Asia Program

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Playing With Fire: Why Pakistan's Democracy Is Losing Ground to Islamic Extremists

October 27, 2010 // 9:30am11:00am
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What matters to everyday Pakistanis? What are their fears, frustrations, and hopes? What ideas inspire them; what forces hold them back? These are some of the questions Pamela Constable sets out to answer in an upcoming book about contemporary Pakistani society, a book based on months of field research and years of journalistic reportage in Pakistan. Constable, a Woodrow Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar and South Asia correspondent for the Washington Post, discussed this book project at an October 27 Asia Program event.

Constable made several broad observations about Pakistan, touching on themes such as power, truth, and change. Most Pakistanis, she said, feel they have no power. They live in a formal representative democracy, but see little evidence of it in their own lives and instead must answer to other forces. These range from landowners to police to bribe-seeking bureaucrats and court systems that favor the wealthy and influential. With little trust in the state, people turn to political patrons or other protectors. The pervasive sense of powerlessness and injustice constitutes a prime reason for the appeal of religious extremists.

Constable argued that in Pakistan, truth is "often elusive, elastic, and subject to endless political manipulation." Political assassinations are rarely solved, and political promises are repeatedly broken. Foreign policies, based on hostile relations with India and other neighbors, are "covert, double-tracked, or routinely denied." High-level deception has trickled down into all levels of society, hypocrisy has become a way of life, and widespread corruption has made accomplices of its victims. These problems also make the "puritanical ethos" of militant ideology appealing to some ordinary Muslims, who receive mixed messages from officials and opinion-makers about Islam. People in Swat were drawn to the Taliban's promise of swift justice until suffering from their brutal methods.

Nonetheless, she found, there are "pockets of hope" and signs of positive change. One is the "vast outpouring of support" for victims of last summer's catastrophic floods. Constable spoke of restaurant owners sending food donations and doctors volunteering in camps for homeless victims. If the tragic floods had a silver lining, she said, it was the national eruption of altruism. Other positive signs include the lawyers' movement, which several years ago helped restore the country's deposed Supreme Court chief justice; the rise of an independent media; the expansion of higher education; and the emergence of a new breed of "upstart, grassroots" politicians.

Constable acknowledged that change "is not coming fast enough." She said most poor Pakistanis still feel excluded from politics, educational opportunities, economic prospects, and the justice system. Yet she argued that Pakistan, more than many other developing countries, has real potential to become stable, prosperous, and more democratic. For this to happen, she concluded, the nation's political elite and permanent establishment must invest more heavily in the future of an "educated, employed, and engaged populace."

By Michael Kugelman
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program

See below for Pamela Constable's prepared remarks

 
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