In order to make sense of the atmosphere of fear, it is important to distance oneself from essentialist readings of Muslim culture as being inherently intolerant.
By Ammar Ali Jan
It is difficult to point out what is more painful to witness; the brutal murder of a Governor of the largest province of the country because he had dared to express dissent on a controversial law or the public celebration of this violent act by extremist forces, with complete impunity from the state. What is particularly shocking, however, is the muted response of secular political parties in the country in the wake of this assassination. Despite enjoying complete electoral hegemony over religious forces in Pakistan, mainstream parties are finding it increasingly difficult to speak out against discriminatory practices in our society, owing to the growing domination of religious forces in setting the contours of our cultural discourse.
In order to make sense of the atmosphere of fear Pakistanis live in today, it is important to distance oneself from essentialist readings of Muslim culture as being inherently intolerant. Instead, a deeper reading of history will reveal how “Muslimness” has remained a contested concept throughout our history, and it is only through particular historical circumstances religious forces have gained hegemony in the cultural domain.
It should be noted that the first major riots for the ‘sanctity’ of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Pakistan occurred in 1953 in which protestors demanded the declaration of the Ahmadiyya sect as non-Muslim. This led to a high level government inquiry on the merits of the demand, headed by Supreme Court judge Justice Muhammad Munir, which conducted in-depth interviews with a wide range of Muslim scholars on the precise definition of a Muslim and that of an ‘Islamic’ state. In a paternalistic manner, the report concluded that the religious scholars had absolutely no definition of a Muslim, and mockingly suggested that each Muslim sect can be declared outside the ambit of Islam according to the varying definitions gathered by the commission.
The report further recommended that the state should not indulge in defining the boundaries of religion and should limit itself to the tasks of secular, worldly issues, leaving religious matters to private individuals while simultaneously guaranteeing freedom of religion to all citizens.
Surely, we cannot conceive of such a report in the current environment gripping Pakistan, where advocating mere amendments to a strict blasphemy law can cost one his/her life.
Pakistani culture and ideology was a contested site in the 1950s. Sure, Islam was consistently utilised by sections of the state to justify their existence, but there were also alternative narratives that challenged the state; the Progressive Writers Movement was a dominant literary and cultural force that challenged the elite structures in the country; ethnic nationalism, particularly strong in Bengal, resisted the homogenising narrative of the state; and the presence of liberals within the ruling party (Muslim League), the bureaucracy and the army, periodically provided support to liberal forces in the country.
During this entire period, the only movements that were able to galvanise the masses were led by secular forces such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP or Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman’s Awami League. After the debacle in 1971, however, the balance of forces shifted decisively. Having lost its eastern wing, where fellow Bengali ‘Muslims’ accepted help from ‘Hindu’ India to win their freedom, the state faced its most acute crisis of authority as the entire premise of the ‘two-nation theory’ stood challenged.
Instead of opening up debate on the reasons for the humiliation in Bengal, the state resorted to constructing a reified identity of Pakistanis as ‘Muslims.’ This naturally meant that all differences on the basis of ethnicity, gender, class etc had to collapse into a unified category of ‘Islam.’ By marginalising all alternative histories, the state wanted to carve out a singular identity for its citizens.
This task was carried out simultaneously through the ideological and coercive apparatus of the state. The education system, the media and an ‘Islamic constitution’ were all aimed at serving the need for perpetuating the ideology of the state. Those who continued to use alternative narratives to demand rights, such as nationalists in the National Awami Party, were conveniently labelled traitors and crushed with brutal military operations.
That Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, one of our most enlightened and popular figures in contemporary South Asia, would emerge as the central figure in this drive to construct this perverse national identity is one of the most disappointing chapters in our history. Apart from being wedded with the statist discourse on nationalism, the incorporation of Islam within the state apparatus served another important function for Bhutto; by accepting the demands of the religious right on the cultural front (such as declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim, banning drinking, gambling etc), Bhutto wanted to dilute their politics and hence mitigate any threat to his electoral supremacy.
With hindsight, we can now claim that this flirtation with the religious right not only failed to prevent the overthrow of Bhutto’s government, but also led to a normalisation of the discourse around Islam by completely ceding the cultural front to extremist forces.
Much has been written about General Zia’s Islamisation and I do not feel the need to go into further detail. However, I would like to point out that the ‘Islamisation’ of our curriculum and the legal system that began during Bhutto’s era was intensified and consolidated during Zia’s time.
Hence, the consolidation of a particular kind of religiosity was not established through a mass movement. Instead, it was acquired through the penetration of important levers of power by the clergy that increased its influence in setting the agenda on cultural discourse. Successive civilian governments have accepted the status quo by not venturing into the legal and cultural territory claimed by the mullahs. One can also argue that that civilian governments have often been content with not questioning the power of the military in matters of ‘national security,’ or the diktats of international financial institutions in formulating an economic policy, leaving for itself the meager task of distributing the remaining resources amongst its clients.
While political parties are ready to cede ground to these forces, the same cannot be said about the religious right that, which despite enjoying a hegemony in the cultural sphere, often attempts to dislodge popular political parties from power. Whether creating conditions for military coups and later joining military regimes, or violently targeting its opponents or making a direct attempt at grabbing state power (like the Taliban in Swat), the policy of appeasement has created the conditions of possibility in which the religious right can significantly enhance its role in power politics.
With a complete hold on the education system, a deep penetration into the media networks and the armed forces, an ability to mobilise its supporters at critical junctures, and backed by thousands of armed supporters ready to murder opponents with impunity, the religious right has gained an ascendency it had never enjoyed in our history.
The most difficult part of any problem is to formulate a prescription for it. The first and foremost issue that requires clarity is that a power-sharing equation in which liberal forces give up their agenda on social issues, is simply not a sustainable one. A shameful silence on the part of our mainstream parties on Salmaan Taseer’s murder or on the blasphemy laws reflects the amount of liberal capitulation to the right that has occurred over the past 40 years. It has already given over a large segment of our youth into the hands of conservative forces and it is time that progressive forces challenged the monopoly of religious right in the fields of education, media, legal issues etc.
Second, we must accept the bitter truth that this battle will not be won just through the intervention of civil society. Neither do they have sufficient numbers to present a coherent challenge, and to be fair, nor is it their job to build popular movements. This is not just a debate on rationality; instead it’s a political battle that can only be won through a combination of rational arguments backed by political strength. For this purpose, it is essential for the political forces to turn their massive electoral strength into concrete political strength when facing the challenge of extremism.
Last, there is no way we can find a durable solution to this ideology of hate until and unless we start to question the premise of our statist project. The attempts at converting Pakistanis into homogenous, Muslim subjects has led to the marginalisation of all those groups who have rejected the universalising narrative of the state, while simultaneously placing the mullahs and the military in a position of strength and hence, curtailing the space for democratic politics. With the interests of our political class embedded with the perpetuation of state power, it is difficult to foresee any significant rupture from the ideological foundation of the state. Unfortunately, without recognising and challenging such structural constraints by a national security state, it is difficult to imagine a long-term solution to a crisis that now threatens the very foundations of our socio-political culture.