New Age Islam Edit Bureau
23 May 2018
Loving the Royals
By Rafia Zakaria
Two Steps Forward?
By Mahir Ali
By Bina Shah
Challenges To Democracy
By Zahid Hussain
Trump’s Jerusalem Move
By Amanat Ali Chaudhry
Seeds of Fascism
By Amjad Bashir Siddiqi
Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
May 23, 2018
THERE are obvious reasons for Pakistan’s
continuing fascination with the British royals. The bits and pieces of our
colonial past, the adulation of white skin, of white customs, of white pomp and
circumstance, had over two centuries to seep into the mind and blood of our
ancestors. Power then was the ability to be the good subject, the obedient subject,
properly dazzled by the pomp of the colonial masters.
The speakers of English, and the admirers
of the English, were duly rewarded, and their progeny continue the tradition.
The wealthiest display swords and statues, and mix and mingle in clubs that
were begun by the colonists of old; having bowed before the conquerors is often
offered up as if it were a badge of some bit of residual royalty, a claim to
the crown itself.
It follows, then, that the latest royal
wedding, that of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, was an occasion for
commemoration, for rapt attention to the clothes and the jewels, the ceremony
and circumstance. Many awaited the day with an eagerness not afforded the
weddings of many; many others consumed every bit and piece of royal trivia,
what the royal couple-to-be were saying or doing, whether Meghan’s dad would
attend or not, whether her family, African-American, would be afforded the same
warm welcome given to the family of the Duchess of Cambridge.
Pakistan’s adoration of archaic English
customs is rooted in the idea that inherited wealth and stature must be the
basis for the ordering of a society.
In these details, of course, lay another
reason why royal weddings have such a hold over the country. The details of
their gossip, whether the boy’s family would be appropriately respectful,
whether the girl’s family would be adequately submissive, which relative would
be miffed and who would refuse to show up, all bear shocking resemblance to the
workings of weddings in Pakistan. To see the details of brown colonised family
life imposed on those of the British royalty is an occasion of a lifetime.
There are too many daughters-in-law waiting to show a little of their own
feminism, à la Markle, to in-laws whose traditions are suffocating and dated
and yet duly enforced on all new members of the family.
Then there is the issue of roles. As the
noted British author Hilary Mantel wrote in an acidic (but brilliant) essay on
the royals a few years ago, when the requirement of the job of princess (or prince,
etc) is to follow a closely scripted role, one with little or no actual
significance, then a plastic person, one with no edges of their own, is best
suited for the job. Kate Middleton, the elder Bahu, in Mantel’s view is a
As Mantel puts it, Middleton seemed to have
been “selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as
painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without
the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made,
machine-made”. Pakistanis like similar sorts of daughters-in-law, and so it
would make sense that they would be attracted to the drama of the next one’s
As in Pakistani households, the second
daughter-in-law faces fewer expectations; her husband is not the first son, not
the golden boy. So it is with the British royals, whose second son has gone off
and married an American woman, an African-American woman. Not only has she been
married before (at a ceremony in Jamaica), she is (gasp), at 36 years old, four
years his senior.
In this, the British royal family has
proven more accepting than the persnickety and self-righteous in-laws of the
Pakistani variety. Even without castles and jewels at their command, Pakistani
in-laws would be enraged and throw a fit if a dear son showed up with a
divorced older woman — who is also (gasp) dark-skinned — as a bride. For all of
Pakistan’s adulation of the royals, their own pretences at noble lineage, and
the veins of prejudice and the creepy predilection for the ‘girl bride’ in the
country that the British made, are too strong. For Pakistani mothers-in-law,
scheming and judging on sofas around the land, Meghan Markle simply would not
In the Western world, in Britain itself,
the royals are vestigial relics of the past that exist mostly for spectacle, a
sort of living history exhibit that represents the past and the bygone.
Pakistan’s adoration of the archaic customs that play out each time there is a
royal wedding, however, is firmly rooted in the present, in the idea that
inherited wealth and stature must be the basis for the ordering of a society,
and that everyone, regardless of what they actually feel, should behave
according to a closely scripted role. There is no room for anything else here,
and so a public spectacle devoted to inherited privilege and scripted roles
becomes an affirmation of sorts, a confirmation that the Pakistani way is the
It is not the right way; it is in fact a
suffocating and constraining way. Like the royals themselves, who eventually
are all revealed to be either unhappy, unwell, greedy or philandering, the
innards of Pakistan have become rotten quite possibly because they often refuse
to change. Daughters-in-law grow up to be mothers-in-law, continuing the reign
of terror that they lived through into the next generation, men visit the same
abuse on women, everyone smiles and nods and waves and disintegrates inside.
It would be lovely indeed, if royal wedding
fever in Pakistan was just that, curious fascination for a spectacle, for
beautiful dresses and beautiful people. It is not that; it is a moment when the
archaic beliefs and practices that continue to order marital lives in Pakistan
are revived, albeit for only a moment, by the British. For one moment, the way
Pakistanis live and love now can be imagined as the way the world’s living
royals do as well.
THEY may not qualify as echoes of May 1968,
but a pair of intriguing developments means that May 2018 could go down as a
historic turning point in the political trajectories of at least two very
First and foremost, the Malaysian election
result earlier this month was remarkable on several counts. It was the first
instance of power democratically changing hands in that country since it gained
independence in 1957, and that too in a region where lately elections have
generally served to reinforce the status quo. Furthermore, the ostensible
transformation has been led by a nonagenarian who, until the turn of the
century, personified the status quo, in collaboration with his most celebrated
Mahathir Mohamad, during his 32 years as
prime minister, frequently lapsed into the authoritarian category, especially
in terms of crushing dissent. His most prominent victim was his deputy, Anwar
Ibrahim, with whom he spectacularly fell out following the 1997 Asian financial
crisis. Facetiously charged with sodomy, Anwar was brutalised and incarcerated
for the remainder of Mahathir’s tenure.
He was imprisoned again, on the same absurd
charge, after winning more votes than another Mahathir protégé, Najib Razak.
Last week, Anwar emerged from imprisonment following a royal pardon obtained
through Mahathir’s intercession as the newly elected prime minister, after the
multi-ethnic coalition that includes both men’s parties unexpectedly won the
election on a reformist agenda.
Malaysia and Armenia may be poised on the
cusp of change.
Cronyism was among the accusations by Anwar
on which he fell out with Mahathir in the 1990s, but the latter’s political
machinations were not guided by the goal of personal enrichment. Najib’s
regime, on the other hand, has been cited by the US Department of Justice as
kleptocracy at its worst. Raids on his properties in recent days yielded not
only incriminating amounts of cash in various currencies but also a haul of
Hermes Birkin handbags and various other luxuries. Who knows whether Donald
Trump was aware of his DOJ’s verdict when he feted Najib at the White House and
presented him with a signed photograph inscribed with the words: “To my
favourite prime minister.”
Najib’s biggest scandal revolved around
billions siphoned off from a state fund known as 1MDB, including some $700
million that ended up in his personal account — although it has been claimed
that amount came from personal Saudi donors. It was apparently the 1MDB
embarrassment that was decisive in Mahathir turning against Najib and
successfully seeking reconciliation with Anwar. Even so, no one seriously
expected the opposition alliance to triumph against the Barisan Nasional
coalition headed by the United Malays National Organisation, given the latter’s
penchant for bribery, manipulation and gerrymandering.
But it seems the tide had decisively
turned, and it seems to have helped that the opposition coalition, Pakatan
Harapan, had a familiar figure at its helm — at nearly 93, Mahathir looks at
least 20 years younger and remains perfectly coherent in his speech, which is
still characterised by the sharp tongue that made him an entertaining presence
at international gatherings.
If Mahathir’s late-life resurgence lends
some sort of hope to Nawaz Sharif, others such as Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri
may be more moved by the example of Nikol Pashinyan, who was catapulted in the
past few weeks from protest leader to prime minister in Armenia.
The impetus for change evolved last month
when Serzh Sargsyan, who had exhausted his two terms as president, sought to
parachute himself into the prime ministership of the former Soviet republic —
which has followed the common trajectory of a failed socialist model morphing
almost instantaneously into neoliberal authoritarianism. Widespread protests,
mainly rooted in economic discontent, persuaded Sargsyan to bow out. But his
party, holding a parliamentary majority, initially rejected Pashinyan as a
During the second vote, there were an
estimated 250,000 people in the square and streets outside parliament, awaiting
its verdict — that is, close to 10 per cent of the nation’s population. Enough
members of the ruling party caved in for Pashinyan to emerge as the prime
minister. In that capacity, he has promised to call fresh elections as soon as
conditions are conducive. He has also promised to liberate the Armenian enclave
of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, and thereby to solve a dispute that marred
the final years of the Soviet Union and has persisted ever since.
Of course, in both these instances, one must
concede that the harbingers of hope may be short-lived. Armenia isn’t exactly
out of the woods, and in Malaysia the longevity of the anti-Najib coalition is
difficult to predict now that he is out of the way and quite possibly headed
for the courtroom dock. The hopes that have been raised may be disappointed.
But they might not. If it’s premature for anyone to jump for joy, there’s
certainly no harm in keeping one’s fingers tightly crossed.
“DO you know anything about aboriginal art?
No? Well, let me tell you about it.”
These confident words came not from a
museum curator in Australia, but from a young student of SMB Fatima Jinnah
Girls School, a government’ school in Karachi. I was at The Second Floor to see
‘Taruuf’, an art show by the students, and speak to them about the artwork, but
instead, I got a lesson in what investing in art can do for children at every
level of society.
Since 2007, Shehzad Roy’s Zindagi Trust has
been managing SMB Fatima Jinnah Girls School, which caters to those children
whose parents can’t afford to pay for their education. Along with improvements
in infrastructure, teacher training, and governance, as well as extracurricular
activities like football, chess and life skills, an art programme was started
here and at the Khatoon-e-Pakistan Government Girls School. Teaching art to the
students would help them discover their artistic and creative talents and
develop into well-rounded citizens.
Girls had created self-portraits inspired
Teaching art in Pakistan is extremely
difficult. Teachers are not drawn to the subject; there is a serious lack of
exposure to art among educators. The Zia years effectively turned art from a
necessary part of society into something evil and taboo. Tanya Shah, head of
the art department at PECHS Girls School, recounts stories of parents not
wanting their children to draw hands and feet because they considered it
un-Islamic. “If you want to kill a society, kill its arts,” she says.
It was a real challenge to introduce art
into a school that had never even had a drawing teacher, but the Trust’s head
of art, Anam Khalid and her colleagues were determined to prove that art could
be taught at a low-income government school, and taught well. Attitudes would
have to be changed too: the girls “hated” art and never wanted to choose it as
a subject, and parents were equally negative.
Shahida Abdul Ghaffar, a teacher at SMB
Fatima Jinnah, spoke about the dearth of art in the school. “Before this
programme, we were only able to teach the girls simple things, like drawing a
Pakistani flag or the four provinces of Pakistan.” Even rudimentary materials
were too expensive for children to buy and bring to class, but the programme
supplied the paints, brushes, pencils and papers. Art became a weekly subject
at both schools, with Ms. Khalid training teachers about different mediums,
techniques, and famous painters. The teachers then passed this information on
to their students.
Not only did students learn the art of
different cultures and countries through the curriculum, but they learned art
history as well. They went on field trips to “find art everywhere” — museums,
heritage buildings, place of worship, galleries and universities. A huge art
room was opened at each school, with students’ work displayed. Ms. Khalid
reports that when parents walked in, they were bowled over by the art their
daughters had created. Soon, parents were asking Ms. Ghaffar why she wasn’t
assigning them more art homework; some even demanded that only art be taught to
The art programme had unexpected results:
attendance went up, and so did enrolment. Student achievement rose in other
subjects, too, because art was integrated into the entire curriculum. In
biology class, studying mammals, students were told to draw an imaginary
creature made out of two separate mammals.
Parents began to withdraw their children
from low-cost private schools and register them in the government schools just
so that they could access the art programme. Although it was only coincidence
that the schools with the art programme were for girls, parents began to ask,
“What about our sons? Can’t they learn art too?”
At the T2F exhibit, young girls in 7th and
8th class talked enthusiastically about pointillism, the life of Pablo Picasso
(the four periods of his artistic career were explained very carefully to me),
how optical illusions worked, and the origins of Pakistani truck art. Girls had
created self-portraits inspired by Paul Klee and cubism; desi takes on the Mona
Lisa; collages and pastel drawings. They knew more about art than I did.
The effect on the girls’ personal
development might be the real miracle here: their minds began to open to the
world, and to the beauty in it, but they also started to think about their
place in the world and what they might accomplish.
Since the programme was introduced, some
girls have graduated and begun studying at Karachi University and medical
college. Others have come back asking to be taken on as interns so they can
help with the art and football programmes (another success story waiting to be
told). Art has made these girls bloom; imagine what it could do for every child
Challenges to Democracy
DEFYING the doubters, the National Assembly
will complete its five-year term next week. Notwithstanding the thunderbolts
that frequently jolted the political process, the system has survived. Transition
from one elected government to another now appears a reality, though there are
still a few hurdles to cross.
It will indeed be a high point in the
country’s rocky democratic journey. These five years like the previous ones
have also been extremely tumultuous, in which yet another elected prime
minister has bitten the dust. The unceremonious ouster of arguably the
country’s most powerful elected figure continues to cast long shadows over the
fragile democratic political process.
Already barred from the electoral process
for life, the exit may mark the end of Nawaz Sharif’s long yet chequered
political career, though not the end of the Sharif political dynasty. The
elections would certainly lead to a changing of the guard but can that bring
any qualitative transformation in the system?
It remains to be seen whether the
much-touted transition could change the existing power dynamics and bring
political stability to the country or would it result in further weakening of
the elected bodies, with non-elected institutions filling the void. The
apprehensions about installation of a hybrid political system with the military
and judiciary becoming an informal part of the power troika are not without
reason. In fact the country is already experiencing this creeping phenomenon.
Instead of an improved quality of
democracy, Pakistan has been sliding in the opposite direction.
It is not just imbalance of power and
persistent confrontation among various institutions of the state that has
caused the disorder; the political leadership too is responsible for
undermining the democratic process. Parliament has been reduced to a chaotic
debating club with the leadership showing no deference to the elected house.
Members and top political leaders alike
show little respect for legislative proceedings as attendance frequently falls
way below the 25pc mark leading to premature adjournments and even prorogation.
During the four years when he was in power, Sharif seldom attended
parliamentary sessions. His slogan “give respect to the vote” sounds hollow,
given his utter contempt for the elected forums.
Some of the opposition parties too have
been responsible for undermining the role of parliament. The PTI boycotted the
National Assembly for almost one year and Imran Khan never refrained from
expressing his disdain for the elected forum. He rarely appeared in the house,
even after the party ended the boycott.
Moreover, when they did deign to be present
in the assembly, parliamentarians would hardly participate in debate, even on
important national and foreign policy issues thereby rendering the legislative
body ineffective. This has also led to the inability of the lawmakers to
resolve political and institutional crises. Unsurprisingly, the country failed
to make a steady transition towards improved democracy.
Despite the fact that Pakistan has entered
the longest uninterrupted period of elected civilian rule in its history,
democracy appears to be weakening. While elected governments and political
leadership ceded space in policy spheres, the military has increased its
overreach into areas outside of its professional domain.
With parliament and the civilian
law-enforcement agencies having been rendered ineffective by the elected
leadership, weak governance has allowed the judiciary to extend its role. Some
judges too appear to have succumbed to populist pressures when they give mostly
unwarranted observations during the course of judicial proceedings.
Lack of internal policy cohesion and focus
on national issues has further weakened the democratic process. One of the
factors obstructing the growth of a democratic culture and ethos has been the
absence of democracy within the political parties. Most have turned into family
enterprises or revolve around personalities.
There is no tradition of internal party
debate on critical policy issues and it all depends on the whims of the
leaders. Party elections are a sham and conducted merely for the sake of
fulfilling a legal formality. The swiftness with which politicians change their
party affiliations overnight for the sake of expediency, and the manner in
which political parties woo so-called ‘electables’ illustrate the lack of
principles in our political culture.
Instead of a steady transition towards an
improvement in the quality of democracy, Pakistan has been sliding in the
opposite direction more rapidly since 2013 when the PML-N returned to power and
Nawaz Sharif was elected as prime minister for a record third time.
According to a report by the Pakistan
Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, while the quality of
democracy in 2013 scored its highest in four years at 54pc, the scores slid 10
percentage points in 2014 to 44pc, rose a little to 50pc in 2015 and slipped
again to 46pc at the end of 2016. The situation has become worse in the past
The challenge to democracy in Pakistan has
worsened because there is a lack of crucially required reforms. There has not
been any substantive improvement in the fundamental functioning of key
democratic institutions. The failure of parliament in resolving issues such as
the Panama scandal and the inability of the government to take the lead in
formulating national security and foreign policies have further eroded civilian
The government’s failure in
institutionalising a consultative decision-making process too has been a major
factor in the expansion of space for unelected institutions such as the
military and judiciary. Another aspect of the systemic failure of democratic
governance is its inability to deliver on critical economic, social and
political issues. That has resulted in waning public faith in democracy.
These are the vital issues plaguing the
country’s political process. The coming elections are critical to the future of
democracy in the country. Following this exercise, the new parliament and the
government will have to address these key issues in order to consolidate
governance and deliver to the electorate. It is apparent that democracy cannot
function without the rule of law. There is a need for fundamental structural
reform to achieve these objectives. Will our leaders learn from their own
shortcomings and take the country to democratic stability?
What transpired on the fateful day of May
14 in Palestine could not have been put more symbolically and succinctly than
it was in a cartoon published by The New York Times, in its international
edition of May 16.
Depicting the opening of the US embassy in
Jerusalem, the cartoon showed the inauguration ‘celebrations’ taking place as
‘fireworks’ at the Palestine-Israel fence in Gaza went on, in which the Israeli
forces killed at least 60 Palestinians including children, and injured
thousands others in what has been termed the bloodiest day in Palestinian
history since 2014.
The symbolism did not escape the eyes of
the region’s keen observers, who cannot help but see more bloodshed and chaos
in the coming months as the Middle East descends into more uncertainty. Trump’s
move to shift the embassy is not an isolated incident, and is replete with
grave implications, not only for the multilateral global system but also for
the Middle East.
The Trump administration’s decision to walk
the talk of opening the US embassy in Jerusalem on the day when Israel was
founded 70 years ago was meant to convey a powerful message that with Trump in
office, the Israelisation of the US is complete and all nuances of diplomacy
are nothing in his global worldview, which is based on the principle of ‘might
On the eve of the US presidential
elections, the US presidential hopefuls, belonging to both Democratic and
Republican parties, wrestle with each other to over-commit greater loyalty to
Israel. This is done to win over the crucial support of the powerful Israeli
lobbies, including the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
However, the hopefuls somehow refrain from pushing the envelope lest the US
loses its credibility as a broker of peace in a conflict that has defied all
efforts at finding a permanent solution and which continues to serve as a
reminder of the historical injustice done to the Palestinians.
When President Trump made the crucial
announcement of relocating the US embassy in December 2017, it sent shockwaves
across the world. Many of the US’ Western allies warned it of deviating from
the policy of apparent neutrality, and that the deviation could upset the
existing status quo in the Middle East. They reminded the US president of the
international consensus regarding the decision on the status of Jerusalem: to
be determined through negotiations between Israel and Palestinians themselves,
following a peace treaty that would lead to a two-state solution.
Disregarding international opinions and apprehensions
of his allies, Trump went ahead with his audacious plan and sent his son-in-law
and daughter, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, to inaugurate the new embassy
building. How crucial was the move for Israel’s years-long dream of Jerusalem
being considered its capital – a claim severely contested by the Palestinians –
was manifest in the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s triumphant
remarks: “President Trump, by recognising history, you have made history”, and
“We are in Jerusalem and we are here to stay.”
The Trump administration’s unilateral move
has grievously hurt the US’ image of a neutral peace broker. It tore apart the
longstanding consensus within Washington over the American policy on the
Palestinian conflict. The message that the US administration has sent across is
that the US, under Trump, is least bothered about optics and morality. It will
do what it wants to do, no matter what the world thinks as long as doing so
comes within the broad definition of ‘making America great again’, the slogan
that has marked the current administration’s review of the US policies,
including its engagement with the international community.
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as
Israel’s capital is yet another addition to the new and more threatening era of
unilateralism. It is a move aimed at reversing the global consensus as the US,
under the present administration, has unilaterally pulled out of the Paris
Climate Accord, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and more recently the Joint
Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
This sweeping push towards unilateralism is
rooted in the thought that the world has been ungrateful and unfair to the US,
which has carried others’ weight for too long under the rubric of being the
leader of globalisation. There is this feeling within the US administration
that the cost for global leadership has severely impacted its own population,
who have been facing the challenges of terrorism, insecurity, unemployment and
This mindset also explains Trump’s erratic
policy of trade with China, which he has singled out for leveraging bilateral
economic relations to the long-term disadvantage of the US.
The second implication of the Trump
administration’s Jerusalem move has to do with a total disregard, nay
rejection, of the UN as the central arbiter of disputes between its member
countries. The move has severely dented the UN’s credibility at a time when the
international body is already struggling to remain relevant in an environment
marked by reduced funding commitments by the sole superpower, and the
increasing trust deficit of the member countries.
Despite China’s advocacy in favour of the
UN’s system being at the core of consensus-building on key global issues, its
gradual belittling augurs ill for peace and stability. Now this is a very
serious and ominous development that should alarm the world community into
deliberations to save the world that is already at a precipice. While some of
the questions raised on the role of the UN, and calls for its reformation, may
be logical, but the fact is that the world body has been the last ray of hope
for the not-so-powerful countries, despite all its imperfections.
One way or the other, the UN has been the
forum for correct diagnoses of the ailments afflicting the global community and
articulating the right kind of responses, even though it has been found wanting
in implementation of its resolutions for reasons which can easily be
understood. The Trump administration’s move of relocating its embassy to
Jerusalem will hasten the process of UN’s irrelevance.
The already turbulent region of the Middle
East is now further exposed to the grave prospect of more disorder, chaos and
violence. After Trump– to the complete bewilderment of the US’s European allies
– scrapped the Iran nuclear deal painstakingly struck by President Obama and
other Western allies in 2015, the Middle East has been set for a renewed
competition of regional supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This war to
acquire more turf will end up taking on a more sectarian colour, effects of
which will be felt beyond the Middle East, exporting instability in other
Trump’s Jerusalem move has made the OIC
look more irrelevant and outdated than before. Though Turkish President Tayyip
Erdogan has been at pains to inject some vitality and direction into the
pan-Islamic organisation, and has also presided over two extraordinary sessions
of the OIC in Istanbul in a span of six months, the fact that Muslims together
have been unable to draw up a comprehensive policy against Israeli oppression
of the Palestinians cannot be masked.
The OIC’s helplessness in the face of
combined challenges of Tel Aviv and Washington is stark. Other than issuing
clichéd communiqués, the Muslim organisation has failed to make its presence
felt, emboldening the Israeli prime minister to implement the policy of
‘systematic genocide’ of the Palestinians.
With the organised Muslim states failing to
rein in Israel in the face of its policy of mass slaughter along the Gaza
border, the resulting dismay among Muslims runs the risk of making some of them
more susceptible to the message of terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and
Isis. The effects of Trump’s decision of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem
will continue to be felt for a long time.
Seeds Of Fascism
The wild and dangerous transformation of
speech and dialogue from a subtle, nuanced discussion to a more popular
“nonsensical screech of wild words” – punctuated by vitriol and rancour – is a
The gradual descent to outright profanity
reeks of the kind of fascism that prevailed during Hitler and Mussolini’s era.
The indulgence in fascist tendencies by a section of the religious and the
political leadership breeds a culture of intolerance and dogmatism in an
already volatile and deeply fractured society.
We have seen the behaviour of mercurial,
eccentric leaderships that have employed demagoguery and espoused narrow
nationalism laced with hatemongering. This was demonstrated in the hatred for
and expulsion of fellow Europeans during the Brexit debates; the decision of
the alt-right in France, Germany and the Netherlands to advocate Islamophobia
and resist economic immigrants; and the support that Trump’s policies received
from white supremacists in the US against blacks, Mexicans, and Muslim
India’s Modi has used narrow Hindutva
values to carry out beef-lynchings that victimise minorities. Even our own
politicians – from Bhutto to Altaf Hussain to Imran Khan to Nawaz Sharif and Z
A Bhutto – have exhibited fascist tendencies at one time or the other.
The people, who are reeling under miserable
living conditions, consider this to be an expression of boldness and,
therefore, idolise leaders who voice these views. Fascist leaders succeeded due
to their skilful manipulation of the petty bourgeoisie’s frustrations and anger
against the wealthy and the political classes through rhetoric that whipped
them into a frenzy. The people were naively led to believe in a saviour who
would address all evil and revive a glorious past. This saviour often demanded
blind faith. There is a constant refrain to a glorious past that could be
resurrected, drowning all sorrows in its wake.
And here we are with our own saviours.
While Imran is not far behind with his ‘Mr Clean’ image, Altaf Hussain took
personality cult as a legitimising technique to frenzied heights. And, in order
to neutralise Benazir Bhutto’s influence in Punjab before the elections in the
early 1990s, Nawaz Sharif agitated the narrow nationalistic slogan of ‘jag
Punjabi jag, teri pag no lag gaya dag’ (Wake up Punjabi your honour has taken a
hit). At times, even Z A Bhutto acted like a rabble-rouser and started the
Federal Security Force, akin to Mussolini’s paramilitary ‘squadrista’ or the
‘Blackshirts’. He also had little patience for the opposition and took extreme
measures to stifle it, which ultimately led to his downfall.
Like other nationalists, Altaf Hussain also
employed racism, violence, and incendiary rhetoric to cultivate an image of
Mohajirs being discriminated by Sindhis, Punjabis and Pakhtuns. Like the
Squadrista, Altaf raised a militant force that resorted to the worst form of
terrorism against other ethnic groups living in Karachi, rattling the city in
violence and mayhem for decades.
Demonstrating street muscle is another
characteristic of such myopic leadership. Some attack the Supreme Court while
others storm PTV. The political disrupter, as Imran would like to call himself,
also profits from the middle-class support base, and employs sit-ins as a
pressure tactic. He also routinely invokes nostalgia, offering naive solutions
to restore Pakistan’s past glory from the 1950s and 1960s by referring to
economic growth and his plans to restore respect for the green passport.
The religious forces employ the same
theatrics as are used by their more secular cousins. Tahirul Qadri is another
such rabble-rouser who has used religious rhetoric and sit-ins as a weapon to
force his agenda on the PPP and the PML-N governments. He often flies in from
Canada and swiftly returns after his mission is accomplished. Society is being
confronted by a volatile mix of fascist trends, manifested in the political and
religious leadership, and religious zealotry as tools of political exclusion.
This has pushed society towards the precipice.
We have been here before, as all of the
regional and nationalistic political forces worked to reduce the influence of
the PPP and the PML-N. Also in the repertoire were the Taliban and militant
sectarian forces, including the virulent Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. The latter
helped Gen Zia reduce the PPP’s influence in Punjab. In return, its leadership
managed to enter parliament as MNAs under the mainstreaming formula of the
During the 2013 election, the Taliban
targeted the ANP election campaign, killing several of their candidates and
eclipsing its chances of any substantive success in the province. The PPP was
also targeted. Now it looks like it is the PML-N’s turn to be contained in
parts of Punjab by the JuD and the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan – groups that
showed their strength during the NA-120 by-election.
As the general elections draw closer, the
assassination attempt on Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, allegedly by an
activist of the Khadim Rizvi-led Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, proves how lethal
bigotry can be.
In the immediate aftermath of the Faizabad
protests, we saw PML-N leaders being attacked by the religious zealots. This
degenerated further when someone claiming to be a ‘spiritual personality’
summoned political leaders to profess their faith and set this as a condition
to remain in an alliance with the PML-N.
Fascist tendencies and religious extremism
have far more serious repercussions than those elements that are against the
political setup. This will continue to hold social moderation hostage to the
forces of chaos, triggering a social breakdown that will resurrect the devil
that we have struggled to overcome.
All this is happening at a time when we are
at the cusp of winning the struggle against retrogressive militants and
marching towards a moderate future. Perhaps we have an overpowering death wish
to surrender to the same extremist forces and knuckle-draggers that drive us
into the swampy world of structural hypocrisy, jeopardising national security
and making the social fabric all the more unstable.
French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville
contended that liberal mores and traditions within society are the bedrock of
democracy. We need liberal and progressive forces more than ever to address the
situation. We should have devoted this time to ensuring social and economic
justice, and legislating on personal liberties, justice and equality. But it
seems our contrary impulses want to keep society in a fragile state.