All posts by Syed Sharfuddin

About Syed Sharfuddin

Mr Syed Sharfuddin is a student of political science and international relations resident in London UK. He has written extensively on democracy and good governance and served in many senior positions as a diplomat, as an international civil servant, as a humanitarian and as an NGO worker. During his career he has held a number of posts. he was previously CEO of Muslim Aid UK; Special Adviser, Political Affairs Division, Commonwealth Secretariat, London, UK and a Civil Servant and Diplomat, Pakistan Foreign Service, Government of Pakistan,

From Israel’s right to exist to Palestine’s right to statehood

Syed Sharfuddin*

The ten-day exchange of rocket firing between Israel and Gaza came to an end in the late hours of 20 May 2021 after intense diplomatic pressure was applied by the international community, as well as by Israel’s friends to reach a ceasefire, but the mess it created both politically and on the ground will take months to clear out. This time Israel not only repeated its persistent and known tactics to disregard the international status of the disputed Al-Quds, it also grossly violated Palestinian people’s human rights to worship, protest and defend themselves against state approved attacks on their history, life and property. The short -term priority for Israel, following the ceasefire, is to restore the soft image of Israel, which has been badly damaged in the eyes of its traditional supporters in the US and the EU. Israel also hopes that the ceasefire would remove global attention away from the real issue of forced evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to establish new Jewish settlements, and bolster the weak political position of Prime Minister Netanyahu with Israeli voters.

On 15 May 2021, the memories of 9/11 were revived when global news networks showed live images of a multi story building in Gaza crumbling down on the ground in a surprise aerial attack carried out by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). This was a despicable attempt of an aggressor state to block out the virtual reporting of Israeli raids on the civilian population in Gaza, and human rights abuses of Palestinian people in Jerusalem covered by Al-Jazeera, TRT and other news networks. By doing so, Israel declared a war on Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

During the Israeli aggression on Gaza, the Zionist apparatus launched a media offensive globally to gain public sympathy for Israel. Staying away from the current news that its TV channels could not show because Israel clearly came out as an aggressor state, they started showing TV documentaries, which highlighted the struggle of Jewish families in Europe during the Holocaust. There is absolutely no relationship between the adherents of the Jewish faith and the armed action of the government of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu does not represent a majority government in Israel and cannot claim to speak for all the Jewish people in his country. But the timing of showing such programmes made it obvious what the Zionist media wanted to achieve because its own friends and well wishers were disappointed with Israel for continuing to indiscriminately drop bombs on the civilians and destroying homes, schools, hospitals, roads and sources of their livelihood in Gaza.

The programmes that show innocent Jews suffering as a community at the hands of Nazis do not tell that a century ago the Jews also faced racist slurs and struggled to advance in social status, education, jobs and housing in many countries in Europe that were not aligned to Nazi Germany politically. This mirror of history is ugly and it is successfully blocked out by the Zionist media that controls news content and its packaging. History is not what actually happened in the past but what gets reported in the present.

The plight of the survivors of the Holocaust is highlighted not just at times like these when Israel’s approval rating is the lowest globally, but also at the annual remembrance of this painful event every January. But it will never tell its public that at the peak of the mighty Ottoman Empire, when Jews were attacked in Europe where did they go for safety. They were given refuge by the Muslim Ottomans. Istanbul was like Tel Aviv for them. There were no restrictions on them to practice their faith in Synagogues that did not need to be kept hidden from public sight as in Venice once upon a time, or own property, or get education, or train for various professions, or excel in business. The successor state to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, is still as Jewish friendly as it was in the past. It supports the Palestinians not because they are Muslims, indeed they include Christians, and non-believers as well, but it supports them morally and politically because they have become today’s ‘persecuted Jews’ in their own homeland.

The Islamic countries, with some notable exceptions, are not even aware of these subtle undercurrents that make the news. Five decades ago, Israeli politicians used to ask other governments: “where else should the Jews of Israel go if they are not acceptable to the Arabs; should they all be corralled and drowned in the Red Sea?” Now a time has come when the reverse question is being asked by Palestinians in the occupied territories: “where else should the Palestinians go if they are not acceptable to the Israelis; should they all be corralled and drowned in the Red Sea?”

Some Arab and non Arab Muslim majority states have already accepted this illegitimate and heavily shifting status quo of Palestine in favour of Israel by establishing diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv during the last Trump administration. Their explanation for doing so is that by establishing bilateral and trade relations with Israel, they could positively contribute to the setting for restarting the stalled Middle East peace process. They also expect that being friends of the US and Israel could give them extra weight in the Middle East power play. The once popular but now forgotten formula of “Land for Peace” is obsolete because Israel has appropriated most of the Palestinian lands through national legislation and is not prepared to negotiate it for peace. With the announcement for the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem last year, even Al-Quds Al Sharif is not open for negotiation by Israel. If the Biden Administration continues on the footsteps of  former President Trump’s all out support for Israel, other Arab and Islamic states would come under great pressure economically or politically to sign agreements for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in the coming years.

Unfortunately the signs from Washington for taking a neutral, non-partisan stand in the Israel Palestine conflict are not encouraging. On 12 May 2021 on a phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Biden said that Israel “has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your country.” However, in contradiction to the concern of president Biden’s statement, the US did not do anything to hasten the convening of the UN Security Council meeting on Palestine requested by Tunisia, Norway and China last week. In fact, the meeting was delayed from 12 to 16 May 2021 due to procedural US objections. By not agreeing to a joint statement on ceasefire, the US also helped Israel by giving it extra days to punish the Palestinians and continuously pound Gaza with heavy artillery. The US also plans to give additional aid to Israel to bolster its defence capability, support new settlement activities and acquire more Palestinian land in East Jerusalem in the future instead of making US aid for Israel conditional on progress in peace negotiations.

The failure of the UN Security Council to reach a consensus agreement on ceasefire led the Organisation of Islamic Conference, Arab League and Non Aligned Movement groups at the UN to call an emergency session of General Assembly on 20 May. But given the way the UN works, a statement coming from the General Assembly on Palestine has no enforcement power unless the UN Security Council endorses it under Chapter seven. Nevertheless, the General Assembly meeting, under the Presidency of Turkey, brought a moral victory for the peace seekers. A ceasefire was eventually agreed, but only after Israel had heavily punished the civilian population in Gaza for supporting Hamas. The more IDF hit Palestinian targets in occupied territories the more popular Hamas became as the only party, however weak, that has the courage to stand up to Israel in defence of the victims and their distraught families.

Nothing can be more irresponsible than the recognition of the “right to self defence” of a state that has repeatedly violated the human rights of the people it has subjugated by force and created an Apartheid system where Palestinians who oppose the Israeli occupation of their territories are kept behind fences built with tall concrete structures and barbed wires. The current crisis was started by Israel in the holy month of Ramadan when there was no provocation from the Palestinians. At that time Hamas was not even in the picture. The rockets Palestinians used to defend against Israeli firepower consisted of handheld stones, fuelled filled bottles and crude home made missiles with no distance trajectory or target accuracy. Almost all of them ended up being blocked by Israel’s iron dome anti missile system. If thousands of rockets were fired into Israel, as stated by Israel and accepted by President Biden, the casualty rate in Israel should shave been into thousands. But it did not even total fifteen in ten days of cross firing.

The entire Palestinian population in the occupied territories is daily subjected to the terror of Israeli security searches of person, homes, transport and offices, and indirect repression in the form of denial of work permits, closure of internet and mobile services, road blocks, suspension of people’s movement and free flow of humanitarian aid, household and construction goods and medicines. Israel has also nibbled away the occupied territories by establishing illegal settlements and by replacing the indigenous Palestinian population with new immigrant families from Russia, the Central Asian Republics, the US and Europe. The conflict is not only unequal between the opposite sides but also not on a level playing field. Under these circumstances calling Palestinians the aggressor party and saying that State of Israel has the right to self-defence is as ludicrous as saying that a tiger has a right to walk into a cat’s corner and expect no meow.

The major supporters of Israel are the custodians of the democratic values of freedom, justice and human rights in the brave new world. Their concerns about the Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps in China and the stateless condition of the Rohingyas in Myanmar are appreciable but their support for Israeli atrocities in Palestine is most unfortunate and indefensible. Justice can only be served if the contesting parties are treated with a neutral and impartial stance; not when one party is always blindly supported but the other is held to account for its excesses.

In addition to the gross violation of the human rights of the Palestinians, there is also a fallacy that the Jews of Israel bought land from the Palestinians by putting their thumbprints on government approved deeds of sale and paid money to settle there. This is a historical fallacy invented and spread by the colonial powers in order to get acceptability. Even the Arabs think that the Palestinians sold their land to the parents of the present day Israelis.

It is a historical fact that Palestine, as most of the Middle East, was under the sovereignty of the Ottomans. The Arab rebellion against the Turks did free them from being ruled from Istanbul but it did not give them the right to sign off Palestine and gift it to the British without holding a referendum in Palestine. The Palestinian example is no different from the colonial history of Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. Despite the fact that the colonial powers had placed this part of Southern Africa under their military control, and in some cases, decided to settle their own nationals or third country nationals there, they had to ultimately grant independence to the colonies and give the right of land ownership back to the original inhabitants. This was despite the fact that the colonial powers, especially the Apartheid regime in South Africa, had enacted many national laws to regularise the sale of land under their administration.

As the world has made progress, many oppressive customs and laws of the past have been challenged and replaced by democratic principles and fair arrangements. Take for example the slave trade with is now completely outlawed; or military expeditions where a country’s army simply marched into another country, defeated any armed resistance and demanded reparations or added it to the empire of the victor state; or the medieval practice of regarding women as property and depriving them of the right to franchise. Therefore, the propaganda of the so-called sale of Palestinian lands in the colonial period is wroth challenging in the International Court of Justice backed by the UN General Assembly in the same way as the legal challenge put forward by the Republic of Mauritius to Britain for the return of Chagos Islands, which include the strategic island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The Palestinian lands must be returned to their original owners or their heirs with an apology note even if these were bought by the Zionists for a pittance under a colonial authority, because the latter did not have the legal right to approve their sale. As far as the local Sephardic Jewish population of Palestine is concerned, it never exceeded in numbers compared to Muslim Palestinians. The territory and demography of Israel changed after the mass immigration of Ashkenazi Jews to Israel over many decades.

This position is still held today by the Republic of Cyprus regarding the sale of land in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Nicosia has warned non-Cypriots that if a foreigner buys land in the Turkish Cyprus, the Republic of Cyprus will not accept it as legal because, according to them, the land belongs to the displaced Cypriot people who left Northern Cyprus following the deployment of Turkish troops there. This position has the full support of Western countries, which have also refused to recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as an independent entity. If a “position of principle” is acceptable to the Western countries in the context of Cyprus, why should it be unacceptable in the context of Palestine. One can’t help but ask whether this is because the Cypriots are predominantly Christians and the Palestinians are predominantly Muslims? Or the party that stands to benefit from this stance is a Jewish Israel but not a Muslim Cyprus?

The Zionist movement plans to take the borders of Greater Israel to every area where Jewish prophets lived. The territory of present-day Israel is not their final border. Their expansionist design has roots in the religious prophesies mentioned in the Torah and the Talmud, which means that you cannot expect any concessions from them in the matter of land redistribution in Palestine.

How should one counter an argument when Zionist propaganda goes as far back as six century BC to claim that the kingdom of Yehuda, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, who is regarded as the patriarch of the Jewish nation, covered the whole of Palestine and the nearby Arab wasteland. This account of Talmudic history, combined with the biblical prophesy that the glory of Israel will be revived in the land that is now inhabited by the Jews and where the Temple of Solomon will be reconstructed on its original foundation closer to the end of times, wipes out any right of the Palestinians on their motherland in the occupied territories established over generations. The only way to address this kind of logic is for the Palestinians to claim all Judaic prophets as Palestine’s prophets and all the historical places associated with the Jewish faith as the sacred places of Islam. Moses is the most mentioned prophet in the holy Quran. His name appears 136 times in the Quran followed by Abraham 69 times, Joseph 27 times, Aaron 20 times, Isaac and Solomon seventeen times each, and David and Jacob sixteen times each. As against this, Muhammad is mentioned by name in the Quran only four times. Four of the one hundred fourteen chapters of the Quran are named after Israeli prophets; namely, the Family of Imran, the Children of Israel, Abraham and Joseph. The Arch of the Covenant is mentioned in Chapter two of the Quran. King Solomon’s story is part of the parables of prophets stated in the Quran. The story of David defeating Goliath and becoming the king of Israelites is also mentioned in the Quran. The prophets and places in these lands are sacred to all Abrahamic faiths. There is no exclusive copyright of one faith on them.

If the Muslims of Palestine and indeed the rest of the Islamic world start claiming the history and heritage of all Abrahamic prophets mentioned in the Quran as part of their faith and heritage, the Zionists will lose their exclusive claim on Temple Mount as a Jewish icon because Muslims will also have an equal claim on it in line with Islamic texts. Although it might sound strange, but in the absence of a just and lasting solution of the Middle East problem politically, the only peaceful option left for the Muslims of Palestine is to use Islam as the rallying point to reassert their rights and identity in the occupied territories in the same biblical rhetoric that is used by the Zionists to gain sympathy for their expansionist project of Greater Israel.

Meanwhile the Islamic countries are so engrossed in their political and sectarian infighting that they have lost the will to question a wrong and support the victims of oppression, even if tomorrow holds the dangerous prospect of them facing a similar threat in their own lands. Their coming together this week in New York over the most recent Israel Palestine conflict was a rare show of unity, and if it could be sustained in the future, the Quartet engaging with the conflicting parties to restart the Israel Palestine talks and successfully concluding these for a just and lasting solution of the conflict may not be far from reality.

*The author is a former Pakistani diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat, London. He was also formerly a Board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, UK Chapter, and CEO of Muslim Aid, UK.

TLP protests and the power of state

Syed Sharfuddin

The past few days in the politics of Pakistan have been reminiscent of the sunset days of the PML-N era when suddenly a small interest group best classified as a non state actor held the government on tenterhooks leaving it undecided whether to use coercive means to end the widespread public protests or follow the path of compromise through negotiations which involved conceding and reversing the course of action earlier taken by the government to resolve the matter in the wider national interest of peace and tranquillity. The aim of this article is not to recount the development of the episode and its end, which is already covered in the media, but discuss four important issues to help the government in dealing with such issues in the future.

The four issues are: the power of government and the credibility of governors; the role of state institutions to regulate non-state actors within the ideological moorings of the state; balancing legitimate state authority versus people’s democratic right to protest; and, the role of government and political parties.

1) The power of government and the credibility of governors

The question why the power or writ of government is often flouted in Pakistan by non-state actors, including the opposition parties, is so well known that the state has no choice but to come hard on any incident where its authority is in question or is likely to be challenged with armed resistance. It is not an easy task because while the government has the authority to eve’s drop on personal communications, get search warrants for suspected persons and their residences and even arrest those suspected of disobedience to law, it cannot go beyond a certain point because of human rights considerations and the backlash of civil society which easily plays up internationally against the democratic credentials of the state. This delicate balance is also affected by how well prepared the government is in enforcing its political will and whether those tasked with the mandate to govern keep changing their positions every few days. Sometimes the cabinet is also not united on policy matters and the statement of one minister is contradictory to his statement made earlier or to the statement of another cabinet colleague made on the same issue the same day. The buck in parliamentary system for all such contradictions stops at the door of the Prime Minister who must be seen to be in-charge of his team and ahead of everyone’s game.

The PTI government may be given the credit for acting wisely in defusing the crisis and not showing full force of the state in silencing the TLP protests, but it has certainly failed on consistency of policy. For example it was ludicrous for the interior minister to rush to announce that his ministry had decided to approach the cabinet to ban the TLP as a political party without due process, which did happen the next morning, and yet two days later the interior minister agreed to attend a meeting with TLP leaders and reached an agreement with them to end the protests peacefully. It was also embarrassing that the Prime Minister, who is so rightly against the dishonouring of Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, who made a historic speech at the UN General Assembly about Islamophobia, made no hard hitting statement, nor took any action last year when the French government officially supported the reprinting of the offensive cartoons by a French magazine in the name of freedom of speech. On the TLP crisis, the Prime Minister said one thing in his speech to the nation holding firm on not giving in to the key demand of the TLP but the very next day he appreciated his interior minister sitting down with the TLP elders to sign an agreement accepting that in return for TLP ending the protests, the government would send their demand about the French ambassador’s return to France to parliament for a debate.

The question of government credibility goes further than domestic audience. Once international community starts to suspect that a country’s leader cannot be trusted for his word, then there is noting left for the government machinery under that leader to convince the world that they are serious about a matter of importance. Pakistan has been through this before and we know that many previous US government officials have publicly said that they didn’t trust Pakistan on its commitments.

Unlike the Turkish President who is unequivocal on the question of blasphemy against the Prophet in the non-Muslim world, the Pakistani leadership has, through its unprepared actions and perhaps contrary to its real intentions, conveyed to France and the EU the wrong message that its previous stand against the blasphemous cartoons was meant only to appease the Mullas domestically. In conveying this message the Prime Minister is not alone. he is joined by the whole caboodle of liberal politicians, many of whom, are represented in the PPP, ANP, BAP, and also to a certain extent in PML-N. Pakistani social media also shows this ideological divide. One the one side is the liberal civil society, media and bureaucracy who couldn’t care less what French magazines print about the Prophet or French lawmakers rule in regard to banning Hijab for French Muslim girls; and on the other are those Pakistanis who genuinely think raising voice against Islamophobia is right, even though the timing to do so now is not right because they have missed the boat. These protests should have come about last year when the magazine published the rude cartoons.

The TLP demand for sending he French Ambassador home makes no diplomatic sense because he is only an official of his government. His function is not to make or change French policy but to act as a conveyor of French government’s foreign policy as it applies to Pakistan. He is but a dignified messenger representing his side between the two governments. Sending him home or breaking diplomatic relations with France can serve no purpose except to remove the official messenger of his government and leave the communication line exposed to third countries and media to add their own spice into your messages. The government should never have agreed to this demand to take it to parliament.

In any case, defence, foreign affairs and printing currency are federal subjects and no federating unit, let alone a political party or religious group has any authority to start dictating heir terms in these areas. The government keeps a specialised department whose job as Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to advise the government through its envoys what is best and possible in the interest of the country. But now that the matter has been referred to parliament, I hope that the parliament will not make the poor ambassador a lamb at the altar, but instead agree that nothing should be done about his staying or returning which is a matter only for the French government to decide. However, the parliament should mandate the PM to make a policy statement through his high podium condemning any foreign government in advance if they continue to back their ‘intellectual terrorists’ in the future to cause anger and violence in the Muslim world through blasphemy against the Prophet and hate speech against Islam, Pakistan would consider it as an unacceptable act against its friendship and bilateral relations. The PM’s speech should also say that Pakistan will not hesitate to draw up a list of such Islamophobia promoting countries for starting an official campaign against them through the Organisation of Islamic Conference and other relevant international official and unofficial platforms of Muslim countries to react reasonable and proportionately. This may include such action as boycott their products; stop attending conferences held in these countries, stop accepting tenders and aid, refuse to send their students to their universities and suspend sporting activities with them.

2) Role of state institutions to regulate non-state actors within the ideological moorings of the state

This issue has been publicly debated at every forum in the last ten years. However, what is new is that when the state has a constitution, which declares Islam as the state religion of Pakistan; when the elected leader of the country is a practicing Muslim and talks about making the country a welfare state modelled after the State of Madina, and when the state broadcaster dubs and airs for two years a Turkish TV play Dirilish Ertugrul which is half history and half fiction but it takes the entire country, as well as the Muslim Ummah all over the world by a public following never witnessed before, then you are obviously talking about a nation that is not prepared to ignore blasphemy against its Prophet, as well as its religious icons, and that its people expect their government to react strongly if the government of a country where the blasphemous act has occurred wilfully to hurt or infuriate Muslims, does not condemn such act or refuses to take action to stop it.

We live in a funny world. Governments and humanists who were so loud in condemning the destruction of the ancient Buddhist icons in the Bamian province of Afghanistan during the Taliban rule are not bothered with the insults hurled at the Prophet of Islam from their lands. The long conflict in Syria for and against the incumbent Asad regime has resulted in the destruction of a rich historical heritage common to the adherents of three great Abrahamic faiths. No one bemoans this great loss. The West has no problem with the whole humanity wearing facemasks to protect against the spread of Covid-19, but it has issues with innocent young Muslim girls wearing Hijab in deference to their beliefs. No one should be allowed to get away with blasphemy of the Prophet of Islam whose name, when recited in public, results in billions of hands rising to touch their hearts as a mark of deep respect for Muhammad, peace be upon him.

The TLP protests did not fall under the category of a non-state actor challenging the power of the state. Unlike the opposition dharnas they did not call for this government to resign. TLP is a registered political party in Pakistan, or was so until it was shut down arbitrarily without involving the election commission or invoking a due process by the interior ministry. They still have a chance of this decision reserving to status quo ante after a successful legal challenge. TLP has two elected representatives in a provincial assembly. Even the Prime Minister said that his government’s goal is the same as the goal of the TLP except that they differ on approach. TLP protests came not as an isolated event after a long time. TLP had staged similar protests earlier pursuing the same matter, but the government did not take action despite promising to do so. In between their two protests, there was a series of dharnas organised by the opposition parties against the government demanding new elections. A lot of dirty language was used in those dharnas, including verbal attacks on the state’s constitutionally protected institutions. Against the high tempers and the fluid political background of the country, the TLP episode was only a small jolt in the present uncertain situation. It could well be a sleeping volcano but it was not an earthquake.

What is surprising, however, is that the government has not fully used the existing state institutions and government apparatus, such as the Council of Islamic Ideology or the Ministry of Religious Affairs to bring about an understanding between the state and the religious parties (not just political parties) on issues that have caused confusion and distrust between the clergy and the state. Not too long ago, a federal Minister of this government with no religious background attacked the Ruet Hilal Committee for being out of times for sighting the Ramadan and Eid moon and caused more harm than good in bringing upon goodwill between the clergy and the state.

The issues where the government needs to work hard include inclusive reform of the madrassas and their state financing, incorporating Imams and Muezzins in its state employee structure and drawing TORs for their recruitment, employment and retirement and delivering uniform Friday sermons approved by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This will be possible only if the clergy sees these government institutions promoting Islam and finding common ground, and which are run by officials who are not corrupt and who could be trusted with the religious knowledge and services they provide. The government also needs to address issues around application of blasphemy laws in relation to cases brought against poor and uneducated minority citizens, the status of witnesses who are called to testify and the way FIRs are drafted by police; the insistence of Ahmadis to call themselves Muslims in Pakistan and their boycott of electoral rolls, which result in adverse reaction from the clergy against their community; and now the more recent question of blasphemy of the Prophet globally by provocateurs who clearly have an agenda to foment hatred and violence in the Muslim communities and countries and who are officially protected by their governments for carrying out such racist and divisive acts.

3) Balancing legitimate state authority versus democratic right to protest

Organising protests is an essential feature of democracy and defines the political space in which the government and opposition parties operate. In a representative democracy, protests are not the right of political parties alone. Any interest group or gathering of citizens has the right to start or join a public protest in a democracy. In western countries protests are staged against the policies of the government on issues the protestors do not agree with. Sometimes their demands are ignored and at other times these are accepted and result in change of policy. Unfortunately, in countries where democracy is nascent or has repeatedly suffered from authoritarian rules, protests have not evolved into an established form of political expression. The Arab Spring resulted in premature revolutions in countries, which were not prepared for post revolution governance, resulting in great loss of life, instability of state, and damage to the economic well being of their people. In Pakistan, protests do not take place to convey a message of dissent to government. They sound more like a clarion call for a people’s revolution that luckily never happens. The protesting side believes that the government has to bow down to its demands or else go home. The long history of political protests in Pakistan shows that these have been used to bring down a weak government through violence or by creating unstable conditions, which force the military to intervene and restore peace and stability. This is how Ayub Khan’s rule was ended in 1969 and how the lawyers’ movement forced General Musharraf to convene multi-party elections in 2008. Since 2013, a good understanding has been reached between political parties that a regime change through public protests is not the best thing for democracy. However they have yet to develop the understanding that the place to protest and make political noise is parliament and not the street or social media or the country’s TV screens.

It is to the government’s credit that it showed flexibility and agreed to listen to the demands of TLP to end their dharna in the long hot days of Ramadan. Although the interior minister’s U turn so soon after a tough administrative action against the party was a surprise for the country, it was in retrospect a good thing in clearing the position of the TLP as a party which has no hand in terrorist activities. The Sarina Hotel bombing in Quetta on 21 March, only a day after the successful talks between the government and TLP, is evidence of how foreign enemy planned to exploit the TLP dharna to destabilise Pakistan and achieve multiple aims. However, planning and executing a terrorist act from overseas using local sleepers does not happen quickly, and that’s why the enemy failed to anticipate how quickly the TLP dharna ended and could not fast track the terrorist act earlier than it happened. Another lesson for the government is that if public protests on religious questions are allowed to continue without taking urgent and reconciliatory prudent action, Pakistan’s enemies will try to take advantage of it and make the situation worse.

4) Role of government and political parties

There are justifiable questions on the performance of government for not finding a permanent solution to the irritating religious issues resurfacing frequently despite its best intentions to make Pakistan a moderate Islamic state. However, the silence of other political parties, as well as role of other religious parties during the peak of the TLP crisis was most unfortunate and unacceptable. As the country’s opposition they have a responsibility to set aside politics when it comes to issues like Kashmir, Palestine, respect for the honour and character of the prophet, and defence of Pakistan. The opposition and other religious parties failed to meet this expectation leaving the government and the TLP to sort this out between them. It was most unfortunate that some security personnel lost their lives and public property was torched and in retaliation many protestors who were probably fasting were beaten and arrested for disturbing peace. The role of PPP was in particular pathetic when it continued to play politics and boycotted the parliamentary session in which it could have made all the right statements about the incompetent way the government dealt with the matter. That the PPP chose to air its criticism of the government on TV talk shows instead of raising these from the floor of the parliament, shows their seriousness about the blasphemy of the Prophet in countries, which have traditionally been supportive of PPP governments in the past due to their secular ideology and hatred for the Mulla.

5. What’s Next

The government may have crossed the delicate bridge on this crisis and moved on after referring the matter to the parliament. But it must learn to make contingency plans on matters of utmost importance to the country where public sentiment cannot be ignored. It must learn how to create space for public protests and draw up a modus operandi for their organisation and acknowledgement and ensure that it will deal with them not by force but through flexible yet firm hand. On the question of protecting Islamic icons, values and traditions, there will always be a difference between the orthodox and liberal Pakistanis. This difference must be respected and nurtured as part of Pakistan’s rich diversity. However, if the country’s constitution envisages Pakistan to be an Islamic state and be guided by the holy Quran and Sunnah in its affairs, then the state should use its mandate, resources and institutions to bring about a new ‘entente cordiale’ between the clergy and the state to work for the common objective together, and not as mutually exclusive forces. The mischievous question: which Islam Pakistan should follow? is an old red herring and there will be no gain trying to answer this question and forget the constructive things that need to be done first in the interest of the country and its people.

Rich Man Poor Man: A True Story.

Syed Sharfuddin

In a colony of the poor there was a house whose inhabitants had a great fight one day. Their family members had bruises, broken arms and limbs and suffered damage to property as a result of the fight. The neighbours did not know what happened. Everyone thought it was a crazy family, always fighting with itself. Had the family been smart, it would have taken the neighbours in confidence that were all very poor like them and formed one big scattered tribe

The real story was that among the grown up children of that household there was one son who objected to his father going to the house of a rich man who lived in the colony of the rich. The son told his father that the rich man had bad intentions against his maid who was also poor like them and came from their tribe. But the father said he could not do so because the rich man gave him food and if he got annoyed, the other rich persons in the colony of the rich will get annoyed with him and he would get no alms from anyone. The son disagreed with his father. He reminded his father that there were other rich people in that colony who belonged to his father’s tribe. They might prevail on the bad rich man or, worse he could go to his tribes’ people for alms.

The son believed it was not his father’s issue but a wider issue of the poor having dignity and respect. If the father raised a voice against the rich man’s bad intentions, other poor people in the neighbourhood would join his father and the rich will be forced to censure their colleague and ask him to stop misbehaving. But the father would not give in and the son took it upon himself to fight for this lone cause, which he thought was not his own but everyone’s cause in his poor colony and tribe.

That’s how and why the fight started within the household. Most family members joined the father. Some supported the prodigal son; others stood on the margins and preferred to remain silent spectators. The youngsters in the family were too timid to tell anyone outside what was the real cause of the fight. They either blamed the father or the son. But the father had more supporters among the young of the household because he shared the alms he got from the filthy rich man with everyone in the household to the best of his ability and compulsions.

The sad story of the TLP versus the government, which is being blacked out by the news hungry TV channels for fear of PEMRA is exactly like the tory of rich man poor man. The household where the fight broke out damaging and bruising its own family members is Pakistan. The father is the government. His main supporter is the mother who is civil society. She hates the poor and likes glamour and good company. The other sons of the father are different political parties who have their own axe to grind on everything controversial in the household. They are hopeless. The TLP is the rebel son who thinks the social order must change to bring respect and honour for the tribe. The colony of the poor is developing countries, countries emerging from conflict and facing disasters and economic crisis. Most of them have Muslims majority populations. The tribe is the tribe of Islam. The rich man with bad intentions for his maid is France. The maid is the Muslim minority in France. The colony of the rich is G7 countries. They always stand with their rich colleagues in every situation. The young in the family are the media.

The timing of the TLP protest coincides with a legislative bill in France, which seeks to ban hijab for Muslims French girls under 18 attending government schools. It is discriminatory because when it comes to wearing masks to protect against Covid-19 even though it hides the nose, cheeks, lips and chin of the wearer, it is not a security threat; whereas wearing a hijab for religious reasons is not only a security threat but a threat to the liberal way of life of the French people as represented by their government who hold the worst human rights record in the history of colonisation in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity. There is some strong racist mentality at work in the upper echelons of the government in France but no one wants to see it or write about it in the poor man’s household.

The argument of the father has some weight that if he objects to the rich man’s misdemeanour against his maid, he will be told this is none of his business. Moreover, the rich households will stop giving him alms, which pay his bills. The son is also right that unless someone speaks up, the rich man will carryon dishonouring his maid who is from the same tribe as the poor. There have been many previous instances where the rich man has got away with similar advances. If no one takes a stand, he will be putting novel demands on the father before giving him alms. Who knows how humiliating those demands would be if the filthy rich man is allowed to proceed unhindered in pursuit of his lust. The people to blame in this brawl are the young of the household (media) who are not reporting the full story to the neighbours (outside world). They are only blaming the son (TLP) for being belligerent and disobedient to the father (government). If they told the neighbours about the rich man (France) and his doings (hatred of Islam and its followers), the poor (Muslim countries) would know the full picture. The poor are also illiterate and scared. As long as they remain disunited, uninformed and exploited, nothing will change. The rebel son might give up and become like the father or his other worldly wise siblings or leave the household and immigrate to the colony of the rich to reform the system from within, which is also the hope of the maid.

The Vaccine Debate

Syed Sharfuddin

We live in interesting times. In our youth it was just the fear of smallpox, polio, BCG, malaria, meningitis and whooping cough that reluctantly made us visit the doctor. Then came the attack from a whole family of RNA viruses comprising flavi or dengue virus, yellow fever virus, zika virus, alpha coronaviruses, beta coronaviruses, orthomyxo or influenza virus, retro or HIV viruses and orthopneumo viruses. Then in 2020 came the dreaded coronavirus named Covid-19.  Now we are braving its third wave and discussing which vaccine is safe to take.

There are both supporters and detractors of vaccination against Covid-19. The supporters include commercial lobbies with vested interest in selling the vaccine and making money. They include scientists and leaders who want to save humanity and all things associated with good health, jobs and economy. The detractors include people who love conspiracy theories. They include doubters, perfectionists and extra careful souls who value human life and do not like big pharma to treat humans like rabbits in a lab. The common man is totally confused. On one hand he sees the promise of a Covid free world thanks to mass vaccination, of which he wants to be a part; but on the other hand he is told there are many unknowns about this vaccine, which is still in its infancy stage. History of pharmacology tells us how adventurism in virology which was well intended initially, can go horribly wrong later after the crisis is over. There have been many instances of pharmaceutical companies paying huge compensation to people who suffered from the medicines or devices they bought from them unaware that it was costing them their health or in some cases shortening their lives.

In this sea of confusion I have come across a very sensible discourse of some medics, which I find moderately balanced on both sides. On the one hand it advises caution and at the same time it also recommends vaccination. It says that three things are unknown about the current coronavirus vaccine, which is applicable to all the brands currently being supplied in different parts of the world by the few Covid-19 vaccine producing countries. The three unknowns are: the short or long term impact of the vaccine on an individual’s 1) ADE capacity (antibody dependent or disease enhancement; 2) his autoimmune condition; and 3) placenta response.

This discourse advises that:

Persons from the age of 1 to 20 should totally ignore this vaccine because it is absolutely irrelevant to them. Covid-19 does not affect children. 

For people from the age of 21 to 50, this vaccine is also irrelevant because Covid-19 is not going to kill them even if they get it. Organically self acquired immunity is far better than externally induced immunity, because the latter is still in the realm of the unknown. But if their jobs require treating Covid-19 patients, frequent airports visits, international travel, working with public or if they have underlying medical issues they should get themselves vaccinated for their safety and the safety of others.

From age 51 to 70, people can take the vaccine because placenta issues would be irrelevant to females in this age group and if they have no ADE syndrome or no autoimmune disease or condition, they don’t need to worry about the fear of the unknown. For them this vaccine is not the water of life but it is a good defence against a nasty pandemic.

People in the age group from 70 onwards should not worry about the adverse impact of the vaccine because in this age group they are already vulnerable and are likely to have some underlying health issues. Vaccination will protect them against Covid-19, which has the potential to take them down under anyway in most instances.

Now comes the big question of whether getting Covid vaccination should be a choice of an individual or a society because in the context of the pandemic which is still not fully gone, both actors become mutually exclusive. If many individuals don’t get vaccinated the society will be threatened and with it the global economy will suffer too. If society decides that Covid vaccination should become a necessary passport for international travel, or for keeping hospitals empty for other treatments, then individual choice must give in and accept what the leaders decide for their people in the name of democracy. Governments also have a responsibility to protect the life of their citizens, provide healthcare and support the vulnerable. They cannot leave these decisions to individuals. It is not a question of whether you like coffee or tea at breakfast or just water. It is such a serious matter that elections can be won or lost on this one issue alone as the result of the US Presidential election has shown, even though the Covid vaccine had not reached hospitals by November 2020 when the elections were held.

Difficult innit? Let see which way the dice rolls.

Why Governance by Ordinance is bad Governance

Syed Sharfuddin

A government consists of three branches, the executive, legislature and judiciary. Each of these branches is supposed to be independent of each other but they also need to closely coordinate with each other. As its name indicates, the legislature is elected by the people to enact laws for their collective benefit and to uphold the rule of law. The judiciary interprets the implementation of laws where disputes arise and upholds independence of the judiciary. The executive runs the government in line with the rules of business and is assisted by a cabinet, bureaucracy and the institutions established by the constitution and by its own executive acts in carrying out its mandate. This is as far as the theory of governance goes. When the balance between these branches is disturbed, democracy is under threat.

In Pakistan, democracy has always been under threat for one reason or the other. One of the reasons for this is governance by ordinance even when elected civilian governments were in power. According to Article 89 of the Constitution, the President has the power to issue ordinances when both houses of Parliament are not in session and when he is satisfied that circumstances exist which justify promulgation of an ordinance to meet an urgent situation which cannot wait. The life of an ordinance is 120 days, after which the ordinance is to be laid before Parliament to be extended for another 120 days or passed as law or allowed to lapse. Once an extension has been made, it cannot be extended further. However, all governments in the past have used this as a backdoor entrance to push for executive action which they could not take through the parliamentary route because they either did not have the required numbers to pass the requisite legislation in Parliament or when they received an institutional opinion against an action which could only be countered by promulgation of a new ordinance.

At the next Senate election scheduled for 3 March 2021, 48 new Senators will be elected in the 104 member upper house for a period of six years. The PTI government proposed a departure from the traditional secret ballot of the electoral college comprising the provincial assemblies and the bicameral houses of Parliament in the centre. In January 2021 it consulted the Election Commission about the interpretation of Article 266 of the Constitution but it received a negative response. The Election Commission said that any change in the method of conducting the election of the Senate would require an amendment in the election rules to be approved by Parliament. The Election Commission was the correct forum to approach and give advice because it is a statutory body established under Article 218 of the Constitution to conduct the election of both houses of Parliament.

The government said it wanted the open ballot for the Senate election in order to prevent horse-trading, which is a sophisticated name for taking political bribes. This has sullied the reputation of the country’s legislators and exposed them as political opportunists and corrupt leaders violating Article 63 of the Constitution. The government’s initiative was both admirable and understandable as the key focus of the ruling party has been its anti-corruption drive in politics and public office, above any other government business. However, after receiving the advice of the Election Commission on 16 January, the government should have taken a bill to the Parliament to amend the Election Act of 2017 accordingly. But instead of doing so, it made use of Article 186 of the Constitution and referred the open ballot issue to the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion.

Up to this point it was all in order and had the opposition in disarray because the financiers of the alleged horse-trading in the forthcoming Senate election are believed to be more in the opposition ranks than in the government. In any case the government has an empty treasury to indulge in such luxuries. But on 6 February, the PTI government, following a meeting of the Cabinet earlier in the week and after receiving the assent by the President, promulgated Ordinance 2021 amending the Election Act 2017 and requiring the Election Commission to conduct the Senate election through an open and identifiable ballot. The Ordinance also enables the head of a political party to see the vote of his party’s legislators. Having gone to the Supreme Court for a reference, the government should have waited for the apex Court’s opinion before bringing out the Ordinance. And if the government were going to do this in any case because it does not have the required numbers in the National Assembly to amend the Election Act 2017 on its own, then it should not have gone to the Supreme Court in the first place.

Ignoring the advice of the Election Commission and involving the Supreme Court in this matter and yet coming out with an Ordinance to have its way, revealed three things about the government. One: that the PTI government is determined to put an end to alleged horse trading in the electoral college of the Senate election in the absence of clarity in the current election laws. Two, the government has been in a reaction mode ever since it came to power. It did not prepare adequately for the Senate election last year when there was enough time to bring a bill in the Parliament and debate it before amending the Election Act 2017.  Was it a legislative omission or a deliberate ambiguity on the part of the government because horse-trading is a numbers game and can be advantageous to political parties when the players doing the high bidding are on their side? Three: that the PTI government is no different from its predecessor governments when it comes to using the power of promulgating an ordinance if it can bypass the Parliament to achieve its political goals, notwithstanding its popular national anti-corruption agenda.

The government has unwittingly walked into a difficult position by promulgating this Ordinance. The Ordinance will have an impact far longer than its short life of 120 days, if it is not subsequently enacted, because 48 Senators who will be elected by open ballot will remain members of the Senate for six years. If, on the other hand, the Supreme Court upholds the view of the Election Commission, the government can face an embarrassment because its position on the Ordinance will become indefensible.

The open ballot controversy over the Senate election will die down after March election. It may never arise again. But it leaves a question for the civilian politicians. For how long the Constitution and laws of Pakistan will be set aside on one pretext or the other because someone in the executive notices that they do not serve the executive’s policies and need to be amended further. It also places in doubt the commitment of the government as a whole to respect the rule of law and follow it in good faith instead of changing its language every few years.

* The author is a former Special Adviser, Political Affairs Division, Commonwealth Secretariat, London. He can be reached at

Why Transparency International’s 2020 corruption ranking of Pakistan is structurally flawed?

Syed Sharfuddin

On 25 January, 2021 Transparency International (TI), the Berlin based global watchdog on corruption issued its Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for 2020 in which Pakistan ranked 124 out of 180. This came as news to Pakistanis who had come to believe that the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) government of Prime Minister Imran Khan was the ‘cleanest’ of all the governments Pakistan has seen since the restoration of civilian democracy in Pakistan in 2008.  In that year, when General Musharraf left power and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) formed a representative government following a free and fair election, TI’s CPI ranking for Pakistan was 134 out of 180. In 2013 when PPP lost the general election and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) came to power, Pakistan’s CPI rank was 127 out of 177. In 2018, when PTI won the general election and formed government, Pakistan’s CPI rank was 117 out of 180. In 2019 it slipped 3 points to 120 out of 180. In 2020 it came down another 4 points to 120 out of 180. This contrasts sharply with Pakistan’s CPI rank during 2015-2018 in the PML (N) government when it fluctuated between 116 and 119. Pakistan’s 2020 rank stands close to the 2014 CPI index of 126 out of 180. This is despite the fact that the PTI leadership has zero tolerance for corruption and TI has not taken it into account in scoring Pakistan’s ranking in its global index.

TI uses thirteen different databases from twelve international and private institutions, which provide perceptions of business people and country experts about the level of corruption in the public sector of a country under scrutiny. Their databases focus on a specific theme on which the concerned institution collects data and shares with TI. The institution also asks specific questions in its area of specialization to assess whether corruption exists in the political system and public sector. For assessing Pakistan’s ranking in 2020, TI relied on the data provided by the following nine institutions.

Bertlsmann Stiftung Transformation Index (BFTI). The questions were: 1) to what extend public office holders who abuse their positions are prosecuted or penalized? 2) to what extent government successfully contains corruption?

Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU). The questions were: 1) are there clear procedures and accountability governing the allocation and use of public funds? 2) do ministers/public officials misappropriate public funds for private or party political purposes? 3) are there special funds for which there is no accountability? 4) are there general abuses of public resources? 5) is there a professional civil service or are large numbers of officials directly appointed by the government?  6) is there an independent body auditing the management of public finances? 7) is there an independent judiciary with the power to try ministers/public officials for abuses? And, 8) is there a tradition of a payment of bribes to secure contracts and gain favours?

Global Insight Business Conditions (GI). Their questions were: 1) do individuals/companies face bribery or other corrupt practices in carrying out business, or securing major contracts or being allowed to import/export a small product or obtaining everyday paperwork? and, 2) if so, is there a threat to the ability of individuals / companies to operate in a country, and do they run the risk of facing legal or regulatory penalties and reputational damage?

IMBD Yearbook 2020. The question asked was: do bribery and corruption exist?

The PRS Group International Country Risk Guide 2020. The questions were: 1) does financial corruption exist in the form of demands for special payments and bribes connected with import and export licenses, exchange controls, tax assessments, police protection or loans; and, 2) is there actual or potential corruption in the form of excessive patronage, nepotism, job reservations, exchange of favours, secret party funding and suspiciously close ties between politics and business?

World Bank Country Policy and Institutional Assessment 2019. The questions were: 1) is there transparency for accountability and corruption of the executive to oversight institutions and of public employees for their performance? 2) does civil society have access to information on public affairs? and, 3) is there State capture by narrow vested interests?

World Economic Forum (WEF) Executive Opinion Survey 2019. Questions put to business executives were:  1) how common is it for firms to make undocumented extra payments or bribes connected with the following:a) imports and exportsb) public utilitiesc) annual tax paymentsd) awarding of public contracts and licenses, and,e) obtaining favourable judicial decisions? and, 2)how common is diversion of public funds to companies, individuals or groups due to corruption?

World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index. The question asked was: to what extent government officials, employed in public health system, regulatory agencies, the police, military and judiciary use public office for private gain. Pakistan scored low in this data collected from experts.

Varieties of Democracy Project. The question asked was: how pervasive is political corruption? Pakistan scored low in this data collected from experts.

The other four institutions that supplied data to TI did not cover Pakistan. These were: 1) Freedom House which, in this context, deals with counties in democratic transition; 2) African Development Bank, which deals with counties in Africa; 3) Bertismann Stiftung which deals with countries in the EU, and 4) Political and Economic Risk Consultancy which deals with specific countries in the Asia Pacific region and the US.

There are gaps in the methodology used by TI to rank countries on corruption. Firstly, not all the thirteen data providing institutions assess all 180 countries, which raises a question about the quality of information used to make an assessment for each country. Secondly, with the exception of a few, most of the institutions collecting data are private risk assessment firms, which sell country reports to governments and foreign investors on commercial terms. Interestingly, although TI website provides information about the url sources of its data, the private institutions providing the data to TI do not make their reports open to public without registration. This raises the next question about transparency of data collection and country ranking.

TI Pakistan website does not give information about who was approached in the business and expert sector to provide specific answers to the data collecting institutions. In a country like Pakistan where opinions are so openly divided between pro government and pro-opposition lobbies, it is hard to rank perceptions.

Thirdly, TI methodology does not explain how weightage is assigned to different data sources. For instance, Pakistan scored low in the questions asked by two institutions: the World Justice Project and Varieties of Democracy Project but its scoring in the answers to questions by other seven institutions did not prevent its slippage by four points in 2020.

The World Justice Project is a US based database covering the views of households, legal practitioners and experts. WJP assesses countries in eight specific areas, namely, constraints for government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice and criminal justice. TI’s selection of this institution to assess the level of corruption in a country is inaccurate because WJP does not specialise in corruption. Its focus is on rule of law and the factors that impede respect and enforcement of rule of law. Unlike TI’s coverage of 180 countries, WJP covers only 128 countries.

The Varieties of Democracy Institute is an academic Sweden-based democracy-rating project, which studies the state of democracy in a country in five specific areas. These are: electoral democracy and its liberal component; government manipulation of media, civil society, rule of law and elections; polarization of society and use of hate speech by political leadership; spread of disinformation in the cyber age; and political, executive and public sector corruption. The institute relies on the work of about a dozen researchers, a similar number of managers and 2000 country experts. Its core work is democracy and not corruption. TI’s use of this institute to rank counties in the CPI index is therefore not convincing.

Even if it is conceded that Pakistan fails almost all the criteria of V-Dem Institute on democracy benchmarks and has a large democracy deficit in the rule of law index of WJP, it cannot be attributed to the level of corruption in the country in 2020 compared to the corruption levels in the previous years.

To provide evidence of improvement in anti-corruption in a country, one needs to look at the commitment of the government for eliminating corruption at political, executive and public sector levels. One also needs to see if the regulatory bodies in a country are willing and able to translate the political commitment into action. In 2020, Pakistan met the requirement of having such a political commitment at the highest level. Its anti corruption bodies also delivered on this commitment. The country’s main anti corruption agency, the National Accountability Bureau made tremendous efforts in 2019 to 2020 to recover Rs. 390 billion of embezzled public money. The Public Accounts Committee also made recoveries worth Rs 300 billion. In 2020 the public fundraising drive launched as the Prime Minister’s COVID Relief Fund did not fall prey to public corruption in the collection of donations or distribution of funds to the poor.

This is not to say Pakistan has scored better in tackling corruption and must be placed somewhere close to 90 in the CPI ranking. As stated earlier, corruption cannot be eliminated in a short period of one or two years. There are democracy and corruption related issues that will take a while to remove such as the constitutional requirement of organizing a general election under a neutral caretaker government, because the incumbent government whose electoral term comes to an end after five years cannot be trusted to hold a free and fair election. Or take for example Prime Minister Imran Khan’s suggestion to pass a constitutional amendment to conduct the Senate election by a show of hands instead of a secret ballot, because the electoral college, comprising elected representatives in the Provincial Assemblies cannot be trusted to be honest due to the past record of large scale horse-trading in Senate elections involving political bribes of millions of Rupees.

There is also moral and intellectual corruption in public office, which does not count in TI’s PCI criteria. Political leaders have repeatedly made promises they have never fulfilled. They publicly claim to resign if they are proven wrong, but when events or evidence prove them so, they look the other way. Accepting an error of judgment or tendering resignation from public office for failure to perform or act responsibly is not part of the political culture of Pakistan. Many investigation reports are never made public.  The government reacts to public outrage against corruption not by strengthening existing institutions but by ordering judicial enquiries (such as the most recent Commission on Broadsheet) or establishing additional committees (such as the joint investigation committees).  In staying in a reactive mode all the time, the important lesson learning is lost in the details. Political leaders file counter cases in courts when challenged with allegations of corruption against them. These issues do not feature in the criteria of IT. Its annual data is based on assessments provided by a limited pool of business executives and experts, not exceeding a few hundred in each country.

There is a difference between the actual state of corruption on the ground and the perception of corruption reducing or getting worse. What reinforce such perceptions are statements of political leadership from both the government and the opposition and the views of businessmen, academics, civil society and media.  The PTI government has harmed its anti-corruption agenda by keeping the rhetoric of corruption high at every national and international forum. In his bilateral meetings with leaders of other states, including meetings at the UN and WEF, the Prime Minister has talked about his country’s past leaders being corrupt and dishonest. In most of his domestic speeches he has also attacked them repeatedly for stealing public money and keeping secret bank deposits and real estate assets overseas. This narrative has sent a wrong message to the world that the present Prime Minister may be an honest and upright gentleman, but his country is the land of the corrupt and crooks. With this message, when representatives of international institutions meet Pakistanis, they don’t hear a contradiction. When they speak to government functionaries or PTI supporters, they hear stories about the corruption of opposition leaders. When they speak to the opposition parties and their supporters, they hear stories of scandals and corruption in public office by government ministers and advisers, with the result that the image they came with in the country about corruption is amplified and reinforced.

A damaging impact of this unhealthy narrative is that it feeds the view that the anti corruption agenda of the government is nothing more than a political stunt to keep the opposition on the defensive. It is also a matter of who one talks to in the business community and civil society. The polarisation of he society is so stark that an opinion on reduction in corruption is cancelled by a counter-opinion against it.

It is about time that the Prime Ministers and his ministers and advisers change their narrative and stop witch hunting the opposition on corruption. They should instead speak about other important issues, which have to do with strengthening democracy and achieving real growth and development. Improvements in social safety networks, human rights, criminal justice system, the rule of law, independence of judiciary and freedom of media are ultimately going to be the winners for Pakistan in its fight against corruption without beating the drum loud. There is also no need to take TI’s 2020 CPI ranking seriously because it does not deserve the importance it should be given in all fairness because of the shortcomings in its data collection methodology and applying it realistically in framing the annual global index.

The author is a former Special Adviser, Political Affairs in the Commonwealth Secretariat, London, UK. He can be reached at

Bounty Hunters

Syed Sharfuddin

Bounty hunting is a recognised profession in the US. Universities offer Bachelors and Masters programmes in Criminology or Criminal Justice. It takes a person of sharp wit, knowledge of law and negotiation skills to become a bounty hunter. The person also needs to have good understanding of international money laundry conventions and financial transactions. Bounty hunters track and apprehend fugitives, negotiate plea bargains with them, bring them to justice and collect bounty, which is guaranteed by courts. In the US, 22 States require bounty hunters to be licensed. Four States, Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin, ban bounty hunting altogether.

In Pakistan, bounty hunting is not yet an established profession but the concept has been in practice for over two decades and people involved in this field are criminal investigators and forensic experts. Bounty hunting is also strictly regulated in Pakistan. It is vested with the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which is mandated to look at a whole range of financial crime, including white-collar crime from public sector fraud to recovery of bad loans and chasing return of illegally earned or unlawfully laundered money abroad. NAB is not answerable to anyone except the courts, should its decisions be challenged by those affected.

In theory, it is a brilliant mechanism to stop financial crime in a fast moving world where criminals are assisted by professionally hired lawyers and tax advisers to stay one step ahead of the law. But in practice, it works only if two prerequisites are met. One: the corruption watchdog is constitutionally autonomous and its employees are skilled professionals recruited through the most stringent processes and are empowered to act independently under set processes and procedures. Two: the persons chasing criminals are protected under law and outnumber those being chased. Unfortunately in Pakistan these two requirements are not adequately met, as the sheer volume of ever increasing new cases and the failure of NAB to bring a large portion of the stolen money back in the State treasury remains an illusive dream.

Pakistan’s problem is not corruption alone even though it is universally prevalent. Pakistan is inundated with a myriad of other serious issues. A national clean up exercise is necessary but not above the pursuit of a grand strategy for strengthening national unity, attaining human development and scoring consistent economic growth. Unfortunately, the national discourse of political parties, media and civil society is overtaken by the slogan of corruption so much that all other issues have become less important or almost invisible. It is the result of the changing social norms, which have made wealth as the yardstick of success in society. It also is the consequence of the breakdown of a social order in which rule of law is dispensed with for political expediency to buy support of major political players. It is the failure of courts to punish the corrupt if they are poor but look the other way for the corrupt if they can hire a rich attorney or are politically influential. As the saying goes, ‘in this Bath, everyone is naked’.

For example benefiting from illegal gains and money laundering is not confined to politicians alone. The several hundred cases filed by NAB in the country’s courts, and names popping up in the Panama Papers and the recently discussed Broadsheet awards show that the corrupt come from all backgrounds, professions, political parties and ethnicities. They cannot be stereotyped except in one sense that they are all Pakistanis. It is therefore unfair to leave everyone else out when discussing corruption and focus only on politicians on the assumption that if you catch the big fish, the small fish will either leave the pond or will learn to become honest. NAB has been in existence for over two decades but there has been no significant reduction in the level of corruption. In 1999 when General Musharraf established NAB replacing the politicised Quomi Ehtesab Bureau, Pakistan scored 87 out of 99 in the Transparency International’s (TI) Corruption Perception Index (CPI). In 2008, when General Musharraf left power and PPP was elected in government, TI’s CPI ranking for Pakistan was 134 out of 180. In 2013 when PML (N) came to power, Pakistan’s CPI rank was 127 out of 177. In 2018, when PTI formed government, TI’s CPI for Pakistan was 117 out of 180. In 2019 it slipped 3 points to 120 out of 180.

In Pakistan corruption is only a matter of opportunity. A poor village schoolmaster is honest only because he does not have the opportunity to make dirty money. Give him a revenue position, or a public dealing office with discretionary powers and then test his honesty. In ten years he will be trying to hide his illegally acquired assets in the same way as this country’s parliamentarians and bureaucrats have done when filing their asset returns, or as the businessmen and bankers have done by investing in offshore companies or purchasing overseas properties from illegally laundered money.

Institutional autonomy of an institution is as good as the people it employs to achieve its tasks and vice versa. A deficit of either compromises national credibility and affects the image of the institution and ultimately the State it represents globally. Within a couple of years after its establishment in October 1999 NAB abandoned its mission of catching the big alligators. Using NAB’s privileged information, General Musharraf prevailed upon compromised politicians and succeeded in forcing them to leave PML (N), as well as PPP, to support his martial law government. In 2007 President Musharraf signed the infamous National Reconciliation Order (NRO), which was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2009. NAB paid a heavy price for compromising its independence and instead of bringing stolen monies back home, it ended up paying hefty fines to overseas agents and creditors.

Since its establishment, NAB has had nine Chairmen. Among them four were ex-army generals, one ex-navy admiral, two retired judges, and two former bureaucrats. The Chairman is appointed by the President following consensus between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for a term of four years.

Despite its wide experience in signing international investment contracts, Pakistan’s reputation suffered badly after a series of embarrassing setbacks, which placed Pakistan on the global spotlight for all the wrong reasons. In July 2017, a World Bank inter-state dispute settlement body, International Centre for Settlement of International Disputes (ICSID) asked Pakistan to pay US $5.976 billion to a foreign mining firm, Tethyan Copper Company for damages arising from the denial of a mining lease application following TCC’s feasibility work in the Reko Diq area of Baluchistan. In December 2020 a British Virgin Island court ordered attachment PIA’s Roosevelt Hotel in New York and Scribe Hotel in Paris, as well as freezing of PIA’s 40% interest in a company Minhal Incorporated, to enforce the payment of the TCC award by Pakistan. As of writing, the case is still on.

In 2017 the ICSID also asked Pakistan to pay $ 1.2 billion to a Turkish power company KKEU for damages arising out of the cancellation of a rental power agreement in 2013. The matter was, however, amicably resolved in November 2019 after President Erdogan accepted the request of Prime Minister of Pakistan to intervene in the matter and forego the penalty.

These adverse judgments against Pakistan reveal three things about international contracts: that these are not properly negotiated in the national interest perhaps due to incompetence of officials or due to political pressure to rush into signature; that the monitoring of implementation of agreements is either deficient or non existent to challenge the other party for any non-compliance; and that revocation of contracts without following through the dispute resolution mechanism not only costs the treasury financial losses but also taints its image as a country having little respect for the rule of law. Only time will reveal the true status of many other commercial agreements signed between Pakistan and other international companies.

In July 2019 the High Court of England and Wales upheld the December 2018 award of the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA) in favour of an asset tracing company Broadsheet LLC, requiring Pakistan to pay $21.6 million for damages arising from the cancellation of a contract in 2003, in addition to payment of $11 million in costs and damages. NAB could not provide proof that it held Broadsheet LLC accountable for underperforming the contract. On the other hand, the claimants established that NAB had not cooperated with them in catching the identified targets for which they provided information. Pakistan appealed against the decision at the London High Court but lost the case in July 2019. The award was subsequently converted into a third party debt and paid by Pakistan, following a London High Court’s Financial Division’s order of 17 December 2020 for making payment to Broadsheet LLC by 30 December 2020.

In January 2021, a PIA commercial flight was prevented from flying back to Karachi from Kuala Lumpur after a local court ordered the plane’s custody for non-payment of lease charges. PIA subsequently paid $ 7million to the owners of the leased plane while their dispute was already before a London court on this matter.

These cumulative losses to the national exchequer were incurred in foreign exchange and do not take into account the billions of Rupees spent by NAB for hiring defence lawyers and travel and administration expenses.

With high level of corruption is found in every field involving commercial fraud, under invoicing, tax evasion, fake real estate and construction projects, corrupt practices by bureaucrats and stealing of public assets, including real estate, by fake documents and fraudulent entries, the ‘raison d’etre’ for the existence of NAB is not in question. What is in question is its mandate and method of recovery. In fact it is the method, which makes NAB an object of political bashing, threats and inducements. With discretionary powers left in the hands of NAB officials to negotiate plea bargains, it is obvious that a share of blame will also come to them for a conflict of interest. How can a traffic constable have the authority to issue a fine for traffic violation and at the same time say he is willing to settle the fine with the violator without inviting criticism? Due to their plea bargaining powers, NAB officials are unfortunately placed in great deal of psychological and political stress. Those who resist inducements find themselves suffocated in a sea of corruption. Others break down and resign or commit suicide. Some become part of the very corrupt environment they are employed to challenge and change. This is not sustainable.

The corrupt elements in the society shout at the top of their voice against the performance of NAB and call for its dismantling, but when they are caught red handed, they get away by simply returning the stolen money in part or full without payment of interest, costs or damages. The victims of fraud, whether, government or public, remain uncompensated for the fraud, and NAB ends up spending public money to trace and prove corruption. The civil society is luckily insulated against the pressure NAB goes through in bringing every major case to light, but it conveniently holds NAB responsible for every bad headline on the subject of corruption. Does NAB really deserve it? It depends who you ask this question.

With this in view the following recommendations are presented to the government for the reform of NAB.

1) The Law governing the constitution and mandate of NAB is the National Accountability Ordinance 1999 (xviii of 1999) and the National Accountability Amendment Act 2016. This needs to be replaced by a Constitutional Amendment Act to make NAB an autonomous body under the Constitution such as the Election Commission of Pakistan with its own independent mandate, recruitment authority and budget. NAB Chairman should have the power to seek information from all government agencies and establish its own Joint Investigation Teams using the power to engage State resources to aid its anti corruption work.
2) As an exception to the rule, NAB staff should be selected through international recruitment without the condition that they should be Pakistan nationals. This is to help NAB get the best of expertise in preventing money laundering and bringing back all illegally acquired proceeds abroad. The Parliament should also fix the minimum level of corruption in monetary terms that should come under NAB’s purview unless other agencies of the government have failed to recover it and the amount in question justifies NAB’s involvement.
3) The power of plea-bargaining should be removed from NAB to avoid any semblance of conflict of interest. Instead, NAB should be empowered to initiate independent enquiries, investigate complaints and warn the accused to pay up the stolen money together with accrued interest, costs and damages. Persons who agree to return stolen money should be given repayment plans with unmovable deadlines after which their cases should be referred to court for attaching their family properties for public auction. If the concerned persons pay the total money with interest, costs and damages in a short term, they should not be referred to the courts for criminal conviction, nor should they be named and shamed publicly. The message of NAB should be: “feel free to indulge in corruption, but if you are caught you will pay dearly”.
4) Parliament should approve the doubling of the number of accountability courts from the current 30 to 60 to hear NAB references and expedite them in maximum three hearings. There is an absolute necessity to increase the current number of judges deputed to hear NAB cases.
5) Parliament should enact legislation to encourage greater coordination between NAB and other agencies of the state in investigating fraud and exchanging intelligence to build its prosecution.
6) The performance of NAB should be reviewed by Parliament every year on the basis of moneys recovered. The NAB chairman should set out the targets and a work plan for the year ahead and highlight it in his institution’s Annual Report for the preceding year to assess NAB’s performance.
7) Parliament should enact legislation to fix the jail terms for convictions and other punishments such as suspension from job, withdrawal of passports etc including for convicted corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and serving military officers deputed to civilian posts outside their military roles, in order to set the parameters of punishment in proportion to the fraud committed. This will facilitate the Accountability Courts’ work in speedily disposing of convictions after due process.
8) NAB should summon a person to answer an enquiry not when a complaint is received, but when NAB has gathered sufficient information about the complaint and has ascertained through state resources that there is indeed a case for fraud or occurrence of public loss due to wilful negligence. It is unfortunate fact that NAB arrests high profiled personnel on corruption charges but keeps asking the courts to extend their custody under judicial remand in order to complete its investigation. This is not justice. This only weakens the case of NAB against corruption and gives it a political colour even if NAB is not politically influenced.
9) Cases referred by NAB to accountability courts should be dealt with the same seriousness and speed as terrorism cases. The objective of the courts should be to dispense justice but to also convey the message to the public that listening to NAB to pay up is easier for the corrupt than have their cases referred to the courts. No case should take more than three hearings or ninety working days, whichever is earlier. If respondents do not appear in hearings with the exception of leave granted for death of immediate relatives, court proceedings should continue in absentia and judges should issue ex-parte verdicts, which should be upheld on appeal. The convictions should not only include full and immediate return of stolen money with interest and costs of NAB, as well as the cost of accountability court, but also a jail term depending upon the volume of fraud involved.
10) NAB should be politically blind in addressing corruption and ensuring that those involved are brought to the book irrespective of their profession, political standing, social status, ethnicity or faith.

This is as far as NAB can go in eliminating corruption in the country. However, there is another side to addressing the culture of corruption and calling everyone fake and a robber. The government and opposition are unfortunately so much caught in their own anti-corruption narrative that there is nothing positive to convey to the common man. This narrative has divided the nation into two groups, the pro government group and pro opposition group, each accusing the other of corruption and stealing. Both the government and opposition need to stop walking this dangerous course because they are unwittingly making the work of NAB hard. The people want to hear from the government what it is doing to create new wealth instead of telling them that it is trying to bring the stolen billions to fill their pockets. As payment of court awards on foreign court orders has shown, this will never happen. The opposition should also put a break on its mantra of accusing the ruling party of hiding its corruption and instead give the people an alternate shadow policy on things that matter to them most such as reviving the economy, improving health and education, reducing poverty and reinvesting in infrastructure and industry. If they fail to breach this gap, a new bounty hunter smarter than them will always fill the vacuum and take away whatever little is still left in the public kitty.

Mr Syed Sharfuddin is a former Special Adviser, Political Affairs Division, in the Commonwealth Secretariat, London, UK.

A Memorable US Presidential Election: A Commonwealth Perspective

By Syed Sharfuddin,

The Commonwealth does not observe elections in non-member countries. Where it does, the observation is subject to receiving an official invitation from the concerned government and the Commonwealth Secretary-General certifying that the observation will add value to the democratic practice and processes in the electing country. Democracies with strong electoral systems have their own local observers who endorse the election and certify that it is conducted freely and fairly and reflects the will of the people. Although all countries have their own local observers, in weaker democracies they lack neutrality and public legitimacy. These countries need neutral and non-partisan international observers to give a seal of approval for their elections.

Commonwealth Observer Mission comprise constitutional experts, heads of election management bodies, retired politicians, working journalists, and representatives of women’s groups, youth organisations and democracy promoting organisations. Sometimes the Commonwealth deploys its own staff team to observe elections. At the conclusion of their observation, they submit a report to the Commonwealth Secretary-General for onward transmission to the concerned government and electoral bodies before making it public.

The US never was nor is a Commonwealth member even though it may qualify for membership of the association on the basis of its strong democratic credentials and its former constitutional association with Britain. The Commonwealth will never constitute an observer group to monitor a US presidential election. However, the conduct and aftermath of the last US presidential election of November 2020 has brought to the fore a number of issues which dominate the contents of election observation reports of many Commonwealth countries. It is therefore compelling to look at the US presidential election against the standard Commonwealth election observation template.

When Commonwealth election observers visit a country holding a general election, they examine its legal and electoral framework, the prevailing domestic political environment, its election preparations and availability of level playing field for all political actors. A few days before the poll, the Commonwealth mission deploys its observers and experts to monitor the campaign, the voting process, the count and tabulation of results. The observer mission also ensures that the results reflect the free will of the people and are credible and accepted by all stakeholders, including the major political parties and candidates. Their report, which is issued in their individual capacity but bearing the stamp of the Commonwealth, also mentions any shortfalls noted by the mission in the conduct of the election as a whole, as well as includes recommendations for improvement, based on the country’s democratic strengths and international best practice.
Since I was myself not present in the US last November to observe the elections, I have relied on the reports of three international organisations, the OSCE, ODIHR and OAS, which deployed observers in many US states to observe the election. I have also relied on the reports of other US domestic organisations, coalitions and media election-cells that followed developments related to the US election not just on the Election Day, but also many days before and after the election. While I have used the Commonwealth template to analyse these elections, my analysis is entirely personal and does not represent the official position of the Commonwealth Secretariat or its Secretary-General who alone has the authority to constitute a Commonwealth mission to observe elections in member countries or comment on their outcome.

The 2020 US Election
This was one of the most popular elections in the US electoral history. According to several estimates, nearly 160 million voters exercised their franchise compared to the 136.5 in the 2016 election. Before Election Day, more than 93 million Americans had cast their ballots. A majority of these voters were Biden supporters. On Election Day, a majority of those who voted in person were Trump supporters. This was evident from the early results as President Trump took the lead in the early poll count, while vice president Biden came from behind to lead the race in the later count from postal ballots.

At this election, four presidential candidates dominated the candidates’ lists in a number of states. Two of them were the incumbent Republican president Donald Trump who was stopped from taking the second term in office unopposed, and former vice president Joe Biden who was the Democrats’ choice against president Trump. An additional 80 presidential candidates, including 27 women, appeared on various state ballots. The US media-houses established special election cells to cover the electoral campaign. However, only president Trump and former vice president Joe Biden received the most media coverage nationwide.

The presidential election was also combined with the election of the US Congress, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate. There were 1,113 candidates, including 340 women, competing for the 435 vacant House seats. For the 35 vacant Senate seats, 151 candidates, including 42 women were in the run. Eleven candidates were elected unopposed for the House. Elections were also held for state and local executive offices, state legislatures in 44 states, as well as 66 state judges in 31 states, along with various referenda and initiatives. At least 27 LGBTIQ candidates across 21 states and 13 persons with disabilities in eleven states appeared on the ballot for federal elections.

The US Electoral College
The US Electoral College owes its evolution to the 12th constitutional amendment of 1804 but over the years it has undergone various amendments in the US constitution, weakening its democratic spirit but retaining its functionality. The Electoral College is formed every four years for a specific purpose after the states certify the results of the election in their counties to the House. The College comprises 538 electors. Its composition in each state is based on the state’s population. The College indirectly chooses an executive team of president and vice president from the same political party through a secret ballot a month after the November election. If the College fails to elect the president or vice president, the power to elect the executive head of the federation and his deputy is transferred to the US congress. In a dispute over their election, the US Supreme Court has the final authority to declare the winner.

The rules about the conduct of the Electoral College are not very clear although customarily they vote for the political team in line with the popular vote. In as many as 32 states, electors can be fined or replaced in accordance with the respective state law if they do not vote in accordance with the popular vote. The ‘first past the post’ system combined with the ‘winner takes all’ principle in deciding the winner gives all the reserved electoral-college seats in a state to the winning political party team, even if the popular vote in that state is cast in favour of the losing candidate. In every US election the result map of states represents either the red colour for the Republicans or the blue colour for Democrats. A winning team of president and vice president requires the combined strength of 270 electors from any combination of all the federating states and the District of Columbia to force the opposition candidates (president and vice president) to concede the election.

Under the US constitution, presidential and vice-presidential candidates must be natural born US citizens, at least 35 years old, and resident in the US for at least fourteen years. Senate candidates must be at least thirty years old and citizens for at least nine years. Candidates for the House of Representatives must be at least 25 years of age and citizens for at least seven years. Both senators and representatives, when elected, must be residents of the state in which they are elected.

Election Administration
In the US, election administration is huge, running into thousands of officials in all states. It is also highly decentralized, with no federal body mandated to oversee the entire electoral process. While this reflects the devolved feature of the federation, it also makes the US election a highly complex process with each state having its own laws and regulations for the conduct of election. In this equation the lawyers and courts have a much greater say in the conduct of election than politicians or other stakeholders. States are responsible for administering various elections with duties often delegated to some 10,500 jurisdictions across the country. In many states, the ruling party appoints its election management body. However, in twenty states, including the District of Columbia, election management bodies are either bipartisan or independent.

The Campaign
The campaign for the 2020 election was heavily undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic. It limited the traditional political rallies, which, unlike the campaign rallies in other countries, are festive and colourful events. However, disagreements on topics of healthcare, Covid-19 response, police reforms, racial justice, gun laws, jobs, poor manufacturing capacity and the environment bitterly divided the voters along party lines and threatened the racial and ethnic unity which has been the hallmark of the country’s strength and diversity. The long political process which started from the presidential primaries in the states of Iowa and New Hampshire yielded two final candidates in the form of the Republican President Trump running for a second term and former vice president Joe Biden who beat his progressive party mate Bernie Sanders to emerge as the top Democratic challenger.

An interesting feature of the 2020 campaign was that the major presidential candidates were male and senior citizens. Joe Biden’s choice of a woman, Kamala Harris as his vice president nominee, was a strategic move, which helped him win women and minority votes. In the months before the election, over 400 lawsuits were filed in 44 states, some of which were still before the courts when the polls opened on 3 November. These lawsuits increased hundredfold after the Republican campaign challenged the results of the election in many states demanding a halt to the counting of postal ballots after November 4, and a recount in many states, some of which was allowed by the courts. From May 2020 until the close of the poll, there were more than 12,000 protests against the political and criminal justice system. A majority of these protests were peaceful and called for racial justice and police reforms.

Voter Registration and Identification
Although the US public takes its voting right seriously and the constitution protects the political rights of citizens, an estimated 5.2 million citizens are disenfranchised due to criminal conviction, with many of them having already served their sentences. These restrictions disproportionately affect racial minorities. It is estimated that about 1.3 million African Americans are unable to vote as a result of these policies.

Voter identification requirements vary across the states. In 34 states voters are required to show identification before voting, with 18 of these requiring a photo ID. In 16 states, as well as in the District of Columbia, other identifying documents such as verification of signatures or showing personal information may be sufficient at the polling station. Absence of clear rules makes it hard to apply the same criteria for identification throughout all counties in all states. Where a voter’s address or identity cannot be established or where his name does not appear on the voter register, a provisional ballot can be issued at the polling station to enable a voter to cast the vote, subject to acceptance by the authorities at the counting stage. On 3 November a number of voters personally came to vote even after having cast their ballot by mail because they were unsure that it would be delivered to their respective county centre in time for counting.

Presidential Debate
For the November 2020 election, the outcome of the first presidential debate organised by the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) became controversial after the event, with various stakeholders expressing dismay at the undignified tenor of the event. The two presidential candidates, especially the incumbent president, kept interrupting their opponent throughout the debate. This prevented them from addressing the key political and economic issues meant to inform the voters about key electoral promises and polices offered by each team.

The second debate was ultimately cancelled following President Trump’s Covid-19 infection and his surprisingly quick recovery, and also due to his refusal to participate in an online debate. His team also accused the CPD of bias and unacceptable aggressive style of the moderator at the first debate. Instead, two separate town hall debates, featuring each of the candidates were aired simultaneously, with the audience posing questions.

The third and final debate was conducted as initially planned. In response to the controversy arising from the first debate, the microphone of the opponents was muted during their opening positions on the agreed topics.

Vote Count
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the weaknesses in the mechanism of the postal ballot, which envisaged delivering postal vote to the county offices on time to get counted immediately after the close of poll in the concerned state. A record number of postal votes, numbering around 27 million had not reached counting centres by the polling day. A majority of Democrats had preferred to vote ahead of the polling day resulting in extraordinary postal transactions and pressure on the postal service for timely delivery of postal ballots to the respective election offices. This also added to the workload of election staff deputed for vote counting and tabulation. . Where states made arrangements to provide alternative voting methods due to Covid-19, there were fewer problems.

Months before the election, President Trump had talked about voter fraud through the postal ballot; yet states did not make advance preparations to adequately deal with the expected large volume of postal ballot, nor took sufficient steps to assure the Republican campaign that President Trump’s concerns were unfounded or had been satisfactorily allayed. This allegation proved disastrous in setting the response of president Trump to accept the result of the election, which declared vice president Biden as the clear winner. During the period from 3 November 2020 to 20 January 2021, president Trump became more belligerent and agitated about what he called a stolen election. His 70 million supporters, including Republicans in the House and the Senate supported his defiant stance and refused to acknowledge Biden’s clear electoral victory until the unfortunate siege of the Capitol Hill a week before the inauguration which turned the table and paved the way for the smooth and a very different inauguration on 20 January 2021

Election Finance
Even by conservative estimates, this was the most expensive US election in the country’s history. It cost the country about 14 billion US Dollars. This is yet to be confirmed after all expenditure reports are submitted in the post election summing up. There was also an increase of 100% in campaign expenditure over the 2016 election. The US will need to place a cap on this this sharp rise in campaign expenditure in order to reduce the influence of the rich corporate donors on the elected representatives and imposing a moral dilemma on their independent judgement when making laws and national policies for the American people.

Role of the incumbent President
This report will be incomplete if it did not mention the way President Trump took these elections. From the very start he played the role of a spoiler in the game and continued to be a non player after the tabulation showed that he remained far short of the required 270 electoral college votes to win the second term. Even his many supporters, excluding the Republican hardliners, were shocked at his refusal to concede the election without a bitter legal fight. Some senior Republicans publicly expressed their frustration with this attitude advising President Trump to accept the defeat and exercise restraint. This had a positive impact to the extent that for a few days after 4 November, President Trump stopped writing his early morning Tweets claiming that he was the winner in the election. But he came back with more vengeance and venom finally resulting in a number of actions, which were unprecedented in the history of the US presidential elections. These included: dozens of recount requests in courts challenging the results in key battleground states, attempts to block the electoral college vote in Congress through objections raised on the floor of the Parliament by Republican Congressmen and Senators, inciting a public mob in Washington DC to stop the confirmation of the result of election by the joint session of the Congress, preventing the president-elect from receiving important transition briefings by the out-going president at the White House, an outright refusal to issue a conceding statement, and finally becoming he first president in Us history to boycott the inauguration of a president who defeated him in the ballot.

This did not go unnoticed by president Trump’s opponents from all parties and walks of life. Twitter and Facebook stopped president Trump from using their platforms to publicise his statements. The House proceeded to impeach president Trump for inciting his supporters to storm the Capitol Hill on the very day the Congress was meeting to confirm the result of the election. Ironically the House impeachment vote also included 10 Republicans voting in favour of impeachment. House and Senate Democrats also planned to impeach president Trump in the Senate after the inauguration in January as they held the majority in both Houses. In the week before the inauguration, a number of senior officials resigned in protest against president Trump’s role in the storming of the Capitol Hill. These included, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving, Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger, Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Chief of Staff of the First lady and former White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham, and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Matthews. A number of world leaders expressed concern about the actions of president Trump in the events leading to the inauguration of the new president Joe Biden and vice president Kamala Harris. In the news, this US election became the most talked about event of the world after Covid-19.

It is customary that when an election is announced, the lame duck administration does not make any policy changes or takes action which may impact of the ability of the next administration to act independently. However, despite this established tradition President Trump went ahead with the appointment of a Judge of the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy created by the demise of the conservative Justice Ruth Bader Kingsburg. To fill in her vacancy, Amy Coney Barrett, was appointed to the US Supreme Court less than a month before the 3 November poll. Moreover, a week after the election, President Trump replaced three top Pentagon officials in the Department of Defence with persons who, according to news reports, were among his strong supporters in the first term. Before his departure president Trump also pardoned 73 persons and commuted the sentences of 74 others.

Concerns about post election violence or civil unrest were proved incorrect in the aftermath of the vote count, even through the announcement of results in some states was delayed and president Trump did not help things by unilaterally declaring his victory and casting doubts on the genuineness of the counted postal ballots. Credit for this goes to the American public for having faith in their system and to the election administrators in the marginal states who assured the people that they will not certify the results until each and every vote is counted. A majority of the leaders of the two main political parties called for unity and placed their full weight behind the electoral process to auto correct any mistakes. Vice president Joe Biden also delayed his victory speech until it was clear that he had comfortably crossed the required 270 mark in the polls.

Election Observation
The US is quite advanced in domestic election observation and has successfully shared its experience with nascent and emerging democracies around the world through USAID programmes. The US presidential election is monitored by thousands of local volunteers and observers in different states. Political parties also field official observers at polling stations to observe the transparency of the voting and counting process.

At this election, in addition to several hundred local organisations and grass roots election watch groups, a national, nonpartisan election protection coalition coordinated with more than 300 local, state and national partners and deployed 45,000 observers for the election. It also ran a 24/7 hotline operated by some 43,000 volunteers to provide election information to voters and answer their concerns and questions. Some organisations also conducted pre-poll surveys and provided nationwide legal support for disputes arising during the polls. National media houses also conducted pre-poll surveys and deployed reporters for election observation on the polling day.

Three international organisations, namely the OAS, OSCE and ODIHR deployed their observers for the November Elections. The OSCE deployed 52 observers, drawn from 39 participating states. It covered 30 states, as well as the District of Columbia. The ODHIR mission comprised 50 observers. The OAS sent 28 observers and experts drawn from 13 OAS countries. Their observers were present in four states and the District of Columbia.

The Commonwealth as a Brand
The Commonwealth name is not copyright protected worldwide but the Commonwealth of Nations as the successor organisation of the British Commonwealth which was founded in 1949 following post-World War II decolonisation remains a global brand, which represents the collective strength of its 53 diverse members. However, despite its many comparative advantages in democracy and development, which can stand out as models of international best practice, the Commonwealth has remained a modest and inward looking organisation. For instance its rich election observation work of over 40 years spreading over 40 countries with a record 160 election observations, is unparalleled in its peer election observation bodies, yet its collaboration with other democracy organisations outside its membership is quite limited. The Commonwealth has also not shown any keen interest to use its expertise to assist and promote democracy globally.

The Commonwealth can share its rich election observation experience with the Carter Centre, the National Democratic Institute, National Endowment for Democracy, Ford Foundation, Democracy International, the US Institute for Peace, and a host of other democracy organisations and even join hands with them in collectively observing elections abroad. This will, however, require Commonwealth Heads agreeing for the association to enter into partnership agreements with US institutions for collaboration on broader election observation and making its technical experts available for democracy promotion in fragile or conflict affected countries across the globe. This would benefit the Commonwealth more than its collaborating partners. While its partners would benefit from the Commonwealth’s access to governments and election observation bodies and expertise in democracy promotion activities, they can provide their resources and technical personnel to meet the demands of democracy promotion in conflict affected and democracy transition countries.

In order to reach this partnership, the Commonwealth will also need to shed off the fear of US institutions dominating the Commonwealth landscape. Due to its small budget and the majority of its members being small states or weak economies, the Commonwealth may fear that getting closer to the bear could end up in a fatal hug of the beast leaving it overpowered and unable to play the role of an equal stakeholder in such a partnership. However, the few but successful contacts established between the Commonwealth and the US democracy institutions in the past do not support this assumption. Moreover, the terms of the partnership can be written in such a way as to retain Commonwealth’s ability to act independently in all aspects of election observation, such as choosing election observers according to the established Commonwealth criteria, writing their terms of reference, deploying experts, and signing off observers’ reports. Partner organisations can be useful to the Commonwealth in the post election period when the important work of helping countries to implement the recommendations of the observer reports starts. Due to lack of resources most of the time the recommendations of observers are not followed up at all, and where these are pursued, they do not continue to be supported until the next election in the concerned country.

The Commonwealth is not financially well endowed to play a larger role globally, observing elections in non-member fragile democracies or focusing on the world’s large democracies to learn from their good practices, identify their institutional strengths and use these to enrich its own democracy work. The United States is a vast country and its quadrennial presidential election is like observing elections in 50 countries for choosing a common president and vice president, as well as electing their state and federal legislators and local representatives. But there are ways to go around this problem and make an opportunity out of a challenge in order to remain a world leader in the area of election observation, which the Commonwealth is eminently qualified to claim.

It is true that the Commonwealth does not have the budget to observe a US election even if an invitation was secured from the State Department for the Commonwealth to send observers. But it can collaborate with the Caricom or the OAS to jointly observe the US presidential election. It is interesting to note that thirteen of the 35 members of the OAS are Commonwealth countries. The OAS observer mission to the 2020 US presidential election included two observers from Canada and Trinidad and Tobago. The OSCE also joined hands with OHIDR in observing the November 3 election and issued a joint report of their observation. The pattern of international organisations joining hands for the common purpose for undertaking large and resource intensive projects is something the Commonwealth democracy programme should look into and integrate in its activity.

The Commonwealth election observation has sometimes been misunderstood as a one sided activity where the more experienced democracies in the membership happily monitor elections in the weak and fragile democracies in the organisation but without practicing reciprocity or issuing return invitations to them to observe their elections. This makes Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, the UK and few other countries which do not invite the Commonwealth to observe their elections stand in one group, while a large number of African, Caribbean and Asian members in the other group which are always too eager to request the Commonwealth to observe their elections and issue a certificate of approval for their elections.

This divide strengthens the criticism of the Commonwealth as an association of un-equal countries, whatever the stated pronouncements. The stronger democracies in the Commonwealth have a lot to share with the fragile democracies of the fraternity in terms of good practice and how democracy theories and election laws are correctly interpreted and implemented on the ground. In non-election time, some of these countries do contribute to election observer missions or organise election-related workshops to share experience with the election management bodies of other member counties. In some countries annual platforms for this purpose have existed such as the democracy workshops of the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy, but these can never be a substitute for the election officials of a third country observing a live election and seeing how local election offices are involved at grass roots level for managing an election, training election staff, improving postal and physical voting procedures, employing ITCs in the count and tabulation, and improving complaint processing mechanisms. This also gives the observers an opportunity to point out the inherent weakness of a mature democracy such as those witnessed in the US election lately and their reports could be helpful in improving processes and procedures for next election.

All this requires a rethink of the way the Commonwealth undertakes its election observation activity, how it collaborates with other outside institutions for effective partnerships and how it finances these activities for the Commonwealth’s own budget and from other externally funded resources. The Commonwealth should draw up a new comprehensive election observation strategy for Heads’ approval at the next CHOGM post Covid-19 to continue the good work it has been doing with greater efficiency and retaining its long-term leadership role in this area.

The US president and vice president are indirectly elected by an electoral college instead of the direct popular vote. Although the system is an essential feature of US federalism and has worked for over 140 years, it would be advisable for the Congress to review this arrangement and let the people directly elect their chief executive and his deputy through popular vote. This will also remove the present anomaly of a candidate receiving the popular vote but not becoming president because he fails to get the 270 votes from the Electoral College. This is an emotional issue for the US voters who may need a public debate on this change to reach a consensus on how to elect their president every four years. Opinion on this matter is already divided in the US without reaching a consensus.

In many states, ex-felons are not allowed to vote in an election. This disenfranchises the Afro-American, Latinos and other ethnic minority voters more, as a large number of ex-convicts who have served their time belong to these groups. At this election the state of California decided to give its ex-felons the right to vote which is a welcome start. Other states ought to follow California’s positive move to amend their electoral laws for the next election. Because the US constitution lays great emphasis on individual freedoms and importance of representative government, this restriction needs a review, where applicable, to make the voting exercise more inclusive and fair for all communities.

There is a need for states to review current procedures for postal ballots, taking into account the fact that in the future more voters may use the postal ballot or they may choose to vote online instead of physically visiting the election booths on the polling day. Over the past few elections, automation and smart IT equipment have been successfully integrated into the US election machinery. This experience can be used to improve the process through which the timelines for postal ballots are set up, and arrangement are made for their collection and delivery by US mail to the relevant counting centres. The aim of this review should be to finalise the results and tabulation within hours of the close of the polls instead of days, thereby making the process more credible, transparent and indisputable by the losing candidates.

Some states have installed automatic ballot reading machines. These cannot provide an audit trail in the event of a challenge made by a candidate. The physical hand count of the ballot papers in the state of Georgia in the aftermath of the 3 November election should be used as an example to minimise counting errors and create an audit trail to be randomly checked in the event of a challenge, instead of a recount of the votes in the entire county or state.

There are 18 states, which do not allow independent observers to have access to the polling stations, or their laws do not specifically provide for international observation. Although in the 2020 election this could be a valid reason due to Covid-19 concerns, the restriction does not sit well with the requirement of transparency and voter confidence. All states should enact legislation to open up polling places for voting, count and tabulation to local and international observers in addition to the party representatives currently permitted. The argument of space constraints does not hold ground because these are the same arguments cited by other democracy-deficit countries where the US has been advising election management bodies to be more transparent in the conduct of their polls and count.

The US Congress should consider making it illegal for the outgoing president to make senior level appointments to the Supreme Court and other government departments three months before the November election, including after the election day until the inauguration of the new president in January. If any appointments are unavoidable, these should lapse by the time a new president is sworn in and should be left with the new president to decide if he is happy for them to continue in the office. For example president Biden has asked Dr Fauchi to continue to head the Covid-19 response even though he served under president Trump. The proposed legislation would also need to restrict the power of the Senate to confirm any presidential nominations made during this period.

The Commonwealth Latimer House Principles on the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judiciary are universally applicable to democracies, including the US. The power of the president to appoint his chosen judges at the US Supreme Court negates one of these principles if the party of the president has a majority in the senate, as was the case during 2016-2020. This has the potential of making the president commander of the armed forces under the constitution, as well as commander of justice. Such concentrated power was formerly associated with emperors and caliphs. In a representative democracy too much authority should not be vested in one person especially if he holds the nuclear codes.

There has been a lot of talk about the reform of the US electoral system in the area of disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities, gerrymandering and removing out-dated and contradictory regulations, expanding voter education and standardising electoral procedures across states. The US will do well to establish a super independent and neutral body under the constitution to resolve election related disputes. These reforms will improve the US democratic system, as well as enhance its image in other countries to promote representative democracy.

At this election, as in all previous US elections, the question of campaign financing raised questions. The difference this time was rise of many grassroots fundraising organisations in individual states which raised campaign funds not only for their favourite parties in the respective states but which also funded campaigns of their party’s candidates outside their states. After the political dust settles in the first 100 days, the US congress may consider creation of a bipartisan federal body to come up with uniform rules and procedures for all aspects of election related expenditure and implement these across all states. This body should be made fully empowered and responsible to enforce the rules governing federal campaigns and finance.


The 2020 US election was the largest electoral participation by the American people in choosing their political representatives freely without any violence or intimidation. There was no evidence of cyber manipulation of the votes, nor any clandestine interference in the election by another country. There were also no large scale voting or counting deficiencies or systemic wrongdoings. Although voters in some states received fake robotic text messages advising them no to go out to vote on 3 November but go the next day, a large number of voters ignored such fake messages in some states and went to their polling stations and voted freely. The polling staff in all the states, including the US postal service staff, did an excellent job of meeting the extra workload and discharged their duties responsibly and with diligence. Law enforcement agencies ensured the security and safety of the voting public, as well as polling staff. Political parties also behaved responsibly by following the due process in referring complaints and issues to the relevant election managers and their legal teams. Despite the drama and the negative images the world go to see in the aftermath of the election closer to the inauguration day, this was not a crazy and controversial election, the election process as a whole was robust and credible and the results reflected the will of the people. The response of the election management bodies was also positive and helpful in renewing the confidence of the American people in the ability of their time tested electoral system to address the problems effectively and reach a satisfactory resolution. As stated by former president Obama after the Biden inauguration: “The American people are strong. There is no problem they can solve by working together.” The US democracy has both the resilience and resources to implement the lessons learnt at this election to strengthen its electoral processes for the future.

The author is a former Pakistan diplomat and served a Special Adviser at the Political Affairs Division, Commonwealth Secretariat, London. he has observed elections in over a dozen Commonwealth countries.

The UN General Assembly Session after Covid

By Syed Sharfuddin*

For the first time in post world war history, the UN General Assembly is holding a virtual plenary session at the GA Chamber at its headquarters by the FDR Ave in Manhattan, New York. This year world leaders are delivering their country statements through video link from their home countries. As we all know, no one listens to these speeches except media and diplomats who are paid a salary for doing so. These speeches are more for domestic audiences than for international actors. There is also nothing new in these statements which contain a formula mix of each country’s known international positions and domestic policies which impact on their commitment to UN positions, resolutions, declarations and loads of other international covenants and protocols.
It therefore makes economic sense to make such virtual sessions a permanent feature of the UN annual activity. Yes there will be a small collateral damage by way of loss of bilateral meetings of leaders in the margins of the UNGA, but these meetings were hardly substantive. These meetings provided only a photo opportunity to small leaders for shaking hands with tall leaders and addressing a joint press briefing to look equal. Heads of developing countries also found these meetings as an opportunity to reach out to the rich and powerful countries who run the world, the international financial institutions, the UN and its huge institutional family.
If the online country statement delivery experiment turns out to be successful then staggering these speeches like in the old days when a Daily Journal was compiled informing everyone which country head was scheduled to speak on an allotted day or time would make no sense. Online speeches can always take place individually or simultaneously in a span of 24 hours taking into account the differences in international time zones. In the new format, the President of the GA should request leaders to upload their speeches on the first day of the opening of the session. The UN bureaucracy can webcast these speeches live as these are delivered and within 24 hours add subtitles in the approved UN languages. Any one can access these speeches on the UNGA website without waiting for the present system of delivery which has a minimum wait of three days in its duration. Imagine how much UN cost will be saved by cutting down on the format and doing away with the simultaneous interpreters and paperwork. How much carbon print will be reduced by leaders and their entourages not flying to New York on jets and returning within a couple of days. Savings from not hiring those petrol guzzling bullet proof Limousines and extra long Saloons will help those countries who find it hard to get the money to attend the UN session in NY year after year. The citizens of Manhattan will be grateful for not having all these multinational foreigners disturb their lives, as well as traffic, in the monstrous last days of September. The US will take a sigh of relief for not having to deploy so much security detail on the incoming visitors and keep an eye on the unwanted characters. Countries too will be happy not seeing renegade foreign funded NGO representatives shouting negative slogans against their countries and governments in pickets and protests organised outside the old rickety UN building. Bloomingdales’ and Macy’s annual sales will go online with rich leaders from poor nations using Amazon delivery or instructing their PRs to collect the merchandise at their missions and despatch to their capitals by normal cargo. Most of this shopping is done by the ladies of the household to pass time while their miserable husbands are busy attending UN contact group meetings and attending UN business at unearthly hours.
I know old habits die hard and there will be a strong push from everyone to revert to the old format of the UNGA. But realistically this year’s online session, forced by Covid 19, is the best thing that has happened to the UN and should remain in place for the foreseeable future. Let us not forget that fanfare and flashy protocol cars aside, the real UN work is done behind the scenes by hard working diplomats sitting inside the UN Secretariat and at the over two hundred foreign missions, technically called Permanent Missions to the UN in New York, the seat of the UN.

*The author was Alternate Representative of the Commonwealth at the UNGA Sessions from 2000 to 2006. The Commonwealth is accredited to the UN as an observer organisation and is invited at the UNGA without speaking slot.

Hagia Sofia: Changing Hands of History

By Syed Sharfuddin*

In ancient times monarchs and emperors relied on the display of sheer power and its outward symbols such as land, property, buildings and cattle to command servitude and obedience from their subjects. In traditional societies foreign expeditions were a legitimate means of acquiring additional revenue and resources to pay for security and loyalty. That world order of sorts was entirely power based. The king had the final say and what he said was the law. Might was right. The king owned land (mulk) and men. He rewarded his subjects for their bravery in battlefield or took away their lives for their mistakes and omissions. The king was the head of the executive, legislature and judiciary. The lords under the king owned peasants and their chattels. In that world order, it was obligatory for the subjects of a conquered nation to pay tributes and taxes and embrace the customs, language and religion of the victor even if he did not force them to do so. Sometimes power and moral values were combined to symbolise the victory of truth over falsehood. This is how the Pharaohs ruled ancient Egypt. When their power weakened, the Hebrews accepted the religion of Moses and prospered in the kingdoms of David, Solomon and Joseph. This is how a pagan Rome disowned its gods and goddesses to embrace Christianity under the reign of Emperor Constantine I during 306-337 CE. This is also how Islam spread in the Arabian and North African lands when Muslims expanded their faith and influence through trade and foreign expeditions. In the newly discovered world of American hinterland, the doctrine of manifest destiny justified the forced conversion of Amerindians to Christianity by European missionaries.

Then came the next world order in the so called civilised world in which the conquered subjects were given the freedom to keep their cultural practices, religion and language but show complete allegiance to their new rulers, whether it comprised a king, an oligarchy or a ruling class. However, as part of asserting his sovereignty, the new monarch, and the ruling class for that matter, either destroyed the physical symbols of the old order they defeated such as palaces, monuments and worship places or acquired these as their own. Over time, the losing nation also lost its cultural values and icons, which merged with the superior culture of the new rulers. Sometimes, the merger resulted in a hybrid culture retaining some of the stronger and popular features of the vanquished people.

During the Muslim rule of the Iberian Peninsula, architecture was used as a symbol of political power and cultural dominance over the locals. The Umayyad Caliph, Abdul Rahman, built the grand mosque of Cordova and Madinat al Zahra as symbols of his power and grandeur. But when Muslim rule ended in Spain and was replaced by Christian rulers, they took possession of Muslim icons and claimed these as their own. The grand mosque of Cordova was converted into a cathedral. It never reverted to its original status.

The Almohids who succeeded the Umayyads in Spain did not follow their predecessors’ tradition of constructing grand architectural monuments. Instead, they built palaces and mosques made of bricks in simple designs. The great mosque of Seville was built by a Spanish builder, Ahmad bin Baso on the orders of Almohid Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf (1163 to 1184 CE). Ahmad Baso was a master mason from Andalusia and had built many buildings for the Almohids in Cordova and Gibraltar. The mosque took ten years to complete in 1198. The base of its tall minaret served as the place of Azan. However, after the defeat of the Almohids in 1247 CE, the successor Christian ruler, Alfonso X, converted this mosque into a cathedral and ordered that the minaret of the mosque be used as the bell tower. The minaret still survives in Seville and is known as La Giralda. Alfonso X and his family are buried in the grounds of the old mosque, which was converted into a cathedral.

Alfonso X also removed Muslims from positions of power and authority in Seville and brought in the hitherto cast away Jews to replace them. They settled in areas vacated by the Muslims, and formed colonies in Barrios San Bartolommeo, Santa Maria la Blanca and Santa Cruz. Alfonso X also designated three mosques to be converted into synagogues. These Muslim worship places never returned to their original state in Christian Spain. In 2020, a retired Muslim footballer from Spain, Oumar Kanoute raised $1 million on an online fundraising campaign to build the first purpose built mosque and a Muslim cultural centre in Seville in over 800 years.

When Sultan Mehmet II, also known as Mehmet the Great, defeated the Byzantine emperor Constantine XI and conquered Constantinople in 1453, he changed the name of the conquered city to Istanbul and also converted its famous cathedral Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Documents relating to the archives of the building show that Sultan Mehmet II paid compensation to the priests of Hagia Sofia in order to meet the Islamic provision that no land or building can be used as a mosque unless its owners have been paid its sale price in full settlement of any claim. Sultan Mehmet II was under no obligation to do this because the rules of war in those times allowed the victor to claim all fallen properties as war booty. When he turned the historic building into a mosque, he also established a charitable foundation, built a market, an inn and a public bath, and added shops in the surrounding areas to form part of a trust to cover Hagia Sofia’s running expenses.

Hagia Sophia was built in 537 CE and served as the cathedral of the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Christendom. During this period it also served as the cathedral of the Roman Catholics from 1204 to 1261. Hagia Sophia held the status of a mosque from 1453 to 1934. In 1934 it was turned into a museum in order to generate income to pay for the restoration of the ancient edifice. However, as the fortunes of the Ottomans waned with the decline of their power, the rising maintenance expenses of Hagia Sofia became difficult to meet from the income of the trust. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire the new Turkish Republic looked for ways to raise funds for the maintenance of the historic monument, which had acquired a sacred status also for the Turkish Muslims in addition to its Christian minority. Following approval by the founder of Turkey Gazi Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1934, the iconic building was officially declared a museum in February 1935. From 1935 to 2020 it operated as a museum containing some of the most ancient frescos, statues and religious symbols of Orthodox Christianity preserved by Turkey.

The phenomena of the religious landmarks of a fallen dynasty becoming the worship places of the successor regime of another faith were not unusual for Turkey. It was observed all over the world in keeping with the old tradition. In India, the ancient Babri mosque of Ayodhya built in 1528 on the orders of the first Moghul Emperor Babar, continued to serve the local Muslims for over four centuries until India’s independence in 1947. Two years after the independence of India, the Hindus claimed that Babri mosque was constructed on a plot of land, which was the sacred birthplace of their god Ram. In 1992 the Babri mosque was attacked and burnt down by Hindu fanatics. Indian courts remained seized of this matter for nearly seventy years. In November 2019 the Indian Supreme Court ruled that a Hindu temple should be built on the site of the fallen Babri mosque and Muslims should be given an alternate site to build a new mosque.

The Ketchaoua mosque in Algiers, which was constructed by the Ottomans around 1516 and was further expanded in 1792 by Dye Hassan Pasha was acquired by the invading French armies in Algeria in 1830 and converted into a cathedral in 1832. It was used as a church for the next 130 years. In 1962, after Algeria gained independence from the French, the Algerian people reclaimed the cathedral and converted it back into a mosque.

Islamic art and architecture in Seville, the Balkans and Russia, which had earlier witnessed Muslim domination, met the same fate. These monuments were acquired by the new rulers and absorbed in their religious and cultural traditions as part of their heritage.

A new international order was adopted by the allied powers after the end of the second-world war. This new order established the United Nations and the Bretton Woods System and sought to adjust to the new realities of maintaining world peace, decolonisation and rise of nation states. Countries in the new international order were made to sign new international conventions and protocols governing the laws of war and peace, human rights and conduct of inter-state relations. Freedom of religion and safeguarding the places of worship of minority communities became part of the international human rights instruments and national laws of many new republics. Along with these new norms of international conduct, the principles of sovereignty, political independence, non-interference in the internal affairs of another country and cooperation for peace also became the salient features of this new world order.

It is unwise to divide history in different silos and apply our present value system to comment on them. What happened centuries ago as part of the evolution of human development, such as large scale conquests, acquisitions, slavery and missionary expeditions cannot be judged in the light of our present day norms, in the same way as we wouldn’t want the future generations to find us at fault for following the value system we observe today as a result of our collective human experience. People who find the Ottoman, Spanish, French and Moghul acquisitions in ancient times wrong forget that they are judging the past from the advantage of hindsight and under completely different circumstances and rules of human existence. Similarly, those who are unhappy with the Turkish court’s decision restoring the status of Hagia Sofia today are in a denial of the past. They need to acknowledge that Hagia Sophia served as a mosque for over five centuries prior to 1934 in keeping with the laws of war prevalent in Europe in those times. Even when the post-world war new international order was drawn up, states were not required to return the ancient buildings and worship places acquired through foreign conquests to their rightful but dispossessed heirs. Indeed it is a credit to Turkey for preserving the historic sites and monuments of ancient faiths and cultures and safeguarding these as the most valuable treasure of its rich cultural and historic collection.

The question whether the Turkish cabinet’s 1934 decision was a correct decision, which has been annulled by the 2020 ruling of a Turkish court, is irrelevant. Turkey is a sovereign democratic and independent country and its judiciary has overturned the decision of a previous Turkish legislature. What is important is that since 1453, Hagia Sophia has not been used as a cathedral. Whether the people of Turkey keep it as a museum or use it as a mosque or combine the two functions in a new arrangement is not going to make Hagia Sophia a cathedral again. It is no surprise therefore that the dissenting voices against the Hagia Sophia decision are coming from the same quarters who are not prepared to give any space to political Islam in democratic governance. In many countries, public polls show how popular opinion changes over time. There is no contradiction in the two decisions taken by Turkey about Hagia Sofia in 1934 and 2020; 85 years ago it suited Turkey to declare this historic monument a museum; now it suites Turkey to reclaim Hagia Sophia as a mosque.

The people of Turkey had always wanted Hagia Sophia to be restored to the status of a mosque. Throughout Turkey’s modern history it remained a controversial subject. The court ruling does not call for removing Christian symbols from the historic building, including the large hall where five times prayers will be performed by visiting Muslim tourists and locals from 24 July. The building will continue to remain open for foreign tourists as before. The frescos of Holy Mary and archangel Gabriel, which are located in the direction of the Qibla will be made invisible through the use of lasers when the prayers are said. Jesus, Mary and Gabriel are also considered holy in Islam although Islamic tradition requires that due to their revered status they should not be physically depicted in any art form using conjecture.

By restoring the status of Hagia Sophia back to the mosque and still deciding to keep it open for foreign tourists with all the historic icons of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in place as before, Turkey has once again shown to the world that secular Muslim Islam is totally compatible with the international values of religious harmony and inter-faith tolerance, human rights and democratic values. It has also left an important question mark on other pluralistic societies where Muslims are in minority, about how the majority population in those countries treats its religious minorities and worship places, and to what extent those countries are prepared to reconcile with a past, with which they may feel uncomfortable, but which they cannot blot out from their history.

*Mr Syed Sharfuddin is a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs, Commonwealth Secretariat, London, UK (2000-2006). He also served as CEO of Muslim Aid, UK from 2010-2014. He can be reached at