Smokers’ Corner: Loose cannonsNadeem F. Paracha - Sunday, February 13, 2011

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In countries where democracy hasn’t had the time to strike root in political institutions and the social psyche, there is always the danger of it becoming a backdoor sanctuary for mobs of intolerant thugs who are the first ones to start misusing democracy’s many principles — especially freedom of speech.

Interestingly they use this principle to attack democracy and when confronted they throw up their arms, pleading that they have the democratic right to express their opinion — even if that opinion is about glorifying notions of authoritarian rule, and having a mindset that smacks of political chauvinism and puffed up notions of social and religious bigotry. Now the question arises, is democracy really about such free-for-all scheme of things?

My answer would be a resounding no. Democratic principles 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 individual in a democracy should be taken to task if he publicly preaches hatred or bigotry. However, he should be largely tolerated if he decides to run for an election and then airs his beliefs in an elected parliament because there he will be up against an instant counterargument.

The point is that this way 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 parliament. That’s the corrective beauty of democracy.

What I am getting at is that in Pakistan where democracy has always been a stern 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 the 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 malcontented drawing rooms, but they remain largely demagogic and focused on attacking democracy – either as being a western/Zionist construct or ‘anti-Islam.’ They haven’t paid their dues to be able to use freedom of expression because they operate well outside the democratic process.

What is offered as an alternative by these people is nothing more than lofty Utopian arrangements weaved together from a largely mythical understanding of religious and Pakistani history in which certain prominent historical figureheads, from leaders to sages, are spun into becoming glorified hate-mongers. These distorted examples are then presented as a so-called proof that faith and Pakistan are historically not compatible with liberal democracy.

Such men and women shake impassionedly on the mini-screen; they sweat, shout, wring their hands and clench their fists, pleading at the top of their voice the meaning of ‘true patriotism,’ and ‘Islam’ and how both Pakistan and Islam are in danger of being infiltrated, adulterated and eventually obliterated by some very strange sounding ‘lobbies.’

The biggest irony perhaps is that it is this fringe that itself is the most obvious lobby. A lobby of men and women pleading and shouting is a clear indication of their fear of populist democracy and how this democracy can render them and their ideas obsolete. This is Pakistan’s version of the ubiquitous lunatic fringe — great software for mainstream TV channels and something for certain sections of the urban classes to vent out their permanent existentialist frustrations, and that’s about it.

The democratic government of the day and the parliamentarian opposition 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 of them in their self-righteous attacks on parliamentarianism and liberalism 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 comes attached to this democratic notion. More than the government, I think the onus lies in this respect on the TV channels that put a number of such loonies in front of the camera.

Interestingly, even though these animated folks have not been able to grow any worthwhile roots among the ‘common people’ as such, 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 shop-keepers to fashion designers, to former rock stars, born-again yuppies and assorted businessmen.

Here is where the democratic forces of the country should get concerned because, in the past, it has been sections of the well-to-do middle and upper-middle classes whose money and influence was used to drill a destructive wedge in the process of democracy, using protection of religion as a pretext. The 1977 anti-Bhutto movement is a case in point.

One sees this process being repeated, if not checked.

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