Reformist Muslim

Exploring possibilities for the future of Islam and other thoughts

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Location: London, United Kingdom

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Civil Society In Musharraf's Pakistan

The military is so secure in its rule and the official politicians so useless that 'civil society' is booming. Private TV channels, like NGOs, have mushroomed and most views are permissible (I was interviewed for an hour by one of these on the "fate of the world communist movement") except a frontal assault on religion or the military and its networks that govern the country. If civil society posed any real threat to the elite, the plaudits it receives would rapidly turn to menace.

This is from a very interesting column by Tariq Ali on the World Social Forum's stop in Karachi. Particularly biting is his critique of NGO's operating in Pakistan. However in this post I would like to focus on his comments on Pakistani civil society.

In my opinion, liberal democracies are successful when there is a diverse and resilient civil society which resists authoritarianism. All governments have authoritarian tendencies, but whether or not they succeed in establishing and maintaining total control is dependent on if those concerned with society are significant enough a presence to prevent it from happening.

I believe this is one of the reasons why Fareed Zakaria's analysis of liberalism before democracy works. A period of liberal authoratarianism allows civil society to develop in a way which is not possible in countries which rush towards democracy before the basic elements of a stable and tolerant society are in place.

It is in this context, that I'm not as skeptical of the current role of Pakistani civil society as Tariq Ali. It is true that today that the TV media in particular are relatively reluctant to openly criticise the government and it's policies.

However in the past year, we have witnessed at least two events where an internal conflict amongst the elite has opened up. Firstly and tragically was the Earthquake, when the TV media in particular could not help but report on the hopeless inadequacy of the government in leading the response effort. Secondly, we saw the lampooning of Musharraf after the seeming failure of President Bush's visit to Pakistan to achieve anything other than some funny pictures and a meaningless speech.

Of course there are problems in Baluchistan, parliamentary politics is a farce and a catastrophic event would in all likelihood set civil society back another ten to twenty years. However for now, the fact that the WSF is in Pakistan at all, gives me reason to hope for what in many ways is still a very flawed country.

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