April 22, 2007

Misplaced liberalism —Dr Ayesha Siddiqa


The shape of religious extremism and the protest against it is a complex phenomenon which will not be resolved unless those at the top are willing to restructure the entire socio-economic and socio-political system of the state and society

The Lal Masjid crowd has created enough trouble in Islamabad for the capital’s liberal elite to finally take to the streets. On April 19th, the liberals were out in force blasting the mullahs. In the crowd were also people close to the establishment and who have supported those strategic policies that have led us into the cul de sac in which we find ourselves today.

This confusion needs to be shed. If Islamabad has to pursue, as it did once, policies that relied on rightwing extremists, then it should also be prepared to put up with the penetration of such elements into its body politic. It cannot sow the wind and then refuse to reap the whirlwind.

It now seems that the reality might have hit home the ‘liberals’ in the capital who once espoused the Taliban policy and spoke eloquently of Pakistan’s need to have strategic depth. They may have, now that some of them have taken to the streets. But does this mean that they have also understood the repercussions of public policy, especially when it is made by a handful of people and meant to serve narrowly defined national interests without taking into account the negative fallout of the policy for the larger society?

Should one expect the government policy to change and become more proactive in dealing with the extremists now that the begums of Islamabad have chosen to brave the heat to protest the outrage in the heart of the capital? The larger question is: do policies change with rallies of about a hundred people in front of parliament?

My purpose is not to ridicule the protest. The point is that the quality or depth of a public protest is important in forcing a regime to change its policy. Can one expect a handful of elite ladies of the capital city, who had all come to the rendezvous for the rally in swanky chauffer-driven cars, wearing stilettos and expensive sunglasses, to create any ripples? Or even the elite in Karachi, who while publishing an advertisement in an English paper, forgot to announce a public protest in the non-elite Urdu papers? Is it that liberalism is just an elite issue or is it an existential issue which must bind people across the social-class divide?

The protest was short-lived; the scorching heat put an end to it in forty-five minutes. Some of the participants also became uneasy when some ill-advised NGOs started raising slogans against General Pervez Musharraf. Was the protest not against the mullahs? Or do some people think there’s a nexus here somewhere?

In many ways, the protest was a reminder of the liberals protesting in Sri Lanka whose protest march starts from the four-star Taj Samudra and ends at the Hilton hotel. Public protests can only become successful, especially when they are meant to challenge a group of people whose main discourse is violence, when it has sufficient participation from the common people from the middle- and lower-middle classes. After all, extremism does not merely impact the elite; it must also the lives of citizens from other social categories. In fact, the woman from the working or middle class, who strives every day to earn her bread and butter, will be affected more by the repressive policies of a Taliban-style leadership.

In many ways, the public protest in Islamabad was a show of affluence and made me wonder if these people can appreciate the crisis the country suffers from. These elite protestors represent a miniscule percentage of civil society, though they enjoy power and capital to influence policies. Indeed, this is the class that has the means to flee if things become really bad. In any case, a lot of these people have sufficient wealth to break laws and to monopolise the state. There is a huge distance between these people who have wealth and contacts and the man on the street who has to find alternative sources to challenge the law made by the elite.

Is it possible for these people to appreciate the concept of political liberalism at all? Or to realise that extremism is not just one single category in which religious zealots challenge the way people dress up and conduct themselves? How about other kinds of extremism such as kidnapping and killing of people or denying them what is their right in the form of food, clothing and shelter? How many times did the begums of Islamabad and other cities protest in support of the people in Balochistan where malnourishment is a huge problem and where people have died as a result of the battle between the nationalists and the government of Pakistan? Or how about Thar where poor people die of drought and malnourishment?

I suppose the majority of the elite are liberal in style and not in spirit.

As for the Hafsah crisis, one could try to comfort the nerves of Islamabad’s elite, who appear extremely upset by the show of religious extremism in the city, by arguing that all of this is a set-up and that matters will improve once there is no reason for the regime to divert people’s attention from other issues. After all, what stops the government from sorting out the head of the Lal Masjid, who is a government employ by virtue of being the wafaqi khateeb? Or how come the administrators of Lal Masjid managed to import about 7,000 people from the NWFP and keep them at a location where the Sunday market is held without the agencies not being able to do anything about it?

Let us suppose for a minute that the Hafsa crisis is not being manipulated and that it is a real threat. In this case, the Hafsa crisis represents the gap between the liberal-urban elite and the masses. The elite has failed to hear the cry of the common man who wants better governance, justice and equality. The fact is that the politics of the country or the laws of the state or the judicial system does not provide fair treatment to the poor and the dispossessed.

At one level, the call for sharia is nothing but the restoration of good governance, justice and equality. In a country where every system and government — civilian and military — has failed to deliver justice, many people look at sharia as the only way out.

The extremism of these people is different from the religious extremist views of the upper-middle class which seems to have undergone a conversion to religion in the past decade or so. While the rich have moved to religion to atone for their sins, the poor man’s extremism is far more bitter and grounded in the discourse of violence. This is because the poor and the dispossessed of this country do not see any method to negotiate power within the existing political system.

A military-authoritarian regime replacing a civilian authoritarian dispensation to be then replaced by another military government is hardly the answer. The problem becomes even more acute when major bottlenecks appear because a military regime in power cannot be replaced through the vote.

It is a reality that those who claim to bring an alternative system of justice in the form of a religious ideology will ultimately usurp all rights and manipulate national resources for their own benefit. So, what we see in the shape of religious extremism and the protest against it is a complex phenomenon which will not be resolved unless those at the top are willing to restructure the entire socio-economic and socio-political system of the state and society.

The writer is an Islamabad-based independent defence analyst and author of the forthcoming book, Military Inc, Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy

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