Beyond ideology - Aasim Sajjad Akhtar - Thursday, February 03, 2011

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The Raymond Davis and Mumtaz Qadri affairs continue to monopolise public debate in this country, and predictably so. The ideological fault lines that divide mainstream society – and I use the term mainstream intentionally given that the fault lines outside the major urban centres and Punjab are quite different – have been as clearly demarcated as they ever could be. Yet social divisions that are based in the real material conditions of life remain hopelessly underspecified.

On the occasion of the latest “Namoos e-Risalat Tehrik” rally in Lahore this past Sunday, that great orator Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman is quoted to have said that “the nation could put up with price hikes, load shedding and joblessness but not a change in the blasphemy law”. It is amazing that this statement, coming from arguably the most influential religious supremacist in this country, has so far elicited so little comment, let alone be challenged. Around 35 years ago, the great Maulana’s father, Mufti Mahmud, lambasted Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a public rally organised by the emergent Pakistan National Alliance for being a habitual consumer of alcohol, suggesting that Mr Bhutto was not fit to be the leader of the land of the pure because he singularly failed the religious worthiness test. Of course Bhutto spent most of his time in office trying to prove that he possessed the requisite sacredness to head a Muslim country, and ended up digging his own grave. But in the immediate aftermath of Mufti Mahmud’s slight, the elected prime minister announced in the light of day during a public rally of his own attended by thousands of ordinary Pakistanis: “Haan mei sharap pita hoon, likin mei awam ka khoon nahiin pita”.

Today, Pakistan is admittedly a different place. The Islamisation process unwittingly initiated by Bhutto was carried through to its logical, horrific conclusion by the tyrant Zia and the supremacists have never looked back. But too many who proclaim themselves progressives focus only on the ideological machinations of the Zia regime, replete with the usual emphasis on madressahs, loud speakers, and holy warriors. Without understanding, and taking concrete political positions on, Pakistan’s multifarious social – including class – conflicts, it is possible neither to move beyond alarmist reactions to religious radicalism nor to rebuild an alternative to it.

Zia’s period marked not only the state’s venturing into the private realm of morality and the institutionalisation of a public religiosity that is cynical and deep at the same time, but also a retreat of progressive forces from the political realm. This retreat was undoubtedly a function of unbridled repression, but it has now been 23 years since Ziaul Haq’s plane exploded over the Cholistan desert. More than two decades is a long time. Yet there has been very little attempt to re-engage with the popular classes that continue to be the victims of real material exploitation.

At the very least, there is a need to think deeply about the constituencies of the religious right. If, for example, the white-collar government servant and trader-merchant class are at the forefront of ‘defence of Islam’ campaigns, what material interests drive them? Are we to believe that those who are taken to religious causes are motivated only by abstract ideas? One does not have to be a Marxist to recognise that there is a link between the realm of ideas and that of hard material interests.

In principle an argument can be made that white-collar government servants and trader-merchants do not contribute to progressive social transformation (although I am wary of any such absolute claim). But surely the blue-collar working mass is the agency destined to be at the forefront of a movement for change. And surely it is time to recognise that the religious right does not have a monopoly over a politics that caters to the needs of this mass. In fact, when Fazl-ur-Rahman proclaims that food, employment and basic amenities are virtually irrelevant, a golden opportunity is presented to progressives to speak for ordinary Pakistanis, while exposing the right-wing’s complete lack of concern for working people’s real needs.

It is telling that the great defenders of the faith in this country have made no mention of the tumultuous events unfolding in the Arab world. One is reminded of the relatively minor role played by the religious parties when masses of people came out onto Pakistani streets in 2007; that agitation has been generically labelled the ‘lawyer’s movement’, but in its initial phase represented a general uprising against Musharraf’s dictatorship. The point simply is that real (and often spontaneous) political struggles are spearheaded by ordinary people, and not by statist religio-political groups that otherwise claim to be the ultimate representatives of the masses. But until progressive forces take back the space that they occupied until the Zia interregnum, the fiction that religio-political organisations do take up ‘popular’ causes will remain unchallenged.

Perhaps the most poignant example of this fact brings us back to Raymond Davis. It is a sad fact that some progressives are actually trying to find excuses for an American diplomat shooting two men in broad daylight. It matters not a jot whether or not the two men were assailing Davis or not. What matters is that American diplomats the world over act as if they have a God-given right to shoot people at will in the name of self-defence. In many ways these individuals are a microcosm of their state in its dealings around the world (and for that matter the American outpost in the Middle East – Israel). A spade must be called a spade. Yes the right-wing and the media are using Raymond Davis to engage in the worst kind of xenophobic polemic. But does this mean that progressives should stop calling imperialism by its name, and demanding a world free from the Empire’s manipulations?

In the final analysis, class and other forms of social exploitation remain major facts of life in Pakistani society, just as imperialism remains a major fact of life in the arena of geo-politics. The right-wing plays to the gallery on both these fronts, even while it seeks only to further its own self-serving and obscurantist agenda. This agenda cannot be beaten back by exhortations to no one in particular for the reestablishment of a ‘tolerant and peaceful’ society. Reaction needs to give way to wilful action on the basis of a clear vision for social justice; liberation from the empire’s suffocating grip, and a forced retreat for the military establishment. The struggle to rationalise the role of religion in the public sphere is much more likely to gain social traction as part of such a broader vision.

The writer is an activist-academic who teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and is closely affiliated with working-class movements. Email:

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