VIEW: A Pakistani in Lebanon —Saleem H Ali
The Pakistani military generally has, until now, not shown abject physical abuse that military juntas elsewhere often demonstrate. This is largely owing to a fairly strong civic culture within the armed forces
I received news of Pakistan’s latest state of emergency during a visit to Beirut, Lebanon. While driving past the shattered remains of the Saint George Hotel, where Rafik Hariri had been assassinated, I pondered the fate of my ethnic homeland that sadly is just as fractured today as Lebanon.
Interestingly enough, only a month earlier, Saad Hariri, the son of assassinated Lebanese prime minister and business tycoon, had been mediating to resolve the dispute between General Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif. As with many other cases of political exile in the Muslim world, the Saudis had also played a questionable role as interlocutors. Yet the lessons which Saad Hariri and the Saudis most acutely needed to highlight to President Musharraf and his opponents were that neither autocracy nor democracy are sufficient solutions to civil discord within nations.
The Saudis tried autocratic curtailment of civil liberties and cooptation of the religious establishment that led to further empowerment of Al Qaeda. The Lebanese, being a highly educated society, focused on democratic channels through a creative constitutional arrangement for governance based on devolved religious leadership but are still dealing with discord.
What then is the key to concord in multi-ethnic societies?
First, absolutist ideologies that dehumanise other points of view must never be used as political tools as was done by the American and Pakistani alliance during the first Afghan war and which has led to the current situation. Now that the militants have overwhelmed the army with their weapons, the only option left is to disarm these groups without compromise and strictly enforce laws about the sale of weapons.
In many cases, this can be undertaken through international programmes for household weapons purchases such as what was undertaken in Bosnia and Serbia after the Yugoslav civil war under the auspices of the United Nations. In an impoverished country like Pakistan, if enough money was put into such programmes rather than in buying more weapons for the army, there is immense likelihood of success. Any remaining hard-line elements would be much more easily dealt with through police action.
The only reason why militant groups are able to wield such widespread influence in Pakistan is because they are armed to the teeth, similar to the militias that existed during the Lebanese Civil War. Preventing vigilante anarchy is the responsibility of the government that has so far not been taken seriously in Pakistan because of a general acceptance of an armed culture of tribal fiefdoms. There is of course a dark side to having a defenceless populace. If the military is malevolent and willing to abuse its power to suppress the people, as has been the case in Burma, we are left with an agonising status quo. This is the argument that the founders of the American Bill of Rights used to give citizens the “right to bear arms”.
However, the Pakistani military generally has, until now, not shown abject physical abuse of citizens that military juntas elsewhere often demonstrate. This is largely owing to a fairly strong civic culture within the armed forces. Interestingly enough, this culture of relative civility may have evolved as a result of the army’s forays into private enterprise and institutions such as the Fauji Foundation. However, what is most troubling in the recent action has been the government’s disregard for the judiciary and the independent media that are both important institutions to prevent the abuse of power by the state in the absence of arms-bearing militias. The subjugation of the judiciary and the media has, in reality, given the cause of violent militias much boost, which the Musharraf regime should consider as an ominous and self-defeating sign.
Even well-intentioned rulers can fall prey to a grandiosity complex, feeling that only they have the ability to lead the nation to salvation. Sadly, it appears that General Musharraf, despite his sincerity and commitment to Pakistan, is now beginning to exhibit severe symptoms of such a psychological situation, just as the Lebanese leaders did before the civil war began.
In crises, rulers are often reinforced into believing that they are indispensable because of a circle of servile sycophants that inevitably surround them. Instead of falling for such self-indulgence, what must be considered is the power of due process that gives power legitimacy.
Let us not forget that President Abraham Lincoln, whom General Musharraf so emphatically quoted, followed due process throughout his career and was an elected president. Lincoln’s main emergency actions pertained to suspending the writ of habeas corpus (convincing body of evidence) for arrests of dissidents which is incidentally allowed by the US constitution in “cases of rebellion” and when the “public safety” requires it. Furthermore, unlike General Musharraf, Lincoln did not interfere with the authority of the Supreme Court, and Congress and the Courts subsequently validated all his actions.
Apart from the justification of a war on extremism, General Musharraf’s second justification for his actions has been to continue the path towards development that he takes credit for in terms of economic growth indicators. Here too, there are important lessons to be learned from Lebanon. Following the end of the civil war in 1990, private capital flowed to Lebanon and Beirut was rebuilt to its days of mid-century splendour. Yet many of the underlying tensions remained since income inequality and tribalism were not directly addressed in the economic euphoria that followed the investment boom.
Indeed, this is a lesson even Pakistan’s neighbour India must learn as it tends to gloat over its rival’s predicament. As Martha Nussbaum has argued in her important new book The Clash Within, India also has many structural symptoms of radicalisation and inequality that even a robust democracy and economic giant must be willing to address if it is to prevent conflict.
Peace is fragile in a fractured world and until institutions of human tolerance and economic and political justice are carefully nurtured at the most fundamental level in societies, there is little chance that either elections or martial law can salvage countries as far afield as Pakistan or Lebanon from such perennial cycles of crises.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment. He is the editor of the new book: Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution (MIT Press)