Daniel Nelson

It's hard to pull off a personal documentary on an ungraspable subject such as the health of democracy in Pakistan, but Mohammed Naqvi has made a pretty good job of it.

It's not that he has anything strikingly original to say in Insh'Allah Democracy: but he says it honestly, engagingly and from a man-in-the-street perspective.

Well, not exactly everyman. An educated, liberal, Canada-born, minnority Shia man.

In putting the film together he has one huge asset: he has been inteviewing one of Pakistan's presidents, Pervez Musharraf, at intervals over several years. So he has gathered a treasure trove of quotes from the soldier who seized power and five years later was deemed to have been elected - until he, too, was swept aside.

Naqvi welcomed Musharraf'a coup, largely on the grounds that the army man would neutralise the factional fighting that had turned Karachi into a battleground and would protect minorities ("I felt as though I had a target on my back"). 

Naqvi intersperses newsreel with his own footage of intereviews with Musharraf, filmed in various locations - on aircraft, in the gym, at home, on the stump - to tell the story of Pakistan's political twists and turns and of Musharraf's role and views ("To mke democracy sustainable, the army has to play some role.")

He talks to others, too, incuding Nawaz Sharif, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Sami Ul Haq, "the father of the Taliban", and gives us occasional unexpected  glimpses of, for example, the alarmingly violent hysteria of a bunch of lawyers, and then straightforwardly tells us what he thinks of them - which is mostly not very much: this is a personal journey, not a journalistic even-handed attempt to be non-partisan.

What a turbulent story it is, which is not surprising given the bigotry, chicanery, corruption, unscrupulousness of many of the leaders on display here and the frightening fervour of the crowds. Key moments stand out, such as 9/11 and its aftermath for Musharraf, as he tries to balance US demands with Pakistan's strategic priority of restraining Indian infuence in Afghanistan; the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan; and Musharraf's extraaordinary attempt to retuen from exile to make a political comeback ("I thought I could mobilise the public, remembering the old days. I did not succeed. Maybe I'm a failure as a politician. But no regrets: these are the ups and downs of destiny.") 

"I was never blind to Musharraf's flaws," says Naqvi. "Were his tactics excessive? Yes, but like many others, I thought I had a better chance of surviving. Besides, when it came to fighting extremism I always believed that his heart was in the right place."

But he is not afraid to probe, often teasing out quietly candid answers. "Would you ever support the militant groups again?" he asks Musharraf, who replies: "We should realise that if there is a war against India, Pakistan has to take its own counter-measures to safeguard its own security. And that may be running counter to our own strategy or war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban."

That's as clear an explanation you'll get - "Straight from the horse's mouth", responds the film-maker - to Pakistan's ambiguous policy on the Taliban. 

To make any sense of the Byzantine complexity and manifold shenanigans of Pakistani politics Naqvi has to make chasm-sized simplifications and leave out swathes of the story. It's essentially a film about Musharraf and his liberal, middle-class interlocutor. It's not about ordinary people, their lives and the failure to focus on development, an issue that seems not to be on the politicians' radar. Nevertheless, hats off to the unassuming Naqvi for giving us an intriguing, entertaining insight into a soldier-politician and a tiny window into Pakistani politics.

Extraordinarily, he even manages to fahion a moderately optimistic conclusion. 

* Insha'Allah Democracy is showing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on 9 March at the BFI Southbank, 8.50pm, and on 10 March at the Barbican, 6.30pm. Both screeings will be followed by a Q&A with Mohammed Naqvi.

Director's statement:


Insha'Allah Democracy

Insha'Allah Democracy

Image by Insha'Allah Democracy

 up as a Shia Muslim minority in Pakistan, I saw members of my family and community being targeted by right-wing Islamist extremists. When my uncle was murdered in the 1990s, my family began hiding in the U.S. for long stretches of time until things calmed down back home. I wanted Pakistan to be a modern democratic state, but I also wanted to feel safe and secure - free to be a kid. When military dictator General Musharraf came to power in a coup in 1999, I was a teenager. His rule meant safety and secularism. I saw things change. For me, Musharraf was a hero. I wasn’t going to let the fact that he was a dictator mar that image.

Soon after he resigned and went into exile, Pakistan was plunged into chaos. It was one of the most dangerous times in our country’s history. The democratically elected government that followed him proved woefully incompetent to deal with some of our most pressing issues, including terrorism and security. So when it became known that the former military ruler was running for election, it was impossible to ignore. All other candidates lacked any firm stance on the growing religious extremist element. As far as I was concerned, they were giving voice to an ultra orthodox, bigoted version of Islam - a version that cast me, a minority and a liberal, as unworthy of protection. Supporting Musharraf was only natural.

But then I spent four years with him and got to know him personally. I witnessed major turning points as he campaigned in the lead up to the first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power in our country’s history. When troubling news reports surfaced, he confessed to me his own role of covertly supporting militancy as a means of fighting a proxy war with our enemies. I realized that he didn’t think he owed his people the truth. Despite his liberal and secular outlook, he was a dictator at heart - a dangerous flaw in a leader.

My eventual realization could not have been possible without the unique position I was in. I got to vet candidates up close, well beyond the scope of any news coverage. I spent one-on-one time with them and got to know them personally.

One lesson I learned in making Insha’Allah Democracy directly echoes the recent global shift that has dramatically come to the forefront in events of the last few months. The election of a U.S. president espousing a strongly nationalist, anti-immigrant agenda took the world by surprise. All over the world, there seems to be a wave of nationalist and xenophobic elements coming to power. And that, too, through the democratic process. Many people’s faith in democracy itself has been shaken. But what I’ve learned through making Insha’Allah Democracy is that participation in the democratic process is critical to reforming it.

* Insha'Allah Democracy is on BBC4 on 23 July at 10pm


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