Lawyers - Pakistan’s Unlikely Democratic Martyrs

New America Media, Commentary, Mark Schurmann Posted: Nov 09, 2007

Editor’s Note: Pakistan’s lawyers have emerged as the voices of conscience in their country, much like the monks in Burma. That comes as a surprise to NAM writer Mark Schurmann who, like many Americans, is more used to lawyers being regarded as ‘blood-suckers’ and the butt of nasty jokes.

SAN FRANCISO - The Pakistani lawyers who continue to shake their fists at the declaration of martial law and the suspension of Pakistan’s constitution by General Pervez Musharraf are a far cry from how we view lawyers here in America—men and women in ill-fitting suits with bad hairstyles and a God complex.

Just last week, I sat in a courtroom in San Francisco and watched lawyers discuss their weekend plans--wine and cheese in Napa, quick getaways to Cancun, dinner at a posh restaurant in the city--as exhausted-looking defendants in county-issued clothes, my friend among them, sat awaiting their fates.

No wonder popular culture teems with lawyer jokes.

What’s the difference between a dead dog on the road and a dead lawyer on the road? There are skid marks in front of the dog.

And there are thousands more such jokes on the Internet.

The image of ‘blood-sucker’ stands in stunning contrast to the Pakistani lawyers dressed in suits and confronting riot police on the streets of Lahore and Islamabad. It isn’t the dust one usually associates with the dry barren plains of Pakistan they’re marching through, but tear gas.

In a world grown used to thinking of militant Islamists as the only ones prepared to die for a cause, Pakistan’s lawyers come across as unlikely martyrs to the cause of democracy.

Like the Buddhist monks of Burma, they are unexpected. Their clothes – dark, plain and conservative – mark them as clearly as the saffron colors and sandals of their counterparts to the southeast. It’s a uniform that not only denotes their vocations but a certain professionalism and authority, if not necessarily power.

As with the robed monks of Burma, they have been beaten, and arrested, accused of being in league with terrorists, but continue to march in defense of a suspended constitution and ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry.

It is hard to imagine American lawyers marching en masse to protest the erosion of constitutional rights that’s taken place during the last seven years of the present administration; wire tapping, suspension of habeas corpus for accused terrorists, rendition, torture (many would argue these same methods and measures adopted for the “war on terror” were long in use among incarcerated Americans).

American lawyers seem too separated by the division between those who prosecute and those who defend to create any solidarity among themselves.

Also lawyering is often a rung on the career ladder. San Franciscans are already asking what’s the next political move for recently re-elected (and attractive) District Attorney Kamala Harris. That as the city’s homicide rate surpasses last year’s total and the county jails are dangerously over crowded with many inmates miserably waiting months for the DA and the courts just to get to the individual cases.

A wise woman once told me that what really sets American democracy apart is our judicial system, one based on a constantly evolving constitution. It makes sense given the usual choice of candidates in any American election (especially the last two presidential elections), almost always wealthy and seemingly distant from those of us who are asked to vote for them.

The fair application of the rule of law, in principle if not always in fact, seems more fundamental to our democracy than the vote.

Perhaps Pakistan’s lawyers believe that too. Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, two of Pakistan’s last three leaders, were forced out of office on charges of rampant corruption. The third and present leader, General Pervez Musharraf, wasn’t elected at all but came to power through a military coup. Pakistan’s lawyers are telling the world that no one, elected or not, is above the law.

As the country’s northwest regions continues to devolve into a third front in the “war on terror” (along with Iraq and Afghanistan), and in the face of growing civil strife and terrorism, the country’s constitution may be the only democratic and unifying consistency Pakistanis can rely on.

I have become a cynical and somewhat apathetic American voter. I pay little attention to the confirmation hearings of Attorney General candidate Michael Mukasey. I shrug my shoulders at the appointment of Supreme Court judges. I do not march in protests against the war, or anything else for that matter. I wonder now what right I have to criticize American lawyers.

Things are still too comfortable here and our wars are still too far away. I am an American who believes that only difference I can make is in my immediate surroundings—friends, family, co-workers—and that my opinion or my vote won’t make any difference in the big picture.

And I am moved and inspired by the image of blue suited lawyers on the tear-gassed streets of Pakistan, lobbing rocks at soldiers with guns and holding their leaders accountable to the law of the land.

Related Articles:

Insisting on Elections in Pakistan is Not Enough

Pakistani Diaspora Reacts to State of Emergency

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