Growing 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.