This week's VCD lecture was Democracy and the Democratisation. Democracy is a word that I have recently come to utterly dislike and resent. In fact, for me, is has become one of the most antagonistic words and concepts possible. Every time I hear or read this word, I hear whiplash!
It is on the basis of 'democracy' and 'freedom' that the West has invaded and attacked Afghanistan and Iraq within the last five years. I was in Pakistan when the civilised, democratic West attacked and carpet bombed our neighbouring Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, in blood-thirsty revenge uttering words of consolation that they would free the Afghani women and rebuild the war-torn country. Pakistan itself played no small role in the destruction of Afghanistan, hand in hand with the Americans and Saudis, at one of the peaks of the Cold War. All we could do was helplessly hope that we would not be next, ashamed that our neighbours and brothers and sisters were being slaughtered. I remember when America finally invaded Iraq on the basis of lies and, a gloom settled into our hearts that the protests of millions could not deter war. What does democracy mean when democratic countries can wage war on other countries in the name of democracy and freedom? What does democracy mean when citizens of a democratic state are unable to convince the governments they elected to not wage war?
Even more recently, Western governments stayed quiet while the illegitimate state they gave birth to – Israel – the so-called only 'democratic' state in the undemocratic, Muslim Middle East – slaughtered more than a thousand Palestinians in Nazi-like brutality and methodology.
What does democracy mean in this context? It's not that democracy – the freedom to have a voice, to be able to elect your leaders – has always had such a negative and divisive connotation in my understanding. When I was living and working in Pakistan, in the early dictatorship days of Musharraf, I couldn't rant enough about our undemocratic society and state. On the day of the notorious referendum (when Musharraf won by 99% majority or something like that), I was scandalised by the apathy of my colleagues. I just got into a taxi myself and headed for the nearest college to register my 'No' against the referendum and convinced the taxi driver to do the same! Dawn used to get letters from me by the truckload.
For the times we have had democracy, Pakistan managed to elect the first female head of state of a Muslim country. This is no small achievement. Moreover, South Asians in general have blazed the trail in terms of producing women leaders.
Our democracies are still flawed and dysfunctional and, we have a long road yet ahead to adapting and moulding this paradigm to suit our needs. Moreover, some of our societies have not been ready for democracy. Pakistan certainly has a long ways to go before we as a nation will start to even understand and appreciate the freedoms that are associated with this paradigm. The most important goal of our government then should be to provide the basic services to its people: health, education, infrastructure and security. These basic services are more than rights – if are to respect ourselves as a sovereign state, we must at least be able to provide this to our people. Is it only in democratic framework that a government can deliver these services to its people? I am not so convinced.
Is democracy, then, a universal value? Is a specific democracy a universal value? Or has it become a stick with which to beat developing countries? It was cringingly embarrassing how the West used every opportunity to speak of the lack of democracy and human rights in China before and during the Olympics; an event which is supposed to suspend politics and bring about harmony. The West and Israel insisted that the international community would only deal with Palestinians if they elected a leadership; when Hamas came to power, the West and Israel refused to deal with it because it was a 'terrorist' organisation. Who is a terrorist? Who controls the language and these terms of endearment? American can invade countries in the name of democracy and freedom but, Hamas, a product of Israeli terrorism, is the terrorist here.
I think democracy - specifically associated with the process of elections - can be legitimate, authentic and beautiful. Benazir Bhutto's return to Pakistan after the death of General Zia ul Haq and her resounding victory in the subsequent election that marked Pakistan's return to democracy after more than a decade was one of the most hopeful and inspiring moments in our history. For Benazir Bhutto and I guess for many, many Pakistanis it was 'democratic revenge' as Zia ul Haq was the man who had hanged Benazir's father. She herself was imprisoned by the Zia regime; she spent most of her five-year imprisonment in solitary confinement. I can only imagine the sentiments, hopes and culmination of dreams and struggles of South Africans when they had their first democratic elections in 1994 and elected, one of the greatest men in history, Nelson Mandela, peacefully to power. This was a peaceful election following a peaceful transition from one of the most brutal, bloody and twisted regimes to democracy. Just now the world has witnessed the election and inauguration of the first black man as President of the U.S. The event was layered with so much symbolism that it is overwhelming; not only is it 'democratic revenge' - to borrow Benazir Bhutto's phrase - after eight years of George W. Bush, possibly the worst elected leader the world has seen after but part of a two-hundred year history of slavery, its legacies, segregation and racism.
However, other than the chance of having untampered ballox boxes, democracy is just the process of elections. I am not convinced that it guarantees anything else: equality (racial, religious, ethnic, gender, political), accountability or the will of people. Women won the right to vote well into the 2oth century. Slavery may have been abolished in the U.S. however, lynchings and segregation were part of American society until the 60s; the legacy of slavery still makes its mark in America. 'Paki' was a common racial slur in the UK in the 60s, 60s, 80s. In order to uphold freedom, democracy and above all else, the market, the U.S. conducted proxy wars during the Cold War pretty much all over the world. Within its borders, anyone with a remotely leftist leaning could just bloody forget about it. So much so that even Obama in his inauguration speech makes a mythical reference to American heroism against the evils of communism forgetting that this heroism spelled bloody conflict and civil wars for a lot of countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Western governments are democratic and civilised - for these two go together - but have no qualms in selling fancy defense machinery to corrupt, Western-backed leaders of developing countries and perpetuating conflict. Whether it is the capitalist needs of Western societies to continue to interfere and dominate the world or an imperialism that stretches back even before the advent of capitalism, we must be not be quick to romanticise democracy the way in which it is pushed down our throats.
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P.S. Cute Democracy It is very cute how Americans are now going around saying, 'as of Tuesday, I am proud to be American.'