Saturday, September 6, 2014

Bangladesh's secular nationalism asserts itself

Bangladesh separated from Pakistan in 1971, rejecting Pakistani nationalism. Love for Bengali language and Bengali ethnicity were powerful motivators. Many Bengalis of erstwhile East Pakistan felt that Pakistani religious nationalism was a trap that claimed West Pakistanis and Bengalis were brothers but refused to give them equal status and share in power. Religious parties' near unanimous opposition to Bangladesh's independence movement and the support they provided to Pakistan army during the liberation war increased Bangladeshi misgivings to religion's role in politics. Hence, Bangladesh came into being as a secular republic. 

The first constitution of Bangladesh proclaimed secularism as one of the four basic principles of the new republic (other three being Bangladeshi nationalism, socialism and democracy). The new republic also avoided putting a crescent and a star on its flag, revealing the minor role Islam played in Bengali nationalism. Even the green color on the flag is not linked to Islam (as it is in many Muslim-majority nations' flags, like Pakistani, Moroccan, Saudi Arabian flags etc.). Green color symbolizes the the lush green land of Bangladesh. Furthermore, Bangladesh's national anthem,  Amar Sonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal). is also a tribute to Bengal and has anti-religion connotations. It was written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1905 against Partition of Bengal on religious lines in 1905. Add to it many speeches/statements of Bangladesh's founder Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman and it is beyond doubt that Bangladesh's nationalism was ethno-linguistic and secular.

Despite all these evidences of secular nationalism, Bangladesh quickly reversed its course and dropped secularism. In 1977, fifth constitutional amendment introduced by military ruler Zia-ur-Rehman removed secularism as one of the basic principles and replaced it with the following words "Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions". In 1988, another military ruler Hussain Muhammad Ershad made Islam the state religion of Bangladesh. For the next fifteen year, religious parties role and overall religious discourse increased and it appeared Bangladesh is still part of Pakistan, with military and religious parties controlling politics and manipulating religious discourse. Awami league, the founding party of Bangladesh, despite its strong attachment to the principle of secularism, also had to accept the reality of the situation as any support for secularism was portrayed as pro-Indian and anti-Islam by its rival, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).  

While secularism seemed defeated and religious nationalism on the rise, there was one problem; religious nationalism had difficulty legitimizing Bangladesh's separation from Pakistan. It was only on the basis of ethno-linguistic nationalism that a separate country Bangladesh can be explained to the new generation. New generations were thus socialized in a much different environment (more secular) than those ruling elite that grew up in Pakistan.   

Things began to change with the arrival of the twenty-first century. It appears a new generation socialized in the secular nationalism of Bangladesh came of age and started occupying positions of power. Their sentiments was cashed by Awami League, the party of the Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman, now led by his daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajid. Courts, media and intellectuals also helped and promoted the secularism/restoration of 1972 constitution movement. In 2005, high court declared fifth constitutional amendment illegal and secularism was reintroduced as one of the basic principles of the republic. Sheikh Hasina then decided to take on religious parties. She established tribunals to punish those who were involved in crimes against Bangladeshis during the war of liberation. It was a politically astute move as it not only mobilized her own voters and many others but also damaged Jamaat-e-Islami (a religious party whose leadership supported Pakistan Army in 1971 and now usually supported her rival BNP). Although, there was outcry against the partiality of these tribunals, a large majority of Bangladeshis supported these trials and punishments awarded by these tribunals. The trails revived the dubious role played by many religious leaders, implicating political Islam and increasing the support for secularism.

Although, Islam is still the state religion (so 1972 constitution is not fully restored), secularism is definitely on the march and religious nationalism in retreat. A recent evidence of this came when pro-religion rightist BNP also came out against the political role of religion. Tarique Rehman, the current senior vice chairman and the future leader of BNP, said (See Tarique against Religion-based Politics):
We’ve learned from experience that politics of that kind doesn’t work, it didn’t during Pakistan era... There are many among us who have tried to create political essence and outline based on religion. But invariably they have failed.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Illiberal Democracies and the Muslim World

For the first time, directly presidential elections were held in Turkey on 10th August, 2014. As expected, Prime Minister Erdogan won the elections and crossed the fifty percent threshold, making second round of presidential election unnecessary. The idea of Erdogan ruling for five more years is disconcerting for many inside and outside Turkey. Erdogan, after an initial liberal start, has now become a symbol of elected illiberalism or illiberal democracy. Erdogan is not alone. Since the start of 2013, illiberal democrats have won elections in Algeria, Pakistan, India, Hungary, Egypt and Venezuela.  

The idea of illiberal democracy was first popularized by Fareed Zakaria (See The rise of illiberal democracy). He argued that democracy requires only regular competitive elections and can be liberal or illiberal. Liberal democracy, in addition to regular elections, entails individual liberty and constitutionalism. Without protection of individual rights and limits on the power of democratic governments (usually through constitutions), there is no liberal democracy. Zakaria contended that sequencing of liberalism and democracy was different in the early Western European democracies (and East Asian democracies) and most third wave democracies. In the former, liberalism became entrenched before democracy became a reality but in the later, democracy came earlier. This led to illiberal democracy or infringement of individual and minority rights in many countries. According to Zakaria, 
The tension between constitutional liberalism and democracy centers on the scope of governmental authority. Constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power, democracy about its accumulation and use. For this reason, many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberals saw in democracy a force that could undermine liberty. James Madison explained in The Federalist that "the danger of oppression" in a democracy came from "the majority of the community." Tocqueville warned of the "tyranny of the majority," writing, "The very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority."
Rest of the blog can be read at Calgary Centre for Global Community website (See Illiberal Democracies

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why street protests work in Pakistan?

Daniel Markey recently wrote an article on the success of street protests in Pakistan?' (See Why street protests work in Pakistan?). His main arguments is that democratically elected leaders in Pakistan face such protests not only because they face very difficult challenges and weak political institutionalization but also because of their own tendencies to centralize power.
By rights, however, Sharif (and Zardari before him) should not face such a high deficit of popular legitimacy as the one that loomed over Musharraf's tenure. Whatever the flaws of national elections in 2008 and 2013, they were better than what came before, or at least no worse. It is hard to accept that the motivating energy behind the latest round of protests is truly a consequence of voting irregularities. No, today's opposition leaders Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri are opportunistically latching on to whatever charges can be leveled against Prime Minister Sharif and company. Vote rigging, like corruption, is a perennially effective club to wield against most Pakistani politicians and their parties. 
Part of Sharif's present vulnerability to popular protests can be explained by his own policy missteps that have dissipated enthusiasm for his rule. His dealings with the army, for instance, have been rife with tensions over the Musharraf case and the timing of negotiations and military operations against the TTP. In addition, although Pakistan's economy is no worse off than it was before Sharif assumed office (and by many measures, it is probably stronger), the common Pakistani has seen little material benefit. To be fair, even the best schemes for new power plants and Chinese-financed infrastructure cannot be realized overnight, but decades of unfulfilled promises by Pakistani politicians have jaded the public. The summertime heat and persistent power outages undercut Sharif's appeal as a can-do businessman, his calling card in the last election. 
 Yet lots of democracies face setbacks; the anti-incumbent theme of "throwing the bums out" is a universal rallying cry. In countries where democratic institutions are firmly entrenched, however, opposition parties work through parliamentary and electoral systems to accomplish those ends. It is primarily in democratic systems where institutions are weak and ineffective that unconventional forms of political participation, like street protests, are the norm. At least, this is the principal finding of an insightful political analysis comparing democratic states across Latin America by the Inter-American Development Bank in 2009.
By this logic, Nawaz Sharif's main failing -- the one that makes him most vulnerable to street protest today -- is his lack of investment in the institutionalization of democratic politics. That deficit is indeed glaring. Sharif's critics are right to chastise his do-nothing parliament and hyper-centralization of political authority in the hands of a tiny group of cronies.
I argued in my comments that what Markey is saying is right but the role of Pakistan's military cannot be ignored. It is one of the main reasons why such protests (with proportionally very small number of people) succeed:
A more pertinent question is why such SMALL street protests work in Pakistan. The current protest marchers in Islamabad  are around fifty thousand. Pakistan's population is more than 180 million. So, the question is why 0.003% of population can topple a government. Governing through parliament is important and there is no doubt that Nawaz Sharif' has centralized power but many other world leaders have a similarly centralized power and faced big protests and still continue to rule. Two prominent examples are Erdogan and Putin. Both these leaders have a centralized style of governance and faced proportionally bigger protests but still continue to rule. 
It is true that in countries where democratic institutionalization is weak, unconventional forms of political participation (e.g.  street protests) are the norm but do they topple governments? A pertinent example in that of Mexico where in 2006, there were large protests against vote rigging, similar to what is happening in Pakistan now. What was the end result? The Mexican government patiently waited and eventually protests ended.
There is also no need to resort to ruthless force as the Mexican example shows. Protesters in Mexico city camped for months. Pakistani government has to just wait and there is every reason to believe that Imran Khan supporters (who have a more valid case for protest) would fizzle out.
So, why Pakistani government is worried? The answer is history of military involvement in politics and the perception in Pakistan that military is not happy with Nawaz Sharif. This perception of military's displeasure emboldens Sharif's opponents and makes many others to hedge their bets or go against Sharif to protect their interests. For example, most of the news channels in Pakistan report news with a clear bias against Sharif government. They hardly question the legitimacy of having 0.003% of people demanding dissolution of national assembly, using undemocratic means.
Perhaps looking at Turkey in 1997 and in 2013 will clarify my contention. In 1997, a democratically elected government was toppled one year after being elected only by a memorandum by the Turkish military. In 2013, a democratically elected but much more centralized (and maybe more corrupt too) are not toppled. The main difference in 1997 and 2103 was the absence of military's political power in 2013.  

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

No-Nos for a Caliphate

Christian Caryl has written an interesting article on Islamic state or more precisely on how to establish a successful caliphate (See 9 Things to Avoid When Creating Your Own Caliphate). In a letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the newly (self) proclaimed caliph of IS, Caryl lists the following nine no-nos.
  1. You might want to think twice about wearing a rolex
  2. Don't ban music
  3. Think twice about punishing girls for alleged immodesty
  4. Don't vandalize ancient cultural relics
  5. Try not to include too many foreigners in your army
  6. Don't alienate local notables
  7. Don't prohibit little pleasures
  8. Don't spread disunity among Muslims
  9. Don't declare yourself a caliph
This list appears to be quite insightful, with all the nine measures linked to the mistakes made during recent attempts at establishing 'Islamic' states. Looking again, one can see that almost all of these no-nos can subsumed under two broad themes.
  • Respect local culture and traditions
  • Do not be too strict with the people
These recommendations appears intuitive. Everybody knows that human beings have a powerful affinity with their culture and most of them find it difficult to live under strict rules. The very first Islamic state, established under Prophet Muhammad (PBH), also appears to be following these recommendations. Arab culture was largely adopted or accommodated in Islam. Moreover, the few things in which Islam went against Arab culture were very gradually introduced so that people do not feel burdened (e.g. prohibition of alcohol). Leniency, not strictness, was the hallmark of the first Islamic state.  
The question is then, why Muslim movements continue to go down the same destructive path of rigidity, sternness and hostility toward local cultures?
The problem appears to be the way these states are created. These states are generally created by young zealots and fighters, not experienced thinkers, administrators, scholars etc. The later groups is largely absent not only in the most prominent leaders, but also in the second tier leadership as purity is appreciated and experience (with the previous regime) is considered a sign of hypocrisy and lack of true faith. In pre-modern history, zealots founded states could survive a bit longer because states had less control our people lives and people didn't demand much from their rulers. However, these primitive states also had to eventually accept local culture and govern with compassion, if they had to survive long.
Not surprisingly, the zealous leadership of the recent 'Islamic' states, while comparatively good at conquering territory, find it hard to rule and govern. Killing, looting and destroying are the only skills they have and they continue using them, even when they are not required or disastrous. They long for certainties which are (perceived to be) available during wars but are difficult to keep adhering to when one is governing millions of people over large swaths of territory. Uncertainty is difficult to handle for these leaders and they might feel that God has left them. Iconoclasm is their way to show that they are still faithful to God and seek His support. Banning local traditions and small pleasures in another.    
But, are Caryl's warnings only applicable to successful caliphates or Islamic states? It is obvious no state can survive long, if it didn't pay close attention to these warnings. A very illuminating comparison can be made with the communist states of the twentieth century. While leaders that tried to strictly follow Marxist ideology couldn't survive long, leaders that blended Marxism with local culture survived and endured.
From a religious nationalism perspective, the lesson is that religion is important and people would do a lot to save their souls but local culture cannot be ignored.