Banishing of the dissent

October 18, 2020

Perhaps allowing dissent to grow in the society will help the society grow

Quite a few years ago, Prof Iftikhar H Malik delivered a talk at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. The audience consisted of students and faculty of social cciences from LUMS and some other institutions. Prof Malik spoke on Pakistan’s politics and the challenges posed to the smooth functioning of democracy in the country which was experiencing a hybrid system of governance under Gen Pervez Musharraf.

It was quite enticing for a locally trained, struggling historian like me to get to hear a seasoned scholar from Bath Spa whether Pakistan would ever have democracy or if it was merely a distant and unrealisable dream.

During the question and answer session, Anjum Nasim asked the speaker why Muslim countries have an elusive relationship with democracy. Hardly any of the Muslim countries, barring Bangladesh and Malaysia, has adopted a democratic system of government. This seemingly simple question had several layers which made it extremely hard to answer.

Prof Malik came up with a protracted answer, which in fact gave rise to several other questions and the debate remained inconclusive. However, I have kept contemplating this vexed query: why has democracy not found roots in Muslim polities? Today’s column is an attempt to deal with this question.

The foremost problem that impedes democracy from striking roots and functioning effectively in a Muslim polity is the unwillingness to accept dissent. In any Muslim polity with a democratic tag, opposition is usually dealt with through utter disdain. Ironically, the Muslim world has very few commonalities. Cultural variation, customary differences and divergent historical experiences have caused disparity despite their adherence to the same religion. However, all of them have nurtured a common trait of not tolerating dissenting viewpoints.

Unilateralism is so deep-seated in the collective unconsciousness of the Muslims that it has not been unhinged despite the fact that many of the polities that we are talking about in this write-up have had a leadership with sufficient exposure to the democratic (Western) world.

Instead of accepting it as a right of everybody to have his/her own opinion and to express it, we tend to dismiss the dissenting opinion and condemn those who disagree. In any of the established democracies, myriad parallel but divergent opinions that circulate in the society create an ambience in which state and society complement each other. While formulating policy, the aspirations of the citizenry are counted in.

Unfortunately, in the Muslim countries, the disconnect between the state and society is far too pronounced. Any critique emanating from the society is considered an act of subversion. Therefore, the trust deficit between the state and society is quite visible.

In these societies, political opponents are condemned and repressed, for which the tool of religion is invariably invoked. Maulana Fazl ur Rahman has said it in quite a categorical tone that he will use religion to see that his political ends are met. In the past, ZA Bhutto was a victim of such condemnation.

The Western ideal of democracy allows the freedom of expression, which is why dissenting opinions are encouraged and provided space in public media.

In the vilification campaign against Bhutto his mother, wife and daughter were not spared. Incidentally, Fazl’s father, Mufti Mahmood, was extraordinarily enthusiastic about it. Now his son is re-enacting the same gimmickry. Even the first prime minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, was not above vilifying Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a prominent opposition leader. This, unfortunately, became a political tradition.

The purpose of mentioning all this is to demonstrate that we are wont to condemn whoever we disagree with instead of criticising him/her. Out of criticism, there is a likelihood that ideas and concepts will undergo an evolutionary process and the citizenry would attain intellectual growth which otherwise would not be possible.

Criticism allows an opinion to be enriched through a dialectic process. In simpler terms, the union of the opposites pushes the idea to the next stage of its advancement, which is not possible if condemnation is widely practiced as a norm. That is the reason why using terms like ghaddar and kafir or calling someone as an agent of Hindus and Jews has become part of our political lexicon.

This epitomises condemnation as a discourse and has overtaken an overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan and beyond.

If we try to dig out the historical antecedents of such a mode of thinking, they lie in the differences between how monarchy in the Muslim world operated and how it worked in the Western world. In the Western kingdoms, religious institutions like the Church and their heads were generally seen as alternative power centres and kings and queens could not unilaterally assert themselves. In the Muslim world, the kings and queens had absolute authority. Thus, there were no checks and balances. In these kingdoms, the king usually oversaw both the religious as well as the mundane spheres. Another aspect is patriarchy which acts as a central pillar of our social formation.

In the patriarchal system, no one is entitled to question the authority of the patriarch which evidently reflects in the democratic dispensation in the Muslim countries, Pakistan being a case in point.

Social media has become a source of dissent where people express their views without restraint. The state’s recent attempts to control social media are aimed at regulating dissent. Tik Tok is also a platform that presents a diverse view of society in a tolerant and humorous paradigm. The government’s recent ban on Tik Tok shows how dissent is viewed by the government and the state.

The Western ideal of democracy allows the freedom of expression, which is why dissenting opinions are encouraged and provided space in public media. Thus, Anjum Nasim’s question remains unanswered. Accusations of the sort levelled against the opposition in Pakistan show a tight-fisted approach to maintaining control. Perhaps allowing dissent to grow in the society will help the society grow.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Banishing of the dissent