Giants and Dwarfs

Two years ago, my cousins Sa’ad and Salman (Khawaja Saad Rafiq and Khawaja Salman Rafiq) were arrested in Pakistan on charges of “corruption” by that country’s absurdly named NAB, or National Accountability Bureau. For two years (and not for the first time), they endured incarceration and vilification at the government’s hands. The first time this happened (to both of them), was during the military dictatorship of  General Zia-ul-Haq; the second time (for Sa’ad, but not Salman), was the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharaff. This time, for both, was under Pakistan’s Trump-like civilian Prime Minister, Imran Khan.* Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

About a year ago, I belatedly discovered the video just above of a speech Sa’ad had given in January 2019 (in Urdu) to the Pakistan National Assembly while temporarily released from jail. I put it up on Facebook with the comment that it ought to be translated and anthologized in textbooks of democratic theory as an object lesson in how to conduct oneself in political life. Believe it or not, First World democrats occasionally have something to learn from their counterparts  in the developing world.

This isn’t the place to summarize it, and I’m not competent to do justice to a proper translation, so what follows is really a sort of rough paraphrase. The speech defends a certain conception of resistance or opposition politics within a democratic framework: put another way, it gives advice on how to oppose a corrupt government, even one that jails you without cause, without descending into terrorism, cynicism, apathy, or amoralism.

Time spent in jail, he says, with some irony, ought to be received with gratitude, as it gives a man occasion for quiet reflection he might not otherwise have had. He claims thoroughly to have enjoyed it.

He then candidly admits, in the past, to having been seduced by partisan considerations in his choice of political rhetoric–a rhetoric of defamation that his opponents have now decided to use against him.

But, he insists, the use of such rhetoric, even when employed in vehement opposition to a government, must never be such as to invite the wholesale destruction of the polity. And a certain kind of rhetoric can invite the destruction of a polity. A rhetoric of rancor without filters–of venting whatever bile comes to mind at a given time–means the destruction of the culture of discourse that democracy requires. When that sort of rhetoric drives the exercise of power, it becomes a boomerang in the hands of those who wield it–or think they do. Certain limits have to be established within which constructive political engagement, however fractious, can take place. The alternative is to drift blindly to disaster, carried by the currents of rancor.

What I find striking about Sa’ad’s speech is the frank confession and sincere apology that precedes the criticisms he makes. I can’t remember the last time I saw a politician preface his criticisms in quite that way. The very sincerity of the speech gives it a foreign air that’s hard to translate or convey. Offhand, I can’t think of a single American politician of the last four decades who could pull off a speech like this–articulate despite being extemporaneous; emotionally authentic yet intellectually substantive.

About a week ago, the Supreme Court of Pakistan–in an 87-page English-language opinion prefaced by a passage from Mill’s On Liberty–acquitted both Sa’ad and Salman of all corruption charges, putting a formal end to their incarceration,** and leveling a series of counter-charges against the NAB and the government behind it. You can read bits of the decision here, but this passage, on the presumption of innocence in criminal proceedings, is worth highlighting, not just for its application to this case, but for its application more generally:

There is one one fundamental right in the Constitution, which is unconditional, inviolable, and cannot be circumscribed under any circumstances. This is the dignity of man and one of the grave consequences of pre-arrest confinement, is the humiliation and disgrace resulting from such arrest, for not only the accused by his family and persons  attached to him. Arrest causes irreparable harm to a person’s reputation and standing society, often subjecting him to hate, vitriol, and infamy…It thus irrevocably jeoparidises a person’s dignity, subject him to physical and psychological repercussions concomitant with life in prison. Often a person in custody loses his job and is also prevented from preparing his defence. The burden of his detention frequently falls heavily on the innocent members of his family. Often people do not differentiate between arrest before conviction and that after conviction.

The point being that absent a widely-shared presumption of innocence, the ordinary processes of criminal justice straightforwardly violate human dignity.

And here’s the passage from Mill’s On Liberty which the Court used as an epigraph for its decision: “…a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes–will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.” It sure will. And not just in Pakistan.

Congratulations to both of them on their release.

Yaqeen mukham, amal paiham,
Mohabbat fateh-i-alam;
Jihad-e-zindgani men
Hain yeh mardon kee shamsheeren.


*It’s telling that all three Pakistani dictators had the eager support of the American government at the time–and Americans wonder why Pakistanis are “anti-American.” Unsurprisingly, the mainstream American press hasn’t had a word to say about the “Khawaja brothers” (or “Paragon housing”) case, widely seen in Pakistan as a judicial and political landmark. Here’s The New York Times’s index for recent stories on Pakistan. Nine of the last ten stories depict Pakistan as notable only for its mindless violence, sectarian bigotry, and mundane irrationality. This would be roughly like covering the news in the US the day that New York Times vs. Sullivan or Miranda vs. Arizona had been decided, ignoring the Supreme Court decision, and running a story about a Klan rally that had taken place that day in southern Indiana.

**They had been released on bail in March 2020.

8 thoughts on “Giants and Dwarfs

    • I’m on a WhatsApp group with a bunch of my cousins, including Sa’ad, and they’re all discussing the case. Ironically, one of my cousins just wrote, “Pakistan is lost.” Agreeing with the Supreme Court decision, of course, but suggesting that what it proves is that things are too far gone for there to be any hope. Another one of my cousins writes, “I agree with you.”

      That said, I’m actually looking into teaching positions in Pakistan. There may not be any hope for the future of Pakistan, but as long as they’re hiring, I really could care less.


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