Our Changing World

The tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 heralded the collapse of the totalitarian Soviet empire.  The toppling of Saddam’s statue on Baghdad’s Firdous Square in 2003 sealed the overthrow of a dreadful Arab dictatorship.  Both were events of great historical import, repeatedly shown on television screens around the world.  For those who hold freedom and democracy dear to heart, these were sights to behold. 

 Invisibly and unbeknownst to us, the two momentous events entered into a kind of wedlock, and are now producing little offsprings.  Good old Karl Marx famously said: “Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one”. He would turn in his grave if told that the president of the world’s premier capitalist country – and George Bush at that – is actually delivering freedom to people (some of them, at least) who are craving for it, using force where necessary.

The actual use of force, however, has been the exception rather than the rule, applied only in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Emboldened by overt support of the United States, peaceful protesters have succeeded in overthrowing authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrghizstan. Belarus has just been served notice by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice that it cannot remain an outpost of dictatorship in a democratic Europe.                                                                                         

In the Arab Middle East, there is movement towards liberalization and democracy.  Kuwait has accorded voting rights to its women.  Saudi Arabia has held “a quarter” of an election, giving men the right to vote for half of the available seats on local bodies (the other half to be filled by nomination).

Lebanon has freed itself of Syrian domination. What was unthinkable even a couple of years ago, has been accomplished.  Fourteen thousand Syrian troops, along with thousands of intelligence agents, who were dominating that tiny country of less than four million people with a land area of 10,400 sq km, have finally pulled out.  Encouraged by unequivocal US support, Lebanese protesters in their hundreds of thousands openly demonstrated demanding a Syrian withdrawal.

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has yielded to demands to hold presidential elections with multiple candidates in contention, rather than the usual referendum on his rule.  The bluster is gone from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who has been trying to come clean in order to save himself.

The customary intransigence and swagger has deserted Islamabad too. As a relatively weak entity, Pakistan has done well to adapt to the changed world situation.  A bus service between Muzaffarabad and Srinagar would have been the stuff of wild imagination even two years ago.  Yet, it is not just a reality, but merely one link in the growing relationships and communications between the two erstwhile enemies, India and Pakistan. The Pakistani gunners, who until recently provided artillery cover to infiltrators, are now protecting passengers aboard the cross-border bus service. 

Where strategic depth against India was once the lodestar of the Pakistani military, friendship and cooperation with India are now being pursued. The forces that supported Afghanistan’s Taliban regime to the hilt not so long ago are now chasing the Taliban east of the Durand Line. How times have changed!

The West has cast aside diplomatic niceties and protocol in favour of human rights and democracy.  Washington has refused a visa to the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, Nirendra Modi, because of his despicable role in encouraging a pogrom against Indian Muslims.  For its part, Brussels not only refused to talk to a Pakistani Senate delegation that included Maulana Samiul Haque, but virtually detained him at the airport and threatened to deport him. The maulana is well-known for his anti-Western and pro-Taliban views.  He is the principal of the Darul Uloom Haqqania at Akora Khattak, also referred to as the University of Jihad.

To compound his misery, on his way out from Brussels, Maulana Samiul Haque was also briefly detained and searched at Heathrow airport in London.  France had earlier refused him a visa.  A few months ago, Holland had refused to grant visa to Qazi Hussain Ahmad. It is also reported that another Islamist leader, Hafiz Hussain Ahmed Srodi, was briefly detained and interrogated at ManchesterAirport this week.

We are living in interesting times!

There still are many outposts of dictatorship and tyranny in the Third World, such as Myanmar (Burma), Zimbabwe and North Korea.  Not surprisingly, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who regards Bush and Tony Blair as his enemies, recently celebrated a quarter century in power in grand style in a Chinese-built stadium.  He was honoured with a fly-past by air force planes recently acquired from his Chinese friends.  Burma’s ruling military junta similarly survives with the acquiescence of its southeast Asian neighbours and Chinese military and political support, which also sustains the tyranny in North Korea.

China is now the chief patron of dictatorships in Asia and Africa and an emerging military and economic colossus which, if it does not democratize, will be a threat to the region and beyond.  The industrious, billion-plus Chinese people have the misfortune of being ruled by an authoritarian regime, which uses the sheer weight of their numbers and the profits that accrue from their labour to perpetuate its despotic rule and intimidate its neighbours.

The unelected and unaccountable Chinese regime executes more people every year than the rest of the world put together.  According to Amnesty International, in a three-month “execution frenzy” in 2001, Chinacarried out at least 1,781 executions and passed 2,960 death sentences. By comparison, 1,751 executions were carried out in the rest of the world over the preceding three years.  Amnesty calculated that China executed at least 3,400 people last year, but cautioned the total figures are “only minimum figures; the true figures are certainly higher.”  It quoted a delegate at the National People’s Congress as saying, in March 2004, that “nearly 10,000” people are executed per year.

In its drive for more cash, the Chinese government pushes for more production without regard to workers’ safety.  Official figures show that China‘s coal industry, the most dangerous in the world, saw more than 6,000 workers die in mining accidents in 2004. But analysts of the country’s mining industry estimate that the real figure may be as high as 20,000.

A few days ago, Saudi authorities arrested 40 Pakistani Christians, who were caught praying in a private home in the capital Riyadh in violation of the state’s strictly enforced law that bans all congregational non-Muslim worship.  Authorities reportedly found Christian tapes and books in the house. It is worth mentioning that Saudi Arabia has constructed mosques and Islamic schools in Western countries at a frenetic pace and without hindrance.

Evidently, some countries not only persist in their authoritarian, undemocratic and intolerant ways, but also expect more freedom and liberty for their own faith while denying it to others. Despite a promise here and a reform there, to use a French saying, the more they change, the more they remain the same. 

In general, though, times are good. The space for the enemies of democracy and freedom is slowly but surely shrinking.

(Published in Daily Times, 28 April 2005)

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