Pervez Musharraf, the former President of Pakistan, passed away today on February 5th 2023, at the age of 79. He was one of the most prominent figures in Pakistani politics, having served as the country’s Premier from his military coup in 1999 until his resignation 2008.
During his presidency, Musharraf implemented various reforms and initiatives aimed at modernizing and strengthening the country. He made significant efforts to enhance national security, and promote regional stability. He also made efforts to improve relations with other countries, particularly the United States.
However, Musharraf’s presidency was not without controversy. He faced allegations of human rights violations, corruption, and electoral fraud. He was also criticized for his blind support for the U.S. in the War
of on Terror, his declaration of the state of emergency to stay in power, removal of Supreme Court Judges, and lack of democratic process for opposition leaders.
Many people view him either as the strongman Pakistan needed or as a military dictator.
My view of him is not based on his disregard for democracy, nor based on his closeness to the United States; both these points have strong arguments for and against him. I formulated my view after meeting him and understanding his ideology and what he stood for.
The Strongman Musharraf
During the turbulent times of the U.S. War
of on Terror, as a Muslim and second generation Pakistani immigrant, reconciling my faith and culture against the media onslaught Muslims faced was difficult for me.
At this time the military strongman of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf seemed to have all the right answers for the West. Western articles and News stories often centered or discussed Musharraf’s views. If there was a third seat at the table of the Bush-Blair bromance, Musharraf was definitely vying for it. As a young teenager I was attracted to Musharraf’s strongman position in Pakistan. He had single handily controlled all Offices of State and stood unrivalled in Pakistan as “Chief Executive”, not even President.
My teenage Tate-esque role modelling of this strongman would be coloured in several different lights when I met him in 2002.
How I met Musharraf
In 2002 I was lucky enough to be one of the winners of “Experience Pakistan” and initiative by British-Pakistani millionaire Humayun Akhter Mughal of Akhter Computers to increase understanding between the two nations. The prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to Pakistan.
When I arrived in Pakistan I was given an itinerary which showed that the next day I would be part of the small group of winners meeting General Pervez Musharraf (He was not titled President yet). I couldn’t believe it and stared at the itinerary in disbelief. I was to meet the strongman who I had looked up to! I ignored the rest of the itinerary as this was the only one that stood out for me, despite it including a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on return to the UK as well as several meetings with the Governors of Pakistan as well as other leaders and dignitaries. I would finally get to meet this man millions of Pakistanis looked up to, who held unrivalled powerful in Pakistan and on the world stage, nothing in the War on Terror appeared to happen without his say.
My mind became preoccupied with this meeting and I wondered what questions I would ask him. I discussed this with Victoria Schofield, an author and biographer of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who I met that day. She suggested I ask him how he felt he protected democracy by taking over in a military coup and she suggested I press him on when there would be free and fair elections. All of these questions had been tackled by Musharraf and I did not see myself as a Knight of Democracy to ask these questions all over again.
That evening after a meal at Daman-e-Koh in Islamabad with Pakistani cricketing legend Wasim Akram, I was interviewed by Pakistan’s national PTV. I noticed the journalist was friendly and asked some really fantastic questions. After the interview finished I called him over to the drinks table and began talking with him. I decided I would run my questions past him, a real journalist who had just demonstrated he was good at what he did.
I explained to him “I want to ask Musharraf about something unique, not the usual questions he is used to answering which are inconsequential. Everyone will ask him about the coup, about 9/11, about Afghanistan, about India, the coup and democracy…all these are already answered and see no result, I want a question which has some impact, something which might make him think”
So we got discussing for quite a while and he finally said “I’ve got it! You’re a student from England, education in Pakistan is lacking and he has ultimate authority for now to fix it” and together we had reached a question which would have some impact.
Travelling to the Presidential Palace
After several security checks we arrived at the Aiwan-e-Sadr, interestingly situated where you can look down upon all of Islamabad, reminiscent of the rulers of the past who wished to gaze upon their Kingdoms. We sat waiting for around 30 minutes for General Musharraf to arrive.
A friend pointed out that the open door with security guards and lighting was most likely where he was poised to enter. Being a teenager, my mischief was still strong and I just had to take a look! Casually walking past this door I peaked behind the wall to find General Musharraf standing before a mirror fixing his belt and hand combing his hair! At once I stepped back and went back to position “He’s right there” I told the friend and a moment later the national anthem played welcoming him into the room.
Musharraf then shook everyone’s hands and gave a short speech. During this speech the phrase “Never meet your heroes” started making sense to me.
Musharraf’s 10 minute speech started with him saying Pakistan is a modern country where “Women no longer cover their heads and commonly walk around without their heads covered, they’re wearing western clothes”. This seemed an odd way to start. I know the culture and know that covering heads is seen as a sign of honour. I was a little taken back by this fawning of the western delegation by telling us what he perceived we wanted to hear. And no, he was not saying women are no longer forced to – since in Pakistan they never were, instead he was saying under his regime there was such a wave of modernisation that women were copying western clothing.
He then went on, he expressed desire for secularism in the face of Shariah in Pakistan, how he wished to eradicate the influence of religious leaders mocking them as “Mullahs”, how he wanted a western culture in Pakistan. Several times he inferred links between religiosity and terrorism. I could not believe what I was hearing! It was a typical self-hating speech of someone with an inferiority complex to Western Ideology.
I saw this person who I had perceived as a strongman tell a group of Westerners that he was opposed to the cultural and religious practices of his own people.
Where I had been happy that a Muslim leader sat at the Bush-Blair table to put forward our point of view – that Islam and adherence to it did not mean terrorism. Instead I witnessed how this man held no respect for any such values in this conversation.
I composed myself as the floor opened up for us to ask him questions and the usual questions rolled in. My question was second and I asked “We are students from Britain, the thing that sets us apart from Pakistani students of the same age is education, we must remain in school which is free and complete GCSE’s before leaving but this is not the case in Pakistan. As you currently hold authority to do something about it, what steps have you taken since taking over in 1999 for education in Pakistan”
General Musharraf looked down at his glass, paused a moment and then said “This is something we will work on, you are right there is a big difference between the two countries in education but we intend to set this right. I will ensure all Pakistanis remain in education until the age of 16. This is something we commit to change. Pakistanis must be educated and this will eradicate terrorism and poverty from the country”
After a couple more questions it was time to eat, Musharraf walked over to me and place his arm out indicating he wished me to walk with him. He asked a few questions about my education in the UK and then began speaking to Victoria Schofield, who was on his right. After some food and refreshments we took some photos, I then discussed with Musharraf that as overseas Pakistanis and second generation Pakistanis, many of us wish to see Pakistan prosper and would love to help in this if there was security and stability in the country.
After the meeting former Speaker of the British House of Lords and Commons, Lord Weatherill came over to speak to me with his wife Lady Weatherill. Lady Weatherill said Lord Weatherill was no stranger to questions being asked of the powerful. Lord Weatherill said “I’ve never seen Musharraf get thrown off with a question until you asked your question. As a high ranking military general he had prepared answers for everything, but your question made him think before he answered, you really hit him out the blue. Well done and I hope it makes him do something positive for his country”
After the Meeting
Pervez Musharraf did have an impact on education in Pakistan but fell short of achieving much. His military style meant instead of improving government schools to make them the schools of choice, he focussed on shutting down madrassas (free Islamic educational schools).
Musharraf had fallen in my eyes from a strong leader. Bending over backwards to impress a single western delegation with a speech full of self-hate of his own culture and religion was not what I expected from someone I perceived as a strong leader. I began questioning everything I had admired in him and soon enough saw that his seat at the world table for his sycophantry with Bush and Blair and blind support for the War on Terror.
I moved on to listening to Imran Khan speak more eloquently about how Pakistan was not a hired gun, I heard Nawaz Sharif speak about how he placed the national interest before American threats when testing Pakistan’s Nuclear capability, I heard religious leaders speak about how they had been targeted, judges spoke about human rights abuses. Musharraf fell in my eyes as a hero of Pakistan.
And so I realised, one should choose their heroes better, based on ideology. Musharraf’s ideology was flawed. Nations gained respect when they honoured their faith and culture.
I heard a young politician in Pakistan say something the following year which summarised why Musharraf’s ideology was wrong. He said “We have the same culture as Indians, we have the same food, music, practices, languages, skin colour, as India. So we must ask ourselves why our founding fathers founded Pakistan. If we are completely secular and so is India, even our laws are the same. So why did the partition take place? It was because Jinnah said we wish to live by our Muslim values. So they either made a mistake and one million people lost their lives for a mistake and 80,000 women were raped for a mistake, or Musharraf is wrong to remove all Muslim values from law.”
“The Quran is the general code for the Muslims, a religious, social, civil, commercial, military, judicial, criminal and penal code…Islam is not merely confined to the spiritual tenets and doctrines or ritual and ceremonies. It is a complete code regulating the whole Muslim society, every department of life, collective and individual”– Founding Father of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah 1945
I realised that this is true. If Pakistan is to survive as a nation then it must define what sets it apart and be proud of that. And while Pakistanis would never opt for a fanatical interpretation of Muslim law such as that of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s constitution is already moderate interpretation of these laws set for a modern society.
As I navigated my teenage years I realised that centralised power in a powerful strongman had never seen fruit. Decentralised power with systems in place to prevent bad decision making was at the core of any prosperous nation.
I also realised that Muslims need to not pander to Western narratives, it is possible to be proud of a culture and history and take a place in the modern world. Looking to other world leaders and to opposition leaders of Pakistan showed that Musharraf’s sycophancy did nothing positive for Pakistan.
Countries like Saudi Arabia show us modernising does not need to come about by turning our backs on religion or culture. In fact these ideas can work in tandem.
There is no doubt that there are positives and negatives to Pervez Musharraf’s influence over Pakistan. Some say he brought about stability, attracted foreign investment, and saved Pakistan from becoming a pariah state in the international community. Others will see him as a tyrant who subverted democracy for personal gain, who crushed opposition, pandered to the West and blindly arrested thousands of innocent Pakistanis at the bidding of the U.S.
Perhaps Pakistan needed a military strongman post-9/11 and perhaps no one could have handled the country as well. We see today how democratically elected leaders of Pakistan are causing nothing but destabilisation of the economy and the country. On the other hand perhaps Musharraf could have done more in exchange for Pakistan’s unrelenting support.
How history will remember him remains to be seen, but for myself his demise serves as a reminder of the one fact we must all face in life no matter how weak or powerful: death. Despite the strength and power given to many in the world, we all must meet our end. And when we do as Muslims we know after death we progress to the Court of Allah where justice is served on all.
How anybody fare’s before Allah is only the right of God who judges us between Heaven and Hell. As Muslims we say his matter and the matter of all those who have passed is now with Allah, and so I finish with: Inna lillahi wa Inna ilayhi rajiun, To Allah we belong and to Him is our return.
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