Mar 15, 2010

Making the right choice

It is time to move beyond naïve binaries that are employed by those who seek to impose their project of material and ideological domination over everyone else

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

Following the very public pronouncement by General David Petraeus that the United States recognises the Pakistani military’s quest for strategic depth, our ‘real government’ is probably feeling quite content. The elected government, however, is unlikely to be feeling as thrilled. At least some Pakistan People’s Party high-ups, along with many observers outside the government, believed the US might actually force the military establishment to once and for all sever links with the Islamists that it has supported for the best part of four decades. These hopes are now apparently in tatters.

I suspect I was not the only one who was slightly more pessimistic about how things would actually unfold. In fact the writing was on the wall soon after February 2008 when a dramatic new TV personality appeared on our screens. In two years, a cult of personality has developed around Mr. Zaid Hamid; hundreds of thousands of urban, educated and mostly young people have taken to his ‘message’. On March 23, Mr. Hamid is organising a ‘Takmeel-e-Pakistan’ rally at the Minar-e-Pakistan. His ‘movement’ will not stop there.

Zaid Hamid has been given incredible amounts of air time over the past two years. Tellingly he appeared first on Pakistan Television (PTV) and then on TV One. He has secured dedicated time slots on many more channels. He spews out hateful rhetoric with hardly more sophistication than the neighbourhood mullah, but appeals to upper middle-class youth because he is concerned not with matters of personal dress and instead piques their ultra-nationalist sentiments.

Mr. Hamid has resuscitated the anti-India state narrative and tacked it onto a similarly old narrative about global Jewish conspiracy. It is clear that he was strategically cast into our cyber lives – particularly to jolt the nationalist imagination of upwardly mobile young people – at a time when the ideology of jihad was taking an almighty beating due to the contradictions created by the so-called ‘war on terror’. Mr. Hamid’s job has been to convince the TV-consuming public that the problem was not jihadi ideology, but instead our ‘corrupt’ rulers who are lapdogs of ‘infidels’. In short, the Pakistani military’s image as the guardian of the state – both territorially and its ‘ideological frontiers’ – has been rehabilitated.

Needless to say, this is no longer the Pakistan of the 1980s, and so a figure like Zaid Hamid will not be able to get away with the bloody murder that he seems to crave. For all of its obvious power, TV cannot paper over all of the cracks in Pakistan’s creaking power structure. Not all young people can be convinced that the military establishment has angelic credentials, particularly after its image was battered – and rightfully so – during the Musharraf dictatorship. Finally the cynical manner in which war has been imposed on Pakhtunkhwa has clarified in the minds of most Pakhtuns that the military establishment is the root of the problem (which is a fact that most Baloch and even Sindhis have known for a long time).

Nevertheless, the Zaid Hamid phenomenon has worked insofar, as the target group of those who have very carefully scripted his emergence, is middle and upper-middle class youth in urban centres, and particularly in Punjab. The ideological project of the Pakistani state has never hoodwinked a wide cross-section of the Pakistani people, but that has never been its purpose. In the establishment’s calculus, so long as an influential critical mass remains coopted, the game remains winnable.

The middle and upper-middle classes that the establishment wants on board are representatives of an increasingly globalised consumer culture in which simplistic binaries of ‘momineen’ and ‘kafirs’ have no place. Zaid Hamid’s disciples are usually English-educated; some have spent time abroad or have relatives permanently settled in western cities. This social group has aspirations not dissimilar to the burgeoning Indian middle class that harbours hopes of India becoming a superpower and is increasingly drawn to exclusive nationalist symbols and the xenophobic political parties that brandish them.

That there are glaring contradictions in the worldview of these middle classes should not be lost on those of us who seek to propagate a radically different vision of society. Indeed it is only in the realm of ideas that the hate-mongering of Zaid Hamid’s and Bal Thackeray’s of the world can be challenged. Pakistan’s military establishment cannot be forced to back down from its long-standing commitments to religious militancy; neither will it voluntarily relinquish the claim that it is the protector of Pakistan’s ‘Islamic’ identity. Progressives who want to fashion a new social contract that privileges people’s welfare and a multi-national identity must be able to present an alternative vision to the middle class and win it over.

Of course such a vision will not be given air time like Zaid Hamid and even if it does make inroads into the social and political mainstream, it is unlikely to be tolerated by the ‘real government’. But then all movements throughout history that have challenged status quo have had to contend with all kinds of repression. And as I noted earlier, we no longer live in the 1980s when draconian state actions were commonplace. There is space to propagate a different worldview to that of Zaid Hamid if the necessary political will is generated.

Sadly, a large number of progressives still see the ‘ultimate fight’ to be against ‘barbaric’ mullahs and have, at least till now, put their weight behind the US and its ‘civilisational war on terror’. In doing so, progressives have effectively ceded ground to hate-mongers like Zaid Hamid. It is time to move beyond naïve binaries that are employed by those who seek to impose their project of material and ideological domination over everyone else. If a binary is necessary then it should posit on the one side all retrogressive forces – including imperialism and our obsolete state – and on the other side genuinely liberationist forces. Then making a choice is not only simple but unavoidable.

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