Friday, September 4, 2009

'Parrot Patriots' by Nadeem Paracha

In situations where democracy hasn’t had the time to take root in political institutions and social psyche, there is always the danger of it becoming a backdoor sanctuary for mobs of intolerant thugs, who start making use of democratic principles, especially freedom of speech.

Of course, they use this principle to attack democracy itself and when confronted, they throw up their arms, pleading that they have a democratic right to express their opinion — even if that opinion is about glorifying notions of authoritarian rule (over a democratic one), and a mindset that smacks of political chauvinism and other puffed up notions of social and racial bigotry.

Now the question arises, is democracy really about such free-for-all scheme of things? My answer would be a resounding no. I have been fortunate to be able to travel across many European democracies in the last six years and discover that in these countries where liberal democratic principles are akin to unshakable belief, they come attached with an important condition.

This condition is about owning and demonstrating a strong sense of responsibility, no matter what spectrum of political thought one comes from. For example, an anti-democratic fascist individual or party will be taken to task if it preaches hatred, bigotry or racism; at the same time it will be largely tolerated if it decides to run for an election and take its beliefs and air them before voters or in parliament.

There it will be up against instant disagreement; but the point is, the beauty of democracy is such that either a voice of hatred will eventually soften its stance, or more so, the democratic process will prove that this voice was no more than a part of the lunatic fringe no matter how demagogic it may have sounded outside the parliament and the democratic process.

What I am getting at is that in Pakistan where democracy has always been a struggle, we have to keep a concerned eye on the lunatic fringe that (mainly through the mainstream electronic media) is having a ball with the whole democratic notion of freedom of speech and expression.

Obviously, this fringe, largely made up of certain TV personalities, conspiracy theorists, politicians and televangelists, may have been able to find applause from within some of the country’s urban middle and upper-middle-class drawing rooms, but they remain largely demagogic and focused on attacking democracy — either as a ‘destructive Western/ Zionist construct’ or worse, an ‘unacceptable Hindu offering.’

What is offered as an alternative are high-flying Utopian arrangements weaved together from a largely mythical understanding of Islamic and Pakistani history in which certain prominent Muslim and Pakistani figureheads are spun into becoming glorified hate-mongers. This is then explained away as a ‘proof’ that Islam (and Pakistan) are historically not compatible with liberal democracy and its principles.

Men like Munawar Hussain, Imran Khan, Zaid Hamid, Shahid Masood, Aamir Liaquat, Mubashar Lucman (and growing) will stir and shake passionately on the mini-screen, like doing a modern-day impersonation of the great Aziz Mian Qawal; they will sweat, they will shout, wring their hands and clench their fists, pleading at the top of their voices the meaning of ‘true patriotism,’ and ‘Islam’ and how both Pakistan and Islam are in danger of being infiltrated, adulterated and eventually obliterated by strange sounding ‘lobbies’, whose existence may make fictional sense in Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings; they smell of cynical, demagogic paranoia.

The biggest irony is perhaps that it is this fringe that is a most obvious lobby. A lobby of men and women whose pleading and shouting is a clear indication of their fear of populist democracy and how this democracy can render them obsolete. This is Pakistan’s version of the ubiquitous lunatic fringe; great software for mainstream TV and something for certain sections of the urban middle-class to vent their frustration at the exit of General Pervez Musharraf; and equally at the entry of populist political parties such as the PPP and the PML-N.

The democratic government and parliamentarian opposition now know that this fringe has little or no popular roots in the figurative masses; but since such groupings have become mainstream media mainstays, it has to be asked exactly how much can be tolerated in their self-righteous attacks on parliamentarianism, religious tolerance and their habit of turning demagogic fiction into ‘historical fact?’

Of course, they are more than welcome to make use of democratic principles and notions, such as freedom of speech, while operating outside the hard-fought democratic process, but they should not be allowed to do so without first understanding the responsibility aspect that naturally comes attached to this democratic notion.

More than the government, I think, the onus lies on TV channels that put them in front of the camera. These televangelists and ‘security analysts’ remain colourful media and cyberspace personalities rather than ones with substance. Interestingly, even though such gentlemen have not been able to strike root among the people, thanks to their media presence they most certainly have got going in finding fans and believers from amongst certain sections of the middle-class — from fashion designers to former rock stars, to born-again yuppies and businessmen.

Here is where democratic forces should get concerned because, in the past, it has been sections of the well-to-do middle and upper-middle-class whose money and influence were used to drill a destructive wedge in the democratic process. I can see it being repeated.

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