Wajiha Ahmed: A Second Take on Pakistan's "Long March" Protests

In addition to regular comments to blog posts, I often get emails from readers expressing all manner of opinions. This week, following my recent post at Sepia Mutiny on the protests in Pakistan, I received a note from a graduate student in Boston named Wajiha Ahmed that was intelligent enough to provoke me to spend a little time replying. Wajiha had also, a few days earlier, published an Op-Ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (it was written while the protests were just beginning). Wajiha's response to my response was essentially a full-fledged essay. I asked her if she would slightly revise her comments in defense of the Long March protests into something for Sepia Mutiny [and, by extension, this blog], as a sort of one-off guest post. She agreed, and the following is a one-time guest post by Wajiha Ahmed.

The comment Wajiha most objected to was actually made by me in the comments of the original post. I said, "I think there are some people looking at this that are thinking that what is happening is not simply the expression of free speech, but a rather naked attempt at a power-grab by Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif. Given the security crisis in the country, a protest movement like this could be seen as irresponsible." In my first email to Wajiha, I also wrote:

What prompted me to suggest that Sharif was acting irresponsibly was a personal conversation with a friend here in Pennsylvania named [KC], who comes originally from Lahore. [KC] said to me last week that the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in particular left him feeling extremely depressed, since it's beginning to seem that the militants are increasingly coming down out of the hills, and their kind of Islam is increasingly driving the agenda of the country. Given what has happened in Swat and NWFP in the past few months, it may be that the real cultural-political undercurrent that needs to be addressed is the growth of that militancy. Not because of *America's* war on terror, but actually for Pakistan's own internal security and stability.

Below is Wajiha's response to those points.

Guest Post by Wajiha Ahmed

I’m writing this post in response to Sepia Mutiny's reporting on the second Pakistani Long March to restore a deposed independent judiciary and Chief Justice. The sentiment has been that a) it was irresponsible and could have possibly destabilized Pakistan, and b) energy should have instead focused on the ‘real’ problem Pakistan faces: growing ‘sympathy’ for militants. As I see it, however, we just witnessed one of the largest broad-based, secular, non-violent movements for the rule of law and democracy in Pakistan’s history. Of course, one event is not going to change everything. But democracy is not an event, it is a process. Therefore, rather than being reported with cynicism, this important civil disobedience movement should instead have been encouraged and celebrated. In the past year, Pakistanis have successfully forced out a military dictator (Musharraf) AND compelled an authoritarian leader (Zardari) to listen to their voices – a rare, uplifting story in these trying days.

I’ll try to address the above-stated points, starting with the latter.

1) As far as the security situation, Pakistanis will agree that it’s a major problem. Almost half of the worldwide victims of terrorist attacks last year were Pakistani! And of course, the recent attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team and the subsequent death of eight Pakistani police officers triggered deep anger, shame, and sadness. While this threat is very real, I think we may have missed a few fundamental points.

First, some media outlets reported that terrorist groups took part in the march – this is false. Militant al-Qaeda and neo-Taliban elements who crossed the border after US-led strikes in Afghanistan are not ‘religious extremists.’ Rather, they are terrorists with an Islamic veneer. Why is this important? Because there is a common misperception that Pakistanis are sympathetic to these so-called militants—but those leaving in militant-occupied areas, whether FATA or SWAT, have left if they have been able to afford to do so. Those who lack the means are living under constant fear. During my time in Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore this past summer, I met not a single Pakistani sympathetic to these terrorists –- and rightly so, since they are the ones suffering the most from these attacks.

So why is the perception of popular Pakistani support for terrorism so prevalent?
This belief may be due, in part, to an overall emphasis by policy-makers and media outlets alike, on linking the notion of "Muslim terrorists" or "Islamic violence" with religious and cultural explanations about Islam and Muslim culture, and thereby sidelining political ones. Implicit in this view is that every Muslim has the potential to become an 'extremist' or a terrorist—"moderate" Muslims have chosen to ignore this call to warfare, while 'extremist' Muslims have simply succumbed. A more accurate and responsible explanation of the recently conceived notion of “Islamic violence," however, lies in an analysis of recent historical and political conflicts (see Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim). There are dangers in being unaware of our possible biases – in this case, misinterpreting the Long March, and perhaps even Pakistanis themselves.

The ‘solution’ to the militancy problem most probably involves a regional effort to resolve the war in Afghanistan (see Rashid and Rubin’s article in Foreign Affairs) and a concerted effort inside Pakistan to reclaim militant-ridden areas. I won’t even try to pretend to have an answer to this dilemma-- counterinsurgency is extremely difficult.

Second, many have pointed out that the involvement (probably opportunistic) of the JI and other right-of-center elements like the PML-N ‘prove’ that the Long March really wasn’t a liberal movement but one that incorporates ‘militant’ elements. But Pakistani religious parties (JI, JUI) are more similar to some factions of the BJP or Shiv Sena in India than they are to any militant terrorists in FATA and Swat. And just to emphasis, they have never received more than 14% of the vote and lost the 2008 elections.

Also, the PML-N is not a religious party. Yes, it is right-of-center and sometimes panders to religious conservatives, but so does the BJP in India. So does the Republican Party in the US. While Sharif has steadfastly supported the Lawyer’s Movement, personally, I think he needs to prove that he isn’t merely being opportunistic -- but that’s up to the Pakistani people to decide. Since they quickly saw through Zardari, I’ll opt to trust their judgment.

Finally, and most importantly, we can’t forget that this movement is really about the vast majority who took part in the Long March -- lawyers, human rights activists, students, and concerned citizens who risked personal injury and incarceration to stand up for justice. My friend, Ammar, who took part in the now famous GPO chowk protest recalls:

As the police started shelling tear-gas indiscriminately, many activists started falling unconscious. A man who must have been in his 70s started yelling to the fleeing crowd (which included me as I could no longer breathe) that this was not a time to run but to fight... We resisted the police for over two hours, pushing them back many times...
The most memorable part of the evening for me was when Aitzaz Ahsan [prominent leader of the Lawyer’s Movement] defiantly entered the High Court building despite orders for his house arrest and the police officers stood in line to salute him. This meant a complete victory for the movement ...
On one side, [what we witnessed] represented despair, state brutality and police repression. On the other, it reflected hope, resistance, and the passions and dreams of many Pakistanis. We had won not because of the generosity of the country's leadership, but because of the countless sacrifices of lawyers and activists for the past 2 years with 15th March 2009 becoming the grand finale in Lahore.
[Ammar Ali Jan's complete account of his experience has been posted here]

Ammar’s words speak for themselves.

2) Now we move-on to the point that the Long March was somehow irresponsible.

If similar terrorist attacks occurred in another country, we would not ask its citizens to halt all activity for fear of ‘instability.’ The Lawyers Movement initiated the second march because Zardari broke the promises he made after the first one. If we agree that Zardari’s actions are undemocratic, then why are protests to demand accountability irresponsible? To be sure, Pakistani politicians rely on 'micro rationality' – a short-term view of political behavior – instead of 'macro rationality.’ This tendency is partly an outgrowth of a structural reality: prolonged military rule (for more, read Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc or Ayesha Jalal’s Democracy and Authoritarianism). The political system is authoritarian, and the Long March fought to change to this very tendency of the system.

The Lawyers/Civil Society movement has another responsible and important goal -- reasserting and ensuring civilian control. For decades, Pakistan’s army and its powerful ISI intelligence agency defined domestic priorities. They prioritized the defense budget over badly needed infrastructure and education reform. They leveraged militant groups for their rivalries with India. They supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. Many of these same groups are the ones wreaking havoc in Pakistan today. Mitigating the power of the military is directly related to making sure that Pakistan’s establishment never supports militants again. I was thrilled that during this Long March, the military did not intervene or attempt to take control.

Pakistanis now know that the next time they are dissatisfied with anything, they can use civil disobedience to demand justice. Pakistan’s burgeoning news media revolution -- dozens of independent 24-hour news channels have opened up recently -- has further ensured sustained awareness.

Now that the judges have been restored, many have valid concerns about Zardari, Sharif’s intentions, and the future of Pakistan. I am sure most Pakistanis do as well. While the Movement is no magic bullet, it is an important step towards increasing the likelihood that Pakistan’s government will start to address problems of poverty, education reform, and democracy. I wish the Movement and its supporters best of luck -– they have an important struggle ahead of them. The movement is for democracy not a movement of violence.

I've put in bold some of the points I thought might be particularly key in Wajiha's statement.