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Pakistan: Our ’America’ problem

by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, 22 September 2012

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Dawn - 21 September 2012

THE predictable unfolding of events since the inauspicious ‘release’ of an amateur film that has offended the sensibilities of Muslims across the world has once again underlined the major divisions that exist in our society.

While conservatives with a virtual monopoly on the vernacular press and TV media play their inexhaustible ‘anti-West’ card, progressives restricted mostly to the English-language press are lamenting the irrationality of the Pakistani mind.

The fact that this article is being read on a hastily declared public holiday, and that the major party in government has put in its two cents with the protesters would suggest that the conservatives have won this particular battle. The more pessimistic amongst the progressives would likely venture that the ‘other’ side is also winning the war.

As in all such cases, the polemic tends to focus on the ‘anti-Islam’ posture and actions of ‘America’. In this simplistic narrative, ‘America’ is somehow responsible for every negative thing said or done against ‘Islam’.

I share the frustration of those progressives who worry about the incredibly insular worldview of many ordinary Pakistanis. But I find the desperation and even nihilism of at least a segment of progressives rather incongruous, because surely the point is not only to harp on about our ‘America’ problem, but to try and address it.

The panic sets in only when one becomes convinced that the problem cannot be addressed at all, that ordinary Pakistanis are somehow incapable of moving beyond the polemic and seeing the world for what it really is. And therein lies the quandary: just as the conservatives are convinced that their worldview is the right one, some of the progressives feel that their worldview must be adopted by all Pakistanis if we are to move beyond our ‘dark ages’.

Such a diagnosis is dangerously close to an orientalist account of the ‘other’, particularly inasmuch as the ‘rationalists’ view the common hordes with suspicion at best, and contempt at worst. If nothing else, the ‘common hordes’ are anything but a monolith.

Is it true that those involved in the protests in major urban centres are representative of Pakistani society? Is there outrage being expressed in the tens and thousands of villages across the country? Is the government trying to appease its voters or the small but powerful rightist lobby?

And if we do assume that a vast majority of Pakistanis that have not been touched by the magic wand of rationality represent a threat to themselves and the rest of us civilised lot, then what are we doing about it (other than fearing an imminent takeover by the mullahs)?

My humble submission is that if — and I emphasise if — progressives want to challenge the siege mentality that is an increasingly prominent feature of our social landscape, then they need to first change their own siege mentality about the ‘other’ in their own society.

In short, the rationalists need to spend less time reacting to, and more time engaging with, ordinary people. Whomsoever believes that there is a set of rationalist principles that should inform the functioning of modern society must actually go out and tell that to those who have not yet been enlightened.

Some context might assist in clarifying my point. I have written a number of times about a bygone era in which progressive politics and ideals occupied a prominent place in society. Many white-collar professionals of a progressive bent were deeply involved in organising workers, peasants, students, and the like. That many of these one-time revolutionaries are no longer excited by the idea of radical transformation is by the by. The problem is that other would-be revolutionaries have taken their place.

Indeed, the 1980s marked not only the eviction of progressive ideals and politics — along with individuals and organisations — from the social and intellectual mainstream, but the attendant propagation of a competing set of ideals and politics.

Conservatives were inducted into educational institutions, the media, and all government departments. Much is made of the role of madressahs in facilitating the rightist shift, but overstating this case actually distracts from how deep the Ziaist transformation was.

Meanwhile the same worker, peasant and student stomping grounds that were once the exclusive preserve of progressives were literally handed over to the right. At least 110 million out of Pakistan’s 180 million people were born after 1977. This population has never known anything other than the conservative worldview.

I want to emphasise, however, that the Pakistani establishment has peddled a siege mentality amongst its people since the inception of the state. The difference between the post-1977 period and that which preceded it is that in the past progressives resisted this mentality, and the politics associated with it, in an organised, holistic manner. Now there is only lament, isolation and contempt.

Screaming until one is hoarse about our ‘America’ problem betrays the fact that progressives have not managed to reorganise themselves as a force to be reckoned within Pakistani politics and society at large.

Having said this, it is never too late. The exclusion and exploitation that runs rife throughout Pakistani society in the past still blights us. There is no shortage of avenues for progressives to once again make common cause with ordinary people.

Of course, this means that we have to do away with our irrational fear of the common hordes and recognise that human beings are not progressive or retrogressive by birth, but that their socialisation explains the values they espouse and the actions they take.

We have a problem, yes, but it existed back in the day when our now ex-leftists were also happy and willing to decry the excesses of American imperialism, while the mullahs were celebrating the alliance with ahl-i-kitab against the godless communists. The problem continues to exist today and is likely to do so in the future, regardless of whether conservatives remain true to their currently favourite pastime of America-bashing.

Progressives, now confined to their four walls, English-language newspapers and computer screens, need to remind themselves what the crux of the matter really is. The Pakistani state and those that claim to defend its ideological frontiers will do what they do. If we once again start to do what we once used to do without hesitation, our ‘America’ problem will eventually work itself out.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.


The above article from Dawn is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.