque, except maybe on the odd Friday afternoon. In Imran’s views, someone who is religious will be compassionate, therefore leftist. Imran is deeply spiritual; he lives a life grounded in his faith, yet believes in equality, justice, social welfare and fundamental rights, which are leftist views. In my view, that is why he is misunderstood and why people see the contradictions in him, when, in fact, he has been astonishingly consistent in his views over the years. Which is more than can be said about leaders like our very own democratically elected, liberal, progressive, Prime Minister Gilani, who has made so many U-turns in the last six months that it’s a wonder he doesn’t fall over from being dizzy!
There are many more well constructed and superbly written arguments in Usman’s blog, which I will have to come back to, in Part 2 of this post.
I end, for now, with my thanks to Usmann Rana for putting together the critique of Imran’s interview with Barkha Dutt, for asking the questions that help us find answers. Also, thank you, Usmann, for your permission to refer to your material and for your positivity in engaging in constructive debate. If I have made any mistakes in representing or interpreting your views, please reach out to me and I will make the necessary corrections.