Oct 24, 2010

How much has really changed?

We need to think deeply about economic and political alternatives so as to attract those who are bewitched by the religious right

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

The debate over how best to deal with the phenomenon of religious militancy is at heart a debate over the underlying cultural preferences of the 170 million that make up Pakistan. Those who call for the use of military means -- targeted or indiscriminate -- to do away with militancy tend to avoid thinking about whether and to what extent values and attitudes have changed in Pakistani society in the period that religious militancy has entered the social and political mainstream.

Everyone agrees that the rot set in during the Zia dictatorship. But the real challenge is to ascertain the manner in which the machinations of the Pakistani state and its Western patrons set into motion a process of social change that is reflected in the emergence of innumerable political organisations that seek to 'Islamise' society. In other words, did the Islamisation policy of Ziaul Haq change Pakistani society fundamentally, and forever?

The obvious answer would be yes. A large and growing number of ordinary Pakistanis have become much more religious, at least in the sense of ritual observance. Mosques and madrassahs have sprung up across the length and breadth of the country. Public discourse, including mainstream politics, has been infused by religious idiom. Public space has become considerably more segregated along gender lines than it was until the 1970s, and sexual repression is now one of the biggest social problems we face.

To be fair only some of these changes necessarily represent backward motion for society. That ordinary people's religious sensibilities have been heightened is retrogressive only because of the specific manner in which the changes have taken place. Increased religious observance has been coeval with intense individualism, an increasingly amoral public sphere and an injection of illicit capital into society that has dramatically transformed norms and values.

So, how does this tally with the mushrooming of militant groups? It does not take a rocket scientist to recognise that the state's explicit patronage of militant groups has necessarily created a constituency within society that supports 'jihad'. This constituency includes a mercantile class that understand the link between right-wing politics and opportunities for mobility; white-collar residents of small towns and cities that look to cement their social position by adopting an overtly Islamic identity; and a variety of working-class segments that have provided the foot soldiers for the jihad.

Is this motley crew representative of society at large? I think not, but the efforts of a right-wing media and the establishment's three-decade long quest to re-write history have ensured that a fairly wide cross-section of ordinary people tend to express support for 'Islamic' causes, at least in rhetorical terms.

The real test, of course, comes when the mythical Islamic order that is idealised by all and sundry is actually superimposed upon the actually existing cultural system. So, for example, even before the contemporary episode of imposition of Sharia in Malakand, there have been numerous instances in modern Pakhtun history when scriptural Islamist practices were rejected by ordinary people (and elites, for that matter) under the guise that such practices did not sit well with customs and traditions that make Pakhtun society what it is.

Given that Pakhtuns are generally considered to be more prone to supporting Islamist causes than the other ethnic groups that together constitute Pakistani society, it would appear reasonable to assume that resistance to the kind of 'Islamisation' that has been championed by militant groups would be fierce across most of Pakistan. But then how would such a hypothesis tally with the selective Islamisation -- some of the features of which I have mentioned above -- that has taken place in Pakistani society over the past couple of decades?

I think at the heart of this quandary is the duality in our lives between Islam as an ideal (and rhetorical construct) and our actual conduct. To a certain extent, this can be traced back to the incessant efforts of the state to insist upon a unitary Muslim identity from the very inception of the state. And the majority of people, fearful of going against the grain, have accepted that invocation of Islam is an important facet of what the state considers the acceptable public persona, particularly since Ziaul Haq's Islamisation crusade began.

I would also like to suggest that to better understand this moral dilemma we should pay much more attention to the struggles for material resources that have more than an incidental link to our values and attitudes, both actual and imagined. In particular, a huge amount of money has found its way to religious organisations and institutions since the late 1970s. A religious functionary in society is no longer dependent on hand-outs from the public and, in fact, has become one of the more attractive patrons around.

It is necessary for much more serious inquiry to take place on the sociological bases of religious militancy. What I want to emphasise above and beyond anything else is the need for those who share a desire to reverse the trends that were set in motion under the Zia dictatorship to be much more sensitive to the deeper cultural, economic, and political changes that have taken place in this society. If we are convinced that society has withstood to a significant extent the state-sponsored Islamisation drive then we need to be able to identify and provide support to the cultural practices and institutions that represent a challenge to exclusive orthodoxy.

However, we also need to avoid thinking about continuity and change in society in expressly cultural/religious terms. What I am suggesting here is that political and economic changes both related to and independent of the increased role of religion in society need to be understood in their own right. Just as we want to rehabilitate progressive cultural practices, we need to think deeply about economic and political alternatives so as to attract those -- both young and old -- that are bewitched by the religious right at least partially because the latter is a vehicle for political and economic change that offers the illusion of upward mobility for those who are on the margins.

The left must distinguish itself from the right by not only articulating a holistic politics but also operationalising it. That this is a difficult task explains why so many of us settle for the much easier option of asking the powers-that-be to wave their proverbial magic wands and banish religious militancy from our midst.

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