VIEW: Moral medievalism and the state —Ammar Rashid - Thursday, January 13, 2011

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Mass hypocrisy is often an expression of deep-rooted societal contradictions rather than being an intrinsic or absolute condition. Situating these contradictions in their structural and historical context is vital to finding the way out of this unending morass

Many in the aftermath of the January 4 tragedy have struggled to understand the mindset of a section of supporters of Salmaan Taseer’s murderer, Mumtaz Qadri. The reaction of the religious right was, of course, all too easy to explain away for many; those who make religion an instrument of political gain will necessarily use this event to stoke religious fervour and gain the political space/popularity they so desire. But what of the reaction of our educated middle class? What of the reaction of those students, lawyers, engineers, doctors, and the rest of the internet/armchair mujahideen who have shocked many observers by condoning and celebrating this tragedy? Those whose interests, mannerisms and habits reek of globalised modernity, in all its capitalist glory, yet whose opinions seem more reflective of some despotic medieval rage? Those who consume ‘decadent’ American and Indian popular culture (the provocateur extraordinaire Lady Gaga and besmirched ‘munni’ often coming up as favourites), imbibe ‘immoral’ intoxicants, pursue ‘illicit’ sexual dalliances and concomitantly celebrate the ‘aashiq-e-rasool’, Mumtaz Qadri, without skipping a beat?

At one level, it is easy to dismiss these middle class cadres as hypocrites of the worst grade imaginable, and one would not be amiss in stating so. But, in terms of explanatory depth, this denunciation is of little value. Mass hypocrisy is often an expression of deep-rooted societal contradictions rather than being an intrinsic or absolute condition. Situating these contradictions in their structural and historical context is vital to finding the way out of this unending morass.

Many attempts have been made to explain this phenomenon by hearkening to the terrible era of Zia and the imbibing by the educated populace of the Islamist currents he unleashed in society as instruments of state policy. While definitely a factor, this remains an incomplete hypothesis that, if one may say so, overstates the influence of one particularly gruesome dictator in this country’s chequered history.

I believe that this middle class ‘morality of xenophobia’ results from a confluence of the historical memory and logic of the Pakistani state with modern, information-age capitalism. As denizens of the information age, the educated middle classes in Pakistan have been, to varying degrees, exposed to much of what may be called global popular culture in all its post-modern glory. The multiplicity of narratives on offer in this age of borderless information and entertainment has, like the rest of the world, exacerbated the erosion of traditional (in our case Islamic) conceptions of ‘individual’ morality for the middle class, which has already been set in place by the growth of urban capitalism. For them, there is now an ever-increasing access and exposure to alternative modes of rationalisation for individual behavioural choices due to the nature and proliferation of global media.

However, the internalisation of these alternative models of individual behaviour by our middle class is accompanied by a countervailing trend — the continued ideational retention of Islamic conceptions of individual morality that remain embedded in the middle class psyche because of social surroundings, education and upbringing. This ideational retention is further reinforced by the siege mentality engendered by unending informational access to the global and regional military developments of the past decade. This ideological contradiction breeds an unconsciously perceived ‘moral deficit’ within this class, which then demands fulfilment. However, as choice regarding individual moral activity remains constrained by the material realities and socio-economic compulsions of the middle class (i.e. keeping up with the Maliks and the need to stay ‘modern’), the contradiction is then sought to be resolved through another domain — the domain of public or collective morality. Which brings us to the state narrative in Pakistan.

Public morality can exist in many forms, expressions and narratives. In Pakistan, however, the very nature of the state necessitates and perpetuates a particularly exclusivist conception of public morality rooted in its history. The origin of Pakistani statehood was not based on the acceptance of a plurality of opinions and identities. It was not based on the acceptance of the existence of multiple narratives of marginalisation. It was not an origin cognisant of the possibilities of its existence, creating and perpetuating further forms of exploitation and oppression. One speech in the English language to a constituent assembly of landlords and opportunists, it must be said, does not make a movement emancipatory.

The origin of Pakistani statehood was based rather on the convoluted, albeit eloquent, articulation of the supremacy of the moral position of a particular religious identity over others. It is that logic, which has guided the statecraft of its unrepresentative office bearers, the uniformed guardians of the citadel of Islam, for over 60 years, with its results now laid bare in their entirety. It is that logic that has prevented any alternative, more inclusive narrative of public morality to take root in society’s ideational spheres.

It is this very logic of Pakistani statehood that the educated middle class, reeling from the contradictions of its perceived individual moral deficits, is now regurgitating in its support for the murderer Qadri. The supposedly benign nationalist narrative of this state’s origins has transmogrified in the information age into the rabidly exclusionary and xenophobic public morality that the educated middle classes, with their imbibed historical memory, now espouse with zeal.

There is perhaps no better historical exemplification of this contemporary dilemma of our educated classes than Jinnah himself — Jinnah, the paragon of modernity and liberal mannerisms, and concurrently the purveyor of an exclusionary, religiously inspired collectivist narrative. Jinnah, the possessor of contradictions so profound, they remain unresolved six decades after his death.

Situating the current crisis in this oft-ignored historical and structural context is vital for those who want to attempt to rescue Pakistani society from this daunting precipice. Struggling against the religious right from a position of abject weakness within the debilitating discursive parameters set by the Pakistani state is an exercise in futility. This strategy is sadly incognisant of the fact that the perpetuation of the state’s public narrative necessitates the continuation of tacit, if not outright, support for the reactionary currents that now seek to completely monopolise the public sphere.

Any struggle that aims to succeed must create an altogether new collectivist narrative of inclusion that counters the religious, ethnic and class-based exclusion that has defined the Pakistani statehood from the outset of this county’s existence. There is a need to realise that reminiscence about Jinnah’s Pakistan as a rallying cry is a complete misnomer — we are, unfortunately, smack dab in the middle of that Pakistan.

The writer is a development professional and an alumnus of LUMS working in Islamabad. He can be reached at

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