With the drop out of the JUI from the ruling coalition, the PPP government suddenly looks vulnerable. And the fact is that it has become vulnerable. The possibility of the revival of defunct MMA has already been raised.
The historical parallels are very chilling. Those who witnessed the clerical movement in the late seventies against Z.A. Bhutto’s elected government have reasons to be fearful of the developing scenario. What is therefore imperative is to derive the correct lessons from history so that we do not let it repeat, for the very thought of it sends shivers down the spine.
The first thing that PPP needs to do is to shun its obstinacy and habit of placing the responsibility of Bhutto’s fall and subsequent long persecutions of the Party workers on the unconstitutional actions of certain individuals or on adverse circumstances. A clear assessment should be made of the achievements as well failures of the founder of PPP keeping in mind that the latter by no means diminish the former. All great leaders do make mistakes but the tendency to overlook them by their followers often leads to the eclipse of what they had achieved.
To put it briefly, the chief mistake that Bhutto made was the appeasement of the clerics. Why he had to do this? This is a complex question but in the context of the times, it was chiefly his foreign policy vision that determined the change of his course on which he had won the mandate to rule. His coming to power was a revolution, for he mobilized masses and got himself elected on socialist, progressive agenda that demanded radical socio-political changes in the society. It included striking at the power of all the forces of Reaction, of which the feudal lords, clerics and the army were the three interlinked wings. However, while in power, he gradually got disillusioned with and became alienated from the progressive agenda and the forces representing it.
The change of course was determined by his thinking that Pakistan would gain more by unifying the Islamic world around his leadership, tapping the resources of the Islamic world and creating a third block besides the ones led by USA and USSR. Such thinking marked a reversal at the home front that led to a series of legislation such as banning of alcohol and declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslims. This was a dangerous path that he chose for himself. What he failed to see was that in the Cold War era the clerical forces were deeply allied with the USA. Therefore his strategy of standing up to the US while appeasing the clerics at home was bound to lead nowhere but his own downfall.
Now political parties, by their intention and structure, are driven to political power. Parties are indeed formed, as PPP did, on idealism, but once a party becomes part of the establishment, there is no room for idealism in its discourse or strategy. Thus long before Tony Blair in the mid 1990s went on to modernize the Labour Party and ditched clause four, the chief remnant of Labour Party’s socialist legacy, to make it acceptable to the British establishment and the US, Benazir made peace with the executioners of his father at home and abroad and made his party electable once again.
Since then the leadership of the party has come to believe that with its roots in all the provinces of the country it has secured its right to rule the country in a democratic set up. But that is not the case. The religious right considers democracy that invests power to legislate to the people and their elected parliament as contrary to the Sharia and therefore un-Islamic. According to their vision of Islam the ultimate authority in the Islamic society rests with the ideologues and guardians of the Sharia, namely, the clerics.
It is a brilliant fact of the history of this country that its people decisively rejected this view of Islam in 1970 in both parts of the country. Leading the Islamic world from the front they demonstrated their understanding that the clerical view of Islam was only an ideology of the obscurantist forces, forming a nexus of clerics, feudal lords and the army, that seek to maintain the outdated and unjust social and economic structure of the society. Now although this view continues to hold the Islamic world in thrall to this day, Pakistani people have never in any free elections since 1970 voted for the religious parties. This is the core fact that we must remember in our review of the strategy being proposed.
The second core fact in this regard is the radical change in the geopolitical situation of the world. For now, after the fall of USSR, a war has broken out between the former allies that brought the USSR down. The USA, the remaining superpower, though increasingly on the wane, is at loggerheads with the global network of Islamic clerics. For the present PPP leadership, therefore, it is a folly to follow Benazir’s policy of appeasing both the US and the clerics. Even from purely pragmatic or realist perspective, that guided Benazir to revise the direction, it is no more conducive to keep the party in power.
It is well pointing out that the West, led by the USA, has all along betrayed its own ideals of Enlightenment by supporting the forces of reaction in the non-Western world (Third World). It has been content in creating Westernized elites in these countries that could exercise control over their people by whatever means. The policy no doubt helped them in beating their internal foe but the price was unimaginable by their wildest dreams. For it is now widely feared that Afghanistan might also become the graveyard of the remaining superpower. For this reason the US seems prepared, however unwillingly, to support Pakistani government to take on the clerics and cut them to their size. (I said unwillingly because by their colonial heritage the West remains fearful of any independent country outside its hemisphere.)
This remarkable development and change in global situation provides the PPP leadership and workers with a historic opportunity to take the revolution further which their leader unleashed in 1970 and which was left unfinished largely due to the then geoplotical situation. Now, with all quiet on the Western front, it is the very realism, and from the objective to remain in power, which demands that the PPP abandon its fear of the clerics and leading the people from the front confront them and curb their power, hugely disproportional to their vote bank, that they continue to enjoy in our society.
In the current debate over the blatantly unjust Blasphemy Law and the persecution of a helpless Christian woman, the cat has once again come out of the bag. The clerics, who are hugely supported by the other two partners in the nexus, have made it clear that they do not accept the sovereignty of the parliament and its right to legislate however it deems fit, or even the right of the constitutionally elected President to exercise his right to grant pardon to any one condemned by any court of the country. Thus once again it is this simple question at the centre of the debate that whether these are the people who govern this country through their elected representatives or the clerics by virtue of their self-professed divine right.
The PPP leadership and workers, therefore, need to wake up and read the situation correctly which is really hugely in their favour this time. It is perhaps the opportunity of the same magnitude that came on the way of their leader in 1970 and which he lost as much due to his own failures as for the determinations of history. They must not lose it this time, for on its fulfillment hangs the fate of our future generations.
Especially for President Zardari it would be a folly to believe that he can survive by giving in to the clerics, for he should remember that their appetite for power is insatiable. They know that they cannot win in a general election so they are bent upon using Islam to create a situation whereby their partners in the nexus could intervene in the name of national security and install a government that keeps them happy.
I understand that for President Zardari it would be difficult to make a u-turn and renounce the legacy of not only the later-day Bhutto but also of his own spouse who was instrumental in the making and rise of the Taliban. But Zardari has a huge advantage at his disposal, for the US-cleric coalition that framed the unfortunate legacy is now broken. Our country has become a laughing stock in the world for getting all the money from outside world to fight with the militant vanguard of the clerics while inside keeping their lifelines intact. It is indeed mind boggling that a government which openly claims to be an ally of the USA in the so-called war on terror should leave the lifeline of its vocal internal enemies intact. Choosing the path of confronting them openly will surely enhance the stature of this country in the international community and will surely wash the stigma that this is a nation of hypocrites run by a hypocritical government.
Zaradari has really nothing to lose, for he has nothing substantial to his credit for which Pakistani people could hold him in special reverence. But he has the opportunity to make his name in history and even grow larger than her late spouse and become second Bhutto by leading the people in their struggle to free themselves from the yoke of the reactionary forces that have held them hostage since the inception of this country.
He must not consider, like Bhutto, that the seat he sits on makes him secure. He must come out of the Presidency, for if he thinks it is a castle, he must know that it has the foundations of sand. He must go to the people and seek a fresh mandate on the simple question as to who possesses the right to govern this country, the people or the clerics and their allied network.
In a personal meeting the other day I heard from a PPP MNA, a close associate of Zardari, that when the party members come to him with long faces, frightened by the rising dangers to their power, he raises their spirits in no time and they leave happily, saying: He is all right, he says all is well and there is nothing to fear as long as we stand united. So he enjoys the reputation of being a brave man among his party cadre. But Bhutto was no less a brave man, though at the end it could only help him saying to his executioner: Make it quick.
The truth is that it is only the people of Pakistan who can save Zardari if he opts to come out to them. He must rally all the enlightened intelligentsia of the country around him and prepare his party to find the battle on two fronts. First, that it is the people of Pakistan and their elected representatives who have the sole right to govern their country and not the clerics and, second, the view of Islam and the Sharia as propagated by the clerics is a tendentious, obscurantist view that conflicts with the teachings of the Quran and message of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
On my part I, who am a member of the academia in this country, can offer support on the second front. And I will conclude this brief letter with two questions. First, the clerics claim their authority higher than the people’s legislature in the name of the divine right of the ulema to guard Islam and the lives of its adherents. Is this right sanctioned in the Quran? The simple answer is no, it contradicts the teaching, even the words of the Quran, and further, it had no sanction all along in the history of premodern Islamic civilization. It is simply the other side of the conventional belief in the divine of the kings and the Quran supports neither the one nor the other, for both stand and fall together.
Now there is an important concept of asbab an-nazul (the reasons or causes behind the revelation of the verses of the Quran) employed in the exegesis of the Quran which helps us in understanding the answer just given. Extending this concept we must ask as to what were the reasons of the descent of the Quran itself and the institution of a separate religion than Judaism and Christianity whose texts it affirmed again and again? One of the chief reasons was the institution of priesthood in both Judaism and Christianity that claimed a position between the believers and God and thereby claimed the right to control the whole mental and practical life of the believers. In the new dialectic between the individual and community that the Quran developed, each and every individual stood face to face with God while the right to legislate was invested in the community. It is clear then that the divine sanction of the clerical authority derives from Jewish and Christian influences and is therefore un-Islamic, for it is completely rejected by the Quran.
As for the second question, the clerics hold that the Quran is pre-eminently a book of the Law, or Sharia, and since they hold all the knowledge of it, they also hold the ultimate authority on how the people of this country should live their lives. Now there are 6236 verses of the Quran of which only 290 deal with the Law. What are the rest of the verses about? The truth is that they virtually do not exist for the clerics.