Sep 5, 2010

Getting things straight

Those whose homes have been ravaged by floods will be partial to the ideologies of those that provide them with real assistance

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

So much of what passes for informed comment in Pakistan is reactive. If on the one hand this is explained by a paucity of meaningful intellectual inquiry and social embeddedness, then on the other hand it is also a function of the sheer number of 'incidents' that take place in this country to which anyone with a conscience must respond. The gruesome and indiscriminate attacks on the Shi'a community in Lahore and Quetta over the past couple of days require a response, and an urgent one at that.

But before I turn to what these latest incidents of violence signify, I must also express my utter disgust at the manner in which the electronic media -- the print press is less culpable -- has chosen to depict the series of events involving some of our most prominent cricketers in England. While there can be no argument against the adage 'innocent until proven guilty', I find it incredible how so many media outlets and 'commentators' have pitched what has happened as a 'conspiracy' against Pakistan. The tabloid press in England has an awful reputation: Pakistan's mainstream Urdu press clearly does not want to be left behind. It cannot be stressed enough that the media in this day and age plays a crucial role in forging public sentiment. At a time when serious introspection and analysis are so badly required, it is a sad reflection on our media moguls, editors and at least a segment of working journalists that sensational stories on 'cricket corruption' are projected as more important than everything else around us.

To return to the killings in Lahore and Quetta: in the aftermath of these episodes the debate about how best to tackle such renegade violence will be reignited, at least to some extent. I find it difficult to understand what there is left to debate. Despite countless 'counter-terrorist' initiatives over the course of the past decade, individuals willing to blow themselves and others up in the name of some fantastical divine calling are still a dime a dozen. The physical and social infrastructure of the hate-mongers is very much intact. The objective reasons for the persistence of hatefulness cease to go away. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera!

Let us also not forget that the 20 million people whose lives have been wrecked by the monsoon rains are easy prey for the hate-mongers, especially given the experience that the latter have in responding to and indoctrinating those who are in social and economic distress. In short, it is high time that we accept that all of our premises about 'terrorism' and how to counter it are dreadfully flawed. The more time we spend believing international and local media outlets that spew out nonsense about 'terrorism' without trying to uncover its social and cultural bases, the more ground we are ceding to those who provide simple escape routes to 'salvation'.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago on these pages about the thoroughly under-nourished 'secularism' debate in this country. I believe it is high time that we move beyond the notion that the primary faultline in Pakistan today is between secularism and 'fundamentalism'. Ordinary people are not 'secular' or 'fundamentalist'. One can argue that states can or should be secular, but people's moral and political choices are not driven by abstract ideas of, in Durkheim's famous words, the 'sacred' and 'profane'. Even if our conduct is influenced by ideals, human agency has historically been affected more by material interests, both collective and individual. It is time that we stop thinking of 'terrorists' as being victims of a mental condition and recognise that they are real people with real problems and make life choices on the basis of their material realities.

Those whose homes have been ravaged by floods will at this stage of their lives be partial to the ideologies of those that provide them with real assistance. If it is those who talk of 'secular' ideals that demonstrate their commitment to people in their time of need, then the chances are that such ideals will take root within the social enclaves that are being provided relief. We should not need reminding that most of the right-wing Islamic groups that have now become influential in Muslim countries were once upon a time marginal entities that garnered social and political space by undertaking welfare activities. Hamas, Hezbollah and a number of jihadi groups in our country are cases in point.

Having said this I am a firm believer that the state should be the provider of people's basic needs. These days the state versus market binary has become so overpowering as to totally obfuscate the dialectical relationship between capitalism and the modern bureaucratic state. Throughout modern history the state and private capital have had a symbiotic relationship. However, where powerful political movements representing the interests of working people have existed, the state has been forced to respond and ensure minimum levels of subsistence, amenities and a modicum of social justice.

In countries such as ours where the state's service delivery and justice provision arms are underdeveloped vis-a-vis its coercive apparatus, de facto space exists for non-state actors to generate support on account of their filling in the vacuum created by the state's absence. It is time to recognise that this is how the right-wing functions and that there is no particular DNA from which crazed millenarian warriors are created, where social spaces exist due to the inability and/or unwillingness of the state to meet people's material needs, the right-wing steps in and plies its trade.

Finally, another digression. While the timing may have been bad (inasmuch as the floods have been at the forefront of public consciousness since late July), the PTCL workers' strike which has been ongoing for almost a month surely deserves a tad bit more attention than it has been receiving. Close to 30,000 workers are on strike yet the media has either pretended as if nothing is wrong or been quite content to tow the management's line which criminalises a 'handful of instigators'. What will it take for us to question the media's infinite wisdom with respect to what constitutes news and what does not?

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