The Choice in Pakistan is Democracy or Talibanization: Guest Op-ed by Shahin M. Cole

Shahin M. Cole, Esq., writes:

I am one of those Pakistan-trained lawyers you have been hearing about. I have spent the last few days watching on television how my colleagues have been dragged, kicked, and beaten by hired hands, just because of their political views. My former law school professors, some of whom are now judges or justices, are under house arrest. There is a real sense in which I left my country of birth precisely because of obstacles to the free expression of political and religious views.

Americans, who enjoy constitutional liberties of long standing, should support the lawyers in their protest against the suspension of the Pakistani constitution. Lawyers are supposed to act as the guardians of the rule of law. They are not supposed to be prisoners and hostages to the powers that be. There is no excuse for Gen. Pervez Musharraf to treat educated, accomplished attorneys and barristers, many of them human rights workers such as the prominent woman activist, Asma Jahangir, this way. Ironically, the general has often posed as a supporter of women’s rights, as when he established quotas to ensure the presence of women in parliament. Yet, he is now moving against women intellectuals and politicians for being outspoken.

How much of the blame for this crackdown can be laid at the feet of the Bush administration’s unconditional support for the Pakistani military? The events of this week put the lie to the idea of a democratizing Pakistan with an independent judiciary and rule of law. If the US wants to play a fair and honest role in helping Pakistan achieve democracy and reducing the threat of religious extremism, here is what it can do.

The US should be earmarking aid to Pakistan not for military use but for funding and building schools for the millions of poor Pakistani children (some of them still from refugee Afghan families displaced by the US struggle with the Soviet Union in the Cold War). Such schools should stress east-west understanding. That would be one way of keeping children out of fundamentalist-funded madrassas and keeping them from being turned into Taliban. Provision of rural adult education through television and of free country-wide wi-fi internet access would also aid development. This educational aid would cost a pittance in comparison with what is being spent on military aid, and would be far less expensive than is fighting wars in the region.

Washington should keep pressure on the present government to hold free and fair elections for parliament on schedule. US aid for election observers and voter education would be well spent. The Bush administration has stressed democratization and the rule of law in the Muslim world. If it does not take practical steps toward those ideals in this crisis, America will altogether lose the confidence of the educated Muslim middle classes. If that happens, the ultimate winners may well be the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Shahin M. Cole holds an LL.B. from Punjab University Law School in Lahore, Pakistan.