Dilemma of Democracy


I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.


This has been the dilemma of those known in some circles as the ‘fundamentalists’ of democracy, free speech, rule of law, human rights, social justice and tolerance.

Whenever these principles have come under pressure from totalitarianism, those who believe in democratic principles are not known to have just given them up and joined the proponents of bigotry, tyranny, anarchy, mayhem, social injustice and intolerance.

They have fought the forces of totalitarianism with nothing but democratic principles and consistently won. Ironically, in the short run, however, those on the other side of the fence seemed to thrive, taking full advantage of the public space these principles would allow them.

Humankind would not have come out of the cave age ever and would have remained in perpetual bondage of the devotees of primitiveness and obscurantism had the forces of democracy accepted defeat, either by joining with the opposition or by keeping out of the way of these unholy devotees. And as a result, we would perhaps still be out killing one another with bare hands.

The fight between good and evil has continued all these centuries, with the former not only not giving up their principles no matter how intense and how violent the pressure from the latter, but by continuing to fight the fight undeterred with no weapon other than the principles of democracy.

What would have happened if the good had used the same weapons as the ones being used by the adherents of totalitarianism to overcome the latter? That is, by giving up democratic principles and using bigotry, tyranny, mayhem, social injustice and intolerance to fight the evils of totalitarianism. More likely, the world would have gone up in smoke by now. But this has not happened so far. And it is not likely to happen ever.

On the other hand, the more the adherents of totalitarianism misuse the principles of democracy to their advantage, to promote their primitive ideology and to expand their political space, the more they stand to lose the battle. That has been the result of this perpetual confrontation going on since the dawn of humankind.

Let us see how this fight has fared in the case of Pakistan. We have suffered fourtotalitarian regimes with three of them giving the look of perpetuity as long as they had lasted. But each one had ended — vanquished by the forces of democracy. During the 1990s, it looked like a fast paced table-tennis match was taking place, with the one getting the better of the other, only to be toppled immediately by the loser, as the match continued without a breather until an extended totalitarian regime emerged from what had appeared to have turned into a war of attrition in the final run-up to October 12, 1999.

In the past, we have also seen attempts to introduce constitutional totalitarianism, first by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto during his premiership in the early 1970s and then by Nawaz Sharif in his second stint in the late 1990s. Both these attempts, too, had failed only to be succeeded by naked totalitarianism.

At present, once again the forces of totalitarianism — this time qualitatively different from the past ones — appear to be knocking at the doors of democracy with an excessive ferocity.

The attack this time seems doubly dangerous for democracy because the proponents of totalitarianism are not only using the weapons that they have mastered, but they are also misusing them in a masterly manner, to their own full advantage, all the principles of democracy: rule of law, freedom of speech, human rights, social justice and tolerance.

Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. So said Sir Winston Churchill. Indeed, until a better system is not found, we need to protect and preserve this system, defending it with life itself. No matter how blatantly and barefacedly the other side misuses the principles of democracy, those who believe in progress and modernity should never for a minute give up these principles and wage war with the weapons of totalitarianism.

-by arrangement with The Express Tribune


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