Sunday, August 23, 2009

Saving Pakistan From Itself

By Supna Zaidi

Despite being born at the same time as India, Pakistan seems to be regressing while India becomes an increasingly influential player in global politics. This is because Pakistan has refused to end the feudal system unlike India. Pakistani land reforms were first attempted in the 1950s by General Mohammad Ayub Khan's government, who wanted, among other social improvements, to increase "agricultural output, promote social justice, and ensure security of tenure". However, the regulations didn't really break up large land holdings or reduce the power of the zamindars. The ceiling was placed on individual ownership, not on families, so land was simply distributed among the family members, thus leaving all the power and control with the zamindars.

In 1973, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's government attempted land reform again. Legislation required, "landlords to pay all taxes, water charges, seed costs, and one-half of the cost of fertilizer and other inputs. It prohibited eviction of tenants as long as they cultivated the land, and it gave tenants first rights of purchase. Other regulations increased tenants' security of tenure and prescribed lower rent rates than had existed." However, Bhutto's government was ousted by Zia Ul-Haq, who did not implement the reforms.

Zia chose to ignore the practical needs of the people, preferring to inject a politicized Islamic identity to foment public support in the fight for Kashmir against India and Communism in Afghanistan. Zia passed the misogynist Hudood laws resurrecting archaic practices like the stoning of women for adultery, and made piety a factor in promotions of civil servants. If you were not an orthodox Sunni Muslim, kiss your chance at upward mobility good-bye.

Today, the air is tense wherever you walk in Pakistan. Whether you talk to a middle-class housewife in Karachi, the driver taking you to Lahore, or a schoolteacher in Rawalpindi, the people are jittery. I spoke to a widow who was evicted from her rental after the owners found out she was Shia, a minority Muslim sect in Pakistan. In her new rental, electricity rationing turns off the fans and AC for 3 hours in the morning and two in the evening. At the height of summer, temperatures can reach 115 degrees with humidity. Worse yet, while Musharaff had a tariff on electricity in the 50% range, Zardari raised it to the 70s. Most people believe he is personally pocketing the tax to benefit himself. His fertile history of accepting kickbacks in the 90s makes this conspiracy theory very palatable and explains his nickname of "Mr. 10%."

Tension, is especially among the middle class, who make up less than 10% of the population. Many don't vote because they know they don't matter numerically, but Pakistan technically has elections, so it is sadly considered a democracy. Unfortunately, in a nation where Parliamentarians double as zamindars, or landlords, the debate over what the government should be doing for the average Pakistani is limited to tea-time banter among "educated" types. None actually do anything about the inequality and corruption they see around them because, if you're a landlord, it would go against your own interests to empower the people working your lands. Or, as a member of the middle-class, efforts towards "change" feel meaningless since it might get one killed, jailed or in the very least cause undue embarrassment to family for putting yourself "out there", especially if you're a girl.

The failure of the Pakistani government to provide for the people has allowed political Islam to grow and enamor too many citizens with a utopian vision of society that is untenable. While the Taliban may eventually be run out of town, the Jamaat-i-Islami party may gain favor as a "moderate" manifestation of the same emotional need for supremacy that a "Muslim first" identity demands; working off of latent desires among many that "Islam" is the answer.

Pakistanis are at a crossroads. Are they Pakistani first or Muslim first? The founder of Pakistan wanted a secular democracy for the Muslim peoples of the subcontinent. As a democratic constitutionals, Jinnah saw no conflict in living in a society where faith blurs the line between culture and religion daily, but at the same time respected every citizen equally under the law independent of their religious identity.

The recent murders of six Christians in Gojra, Punjab for allegedly violating Pakistan's blasphemy law serve as a reminder that in a land where most citizens do not have opportunities to better their lives, nor are equally protected under the law above gender, class, or faith, the "might" of the dominant religion will always be used as a pretext to harm others for personal gain if the faith is allowed to be politicized as Islam has in many Muslim majority nations, including Pakistan.

Source: Muslim World Today

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