Feb 19, 2009

Culture, not politics

IN the absence of serious, viable, sustained political opposition to the militants’ pogrom in the Frontier province, the current agreement for Sharia enforcement was inevitable. The absence of secular political resistance to the militants’ violent religious agenda meant that a compromise, brokered by Islamists, was the only resort for the government. Meanwhile, liberal antipathy towards the systematic and misogynistic decimation of social and cultural expression in the province could only elicit a few scattered protests. This state of inertia, apathy and tacit conservative complicity has worried social liberals too; those who had, during the Musharraf era, become used to a lifestyle of high cultural activity. In the messy democratic year that has passed, the rapid fear of what is popularly being called ‘Talibanisation’, has become a part of urban vocabulary as well. In essence, Talibanisation is often used euphemistically to describe any form of uber-conservatism or chauvinism — even if it is non-militant. It is interesting though that it is not used as a label to describe acts of communalism or sectarianism. So one is Talibanesque if he condones honour killings, or considers music to be forbidden, or is a philistine — but not if he considers some sects as non-Muslims, or believes in banking that is made to appear as Islamic. It is a matter of degrees and boundaries and whether you base your definition on a material, structuralist perspective or merely on perception. Therefore, it should not be surprising that for some people, in the current situation of growing militancy, even Valentine’s Day is being touted as an act of political resistance to ‘Talibanisation’. It is this reasoning that encourages suggestions that the recently held Kara Film Festival has transformed cinema viewing from a cultural activity into a political one. In a country where CD shops are being torched by anti-culturalists, it is tempting to see the continuation of film viewing in the public as a force de resistance. However, this is both an apolitical, ahistorical and perhaps also unfair rendering of responsibilities and qualities attached to a cultural activity, that is really just that — a cultural activity. This is not to divorce cultural expression from politics or indeed from political resistance. When dance and theatre were banned during the Gen Zia years, women and male dancers performed as acts of resistance against the state when their very lives were in danger; theatre troupes staged plays on streets as acts of political subversion and singers sang anti-government anthems. In other words, the context is very important when we define something as an act of political resistance. Over the last eight years, high culture, or that which is patronised essentially by a liberal elite, was not just tolerated, in fact, encouraged, it was directly patronised by Gen Musharraf. The KaraFilm Festival organisers would remember this well, for they were not just accommodated by the military dictator’s government but in fact, in return for his patronage, they invited him to grace the festival ceremonies.For those who praise the importance of symbolic gestures, quite rightly, this is an equally big one for the history books. Of course, given how society changes quickly under globalisation, yesterday’s accommodative politics could be considered today’s resistance politics but one should keep historical perspective alive in one’s analysis as well as the context. If the festival was held in Swat, I would be willing to absolve the festival of its historical expediency and consider it in the light of the piece de resistance. Also, if the anti-culturalist militants should descend on Karachi, I seriously doubt their target would be the Kara festival. One needs to acknowledge that the militants have a political vision that is grounded in a culture that is connected to the masses. Therefore, they necessarily target tainted mass culture as the evil, not an esoteric one. Of course there’s no guarantee the militants will necessarily make this distinction in the ultimate analysis — but does that really matter? After all, militants want to close down CD shops for ideological violations while the film industry itself wants to shut down CD shops for intellectual property violations. It’s just a matter of whose regulatory method you prefer. The suggestion here is not to disparage cultural efforts including film festivals and puppet shows. Instead, it is important to distinguish that political resistance certainly does not have to be limited in form to street activism, writings or study groups. Yet, in terms of both content and alliances, the politics and the purpose of activism needs to go beyond symbolism, image, good intent, accidental timing or availability of funds. At some point, the potential of a symbol gets lost if it’s left to be interpreted by changing social contexts rather than its own politics. Otherwise, we will end up with a generation that considers hanging out at coffee shops as an act of resistance — and I personally think in many sociological ways, this may well be an important cultural activity. In some contexts, such as during the emergency in 2007, one such venue even became a centre for consciousness-raising and political education of sorts. However, resistance implies action that is against the grain and to match the kind of political challenges we are facing today, it is going to need much more than symbolic gestures to qualify as a meaningful, political act of resistance. If we keep pulling down the bar of political activity to meet some desperate standard, then like in Afghanistan, a fashion show will also be considered an act of political resistance. But we aren’t there yet so it’s perhaps premature to relegate all cultural activity to the realm of political resistance, thereby blunting the edge of political activism. If anything, seemingly, the festival attempts to veer away from the idea that art and culture have to always be about politics by its inclusion of Hollywood and Bollywood popular films. Perhaps we should respect the festival for its contribution as an event which attempts to normalise cultural activity regardless of the political context, patron, sponsor or government of the day.

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