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Originally published in The Boston Globe, October 28, 2007.


A New Rallying Cry

Why the concept of justice - not freedom, not democracy - is becoming a potent tool for political reform in the Muslim world

PAKISTANIS ARE USING the Urdu word zulm a lot these days. The twin suicide bombings last week in the port city of Karachi that left hundreds injured and dead were zulm. So is a deal between political rivals that left millions of dollars stolen from the state unaccounted for. The Pakistan Army’s continuing military assault on the tribal areas is being termed zulm. The bombing of girls’ schools by Taliban militants in the same tribal belt along the Afghan border, the US military’s operation in Iraq - all zulm.

The word signifies severe cruelty or injustice. The Arabic root implies doing wrong, and is used in the Koran as the most basic reference to sin. Zalimeen are sinners who commit zulm. Allah does not guide them, it says in the holy book - their abode is a fiery hell. In Pakistan, a country caught in the middle of several wars, the words are read in the press and heard on TV and in tea-stalls on street sides every day. There is much zulm in the world today, and many zalimeen on all sides.

The antithesis of zulm is adl, the Koranic word for justice, and insaf, the Persian equivalent. The demand for adl-o-insaf, for justice, has emerged as a compelling rallying call in Pakistan. It has become a vital tenet of the nationalists and of Islamist party rhetoric, it is built into the spirit of the civil society movement for democracy led by lawyers and championed by Supreme Court judges, and it is the platform for the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, or Pakistan Justice Party, a political party led by Imran Khan, a onetime cricket star.

In many postcolonial Muslim states, a new call for justice is catalyzing a process of transformation. Political fronts with Islamist roots and leanings based on justice are making rapid inroads to power from Indonesia to Kosovo, from Morocco and Turkey to the Maldives. The concept of justice has sparked a new conversation between Islam and governance in these countries, creating a third way that recognizes the universal notions of freedom and equity yet casts them in an indigenous, sometimes explicitly Islamic light. It is a potent political formula that appeals to economically depressed classes by addressing issues of social injustice while also drawing in the growing middle classes, who are frustrated with rampant corruption in their countries.

The call for justice is striking a chord with broad swaths of the Pakistani public: with the religious who hear the divine in it, with the secular and urban educated who are frustrated by the blatant corruption in bureaucracy and government, and with the country’s economically depressed majority.

“We are living in a society where the strong are crushing the weak, where an avarice elite has become a parasite on us all,” said Khan, sitting in his sparsely furnished, bare-walled office at the party headquarters in Islamabad. “A system based on justice would liberate the people, give them true freedom, and unleash their real potential.”

Western rhetoric - concepts such as freedom, democracy, and liberty - are being rejected in favor of the more incontrovertible “justice.” The West’s efforts are often dismissed as insincere, but it matters little, since concepts such as democracy and freedom are often partly lost in translation. In many cultures, freedom is incomplete without responsibilities. Some orthodox religious scholars might even argue that true freedom is found only in the complete submission to the will of Allah - a far cry from how the concept is appreciated in the West.

In Pakistan, the movement for justice has the potential to redefine the discourse of religion and politics. Come the elections in January, it could emerge as a powerful contender for power. In the second largest Muslim country in the world, which has been struggling to reconcile its secular foundation and Muslim identity since its creation, some are hoping that this new movement could cure a decades-old political schizophrenia that has brought chronic instability. And, of course, it could also pull Islamist politics, which has always tended toward extreme rhetoric and militancy, closer to the mainstream.

At a time when Pakistan has become a front-line state in the “war on terror,” the United States is throwing its chips in with Pervez Musharraf. It hopes the “moderate,” pro-American leader will be able to keep a lid on what seems like a country on the tipping point of change. But by supporting the general, American policy is suffocating a robust and eclectic opposition movement - Khan’s movement, elements within the Islamist coalition, nationalists, a growing secular civil society movement led by lawyers in their black suit and ties - based on justice.

“Americans,” Khan warned in a recent newspaper column, “are pushing people who are in favor of democracy at the moment towards extremism.”

Justice has long been an important element of classical Islamic social and political thought. Two of the 99 qualities of Allah described in the Koran are al-Adl, “the just,” and al-Muqsit, “the most equitable.” Words with the root a-d-l are used dozens of times in the book, most often in reference to establishing social order. At one place the Koran instructs: “And let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety.”

In Muslim countries the political emphasis on justice has traditionally been garbed in calls for social welfare and focused on social inequities. The pro-West Justice and Development Party of Turkey, which holds power in both the Legislature and the executive branch, is an offshoot of Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) established in 1983. In a country in which the separation of religion and politics was militantly guarded, the Welfare Party cloaked its Islamist ethos in the call for Adil Duzen, or “Just Order.”

Similarly, the Justice and Development Party of Morocco is the only legal Islamist party in the country and forms the main political opposition, having secured 46 parliamentary seats compared with the winning party’s 52 in this year’s election. Its leader, Saad Eddin Al Othmani, fashions the party along the lines of the Christian Democrats in Europe and claims that “efforts, such as combating bribery and corruption, are based in sharia.” The Islamist Prosperous Justice Party in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, is now a major political force, working off a strong anticorruption platform.

Imran Khan was a newcomer to politics when he founded the Pakistan Justice Party in 1996, but he was hardly an unknown. After studying politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford alongside political rival Benazir Bhutto, he embarked on an illustrious sports career. He was captain of the Pakistan cricket team that brought home the World Cup in 1992, becoming a minor deity in a country in which the sport might as well be a religion. His rugged good looks and larger-than-life persona made him a global heartthrob and to this day he is haunted in his political career by allusions to his “playboy” past. Many never really forgave him for marrying British heiress Jemima Goldsmith. (Khan and Goldsmith have two children, and were divorced in 2004.)

After retiring from cricket, Khan wrote a book on the tribal areas of Pakistan (he is of tribal Pashtun decent). When his mother succumbed to cancer, he raised funds to establish Pakistan’s first and largest cancer hospital, which provides free cancer treatment to the poor. Only after carrying out the largest fund-raising campaign in the country’s history did he decide to enter the political arena.

The Justice Party’s manifesto includes detailed reform proposals for every institution of the state - an anomaly in a country in which slogans and cults of personality are usually enough to rise to power. But the cornerstone of the Justice Party is the establishment of an independent judiciary. This alone can begin to cure Pakistan in profound ways, the party states, by keeping its rulers in check.

Initially, Khan’s call for establishing a free and independent judiciary found little popular support. But this year, things started to change when on March 9, Musharraf attempted to remove the chief justice of Pakistan to clear his path to a reelection. The activist judge had earned a reputation as being pro-poor and had aggressively prosecuted corruption, embarrassing Musharraf. But Musharraf’s move backfired; public rallies attracted antigovernment crowds of the kind that hadn’t been witnessed in the general’s eight-year rule.

“After 9th of March people began to understand what it means to have an independent judicial system,” Khan told a private television channel recently. “Eventually, if the civil society and the political forces stand behind an independent judiciary, you will have a revolution in Pakistan.”

Khan is now contesting a political deal between Musharraf and Bhutto in the Supreme Court, which granted the ex-prime minister amnesty from charges of stealing millions of dollars from the state and allowed her to return from exile this month. The country, he says, is struggling to shake off a feudal system in which the government bureaucracy attracts only two kinds of people: those who want to get involved in crime and those who are already criminals and need protection.

The young Justice Party holds only one seat in the Legislature. But Khan has built alliances with the lawyers’ street movements, some prominent Islamist leaders, and the nationalist Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), which has twice swept elections in Pakistan. When the elections come in January, he has high hopes for his party - and, more importantly, for the idea of justice behind it.

“It’s not something particular to Islam or even Pakistan,” he says. “It’s the basis of every civilized society.”

Shahan Mufti is a freelance writer based in Islamabad.

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