Why I accepted the General's invitation to become his representative in London

The High Commissioner for Pakistan `I knew that many of my British academic colleagues would regard me as having sold out'
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WHY WAS I proud - as well as being utterly amazed - when the phone rang one morning in our suburban Cambridge house and on the line was General Pervez Musharraf, the new military ruler of Pakistan, who had just removed from office Nawaz Sharif, the democratically elected Prime Minister? My ideas on democracy were well known. Why was I thrilled and honoured when the General said in that very decisive voice of his "I want you to become our High Commissioner in London"? After all the British Foreign Office had rushed to judgement, condemning the military takeover on day one. I knew that members of the Commonwealth, including a number of sanctimonious nations whose democratic facades are suspect to many people, were pressing to suspend or expel us. I knew, too, that many of my British academic colleagues would regard me as having sold out if I accepted.

I am a democrat and a firm believer in the rule of law. I am also an Islamic scholar, proud of my culture and religion, who revels in free debate and the rational clash of strongly held opinions. For the past 11 years, as a Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge, I have attempted to build a bridge between Islam and the West, rejecting the offensive Islamophobic image of Muslims as "fundamentalists" and "mad mullahs" who hate democracy and are usually ruled by military men with dark glasses and chests full of medals they earned by brutalising their own people and threatening their neighbours.

This, I explained in lectures and books, broadcasts and films, was not my Islam. It was not the Islam of the Holy Prophet or the Holy Koran, and it was certainly not the Islam of Mr Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam, or founder of my country, Pakistan. He was determined that women, minorities and the poor had rights, and that all forms of Islam should be treated with tolerance, as should other faiths. He warned against nepotism, sectarianism and provincialism, which he feared could destroy our fragile new Islamic democracy. How right he proved to be.

I had met the General on a couple of occasions but it would be wrong to claim that we were personal friends. But it was clear as we talked that he knew of the bridge-building work I had been doing - and that he approved of it. I responded eagerly when he talked of the chaos and corruption into which our country had fallen. I was already convinced that his "benign coup", as it has come to be called, was the last throw of the dice. If his attempts to clean up the mess failed then, I feared, Pakistan might collapse into provincialism, fall prey to its mighty neighbours, or go down the paths that Afghanistan and Iran had chosen.

Even so, I had many questions, so the General asked me to fly out to Pakistan. I was to travel by PIA rather than in some exclusive private jet, which I thought was a good sign. It was also significant the General has ordered his official car to stop at traffic lights. That is a first for a Pakistani leader since the example set by Mr Jinnah himself.

We met in a modest room in the Prime Minister's Secretariat - in effect No 10 - rather than in some barracks. We talked quietly, one-on-one, for an hour. He was relaxed and down-to-earth, exchanging ideas rather than hectoring or barking orders. It is always flattering for an academic to meet somebody who knows your work - and it is easy if you have taught in the Oxbridge tutorial system to tell when somebody is bluffing. The General had done his homework and he really knew my book Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity, in which I discussed Jinnah's approach to the problems he now has to grapple with.

General Musharraf was preoccupied with corruption, which has become endemic. Both Mr Sharif and his predecessor, Benazir Bhutto, were already under investigation, accused of looting the economy and subverting the democratic system by placing cronies and relatives in positions of power. Pakistan had become a country in which justice was bought and sold and compassion hardly existed. When I protested that there is a ritual in Pakistan under which any new regime pledges to deal with the corruption of its predecessor, but the corruption continues just the same, General Musharraf told me of two steps he was taking.

The first was to declare to the nation his current wealth. It is modest - and if he leaves office a rich man, the people will know that he has done so on the basis of corruption. It is a hostage to fortune that only an honest man would dare to give. Then he told me of the list of individuals he was planning to arrest and charge with corruption. Many prominent families from across the political and regional spectrum were included, so this was not the usual sectional vindictiveness. And, to my amazement, it contained the names of a general, an air marshal and the head of the navy. That was a clear signal that the defence services had not been given a license to loot the nation they were supposed to be saving.

I was convinced and told the General so. Our duty, he said, is to end corruption and to restore law and order, which had all but collapsed. He was right. Things had degenerated so far that, to our shame, rival Islamic sects machine-gunned each other in their mosques. Religious extremists smashed television sets in the bazaars of Baluchistan and the Frontier province. Drug dealers used their profits to destabilise great parts of the country. The Muharjar, or descendants of refugees from India at Partition, fought with local people in Karachi who resented their supposed influence.

At the same time Pakistan has come to feel increasingly threatened by its neighbours. In particular the growth of Hindu fundamentalism in India; its nuclear weapons and its mighty army - the fourth largest in the world - means that it is seen as a menacing regional super-power. Last summer India and Pakistan (which also has nuclear weapons) almost went to war over Kashmir. Nawaz Sharif backed down under intense American pressure, leaving the Army and country shamed and humiliated. Yet the Army is the only organisation that has avoided institutionalised corruption. No wonder that the people looked to the military to rescue them - and that 90 per cent of the population support the new regime according to polls.

I returned to England convinced that this is a benign and necessary coup and that I had to play my part in the rescue of my ravaged country. I hope I can persuade the British Government and my liberal friends to support our efforts with trade, aid and technical assistance. Bans and boycotts can only undermine our efforts and push Pakistan towards catastrophe.

Given a level playing field and world understanding, I look forward to Pakistan in the new millennium restoring Mr Jinnah's vision of a society driven by justice, compassion and tolerance - all of which are essential before you can have a truly democratic state.