A look at democracy: shootings in Arizona and Pakistan

BOSTON — Within days of each other murders in Pakistan and Arizona shocked their respective nations.

In Tucson murder was multiple, apparently carried out by a deranged youth with easy access to a semiautomatic pistol. The condemnation was immediate and unanimous, the only debate being: Was the killing at least partially a by-product of a poisonous political atmosphere? Or was it just an act of insanity? That the main target appeared to have been a congresswoman opened the perpetrator up to charges of attempted assassination.

Americans did not debate whether the murders were justified. No one argued that they were.

Earlier in Islamabad, just about as many bullets as were fired in Tucson were fired into the back of Salman Taseer, governor of the Punjab, by one of his bodyguards. The motive for the assassination was not debated. The bodyguard objected to Taseer’s attempt to roll back Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that carry a death sentence.

What shocked the West, and many Pakistanis, was the outpouring of sympathy for the murderer. Black-jacketed lawyers in their neckties, who had previously been seen as a force for democracy, demonstrated in support for the killer. Imams once thought of as moderates issued statements in favor not only of the blasphemy laws, but the act of murder itself, and the assassin was showered with rose petals.

When Pakistan gained its independence from Britain, the founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, told his people that they were free to worship any way they wanted, and that religion was not the business of the state. Today religion is very much the business of the Pakistan state, and no political party or government has dared to seriously challenge the blasphemy laws.

For some Americans the Constitution is a sort of secular Koran governing our political and legal behavior, and the freedom of speech enshrined in the first amendment would prohibit a death sentence for blasphemy. In Europe, however, there are blasphemy laws still on the books, left over from a much more religious age. None carry the death sentence, which has vanished from Europe, and few, if any, are ever enforced.

Westerners have come to know Western-educated Pakistanis, and thought of them as like-minded souls. But as European colonialism recedes into the past, whole new generations are growing up in Asia and Africa that do not share with us the values of their fathers and grandfathers. The influence of the West may continue when it comes to technology, but the Western values that we once thought were universal are no longer as shared as they were when leaders such as Jinnah, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Singapore’s Lew Kwan Yew ruled still under the gravitational pull of European values.

The West has been made aware of the rising religiosity in the Islamic world, but the concept of Pakistani lawyers, practicing laws that were mostly handed down to them from the West, demonstrating in favor of a murderer still has the power to shock. If anything it illustrates the underlying truths in much of what Samuel Huntington had to say in his “Clash of Civilizations.” And you can add to that a clash of generations.

Although much of colonialism was about the exploitation of other people’s resources, it was always accompanied by the imposition of Western colonial values. When the Portuguese and Spanish first ventured out across the seas, the collection of souls for the Catholic church jostled with the procurement of gold.

French colonialists encouraged their captive peoples to speak French and appreciate French culture. The British had their laws and customs which were adopted by the elites in their colonies. Witness the number of white wool wigs in the law courts of the steaming tropics.

In Pakistan, as in other countries, half a century on their own without colonial masters telling them what to do has meant that the values of the older, Western-oriented elites are fading.

But the old Western missionary zeal continues — not so much in the imposition of Christianity, but in the expectation and desire that all peoples should want to be like us. America’s promotion of democracy is the secular age’s equivalent of conversions — sometime forced — to Christianity.

No sooner do our armies invade but similar democracy is imposed, as the conquistadores once imposed religion, whether it suited the country being invaded or not. Elections in Afghanistan, for example, were imposed by the West, never mind that they have been uniformly flawed and may not suit Afghan tradition. In much of the world the mere fact of elections does not confer the kind of legitimacy elections do in the West.

Western humanitarian groups have a one-fits-all standard — the Western standard — and they have little interest in adapting to local custom. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently visited Yemen, and spoke about the evils of Yemeni girls marrying too young. Why is the age of brides in Yemen something with which the United States government needs to concern itself?

The murder of a politician for religious reasons should not be condoned anywhere. But the West is going to have to get used to the fact that the values we once considered self-evident and universal — as did the first generation of newly independent leaders — are no longer as self-evident today, as exemplified by blasphemy in force in Pakistan.