Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Extremism and Democracy in Pakistan

by Isobel Coleman
November 15, 2011

Earlier this month, Pervez Musharraf, former president of Pakistan, visited the Council on Foreign Relations in a bid to burnish his image in advance of his intended re-entry into politics next year. Last week, I hosted Dr. Asma Jahangir, a remarkably courageous lawyer and activist, the recent president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, a relentless critic of Musharraf, and a stalwart champion of democracy in her country. The back-to-back meetings made for quite a contrast.

Dr. Jahangir, who lives in Lahore, was in New York to receive the prestigious Leo Nevas Human Rights Award from the UN Association of the United States. During her acceptance speech, she humbly demurred, saying that while she has devoted much of her life to airing human rights grievances, especially in Pakistan, she has not done enough to improve the dismal situation of human rights around the world. For decades, however, Dr. Jahangir has more than done her bit to defend the rights of religious minorities, women and children, and political prisoners. In the 1980s, she campaigned against the religious laws imposed by General Zia Ul Haq in his efforts to Islamize Pakistani society. In the 1990s, she took on several high-profile cases dealing with blasphemy and honor crimes, and during the past decade, she has tirelessly campaigned for a return to democracy.

In a CFR video interview, Dr. Jahangir takes an uncompromising stance on extremism. She describes the government’s policy toward extremism as “weak, self-defeating, and self-destructive” and warns that “if we don’t change, the international community is going to lose patience with us… We can’t play games anymore.” This is in contrast with Musharraf who, at CFR, responded to a question from an Indian journalist about Pakistan’s export of extremism by saying, “Sir, your terrorist is someone else’s freedom fighter.”

Despite Pakistan’s ineffective civilian government today, Dr. Jahangir remains convinced that democracy is “still better than a military dictatorship.” During a lecture tour around Pakistan last year, I heard strong disagreement on this point. Numerous people—mostly businessmen—spoke quietly about the need to return government to the firm, steady hand of the military. But I agree with Dr. Jahangir—Pakistan’s government is by no means perfect (who’s is?), but it needs time to evolve. She advocates compressing the election cycle to every four years (instead of five) to help speed up that process of evolution. “It will take a long time for leadership to emerge. There is a vacuum… Over sixty years, civilian leadership has been decimated, sidelined, silenced. We need leadership.”

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