Monthly Archives: February 2010

The rightward march

It was called the ‘New Left.’ Emerging in Britain in the 1950s, the New Left was the left’s disparaging response to the authoritarian tendencies of Marxism mainly symbolised by so-called ‘Stalinism’. The New Left revisited Marxist doctrines and attempted to bring them more in line with concepts like liberal democracy. 

The New Left criticised both western capitalism and Soviet communism and attempted to put forward a more non-dogmatic and democracy-friendly version of Marxism. By the 1960s, it was ideologically informing the evolution of the various leftist movements that began taking shape around the world. 

The New Left thinking also contributed to the various contemporary socialist experiments taking place in the Muslim world at the time, where certain leaders and political organs attempted to cut through Marxist dogma and capitalist whiplash by fusing nationalism and the more egalitarian notions of Islam with socialist economics. By the early 1970s, the New Left had begun to influence conventional social-democracy in Europe as well, where leftist parties emerged without any ideological strings attached to the Soviet Union. 

However, the oil crisis, brought on by Egypt and Syria’s war against Israel in 1973, triggered a serious economic downturn in the West. It also began generating a gradual reaction against the New Left politics and economics. Consequently a number of economists emerged who severely critiqued social-democracy, socialism and the concept of the welfare state. 

By the early 1980s, this tendency was referred to as the ‘New Right’ and its early political and economic manifestations were defined by the Ronald Reagan presidency in the US and Margrate Thatcher’s rule in the UK. The New Right forwarded an aggressive mixing of free market economy, religion, patriotism and a militarist foreign policy, a tendency which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, peaked in the shape of neo-conservatism during George W. Bush’s administration (2001-2008). 

In Pakistan, the New Left’s frontline expressions were the students’ movement against Ayub Khan in the 1960s and the populist emergence of social-democratic parties such as the PPP. However, interestingly, just as the New Left was being wiped out in the West by the New Right in the 1980s, in Pakistan it was the old right (i.e. conventional religious parties in cahoots with a politicised military) that did the trick. 

But, alas, the New Right in Pakistan seems to finally be coming of age. Because if the collapse of the country’s last military dictatorship and the constant drubbing the conventional religious parties have faced in various elections can be seen as the withering away of the old right in Pakistan, then the active emergence of a revamped PML-N supplemented by an alarmist new electronic media can be detected as a more vocal arrival of the New Right in Pakistan. 

Couple these happenings with a vigilante-like nature of a new-born ‘judicial activism’ exhibited by a current strand of top judges and lawyers, and the impulsive support it is getting from PML-N, the electronic media and small right-wing organs like the Jamaat-i-Islami and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf, one can then suggest that a somewhat instinctive move is afoot to challenge the large remnants of both the old and new Left in Pakistan. These include social democratic parties like the PPP, the ANP and secular bourgeois parties such as the MQM. 

Boiling within the mix of the New Right politics and sociology in Pakistan are also characters operating as televangelists, ‘security analysts’ and TV journalists. In appearance and content they are consciously avoiding the persona of the greying guard of the old right, and attempting instead to sound and look a lot more contemporary. 

They have gone on to use an intriguing combination of the economic and aesthetic dynamics of consumerism, free-market enterprise and media-centric imagery to forward a fusion of social piety, a neo-Maududi’ist take on political Islam, a plethora of conspiracy theories and demagogic (left-meets-right) oratory. Barring the PML-N, much of the New Right in the country is rather ambiguous about its views on democracy. 

It is equally ambiguous about its stand on matters such as terrorism and extremism. It claims to condemn it, but is more likely to put the blame on American foreign policy and then return to its ambiguous disposition when questioned about the long involvement of Pakistan’s own intelligence agencies and past policies in the matter. 

Whereas the top tier of the Pakistani New Right (PML-N and certain senior TV anchors) are merging lofty political notions such as constitutionalism and accountability with vigilante-type ‘judicial activism,’ the second tier, mainly made up of small rightist political parties and a new breed of TV preachers and personalities, are (for want of a better word) glamorising retro-Maududi’ist and Tableeghi notions of ‘Islamic society’ by encouraging a neo-conservative reading and practice of religious texts, history and ritualism.

More dangerously though, undaunted by the obvious failure of political Islam in the Muslim world, the country’s New Right is trying to rekindle it and that too at a time when various Islamic reformist movements the world over are consciously trying to detach Islam from the political moorings it was convolutedly given in the 20th century by men like Maududi and Syed Qutb. Moorings that may have played a major role in plunging many Muslim countries in the state of cultural stagnation and political turmoil they are in today.

To Sir, with love

I was buying a pack of cigarettes at Karachi’s Boat Basin area when someone patted me on the back. I turned around, and it was a teenager with longish hair, a T-shirt and faded denims: “My name is Ayman, and I hate you.”

“That’s nice to know, Ayman,” I smiled, offering him a cigarette. 

He took the cigarette, and I lit it for him. “Why are you always trying to put down people who follow Imran Khan and Sir Hamid?” He asked.

“Sir who?” I replied, as we walked towards my car. 

He stared at the car and then chuckled: “Was this given to you by the CIA?”

“No Ayman,” I said, with a straight face, “This landed in my garage as a spaceship from Planet X, gift-wrapped by the Elders of Zion and the Illuminati.”

He chuckled again: “Are you Pakistani?” 
“Do you want me to give you a straight answer or another wise-crack?” I asked.

“Well, are you?” He repeated.
“Of course, I am,” I said. 
“Your name sounds like you are Muslim too,” he said, sarcastically.
I gave him a mocking smile: “Why, thank you, lad. I am glad you noticed.”
“But I think you are Muslim only in a name,” he announced. “Always finding fault with Muslims…”
I interrupted: “… Muslims, according to you, you mean? How old are you?” 
“Twenty.” He replied. 
“Do you think you are wise enough to judge someone’s faith so strongly and decisively?” I asked. 
“Well, neither are you!” He shot back.

“Ayman,” I said, “had I judged you, I would have called you just another brainwashed freckled fascist conditioned by the psychosomatic rightwing gibberish you perhaps religiously follow on TV!”

Surprisingly, he laughed: “You see, sir, I think …”
“You don’t have to call me sir,” I smiled.
“Okay,” he continued, “Paracha Sahib, we need people like Imran Khan and Sir Hamid …”
“I see,” I interrupted again, “even if they sometimes are full of some profound fibs?” I asked.
“They’re not!” Ayman got a bit agitated. “What you write is wrong! They’re good men.” He insisted. 
“I’m sure they are,” I smiled again.
“Good!” He said, forcefully. “But you aren’t,” he then smugly added. 
“And why is that?” I asked.

“You are anti-Pakistan!” He announced another verdict. “You should listen to Imran and Sir Hamid more carefully. People like you can say anything, but your writings won’t make much of a difference,” he continued, dismissively throwing away the cigarette butt. 

“Does your mother know that you smoke?” I asked. 
“What’s it to you?” 
“Just asking. Want another one?”
“I can buy my own.” He replied. 
“It’s good to know you can buy your own cigarettes, Ayman,” I said, “Very… let’s say … Iqbalisque.” 
“There, you see,” he retorted, “That’s why so many of us hate you!”

“But why do you have to hate me?” I asked. “Why can’t you just simply disagree with me?” 
“Because you hate Imran and Sir Hamid” He said.
“No, I do not!” I replied. “Hate is too strong an emotion. There is already too much of it around.”
“I don’t care,” he said, “we won’t let people like you insult great men!”
“Great men?” I blinked. “Oh, you mean Asif Ali Zardari and Altaf Hussain, right?”
“No!” His whole body shook. “We know who you support!”
“Oh, do we?” I asked. “And exactly who are the ‘we’?”

“We are many!” He said. “And we will save Pakistan from planted people like you who are always defending enemies in the name of secularism!”

“Right,” I replied. “Just like some Sirs are always trying to defend hatred and historical concoctions in the name of patriotism.” 

“Tell me,” he said, as if he never heard me, “how much does CIA pay you for this?”
“You mean for a pack of cigarettes?” I asked.
“Not funny,” he said.
“Okay. Let’s see. I think the money I get from CIA is surely less than what Sir Jee gets from TV. I’m sure.” 

He shook his head: “You know, there’s going to be a revolution in this country.”

“Right,” I said, chuckling, “a revolution led by foaming televangelists, born-again Muslim fashion designers and balding rock stars!”

“Now look who’s judging!” He retaliated. “You also misjudge the Taliban. I am against them as well but it is clear that they are foreign agents, why can’t you see that?”

“How much more clichéd can you get, yaar,” I said. “I’m sure you have dreams of one day studying in an American university?”

“Yes, so?” He shrugged his shoulders. 

“But America is our enemy, isn’t it?” I asked. “And that hair of yours reminds me of Kurt Cobain in his prime. And that Tupac T-shirt, and the cigarette brand you just smoked, and …”

“Petty talk!” He announced.
“But, of course,” I said. “CIA doesn’t pay me enough to talk big.”
“But it’s given you a great car, Paracha Sahib,” he said, acerbically. 
“Really?” I replied, looking at the car. “Well, in that case, I guess you can now call me Sir as well.”

A herd of sheep?

There have been three major occasions when the Pakistani middle-class has broken away from its traditionally conservative disposition to come out and announce its ‘revolutionary’ political aspirations.

The first incident of demonstrating political assertiveness was in the late 1960s when the bulk of the youth began to air their grievances against Pakistan’s military-industrialist nexus headed by military dictator, Field Martial Ayub Khan.

Owing to its inherent conservative worldview, one expected this middle-class to oppose a secular-capitalist military dictatorship by siding with the mainstream anti-Ayub religious parties, but the many young men and women who led the revolt against Ayub turned sharply leftwards.

They seemed to have embraced ideas such as socialism and social democracy, largely expressed through political organisations such as the Pakistan People’s Party, the National Students Federation and the National Awami Party. 

The young, middle-class Pakistani’s romance with the leftist ideology lasted till about 1974, or until its ideological darling, Prime Minister Z A Bhutto, gradually dumped hyperbolic leftist action to play more pragmatic politics.

This was when middle-class leftist groups on campuses began to succumb to infighting and disillusionment. The vacuum was gladly filled by the electoral rise of petit-bourgeois student parties, such as the Islami Jamiat-i-Tuleba (IJT).

The IJT’s rise on campuses was symptomatic of the anti-Bhutto and anti-left murmurings that had started to gather steam within the country’s urban middle-classes, especially in the face of Bhutto’s half-baked socialist policies and increasingly autocratic behaviour.

By 1976, the middle-class youth, which, in the 1960s and early 1970s had resonated with progressive proclamations, set itself to rise once again; but this time it rose in search of an Islamic political and economic order.

Thus began the second incident of middle-class-driven agitation in Pakistan that peaked with the right-wing movement against Bhutto’s non-democratic way of governance.

Interestingly, whereas the middle-class youth had attacked military and industrialist instruments during the anti-Ayub movement, the anti-Bhutto agitation was openly patronised and at times even funded by the industrialists. 

It culminated with a military coup against the Bhutto regime and the arrival of Pakistan’s third military dictator, General Ziaul Haq, who cleverly adopted the movement’s Islamist idiom.

Throughout the 1980s, the middle-class remained split in its support for Zia’s rather bizarre political-economic edifice that crudely fused the so-called Islamic policies with a free-flowing version of third-world capitalism, and its opposition to the military rule.

As the progressive and the conservative sections went to war on campuses and in the streets, the middle-class emerged as exhausted by the time of Zia’s death in 1988 and the restoration of democracy.

Only minimal political activity was witnessed from this class in the 1990s when Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif unwittingly played in the hands of Zia’s ideological remnants in the intelligence agencies and the big businesses. 

In Karachi the Urdu-speaking urban bourgeoisie became enamoured of the MQM, and was embroiled in the political turmoil that accompanied the state’s operation against the supposed militant outgrowth of the MQM.

It was during this decade also that this class (especially in Punjab) started to slide backwards into its customary conservative disposition when a new generation of the Pakistani bourgeois began responding to social and religious conservatism.

This tendency exploded into prominence after the confusion and an identity crisis (in the Muslim world, specifically Pakistan) that followed the tragic 9/11 episode.

Gradually large numbers of young middle-class men and women became interested in ultra-conservative fringe groups headed by drawing-room preachers and televangelists.

As the 2000s wore on under the country’s new military dictator, Pervez Musharraf — who chose to play a cosmetic role of a ‘moderate’ — the state and the media failed to arrest the mutated Islamisation trend.

From the rugged mountainous areas along the Pak-Afghan border it started making its way into the drawing rooms in urban Pakistan. 

The ballooning electronic media facilitated the born-again variety of a middle-class conservatism by adding another batch of religious talking heads. These figures ideologically and commercially cater well to the bourgeoisie’s zeal and political leanings.

Thus has arrived the middle-class’s third agitation. But the interesting thing is that this time round this initiative is largely cut off from the country’s mainstream political parties, and has taken the shape of electronic lobbying (blogs, SMS, emails, etc.). 

What is even more interesting is that though these cyber and TV lobbies are portraying themselves as an alternative movement, these foyers are mostly riddled with a fusion of convoluted leaps of logic, a knee-jerk attitude and a conservative ideological mindset that was actually constructed by the ‘establishment’ and politico-religious parties of Pakistan decades ago.

Consequently, what we have at hand as urban middle-class ‘activists’ are actually figurative sheep (single-filed mobs). Now many have also grown fangs of the retro-reactionary-revolutionary variety. 

Unless this section of the middle-class decides to work within the mainstream political edifice of Pakistan and participate in the evolving democratic apparatus, instead of being repulsed by it, it will remain an irritant, having only a nuisance value. At best it can become the harbinger of a TV lounge revolution, and nothing beyond.

Right click for revolution

Just what exactly was Pervez Musharraf’s ‘enlightened moderation’? Though vague, it did seem to have enough bite to at least create (a malformed) narrative amongst a new generation of young middle-class urbanites.

If you observe closely much of what is being emitted by this section of society, you can safely suggest that ‘enlightened moderation’ was, at best, a heavily padded and soft version of Ziaul Haq’s reactionary ‘Islamisation’ mantra. This may sound oxymoronic, but it all comes to pass when one notices the kind of people defending Musharraf in the media and in assorted drawing-rooms.

These are no liberals, believing in concepts like democratic pluralism or in the importance of tolerating and promoting religious, sectarian and ethnic diversity. On the contrary, they sound clearly bitten by the tenacity shown by both the ruling coalition and the parliamentarian opposition that (so far) are simply refusing to collapse under the weight of the usual intrigues engineered by the ominous sounding, clandestine individuals and institutions.

They fear democracy to be a threat to Pakistan’s imagined existence as a monotheistic state and society based on a single (state-sanctioned and clergy-approved) strain of the faith. The pro-Musharraf ‘moderates’ have, at best, sounded like 21st century versions of Ziaul Haq. Instead of a shervani and a stern frown, they can be seen in modern, western clothes and designer shalwar-kameez spouting the most worn-out rhetoric and narrative that first started to be built up by the state under Zia and his politico-religious sidekicks.

It’s the usual dead beat: Pakistan and democracy are not compatible; democratic pluralism promotes ethnocentricity; secularism is akin to atheism; religious extremism and violence is the handiwork of the ‘anti-Pakistan’ and ‘anti-Islam’ elements (mainly foreign), and the state and intelligence agencies of Pakistan had nothing to with it; there is only one correct version of Islam but most Pakistanis follow a corrupted and adulterated version because they are illiterate and superstitious; anyone questioning these assumptions is a traitor; only politicians are corrupt; and that we need a strong leader who cannot come through democracy because most Pakistanis are ignorant.

Even though Musharraf’s ‘enlightened moderation’ generated a few positives as well, such as the bold act of reshaping the disgraceful Hudood ordinances, much of which, however, has left behind a thoroughly confused edifice of support usually crowded by certain highly animated TV personalities, showbiz and sport celebrities and their largely urban middle-class following.

What’s more, there are some among these who may have actually disliked Musharraf, but ironically, they too carry almost the same body of beliefs and ideas that ‘enlightened moderation’ was made of. Simply put, ‘enlightened moderation’ was supposed to be an ideology that advocated a middle-ground between religious extremism and western liberalism.

However, if one is to notice the content and tone of the children of this largely cosmetic middle-ground today, what it really meant was that religious extremism that was attacking the monolithic Pakistani state was bad, but those extremists attacking everyone else (non-Pakistani and non-Muslims), were misunderstood.

All in all, this so-called middle-ground basically advocated a sympathetic attitude towards extremism, or in other words, as long as this extremism did not challenge the Pakistani state, the army and the intelligence agencies, it needed to be empathised with either as a liberation movement against ‘American/Hindu/ Zionist designs in the region’, or as a bunch of ‘misled’ and poor tribal people exploited by politicians, Americans, and, of course, the NGOs.

This middle-ground seems to only have used words like moderation as a way to sound a lot more ‘modern’ compared to, say, the rhetoric of men like Ziaul Haq or Maulana Maududi whose jargon wouldn’t have sounded all that great in the post-9/11 world. However, while dealing with the left side of the divide, this middle-ground quite clearly detests notions like democracy and pluralism. Eventually, to describe this side, it proudly borrowed a term called ‘liberal extremism’ from the vocabulary of the neo-conservatives; a term first coined by assorted right-wing groups in the US.

Thus, anyone questioning the padded extremism and soft authoritarianism peddled by ‘enlightened moderation’ is a ‘liberal extremist’ who is undermining religion (and/or undermining the monolithic version of Islam concocted by the state and its ulema); and promoting ‘corrupt politicians’ and violent ethnic thugs (who, nonetheless, have not come in through any mysterious backdoor, but through the ballot).

But, alas, what Musharraf left behind is still a minority view which is only a ‘revolutionary’ majority (nay, a mob) in cyber space, on TV screens and in drawing-rooms. As many young middle-class urbanites, in cyber space and TV studios, prepare for a revolution led by a strong man (a modern-day, English speaking Saladin) uttering modern sounding jihadi spiels, thankfully the masses in the real world will continue going to the polls.

This is because the masses have got it right: that Pakistan is a country of ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity, which is still respected and addressed best by democracy and, like it or not, by ‘corrupt’ politicians and ‘liberal extremists’.


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