Subscribe to South Asia Citizens Wire | feeds from | @sacw
Home > General > How can the Pakistani Left Become Relevant: The Hoodbhoy Recipe

How can the Pakistani Left Become Relevant: The Hoodbhoy Recipe

by Hassan N. Gardezi, 14 January 2011

print version of this article print version

I have seen an article by Pervez Hoodbhoy that has recently appeared on several websites under the title, "How Can the Pakistani Left Become Relevant?" I am not sure if this article was produced as a discussion paper for the leftist political circles in Pakistan, or how widely it has been circulated in Pakistan. What surprises me is the considerable latitude taken by Pervez in this piece to indulge in biased and subjective attacks on "Pakistani Left."

I would like to respond to this article briefly because I have always considered Pervez Hoodbhoy as someone who is in common struggle with those active on the political left in Pakistan and as such his views expressed in the article in question can do more harm than good if taken seriously.

The article (with slight variation in wording in a couple of versions) opens with the observation that "Pakistani society owes much to numerous progressive left-wing individuals as well as small groups. They unionized industrial and railway workers, helped peasants organize against powerful landlords, inspired Pakistan’s minority provinces to demand their rights, set standards of writing and journalism, and raised voices for peace and against militarism. … often this was at enormous personal cost (of being) targeted, victimized and sometimes killed." But oddly enough this opening is immediately contradicted by the accompanying statement to the effect that the Left "never" had any or only "marginal" national presence in Pakistan, depending on which version one is reading.

This contradiction aside, Hoodbhoy proceeds to explain why the Left has had no or only marginal presence in Pakistan. "The explanation is found in Pakistan’s genesis," he says. In the narrative that follows it is argued that the ideas of the political Left have evolved out of "European Enlightenment," and therefore they are alien to the "deeply religious society" of Pakistan. To support this view he writes that: "In 1837 more than 8000 Muslim notables of East Bengal signed a petition against the teaching of English and modern Ideas." The citation of this (undocumented) episode is meant to show that the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent have always been opposed to "alien ways of thinking," the leftist ideas being among them.

It is further stated in the article that "Pakistan came into being on the basis of religious identity." This means "the overwhelming role of religion in affairs of the state," a reality denied by the Pakistani Left. Hoodbhoy adds that during the Bhutto regime Islam as ideology of Pakistan “fell into limbo,” but when Zia ceased power, he ended “the confusion of Pakistan’s purpose and identity once and for all." He made the country "an Islamic state where sharia law would soon reign supreme." Today Zia’s generation is everywhere," reminds Hoodbhoy by quoting the findings of a US based polling firm. The poll found that 79 percent of the people of Pakistan want "application of sharia law," and most of them want it in a "strict" form. Another poll is cited to show that in Pakistan "three-quarters of young people identify themselves primarily as Muslims" and only 14 percent identify themselves primarily as "Pakistanis."

This stark picture of Islam as Pakistan’s "purpose and identity" is not coming from a Jamat-e-Islami ideologue. It is coming from a person who has assumed the role of a Left critic from within. The aim is to let it be known that militant Islam is here to stay and it is the Pakistani Left that will have to change in order to become relevant.

Much of the article dwells on the theme of Pakistan’s widespread "anti-Americanism," labelled also as "America bashing" and "America hating." Anti-Americanism is said to be reproduced constantly by the county’s vast "conspiracy industry," promoted by “fiery” religious demagogues and "popular anchorpersons" on the TV channels. It is entrenched in the minds of ordinary Pakistanis, Islamic militants, Westernized elite, brainwashed students, as well as Pakistanis permanently settled in the United States. Finally, it is said, that the "strong anti U.S. feelings" today provide such a "rare consensus" that some in the Pakistani Left also “seek to cash in on this.”

What is conspicuously overlooked or underplayed in this entire narrative of Pakistani people’s "extremist Islamism" and "intense anti-Americanism" is the extent to which the United States has had a hand in the making of Pakistan what it is today. The twin phenomena of anti-Americanism and Islamism in Pakistan are depicted by Hoodbhoy primarily as internal developments.

Through a selective use of historical evidence and strategic omissions an impression is created in the article that America did little to make itself unpopular with the people of Pakistan. It is acknowledged that in1950s Pakistan got drawn into the United States’ global network of military alliances to combat the spread of communism, but the critical role played in those days by America to promote Islamic political parties in Pakistan and to crush the Pakistani Left as part of its anti-communist drive finds no mention. It is also admitted that in 1980s America used Pakistan as the "cutting edge of the U.S.-organized jihad against the Soviets" in Afghanistan and then “dumped” its ally once the war was over. But it is argued that this need not be regretted much because the Pakistani state turned this "disadvantage into advantage" by using the army of holy warrior mobilized in the process to bleed India in Kashmir and gain strategic depth in Afghanistan."

Similarly, while terrorism in Pakistan in the aftermath of the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan receives much attention in the article, there is total silence on how Pakistan got drawn into the so called "war on terror," and at what price.

Finally, one runs into the analogy in the article, popularized by Tariq Ali, in which Pakistan is likened to a condom used by America “for the business at hand and … cast off immediately after the business is concluded.” But this "crude" expression is also swept aside with a rather ambiguous comment that: "This self-loathing is typical of what a client state develops for its paymaster."

The point is that any suggestion of anti-American feelings, such as they exist in Pakistan, being a reasonable response to America’s flaunting of its imperial power in Pakistan is dismissed out of hand. "Drone strikes are often quoted," says Hoodbhoy, "but these are relatively precise strikes on Al-Qaida and Taliban targets, while killing some civilians as well. Although the death of the innocent is terrible and deserves condemnation, it pales in comparison to carnage in Vietnam’s cities … in 1970s. Nevertheless the anger in Pakistan leads to a ferocious anger far greater than even existed in Vietnam." In other words Pakistanis protest too much at too few killing of the innocent by American drone attacks inside their country.

Besides the cold-blooded logic of this argument it sounds rather amazing, coming from someone who is known to have some respect for principles of social justice and fair play. The CIA operated drone attacks inside the sovereign territory of Pakistan are not only against international law, they are target killing where the perpetrator is acting as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner wrapped in one, a clear violation of the most rudimentary norms of justice followed in civilized societies.

Having shot down every possible rational explanation of the manifestation of anti-American feelings in Pakistan, portrayed to be so pervasive and intense, Hoodbhoy the physicist invokes pop- psychology to explain the phenomenon. Making a heavy use of anecdotal reasoning he attributes anti-Americanism to the "collective Psychosis" of the people of Pakistan.

In the case of Pakistani Left "negativism" is added to psychopathology. "Go to a left-wing rally," it is said, "and standard chants are: down with religious extremism, down with the army, down with American imperialism, down with drones." This “downing of everything" is seen as the kind of left negativism which leads Hoodbhoy to the central question of his article, "who shall protect the population of Pakistan from Islamic militants?"

The answer to the question is unmistakable at this point in the article. Only America and its allies, including the Pakistani army can protect the people of Pakistan against the Islamist militants by their military power. The rest of the article is devoted to a highly charged critique of the Pakistani Left for not changing its political agenda suitably to facilitate the American war effort, the only means of Pakistan’s security and survival.

The "anti-imperialist left-wingers," it is stated, "want to see a Taliban victory," and the statement is followed by a graphic depiction of horrors Pakistan will have to face if "their wish came true." The inference that left-wingers’ wish to see a “Taliban victory" is supposed to be self-evident because both speak the language of “anti-imperialism."

Having said that the left-wingers want to see a Taliban victory, Hoodbhoy introduces yet another contradiction into his discourse: "The notion that protection from (the terror of the Taliban) can come from ’mobilizing the working class’ is more than a bad joke; it points to a serious mental condition."

The notion of "Mobilizing the working class" to resist Islamist extremism, wherever it is coming from, is certainly not a bad joke or indicative of a "mental condition." Neither does it mean what Hoodbhoy mockingly portrays as "two dozen earnest people holding colourful placards" to stem the "onslaught of an army of fascist holy warriors." It means a hard struggle to end the economic deprivations and powerlessness of the working class so that this largest segment of society can use its democratic right to change the status quo; so that this class can protect its children and the youth from being recruited as the foot soldiers and suicide bombers of the Islamist militant leadership that mainly comes from the conservative middle and upper classes, derives its inspiration from the puritanical (salafi) Islam of Saudi Arabia, and is bank rolled by Arab oil money.

Hoodbhoy rounds off his critique of the Pakistani Left and its agenda with a startling revelation: "Let me state the bald truth" he says, "Pakistan needs reform not revolution. The left needs to know that there is not a chance in million of capturing state power in the foreseeable future. In fact the only ones who can even conceivably bring about a revolution are Islamists."

There are two major problems with this "bald truth." First, revolution for the Left does not mean "capturing state power in the foreseeable future," and it has nothing in common with the Islamists’ idea of revolution. Revolution for the left is an emancipatory project which aims at the replacement of the oppressive, exploitative minority class rule of the owners of means of production by the majority rule of the working class as a first step. The ultimate aim of the left revolution is to end class domination, organized violence, and warfare and gender inequality. The struggle toward this aim continues. There have been setbacks and there will perhaps be more in future.

Secondly, the suggestion that the Pakistani Left turn to reformism and give up its project to change the system that breeds poverty, oppression, violence and war, may be acceptable to some left of the centre small l liberals, for the left movement as a whole it is a recipe to commit hara-kiri.