Blast from the Past
By Aijaz Zaka Syed
WHAT is it with us in the Muslim world? What explains our indifference or, worse, casual contempt for institutions that are held in deference by the rest of the world? Just look at how the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court is being treated — like a two-bit thug!
Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has been summarily sacked and confined to his residence. His crime? He has been accused of ‘misusing authority’? Accused by who? By a little known lawyer who has accused the top judge of using his official position to get his son a police job.
The dismissal of Justice Chaudhry may have come as a shock to the uninitiated like me who are not inured to the daily shock-and-awe of Pakistani politics. However, as far as the people of Pakistan are concerned, this is not something new. In fact, they have seen worse over the past six decades in their eventful history. Would such a thing be possible in a mature democracy, say, like the United States? Coming from India, I know for sure that such highhandedness on the part of executive is unthinkable in the world’s largest democracy. Not only does the Indian judiciary take pride in its independence, it continues to exert its healthy influence over other branches of the state from time to time. Let alone taking on the courts, executive and legislature in India revere and seek guidance from the judiciary. This is perhaps why India is hailed as a successful democracy whereas its separated-at-birth twin, Pakistan, continues to fight daily existential battles sixty years after its creation. I don’t know and I don’t care if there’s any truth in the accusations hurled at the chief justice. For it is not for you and me or for that matter for President Pervez Musharraf to sit in judgment on the top judge of Pakistan’s highest court. This doesn’t mean the judiciary is above the law. The law will judge the judges too, if they ever take liberties with it. But there are ways of holding the judiciary to account in all countries in accordance with their constitutions. I am sure Pakistan’s constitution too must have built-in mechanisms to deal with such an eventuality.Constitutional propriety is the last thing on Pakistani politicians’ minds. We haven’t still forgotten how nine years ago, Pervez Musharraf was unceremoniously divested of his position as the army chief by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The current president, who had been in Sri Lanka at the time, was not even allowed to return to the country. The General’s plane was not allowed to land even though it was dangerously low on fuel. We all know how the army stepped in to rescue its top gun and send Nawaz Sharif into exile. The rest, as they say, is history.A bright and young politician with bright new ideas, Sharif’s excessive hunger for power proved to be the tragic flaw all heroes are condemned with. He played recklessly with the country’s institutional framework, hiring a new army chief here, firing a chief justice there. In fact, the current army chief and president Musharraf himself was picked up by Sharif to replace Gen Jahangir Karamat, who had fallen out with the prime minister. Sharif also dismissed the then Supreme Court chief justice, Sajjad Ali Shah, with equal arrogance.The prime minister forced Justice Shah out by dividing the Supreme Court judges between two benches, creating an embarrassing situation in which the two benches were ready to condemn each other. It’s a tragedy then Musharraf has drawn no lessons from recent history. In disdainfully dismissing the chief justice as if he were one of his many orderlies, the Generalissimo has ironically chosen to walk in the footsteps of Nawaz Sharif, his former boss and present bete noire. Which is kind of sad. For I have always found Musharraf to be a reasonable man. Unlike many other Muslim leaders, he has managed to strike a rare balance between his beliefs, or rather his people’s beliefs, and demands made on them by political and strategic compulsions in which Pakistan finds itself hopelessly entangled. The doctrine of Enlightened Moderation that the president unveiled last year in his opinion piece, published in Khaleej Times among other newspapers around the world, reveals a sensitive and thinking leader who is not out of sync with the realities and problems of our world, especially those of Muslim world. More importantly, he shares and identifies with the concerns of the so-called Muslim street. Seeking to act as a bridge between the West and Muslim world, the General passionately called for addressing the historical injustices in the Muslim world, especially against Palestinians, to deal with growing extremism around the world. In improving Pakistan’s relations with India too, Musharraf has gone to the extent no other Pakistani leader has ventured before. If Indians and Pakistanis are freely travelling today across the geographical divide and the Line of Control in Kashmir has been opened at five points, the credit should largely go to Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee, of course. Musharraf of course has his share of warts. And there are many ordinary people like me who have serious issues with his unquestioning support for and involvement in Washington’s war on Muslims. This so-called terror war has spilt much innocent blood. The General’s record on democracy and human rights is not irreproachable either. But the people of Pakistan do not really seem to be missing the ‘democratic’ leadership of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. On the whole though, Musharraf hasn’t done badly for himself or Pakistan. His rule or stage-managed ‘democracy’ has been better and certainly cleaner than that of the two ‘elected’ prime ministers. Which is why it’s unfortunate that the General should choose to taint his legacy with this shortsighted attack on judiciary. The violent protests across the country that have brought lawyers, judges and ordinary people out on the streets, leave you in no doubt that Musharraf has for the first time swallowed more than he can chew. Guilty or not, Justice Chaudhry finds himself transformed into a popular hero and man of the masses. When he came to present himself before this circus called Supreme Judicial Council, Justice Chaudhry was mobbed like a rock star by a fawning crowd of lawyers and ordinary people. You don’t have to be a pundit to know it’s not the excessive popularity of the honourable chief justice that is driving the crowds delirious but the boiling anger against the establishment’s highhandedness. Musharraf has presented the directionless and divided opposition, which has been hopelessly trying to corner the General ahead of another election certain to be choreographed by the army once again, with a rare opportunity. Ironically, Justice Chaudhry may end up accomplishing what powerful politicians like Sharif and Bhutto have failed to achieve: that is, drive Musharraf out of power. But Musharraf is not alone in this shameful desecration of institutions. This has been the tradition right from the creation of Pakistan. In fact, why single out Pakistan? This has been the norm, rather than exception, across the Muslim world, from the Middle East to North Africa to Central Asia. The Muslim world continues to suffer the people who had not been chosen as they are elsewhere. Rather, they had been forced on them by the departing colonial masters. And this colonial legacy lives on in the all-pervading corruption, institutional decay and all-round decadence. If the Arabs and Muslims remain stuck in a time warp without democracy, development and freedom while the rest of the world has moved on, we should thank our former colonial masters. Honestly, if it were not for them, we wouldn’t be in this fine mess we are in.And then they accuse Islam and Muslims of being naturally hostile and ill suited to democracy and all that it brings with it. This even as the West continues to patronise and protect its friends and allies who remain the real stumbling block to peace and progress in the Muslim world.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times and a commentator based in Dubai. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org