Imran Khan broke into the Red Zone and took his party up to the front of parliament house in Islamabad on August 19, saying that if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif didn’t resign he would take his several thousand followers to the prime minister’s house and drag him out “by his neck”. His agitation was hinged on the accusation that the 2013 elections, which brought Sharif’s party to power, had been rigged.
First he had wanted the tainted constituencies investigated, now he wanted the prime minister to go. He also knew that Sharif had fallen out with the army. He charged him with endless corruption, claiming that politicians had taken a sum of $200 billion out of the country. The Old Testament came to the rescue.
Imran Khan said, “We will free Pakistan of pharaohs”. The Dawn wrote: “The image of a righteous Prophet Moses (Musa) dethroning a wicked firaun (pharaoh) has often been employed before. It was perfectly effective during Iran’s Islamic Revolution. A poster of Ayatollah Khomeini, in the role of Musa dethroning Mohammad Reza, the last shah of Iran, cast in the role of pharaoh. Hosni Mubarak, the erstwhile strongman of Egypt, was also termed by his opponents as a modern pharaoh.”
Tahirul Qadri, leading another mob assaulting Islamabad, was more detailed, given his religious scholarship. He quoted the Quran in Arabic and then translated the divine message as ordering the two prophet-brothers, Aaron (Haroon) and Moses, to attack the palace of the Egyptian pharaoh. Strictly separated so far, the two cult leaders had brooked no dilution of their charisma. Now they became “brothers” challenging Nawaz Sharif, the pharaoh of Pakistan. Qadri, nursing an old feud with him, knew Sharif had fallen out with the army. Khan was more amateurish in his scriptural expertise. He quoted Ali, the fourth caliph, on corrupt Muslim states that collapse and honest infidel ones that don’t. People could collar the third caliph, Usman, in the street and question his acquisition of a new shirt when the common man went without one. The ideal (city) state was an Athens of Islam, with utopian “participatory democracy” in place, “justice coming to their doorstep”.
Khan carelessly said he was influenced by “Mahatma Gandhi”, but a more canny Qadri stayed clear of such references. Instead of the shower of praise he had expected, Khan got a heavy dose of textbook nationalism by the media, which looks at Gandhi as the villain who dared oppose Jinnah, the father of the nation. Qadri was ideologically correct and stayed away from Khan’s next “extra-Islamic” reference to civil disobedience too. The irony was that, whereas Khan’s party had been represented in parliament, Qadri was an outsider to democracy, a scholar with a cult following who had “written a thousand books”.
Both avoided the intellectual fallout of this reference by claiming that democracy had been overthrown by Sharif’s corrupt conduct. But the pharaonic palace they were attacking was democracy and the constitution was against them. Rejecting all overtures for “consultation” on “electoral reform”, which was Khan’s main plank of agitation, the great cricketer signalled war.
The Independence March and Revolution March both rejected the courts of law and their interpretation of the agitation as an illegitimate act. Qadri used political science in his rhetoric but was probably sure that his obsolete reference to “direct” and “participatory” democracy would not be challenged by a population steeped in the already “participatory” city-state utopia of Islam. What man has achieved in the 20th century is democracy that lasts, an order secure against mob attacks. “Direct” Athens was superseded by “indirect” Rome, and Europe today harks back to the “direct democracy” of the city-state of Athens only when it holds referendums, and suffers because of them. Pakistan too has rued all the referendums it has held so far. Today, people choose their representatives and send them to parliament to enact laws on their behalf. If you don’t like them, defeat them in the next election but till then, hold your peace.
Former World Bank economist Deepak Lal writes in his book, In Praise of Empires: Globalisation and Order (2004): “The underlying theory behind the NGOs’ claims, and the source of their popular appeal, is the wholly illiberal theory of participatory democracy. The Western notion of a liberal democracy is based on representative democracy. From the founding fathers of the American republic to liberal thinkers like Immanuel Kant, direct or participatory democracy on the model of the Greek city-states has been held to be deeply illiberal. Subject to populist pressures and the changing passions of the majority, it can oppress minorities. Greater popular participation does not necessarily subserve liberty. The great liberal thinkers have therefore been keen to have indirect representative democracy hedged by various checks and balances which could prevent the majority from oppressing the minority.”
In India too, there are charismatic NGO-type leaders like Anna Hazare and Arundhati Roy who challenge corruption and other evils of the country’s democracy. But Hazare’s appeal lay in his power to endure self-mortificatory starvation, not in threatening the prime minister with physical manhandling, like Khan, or giving “advice” to his disciples to kill the prime minister, like Qadri. The Lok Sabha caved to Anna Hazare’s campaign and passed the anti-corruption Lokpal Bill in December 2013. In Islamabad, parliament is willing to legislate electoral reform but Khan wouldn’t hear of it, saying nothing short of dismissal of Sharif would do — after which “I will do ehtesab (accountability)”, which everyone in the street knows will be an act of considerable brutality, in the Muslim tradition.
In India, Gandhi’s movement of civil disobedience is part of its nationalism. “Participatory democracy” also crops up when Indians feel politicians have distanced themselves from the masses too much. Manish Sisodia, once a close aide of Team Hazare, put his finger on the factor that the movement relied on: “If people actually understood that the country’s democracy had lost its participatory nature and had turned authoritarian, then they would once again associate themselves with the issues that the team was raising”.
The economist, who sees the germ of the “welfare state” and its infamous budget deficits in “participatory” democracy, gets predictably jittery. He knows that the early clauses of the constitution, pledging equality and security of livelihood to all, are only hortatory in nature and the state merely needs to “aspire” to them. It appears that when fathers of a constitution sit down to write it, they consign the “hot air” of their misplaced early enthusiasm to these articles. But if you are a Muslim trying to avoid the obsolete caliphate of history by grabbing its utopia through “welfare”, you are defying the global consensus.
Qadri and his Awami Tehreek want to revive the 40 “rights”-related opening articles of the constitution. Khan too refers to a falahi (welfare) state in his speeches as his answer to the difficult questions about how a terror-stricken state can survive. Both share the funding-through-charity organisational background exempting them from taxation. Khan is clearly “confiscatory” in his welfare pledge — like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s — while Qadri only hints at it.
Most non-authoritarian Muslim states are either unstable or coming apart in the face of violence. Anna Hazare wanted to die; Muslim challengers want to kill.
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’firstname.lastname@example.org